Wednesday, December 29, 2010

BSO "Music Criticism" Contest

So...a while back, the Boston Symphony Orchestra announced what they called a music criticism contest, in honor of the Schumann bicentennial. A fine idea, I thought, until I got to the contest description:
To enter the Music Criticism Contest it is necessary to submit a personal response to one of the five Schumann pieces being performed at Symphony Hall in November. The personal response should address how Schumann’s music makes the writer feel. The contest will have winners in five age categories, each with an assigned topic.  Elementary school entrants should write 100 words about the Schumann Piano Concerto, middle school entrants should write 200 words about Symphony No. 1, high school entrants should write 300 words about Symphony No. 4, college entrants should write 400 words about Symphony No. 3, and adults should submit 500 words about Schumann’s Symphony No. 2.    
"A personal response" and "how Schumann's music makes the writer feel" might be part of music criticism, but only part! To be criticism, rather than a lightweight personal essay, an essay or a review has to have perspective beyond the personal, has to make an attempt to put a performance or a work into some useful context, and has to attempt to exercise judgment about a performance or work, not just say "It made me feel sad." 

That context might be a particular performer's history with a composer or work, or might be about the historical context of a work or a production. A critic's "personal response" to a piece is a starting point for analysis of a performance or a work - not the end point. 

Robert Schumann certainly knew this. It's too bad the BSO didn't ask its contestants to show some sense of perspective and provide context in their essays, because the resulting winners are not very interesting. You can see them here.

Wednesday Miscellany

The Boston Symphony Orchestra is starting an early-evening Friday concert series, similar to SFS's no-longer-called-that 6.5 series. The BSO calls the series Underscore Fridays; one of the programs will feature Thomas Ades's BSO debut....Mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao was on Good Morning America a couple of weeks; heart-warming, and I wish her the very best in her new marriage and with her health....Music@Menlo has released an eight-CD set of performances from the 2010 fesrtival, Maps and Legends....The Morgan Library & Museum is putting its magnificent collection of music manuscripts on line, so it's now possible to examine these treasures without traveling to New York City or having the required references for using the reading room there. I am forever grateful that my mother took me there for visits starting when I was surprisingly young; it remains one of my very favorite museums in the world, and I've seen many great shows there. If you missed the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity earlier this year to see the Hours of Catherine of Cleves disassembled, you can still enjoy the on-line digital exhibit of the book....Nicola Luisotti was awarded the Puccini Prize by the Fondazione Festival Pucciniano on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of La Fanciulla del West, which Luisotti conducted at the Met. Congratulations, Maestro! And....San Francisco Opera has updated its web site...again....

The Lives They Led

This past Sunday, the NY Times Magazine printed its annual issue of tributes to the famous, infamous, and obscure-but-you-should-know-them who died in 2010. On the Times web site, there's also a musical tribute, in a video called "The Music They Made," to musicians who died in 2010.

I'm sorry to say that the Times's definition of "musician" doesn't extend to people in the notational music tradition. So don't play that video expecting to hear Joan Sutherland, Shirley Verrett, Hugues Cuenod, Cesare Siepi, Giuseppe Taddei, Earl Wild, Charles Mackerras, Anthony Rolfe Johnson, Philip Langridge, or any of the great classical performers who died this year. The Times should be ashamed of itself.

Worth Reading

Drew McManus was out of town for a while - in Nepal! - and had splendid guest bloggers during his absence. Take a look:

Just to be clear about where I stand on the issue Horowitz raises, I think he is just plain wrong. Orchestral musicians in the top orchestras are paid salaries and benefits commensurate with other professionals in large, expensive metropolitan areas. Compare with software engineers, for example. I think that is right and appropriate, and I wish the musicians in all orchestras were paid decent salaries - one of the maddening things in Drew's annual salary surveys is orchestras where the music directors are paid a small fortune - in the hundreds of thousands of dollars - and the musicians are paid $40,000 if they're lucky. Making all orchestral musicians live like free-lancers - as Horowitz is a free-lance writer - won't improve the quality of musical life in this country.)

John Adams at San Francisco Symphony

Over at Civic Center, sfmike has a posting about John Adams's recent residency at San Francisco Symphony, including lists of three favorite Adams works by a bunch of people. You'll notice (or you won't notice) my absence; I couldn't come up with three favorites because I haven't heard most of my Adams recordings in a few years, and I didn't want to just throw out works at random.

Also, I'd heard El Nino the week before, and frankly, I hated it. Maybe what I hated was Adams's own conducting, but the piece just seemed stuck in one tempo, stuck on the endless syncopations, stuck harmonically, stuck stuck stuck. I continue to hate the flattening effect of the amplification - John, why don't you trust either your own orchestration or your singers? And while I thought Michelle DeYoung and Jessica Rivera were both swell, I could not bear Jonathan Lemalu's gray-toned shouting or the effect of the amplification on his sibilants. So I couldn't join in the general rejoicing about the piece. I know five people who walked out of the first performance, so it's not just me.

That said, a favorite or two. I think the music of Doctor Atomic is splendid; grand in scope and conception, beautifully executed. (The libretto, not so much. Undramatic, fragmentary, tough to hang an opera on, even though it does a provide a few excellent set pieces. It needs to lose the Native American child care provider and the clownish portrayal of General Leslie Groves.) But my favorite of all is Naive and Sentimental Music, one of the best new symphonic works I've heard in the last decade.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Year-End Fundraising Mistakes to Avoid

To date, these are mine:
  • Sending your year-end solicitation within a month of when the donor made his/her most recent donation.
  • Losing track of the donor's preferred title of address. Don't send me a letter that starts with "Dear Mr. Hirsch."
  • Claiming, even humorously, that you're the charity most worthy of receiving donations. This could be funny in boom times. In a year when employment in Alameda County is close to 12%, the economy is in the tank, and there's a lot of suffering, not funny and not persuasive from a small arts organization.
Post yours in the comments!


Yesterday afternoon, my traditional Act I and Act II of La Boheme - the cheery half of the opera - followed by the first CD of the Christmas Oratorio (Rilling). This morning, first CD of Messiah (Davis I, from some years back).

My first two choices of Boheme recording were at work (Gigli, Albanese and Beecham/Bjoerling, de los Angeles), and I put on Toscanini without pulling out the other sets on my shelves, or I might have thrown on the Bjoerling/Sayao bootleg from the late 1940s. I hadn't heard the Toscanini in years, and you know - damn, it's good. Yeah, I do wish Peerce had a beautiful, rather than serviceable, voice, but he sure did know what to do musically, and of course Albanese is wonderful. Toscanini is brisk, theatrical, passionate, and makes Beecham sound slack. The occasion can't be beat: it was the 50th anniversary of the opera's premier, which Toscanini also conducted. You can hear him weeping during Mimi's death scene.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bluebeard, Bluebeard, Everywhere

I count productions of Bluebeard's Castle in the last few years (or coming up real soon now) at the following organizations (conductor in parens):

  • Seattle Opera (Rogister)
  • Los Angeles Opera (Nagano)
  • Washington National Opera (Reggioli)
  • Los Angeles Philharmonic (Salonen)
  • Boston Symphony Orchestra (Levine)
  • New York Philharmonic (Salonen)
  • Cleveland Orchestra (Boulez)
  • Chicago Symphony Orchestra (Boulez)
  • Berkeley Opera (Khuner; once in the 1990s, once in the 2000s)

Bluebeard's Castle is a monument, one of the great operas of the 20th c. It does not need a fancy-schmancy staging, as demonstrated brilliantly by the two fine productions at Berkeley Opera. It's not expensive to put on, with only two singers.

Why oh why can't SFO or SFS perform it?

Thursday, December 16, 2010

While I Was Gone....

....a few things did happen.

Elliott Carter turned 102! I was lucky enough to be in the same room as Mr. Carter last February, for a concert at Juilliard that included the Eight Etudes and a Fantasy for wind quartet and a great new piece for wind quintet. Happy birthday to one of our greatest composers; may he continue to write great music in good health.

The Swiss tenor Hueges Cuenod died, at the astonishing age of 108. It's not a tragedy when someone dies at such an age, after a life lived grandly; still, I was sad. Cuenod made his debut in the 1920s, debuted and Glyndebourne in 1950 or 51, going on to sing nearly 500 performances there, and finally appeared at the Met for the first time in 1987, at age 85! He gave his last public performances in his early 90s. A few years ago, when Switzerland legalized same-sex civil unions, he and his partner of many years entered into one. There's plenty of this great singer on YouTube, so get over there and listen to his exemplary style.

San Francisco Symphony announced some of the plans for their centenary season. Commissions by Adams and Bates - daring - and the return of the no-longer-very-mavericky American Mavericks. Um, try something new? Aaron Copland: not a maverick, now or ever.

More positively, the season brings concerts by the orchestras from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Cleveland, and Los Angeles, each of which will evidently bring along some of their recent commissions. That is, at least part of the new music side of the centenary is being outsourced to other orchestras. It'll be good to hear those orchestras in Davies, though; a way to calibrate the hall and SFS while hearing some great organizations. Full details to come in early March.

San Francisco Opera announced more details of the September 11 opera, Christopher Theofanidis's Heart of a Soldier. It's about Rick Rescorla, Morgan Stanley's head of security, who warned the NYC Port of Authority in the 1990s that the next attack on the WTC would come by air. Morgan Stanley had few fatalities because Rescorla put into place an evacuation plan, and drilled the heck out of the employees. He died that day because he went back into the WTC to help others and was still inside when the second building collapsed.

The opera is based on a book of the same name. It'll be interesting to hear how this all plays out as an opera; I myself am skeptical about headline opera, especially opera that revolves around an event that propelled the U.S. into two disastrous wars. The cast is impressive, though: Thomas Hampson, Melody Moore, and William Burden. Patrick Summers conducts; Francesca Zambello directs.

San Francisco Opera updated their web site (again). Not sure if it's any better or more usable.

Season's Greetings?

So I'm getting cute electronic greeting cards from organizations that send me press releases. Today's was from Boosey & Hawkes. When I clicked the link, I was taken to a web page that played the "Troika" movement from Prokofiev's Lieutenant Kije. Okay, I guess the sleigh bells make that seasonal, at least in some parts of the world.

But what on earth persuaded the Los Angeles Philharmonic that a cute animation for the opening Shrovetide Fair music from Stravinsky's Petrouchka was appropriate? Note to LAPO Press Office: Shrovetide is in the Spring.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

NPR is Hiring

This sounds like an excellent job, perhaps for someone who reads this blog - not me, given that it's on the other side of the country and, um, technical writing very likely pays better:

Production Assistant, NPR Classical Music
Tracking Code
Job Description
Supports the daily production of the award-winning NPR Music website by assisting a growing team, along with NPR News staff, station contributors, and National Music Program producers in creating a go-to-destination for music discovery, consistent with NPR’s editorial and production standards. 
1. Assists NPR Music Music team in the production of web stories about music, on deadline. The process may include the following:
    a. selecting and editing photos
    b. writing and editing copy
    c. music data entry
    d. audio and video editing
    e. research
There's more at the link above; check it out, pass it around, etc.!

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Coming Up: December Round-Up

It's December maddness!

San Francisco Symphony performs John Adams's El Niño, with the composer conducting, Dec. 2, 3, 4...California Bach Society has music of Rosenmüller, December 3, 4, and 5, in San Francisco (note venue!), Palo Alto, and Berkeley...San Francisco Bach Choir presents Psallite!, on December 4 and 5, featuring music of  Mouton, Gallus, Praetorius, Schütz, Scheidt, Buxtehude,Telemann and J.S. Bach.

Messiah, Messiah everywhere, at San Francisco Symphony, American Bach Solists, and Philharmonia Baroque.

And also Messyah, from the Sanford Dole Ensemble, which they performed to acclaim last year,  on Monday, December 20 at 7 p.m., San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak St., S.F.

S.F. Early Music Society presents Ciaramella: A Piper's Noel:

Music by Cristóbal de Morales, Gilles Binchois, Josquin Desprez, and traditional tunes from European countries and America
WHEN: Friday, December 10, First Lutheran Church, 600 Homer Street at Webster, Palo Alto, 8:00
Saturday, December 11, First Congregational Church, 2345 Channing Way, Berkeley, 7:30
Sunday, December 12, St. Mark's Lutheran Church, 1111 O'Farrell Street, San Francisco, 4:00
TICKETS: $28 single tickets. $25 (members and seniors), $10 students
For tickets and information visit or call our office.
Tel. 510-528-1725


Why on earth is your web site playing music at me as soon as I load it? I'm looking for concert information, not a concert. Yes, it's great to have samples on your web site....but it should always be a visitor's choice whether or not to play the music.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Not Quite Heaven-Storming

Reviewing the San Francisco Symphony: Brahms/Yefim Bronfman, Berg, MTT.

Elsewhere, Joshua Kosman tries to make a case for Bronfman's approach, noting some conflicts between the approach taken by Bronfman and that of the orchestra and mentioning that the Berg's second movement sounded under-rehearsed to him. Maybe the whole thing was under-rehearsed. Suffice it to say, I'm not convinced that Bronfman's approach worked; maybe in a less cavernous hall than Davies? It just didn't work for me. But that line about the Academic Festival Overture redeems all.

John Marcher at A Beast in a Jungle agrees with Joshua.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

This Will Make You Feel Safer, I'm Sure

Adam Savage of Mythbusters got on a plane. The TSA got a look at his anatomy but missed the 12" steel razor blades he had packed.

Monday, November 22, 2010

This Could Be Fun

From the American Musicological Society announcement mailing list:

Call for Papers

“After the End of Music History”
An international conference in honor of Richard Taruskin

10-12 February 2012

Princeton University

After the End of Music History is a three-day international conference assessing the state
of musical research, with three central concerns of Richard Taruskin’s scholarship as
points of departure: musical censorship and canon formation; nationalism, neoclassicism,
and serialism in the twentieth century; and modernism in the early music movement.
Additional issues such as the purported demise of the notated tradition, the rise of
vernacular and world musics as subjects of academic study, and the transformative
effects of digital technologies will be addressed by keynote speakers and invited

The conference will feature three related performances. First will be a stage adaptation
of Alexander Pushkin’s novel-in-verse Eugene Onegin by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
with incidental music by Sergey Prokofiev, banned by the Soviets in 1936 and never
subsequently performed. A chamber music concert will reconsider the phenomenon
of “PhD music” and the broader legacy of serial composition in America, including a
world premiere piece by Steve Mackey. There will also be an informal cabaret night of
remixed music from classical repertoire to global pop.

The conference organizers invite the submission of individual papers on the themes of
the conference and its performances or the general state of music research. Graduate
students and scholars in the early stages of their careers are especially encouraged to
apply. Presenters will receive an honorarium and travel expenses.

Please email abstracts in PDF or Word format to aemh2012 at Abstracts
should not exceed 300 words and must be received by February 28, 2011. Notification of
accepted papers will be sent by March 31, 2011.

My only question: will there be fisticuffs? I mean, "the end of music history"?? But I'm putting it on my calendar now!

Friday, November 19, 2010

"You know that if he were alive today, he would totally be a blogger."

Mark Twain, that is. His autobiography, which he authorized for publication a century after his death, is flying off the shelves. The U.C. Press cautiously anticipated an initial print run of 7,500 copies of the $35 volume, the first of a projected three. Then they decided, oh, they could sell 50,000.

They've now printed 275,000 copies, and that has not come close to meeting the full demand for the book. Their printer is turning out 30,000 more each week.

It couldn't have happened to a better guy.

Most Beautiful and All o' That

Not that I really expect A. C. Douglas to be paying much attention to individual singers, especially those singing primarily non-German music, but if you can say with a straight face that Renee Fleming "for pure beauty of sound has got to have the most beautiful voice ever to have graced the opera stage," you need to get out a little more.  Pretty the Fleming voice is, but also anonymous and without much spin or projection. I once heard her and Ruth Ann Swenson on the same gala program, and there was no question who had the more beautiful voice: Swenson by a mile, and she also had a substantially bigger voice with way more life and shine to it.

I think it is a little silly to talk about "most beautiful voice," because people have different ears. But here are a few candidates for pure beauty of sound; I'll put the sopranos first.
  • Leontyne Price. For my money, the great LP had the most beautiful soprano voice evah, though there's plenty of competition.
  • Rosa Ponselle
  • Edith Mason. If you've never heard of her, it's probably because her career was mostly conducted in Chicago, where she was greatly loved and where her six marriages, two of them to the same husband, must have been an extremely entertaining scandal. You can find her recordings on an out-of-print Romophone CD.
  • Montserrat Caballe
  • Zinka Milanov
  • Ebe Stignani
  • Margarete Arndt-Ober
  • Jussi Bjoerling
  • Beniamino Gigli. Ignore the sobbing and other stylistic nasties, and avoid that recording of "Il mio tesoro."
  • Giuseppe DiStefano, before he decided that a great Alfredo and Edgardo should be singing roles like Calaf and Manrico
  • Fritz Wunderlich
  • Robert Merrill
  • Joseph Schwartz. You've probably never heard of him either. German, among the great Verdi baritones of the 20th c., died young of alcoholism.
  • Ezio Pinza
  • Alexander Kipnis
Your candidates? Yeah, Swenson, probably the most beautiful voice I've ever heard live. I probably ought to add Frida Leider and Christine Brewer to the list above.

E-PS Gets It Right

Yes, it certainly is the best C major chord all music, even when Judit bags the high C. *

Although, you know, the one at "And ... there was LIGHT," in The Creation is pretty good too.

*The link is to the great - and I mean great - 1950 recording conducted by Janos Ferencsik, with Mihaly Szekely and Klara Palankay, inferior sound and all. Unfortunately, I cannot find this moment with Christa Ludwig, who could take your head off with a fantastic C.

Timely Reminder: Chora Nova, Nov. 20, 2010

Our all-Haydn program, in which we'll perform the Harmoniemesse (Wind-Band Mass), the Te Deum in Bb for Empress Marie-Therese, and Der Sturm, a dramatic part song. Everything sounded really good at our regular rehearsal, and I hear the orchestra is terrific.

Saturday, Nov. 20, 2010
8 p.m.
$20 / $18 / $10
First Presbyterian Church
Dana and Durant
Berkeley, CA

(This is NOT First Congregational, where we usually perform. First Pres. is diagonally across the intersection.)

Note that there's a Cal basketball game tomorrow night and parking in the area will be harder than usual.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


I am not not not the Lisa Hirsch who is writing for Entertainment Tonight News.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Berkeley West Edge Opera

Completely forgot - Handel's Xerxes opens tonight at Berkeley West Edge Opera; additional performances on Nov. 19 and 21, at the El Cerrito High theater. Baroque scholar Alan Curtis conducts. I have tickets for tonight and hope to report back.

The Makropulos Review

Vec Makropulos at San Francisco Opera. There's  more editorializing than I usually indulge in, but whatever. If it's not clear, Mattila is simply amazing. If you heard reports that her voice was frayed from all those Salomes, forget it. She sounded fantastic, fresh and glorious with plenty of bloom and easy, unforced volume.

I didn't get into a discussion of the fact that Vec Makropulos doesn't easily translate to either The Makropulos Case or The Makropulos Affair,  which are the usual titles in English. Apparently it means something more like "the Makropulos thing," and probably refers to the formula.

Lastly, Patricia Racette told me last year that EM is among the roles she'd like to sing. I'd love to hear that. All I can tell you is that it would be different from what Mattila is doing with it. I have already heard both of them in another iconic Janacek role, Jenufa, in which Racette was heartbreakingly perfect. Mattila sang beautifully but could not shed her glamor to truly become Jenufa.

Saturday Miscellany

Catching up on lots of upcoming concerts. We're at saturation point here, that time when so much is going on that hard choices need to be made.


New Century Chamber Orchestra has concerts with composer and violinist Mark O'Connor this week, in sundry locations. O'Connor plays a variety of styles and leads some great music ed. programs for kids around the country....Pamela Z performs in a private home in Pacific Heights on December 2; limited seating, sliding scale donation. She is a fantastic performer/composer and seeing her up close is a treat....Chalice Consort, under new director Davitt Moroney, has concerts this weekend (starting last night...sorry!) of music by Simone Molinaro...International Orange Chorale's November program includes Milton Babbitt's "Music for the Mass," and if ONLY their concerts weren't opposite the Chora Nova dress rehearsal and concert, I would so be there. They perform on November 19 at 5 p.m. at 55 Second St. in San Francisco, November 20 at 7:30 p.m. at St. Mark's Lutheran, S.F.....Bryn Terfel sings at Cal Performances on Nov. 20, yet another program I'll be missing.


San Francisco Choral Artists, under Megan Solomon, perform on Dec. 4, 5, 11, and 12 at various locations and times; the program spans the centuries and takes in a whole bunch of countries and styles. Should be lots of fun!..That same weekend, California Bach Society performs Rosenmuller's Weihnachtshistorie, choral music telling the Nativity story, on December 3, 4, and 5, in San Francisco, Palo Alto, and Berkeley. The Whole Noyse joins them; the music in the polychoral Venetian style and should be thrilling....Also thrilling, Magnificat performs Charpentier's Messe de Minuit, December 17, 18, and 19, in Menlo Park, Berkeley, and San Francisco.

I know there's more happening that first weekend in December, in the way of recitals and other concerts; will possibly catch up at some point.

Friday, November 12, 2010

More Mak Misc

Yes, indeed, left a couple of things out.

The Met premier of this great opera waited until 1996, amazingly. They'd managed to stage Jenufa in the 1920s, with the glamorous Maria Jeritza in the title role. What an EM she would have been!

But the Met premier of Makropulos was dogged by fate. At the first performance, tenor Richard Versailles, singing Vitek, climbed the ladder in Kolanaty's office, sang a few lines, then fell to the stage, dead of a heart attack. The second performance got snowed out. The performances after that were a triumph for Jessye Norman and the rest of the cast.

The Met performed Makropulos in English, and I have to say, it's a tough choice. The opera is mighty talky, to the point where the supertitles are really a distraction from what's on stage. But the opera is firmly tied to the rhythm and snap of Czech, and there would be losses going either way.

Another surprise about this opera, or maybe I shouldn't be surprised: there is only one video available. It is a well conducted production from Glyndbourne, led by Andrew Davis in non-sluggish mode. The cast is extremely strong, with Kim Begley a superb Gregor, Victor Braun a suave and smooth Prus, Andrew Shore as Kolanaty, and the young Christopher Ventris as Janek. But...and this is a big's the theatrically-vivid, vocally-threadbare Anja Silja as EM. She is a trial to the ears.

So I see an opportunity for San Francisco Opera: put out a competing DVD with the magnificent Mattila.

The Vaz Perspective

You may or may not know that Patrick Vaz likes to sit close to the action. Really close, in the first three or so rows of whatever performance he's attending. Me, I shy away from this for various reasons, especially following the unfortunate choice of a seat in the second row for a performance of Turangalila. My god but that was loud. I decided to be more careful in the future.

So this past weekend, I turned up around fifteen minutes before the Ensemble Zellig concert at Hertz Hall on the UC Berkeley campus, expecting to be able to get a seat without any difficulties. To my surprise, I got a $20 community rush seat, when I'd been expecting to pay $42. More to my surprise, the seat was in the front row not too far off center, two seats from Patrick, who'd actually bought a ticket two days earlier.

I thought about moving, in part because I don't like to have my turned for the duration of a performance, but then figured I might as well experiment. Because of the small forces on the program (piano, cello, clarinet, flute), there was little risk of a Turangalila-style sonic overload.

"Little risk" turned out not to mean "no risk." One of the works on the program was pretty darned loud, giving me that head-between-the-speakers feeling. It was cool to be so close to the flute player for the solo flute work that opened the program - and just how did she make a plucking sound on a flute in one of the other pieces?? - but I'm not going to try this again.

I missed the lack of hall perspective and having an easy view of the whole stage. I would have been a lot happier someplace in the center toward the back of the hall; it's not as though there is ever a problem with hearing what's going at Hertz. So for now I'll consider this a one-time experiment that I'm unlikely to repeat.

Miscellaneous Musings on Makropulos

To start with, get a ticket. I'll have a review up at SFCV sometime in the next 24 hours, and will hold off on more extensive comments about the primo, except: get a ticket. Or two....I called the SF Opera box office Tuesday to ask about senior rushes, since we were thinking of taking my mother. They said there would be a limited number, so be there at 11 when they go on sale. Well, there was no way that was happening; my mother can't travel to SF on her own at this point, and neither Donna nor I could swing by with her. They're not sold over the phone or on the web, either. So imagine my reaction to the dozens of empty seats in the orchestra section....Janacek was rarely performed outside Czechoslovakia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe in the 1950s, but I cannot help daydreaming about what Maria Callas would have done with EM....Tattling: a shocking amount of chatter after the music started from the adults within hearing distance of me. The children who sit next to my subscription seats in the balcony are a whole lot quieter (and kudos to their parents for taking them to the opera and for teaching them to be considerate opera-goers).....Speaking of adults around me...oh, wait, maybe I will email Leah Garchick with a tidbit.


So, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has decided to jump on the HD broadcast bandwagon, sendingseveral programs led by Gustavo Dudamel to a few hundred theaters around the U.S. I sit amazed, because I see very little value in what they're doing, given the choices made for the first three programs.

People are attending the Met and other opera HD performances in droves because opera is hugely expensive, there are a limited number of companies that can do full-scale professional opera, some singers will never appear in, say, Seattle or Iowa, the repertory being broadcast is sometimes hard to find outside major opera companies, and the Met has a long, long season. Opera in HD has more appeal for me from January to May when the ballet is on in SF, for example.

Take a look at the repertory that the LAPO has picked for their first three HD broadcasts: Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms. Why, oh, why?

There are plenty of good, no, great, performances of Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, and Brahms on CD and DVD and it's easy to find local orchestras at all levels (major, regional, local) who do at least a good job with those composers live. Why would I want to see a young and comparatively unproven conductor in that repertory on HD when I can have Furtwangler (or Toscanini, or Mravinsky) at home, or Michael Morgan a few miles from my house, or Michael Tilson Thomas a few miles farther away? 

And if I wanted to hear the LAPO, why would I pick an HD broadcast? The broadcasts I've seen uniformly use a tremendous amount of dynamic compression, robbing broadcasts of the full dynamic range of the music and distorting the music and the sound of the orchestra. The LAPO performs in one of the great halls in the world, with superb acoustics. Why would I want to see the LAPO in reduced circumstances, as it were? 

I might go for unusual repertory, a great conductor, or a unique experience of some kind. Gustavo Dudamel in Beethoven? No way. I can see the underrated Marek Janowski live at SFS this season. Esa-Pekka Salonen in Bluebeard's Castle or something by Kaija Saariaho? Sure. Alan Gilbert and the NYPO? Sure - they're not a one-hour flight (or long, but do-able, drive) from me. Dudamel conducting a work completely new to me? Well, maybe!

The LAPO says that this program offers those who do not have opportunities to see a live orchestra the chance to do so. Really? I took a look at the list of venues for the Beethoven program, and I'd bet that 70% of them are within 50 miles of a symphony orchestra. That's certainly true of the California venues, anyway. Anyone have the chops to put their venues and the location of symphony orchestras on the same Google Map? (Hmmm, the Maps API is pretty easy to use if you know some JavaScript...)

Now, I realize that the price of a ticket to one of these broadcasts will still be within the financial reach of more people than tickets to one of the majors - the LAPO's price structure at Disney is pretty high. But the Redwood Symphony, for example, a local community orchestra is ambitious enough to have performed quite a bit of Mahler, charges $25 for single tickets, and $65 for a season subscription....and you can bring a friend for free. They play a more interesting repertory than the LAPO programs, as well.

So I sit here scratching my head over the LAPO HD broadcast program. The Met, with 1,500 venues and lots of sellouts, appears to be making a nice chunk of change on their broadcasts. I wish the LAPO well, but they'll do better with more interesting programming. 

Saturday, November 06, 2010

Chora Nova Haydn Program, Nov. 20, 2010

I'm singing with Chora Nova again this year, and our first program will be this great all-Haydn concert:

Harmoniemesse (WInd-Band Mass)
Der Sturm (dramatic part song)
Te Deum for Empress Marie-Therese

Paul Flight, conductor and music director
Kathryn Krasovec, soprano,  Lisa van der Ploeg, alto, Kevin Baum, tenor,
Paul Murray, baritone

First Presbyterian Church
2407 Dana Street, Berkeley, CA 94704

(NOTE: we are NOT at our usual venue, First Congo, for this program!)

Saturday, November 20,  2010, at 8 p.m.

$20 general
$18 senior
$10 students

Purchase on line at or at the door.
(Ignore deadline on web site of May 26, 2010, which is for a previous program)

Friday, November 05, 2010

KM as EM

Just a reminder that Vec Makropoulos (The Makropoulos Case or, in older translations, The Makropoulos Affair) opens this Wednesday, November 10, at San Francisco Opera. It's an early performance; curtain is at 7:30, and it's a short opera. Not to be missed!

Shirley Verrett

The great mezzo-soprano and soprano died today, age 79, of heart disease; the Times obituary is here.

In this YouTube video, she is in superb form, circa 1971, in a characteristic role:

And singing a great Liebestod a few years later in 1977:

Rest in peace, Miss Verrett; you were one of the greats.

Thursday, November 04, 2010


Amount of money Meg Whitman spent running for governor of California: $163 million

Amount of the 2010 budget of the National Endowment for the Arts: $161.4 million

(via Alex, who got it from a Bryant Turnage tweet)

Wanted: Audiophile Mahler Fans, Must Own Turntable

You also need to have enough disposable income to drop $749 on an LP set - but it's not just any LP set.

It's a 22-LP set pressed on 180 gram virgin vinyl of the complete San Francisco Symphony Mahler cycle. It includes the completed symphonies, the Adagio from the unfinished Symphony No. 10, and all of the orchestral song cycles. You can hear Isabel Bayrakdarian, Laura Claycomb, Michelle DeYoung, Susan Graham, Anthony Dean Griffey, Thomas Hampson, Elza van den Heever, Katarina Karnéus, Quinn Kelsey, Sergei Leiferkus, Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, James Morris, Thomas Moser, Yvonne Naef, Marina Shaguch, Stuart Skelton, and Erin Wall on the cycle.

Limited edition of 1,000, to be pressed only when pre-orders reach 600. Pre-ordering requires you to plunk down $75. For more information, visit the San Francisco Symphony web page about the release.

Music at Stanford

Just a reminder that if you're within hailing distance of Palo Alto, Stanford University offers many, many musical performances by a wide variety of performers. There's Stanford Lively Arts, which presents a wide variety of theater and music by internationally famous artists. The Stanford Music Department puts on faculty and student performances of solo and chamber music recitals, orchestral concerts, and choral programs, all at an extremely high level and all at bargain prices. Here are a couple of upcoming examples, plus some information about how you can find out what's going on at Stanford.

This is a tempting chorus concert, with a fascinating selection of composers:

Stanford Chamber Chorale: "Remember"
Saturday, Nov. 13, 8:00 pm
Memorial Church
Stephen M. Sano conducts this evening of a cappella choral repertoire
featuring the theme of memory, remembering, and remembrance, with works by
Farrant, Berger, Howells, Finzi, Pearsall, Delius, Barber, Moran,
Mantyjarvi, Chihara, Hamilton, Daley, and Chatman. | Stanford Ticket Office
General $10 | student $5 | senior $9.

You might know Scott St. John's name, because he is the second violinist of the St. Lawrence String Quartet. George Barth teaches piano and does research into 19th century piano performance practice and history. He's a terrific player, and I'm sure this will be a great concert.

Scott St. John, violin, and George Barth, piano
Sunday, Nov. 14, 2:30 pm
Campbell Recital Hall
Two of the Department of Music¹s faculty collaborate in this recital, with
selections from Brahms, Busoni, and Ives. General $10 | student $5 | senior

For a complete list of Department of Music events and for tickets, please

To purchase tickets by phone please call the Stanford Ticket Office at

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Sunday, October 31, 2010

This Afternoon

Hie thee to the Episcopal Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Union at Steiner in San Francisco, at 4 p.m. today, to see the second and last performance of Urban Opera's The Witch of Endor, music by Henry Purcell. It is something to see; my full review will be in SFCV.

If you were there yesterday or can't go, then come to St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Oakland at 3 p.m. for Pacific Collegium's performance of the Monteverdi Vespers.

Friday, October 29, 2010

This Weekend and Next

A ton of good stuff happening, some of which I'll get to. Benjamin Bagby recites a big chunk of Beowulf and plays the harp at Cal Performances, tonight and tomorrow night...San Francisco Symphony has the Shostakovich 12th and a Kurtag piece on its program....Urban Opera performs Purcell's The Witch of Endor both Saturday and Sunday at 4 p.m. in San Francisco....Pacific Collegium sings the Monteverdi Vespers of 1610; Sunday's concert is part of a Vespers service and is free....Next week, Volti has a typically great program of new and recent music....Cyrano de Bergerac, a rarity, is playing at San Francisco Opera. It's returns and standing room only at this point, but it is likely to be your last chance to see the world's most multitasking tenor/baritone/intendant on stage locally...The St. David of Wales Festival Chorus is performing a Lassus program in Richmond on Nov. 7...Also on the 7th, French contemporary music group Ensemble Zellig, on its first U.S. tour, hits Cal Performances with a program of works by Edmund Campion, Philippe Leroux, Don Freund, Philippe Hersant, and Gerald Shapiro. Four of the works to be performed are West Coast premieres, and Edmund Campion is an excellent composer who teaches at UC Berkeley.

Patricia Racette and Beth Clayton Say It Gets Better

I admire them a great deal as singers and as people.


...for the radio silence. Slightly crazy few weeks at work, should be getting better soon.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

For About 24 Hours

Late, but purple in honor of Spirit Day. (I hope I can revert it to the same pink!)

Meanwhile,  Google employees made this It Gets Better video:

Monday, October 11, 2010

Das Rheingold Media Roundup

Here we go. Note that some of these folks were in the house, some in the movie theater.

Dame Joan Sutherland

One of the greats has passed away, age 83. She had a voice of Wagnerian proportions with the flexibility of a Tetrazzini; along with Callas, Horne, and her husband Richard Bonynge, she was one of the prime movers in the bel canto revival. Her Turandot, with Zubin Mehta, gave a hint,  on record at least, of an alternate universe in which she gave Birgit Nilsson a run for her money in the Wagner and Strauss repertory. RIP, Dame Joan, and condolences to your family.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Same Thoughts, Many Fewer Words

If you don't feel like reading 1500 words or so of my blather on the Met Rheingold, read Brian at Out West Arts, who says exactly what I was thinking a lot more succinctly.

Gotta add this, though: Levine looked frail and was moving very, very carefully when he came on stage for his bows..

Compare and Contrast 19: Facebook as Valhalla

Alex Ross and Maureen Dowd: twins separated at birth? Probably not, but:
In between the Geek Feminist Network has a few things to say about the film.

Ein düst'rer Tag dämmert den Göttern

Like a couple of hundred thousand others, and almost everybody in the classical music blogosphere, I spent three hours yesterday morning at the movie theater taking in the high-definition broadcast of the Met's long-awaited new production of Das Rheingold.

How did I feel about it? Well, you could say I'm firmly on the fence.

To start with, the camera direction doesn't do much for the production or for the singers. I now know way too much about Eric Owens's teeth, and I can tell you all about the extent to which Bryn Terfel and Adam Diegel sing out of the sides of their mouths. Even when singers' shoulders or faces weren't filling up a two-story screen, mostly we got tight shots taking in one to three singers and 20 horizontal feet of the Met's enormous stage. And many of those were from the robot camera running on a bar at the lip of the stage, so the perspective was absolutely nothing like anything you'd see in the house unless you were in the back of the pit looking up.

The direction took in the whole stage just a few times: at the beginning of Scene I, during the descent to Nibelheim and on the return trip, briefly at the beginning of the Nibelheim scene, briefly during the two scenes with the giants, and for the rainbow bridge. So I can't speak to the effect the machine, Robert Lepage's giant Cuisineart wood-chipper moving unit set made in the house and just how magical it may have looked. Take everything I say with a giant grain of salt; opera house and movie theater perspective are not the same. For that matter, keep in mind that microphones distort voices and rob us of sonic perspective, and what we heard in the movie theaters probably varied by theater and was surely different from what the in-house audience heard.

Musically, it was all much better than I'd thought it would be based on the netcast of opening night. Levine was more alert, though I still wanted to pinch him a few times, like during the giants' entry. I continue to find his Wagner too glossy and not nearly well-articulated enough. The Met orchestra played like gods - lord, what a sound they make!

By and large, I liked almost everyone. Eric Owens blew me away; I would not have thought, based on a generally excellent Porgy last year in SF, that he had a superb Alberich in him. Maybe German repertory suits him best, maybe Alberich is exactly in his vocal sweet spot. But he sounded great; in fact, he sounded a whole lot better than Bryn Terfel's licht Alberich, aka Wotan. Terfel is in sad shape compared to the last time I heard him live, a decade ago in The Rake's Progress; he sounded worn and his once-tight vibrato is considerably loosened. He shouted a lot less than on the netcast, but still, I found it alarming. I don't see how he'll make it through the Walkuere Wotan. (Personal to Peter Gelb and James Levine: Richard Paul Fink Richard Paul Fink Richard Paul Fink. Got it? He knows a good chunk of the role already and sounded fabulous singing it in Berkeley this summer.)

Stephanie Blythe's Fricka was outstanding, superbly sung; so were the giants of Hans-Peter Konig and Franz-Josef Selig, who sounded related without sounding identical. Similarly, I loved the Rheinmaiden trio of Lisette Oropesa, Jennifer Johnson, and Tamara Mumford, three beautiful but distinctive voices. Dwayne Croft made a mighty impressive Donner. For some reason not apparent in the movie theater, Richard Croft, singing Loge, got some boos; he sounded accurate and musical if occasionally croony. I've read that he sounds disproportionately small-voiced compared to everyone else, which could certainly be so, but he didn't earn boos that I could tell. That said, if you want to hear a stunningly great Loge, come to San Francisco next summer and watch Stefan Margita steal the show.

Adam Diegel is mighty handsome and has a good voice, but he sounded more studied and stiff than anyone else on stage. Gerhard Siegel was a suitably craven Mime. Wendy Bryn Harmer was a lovely and vocally excellent Freia; Patricia Bardon just about perfect as Erda.

Now, back to La Machine. Reportedly, the Met has spent $16 million to date on this Ring cycle, which is as much as the whole Seattle Ring, new in 2001, cost. I will have to see Die Walkuere on screen and maybe see one of these operas in person to be able to tell whether the Met got its money worth. But many of the effects I saw yesterday could be achieved in a more conventional production at a lower cost and make just as much theatrical impact. Yeah, it would also be lots less possible to generate publicity and raise funds with a more conventional production, but I also am afraid, based on what I saw, that the machine itself is getting in the way of interesting direction, both in terms of interactions among the characters and in terms of how the singers are moved around the stage. Both of those seemed utterly conventional, unsubtle, and uninteresting. (Again, repeat after me: it must have looked different in the house.)

As far as I could see yesterday, in some cases the set hinders the action and directorial possibilities, and results in less magic than I've seen elsewhere. Take the opening Rheinmaiden scene. I found the flying/swimming Rheinmaidens in the Seattle Ring are more magical, because they fly for the whole scene. At the Met, they initially swim against the backdrop of the vertical machine, then the machine folds up and they are plopped down on top of it. They can slither around a little, but because their costumes have tails, they can't more around all that much. I have no idea how this looked in the house; on screen, flying them for the whole scene would have been better.

The first scene with the giants is played with the two giants located on some planks that are above the plinth level, which is where the gods are. This seriously limited how much the two groups could interact, and there are all sorts of dramatic possibilities there. When the gold is being measure out against Freia, she's suspended horizontally in netting that is hung from two sets of planks. The netting is put up by D. Croft and on of the other gods, which is pathetic. They're gods, for crying out loud, not stagehands! It looked seriously half-baked, and possibly a workaround for the fact that the giants are up there and the gods and gold are down here. I also spent the whole scene worrying that the damn net would fail in some way and drop Wendy Bryn Harmer on her head. That's not good.

Then there's the business of the sideways staircase to and from Nibelheim. The doubles move slowly, so it's not at all exciting and doesn't match the music. It felt to me as though they did it because they could, and it's not better than what I imagine during the music covering the scene change.

And then there's the sledding effect: there are several places where a character slides down an inclined plane of planks, or slithers up and down them, and....I can see that this will get old pretty fast over the length of the full Ring.

Finally, the costumes. Holy moly, they are bad bad bad. I'm sure they would have looked bad in the house through my binoculars, too. Stephanie Blythe's dress looks like something off-the-rack from Macy Woman, and Fricka can absolutely afford something better. The male gods are all wearing godawful breastplates evidently intended to make them look manly and muscular. Unfortunately, that's not the effect they achieve. The giants look like cavemen, and where did Alberich get that lace-up wet suit? A fetish shop??

Ah, well. We'll see how the next three installments go, and if I'm lucky I'll get to see one of them in house.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Review: French Classics at SFS

Reviewing San Francisco Symphony's French Classics program. Really, the hard-copy headline of Joshua Kosman's review said it all: "Next Time, More Berlioz."

I've said this before, and I'll say it again (and again and again and again): could SFS schedule Carey Bell in a clarinet concerto other than the Mozart? Great piece, yeah, but I've heard it approximately five thousands times, and it's so popular it's a KDFC staple.

I'd love to hear the Lindberg concerto again, but if not that, how about the concertos by Aho, Carter (I make myself laugh), Corigliano, Hindemith, Maconchy, Martino (triple concerto!), Musgrave, Nielsen, Penderecki, Piston, Rautavaara, Stravinsky, Takemitsu, or Tower? Yes, I did get those names from Wikipedia.

I Think It's a Test

One of these things is not like the others.

Monday, October 04, 2010

Coming Up: October, 2010, Bay Area Edition

So, obviously I never got it together to finish something resembling a season preview (argh). I'll try to summarize some of the better upcoming events on a monthly basis.

Who knows if I'll get to all of these? I wish I could!

Magnificat performs John Blow's Venus and Adonis

Warren Stewart, Music Director
October 8, St. Patrick's Seminary, Menlo Park, 8 p.m. October 9, St. Mark's Episcopal, Berkeley, 8 p.m. October 10, St. Mark's Lutheran, S.F., 4 p.m.

(No ticket prices because of the amount of click-through to find them!)

Blueprint with soprano Marnie Breckenridge

This program includes a preview of Ensemble Parallelle's February, 2011, production of Glass's Orphée.

Saturday 9 October, 8:00pm                            
San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak Street
Tickets: $20/$15

Laura Schwendinger: Chiaroscuro Azzurro
Philip Glass: Selections from Orphée Suite
David Conte: Sexton Songs

Nicole Paiment, artistic director/conductor
Keisuke Nakagoshi, piano
Marnie Breckenridge, soprano
Wei He, violin

California Bach Society performs Purcell and Handel

Purcell's Hail! Bright Cecilia, Handel's Acis and Galatea

Paul Flight, music director; Ann Moss, soprano, Brian Thorsett, tenor

Fri, Oct 22, 2010, 8pm at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in San Francisco
Sat, Oct 23, 2010, 8pm at *St. Patrick's Seminary* in *Menlo Park*
Sun, Oct 24, 2010, 4pm at *St. John's Presbyterian Church* in Berkeley

(Note changes of typical venue for this program!)

General tickets are $25 in advance or $30 at the door; senior tickets are $18 in advance or $22 at the door; student tickets are always $10.

Pacific Collegium performs the Monteverdi Vespers

Really hoping to get to this despite the conflict with Urban Opera's Purcell program!

Christopher Kula, Music Director, with a chorus of Bay Area choral luminaries.

October 30, San Francisco, St. Gregory's Episcopal (presumably this is St. Gregory of Nyssa), 7:30 p.m.
October 31, Oakland, St. Paul's Episcopal,  3 p.m.

Tickets: $45/$30/$25/$15, but the Sunday performance is free.

Urban Opera performs The Witch of Endor

October 30 and 31, 4 p.m.
2325 Union Street (@Steiner), San Francisco, CA 94123

$50 Premium Seating (available only in advance) 
$30 General Admission 

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Staging Wagner (and Verdi)

I got asked privately about this response to Alex Ross's Wagner Op-Ed piece, which ran about a week ago. Had I seen the response, did I think it was a valid criticism?

If you don't feel like clicking through to the Times web site to read the response, I'll summarize for you: why do directors feel the need to modernize Wagner when he says right there in the score what he wants?

So, first off, the new Lepage staging is apparently pretty traditional in how the singers are blocked and how the characters relate to each other. The costumes look like they could have been designed any time in the last 50 years; they are traditional and kinda dull, compared to, say, the famous 1970s ENO Ring, the Mariinsky Ring, or the Freyer Ring. They are dull compared to the beautiful and ultra-traditional costumes of the 2001 Seattle Ring.

Yeah, the stage machinery is modern and circusy, and so what? You got yer river Rhine, you got yer Nibelheim (and descent thereto), you got yer rocky places.

More to the point, I rolled my eyes at that letter.

Nobody thinks we should always stage Shakespeare the way Shakespeare expected his plays to be done - in Elizabethan dress, on an outdoor stage, with men and boys playing women's roles, and apparently hurrying through the text. (See the timing given for the play in the prologue of Romeo and Juliette.)

Pretty much any 19th c. and earlier play you can think of has been updated (or backdated - Julius Cesar in togas instead of doublets), relocated geographically, made abstract, etc. Only in the opera world is there a significant coterie of fans who scream when Tosca isn't wearing an Empire gown, when Wotan doesn't wear long robes and carry a spear, when the Duke of Mantua's court becomes Fascist Italy in the 30s, when unusual staging techniques are used (see Wilson; see Freyer). (Note: I saw only one opera in Freyer's Ring, but it was one of the great theatrical experiences of my life despite underwheming singing.)

These people essentially claim to know what the composer would have wanted if he were alive today. Nobody knows what Verdi or Wagner would want if they had 21st century theaters and technology in hand. We have no idea what Wagner would have thought of Wieland Wagner or Acheim Freyer' stagings.

It's crazy. It's part of the reason so many people have problems relating to opera: fans who want operas to be performed as if it were still 1890. Wagner and Verdi were experienced and (mostly) practical men of the theater. They were also great musical reformers. Of all people, they knew that stagecraft is a living, changing thing, not a fossil frozen in time.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Congratulations are in Order

To Alex Ross, on the publication of his second book, Listen to This. The audio guide is here; he'll be on tour shortly presenting "Chacona, Lamento, Walking Blues" around the country.


I've updated two postings:

If I Were in NYC...'ve heard that from me before, right? As usual, the mail brings items of note.
  • The Momenta Quartet performs a contemporary music program mostly by New Yorkers at Roulette Intermedium, 20 Greene St. between Canal and Grand, 8:30 p.m. tomorrow, Saturday, October 2, 2010. Works by Melissa Hui, Huong Ruo, Gordon Beeferman, and Philip Glass are on the program. Tickets are $15 GA / $10 seniors/students / Free to members of Roulette/Location One.
  • TRANSIT Subway Series presents a triple bill of noteworthy new music. So Percussion plays; there's the world premier of a new work by Tristan Perich; a new multimedia group called Corps Exquis makes its debut. All this on Thursday, October 14, 2010, at Galapagos Art Space, 16 Main (at Water), Brooklyn, NY.  Doors open at 7, show at 8, tickets $15 at the door or on line.
  • The Metropolis Ensemble asks "What would a house sound like if it could sing?" And the ensemble answers, it would sound like Brownstone, by composer Jakub Ciupinski, which they describe as "a site-specific electro-acoustic composition conceived for an entire historic Brooklyn 3-story brownstone." Wow. You can see and hear this work on Thursday, October 28, 2010, 7:30 p.m., at 224 Washington Street, Brooklyn, NY.