Wednesday, June 30, 2010

A Good Season for Chamber Opera

Cal Performances has Britten's Albert Herring and Rape of Lucretia, both conducted by Lorin Maazel. LA Opera has The Turn of the Screw, with Patricia Racette as the Governess and William Burden as Quint (James Conlon conducts). And now Ensemble Parallèle announces that they'll be staging Philip Glass's Orphée next February at Herbst Theater. Wow!

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Goodbye, Gerard; Hello, Ludovic!

The Seattle Symphony has named Ludovic Morlot to the post of Music Director Designate for the 2010-11 season. In the 2011-12 season, Morlot takes over as Music Director, replacing Gerard Schwarz, who becomes Conductor Laureate.

I imagine a few players are breathing deep sighs of relief over this, especially those musicians in the 61-8 vote a few years back who were in favor of looking for new artistic leadership. Schwarz's tenure has been contentious, to say the least.

Previous blog postings on the subject:
Updates: Alex Ross links to a Seattle Times article where principal bassoonist Seth Krimsky, a member of the search committee, is quoted mentioning Morlot's rapport with the orchestra. Sounds good to me. Dan Wakin's Times article quotes musicians elsewhere calling him "collaborative." And here's a web page announcing the appointment at the orchestra itself.

Missed by That Much

In January, 2003, I bought a Dell desktop computer. Seven years later, it is still running, a real workhorse. It's a pretty slow workhorse, though, and it's possible I will replace it in the next year or so, if adding some memory doesn't make a difference.

But I probably won't buy another Dell. There's a horrifying story in today's Times about a two-year period during which it appears Dell knowingly shipped defective computers and then blamed its customers when the computers broke down, claiming the computers were in overheated spaces or, amazingly, that the customers were overtaxing the computers with too many computations. Besides breaking down, the defective machines could have burst into flame.

You bet that they are getting their asses sued, and it seems there might be charges filed eventually against Michael Dell. My favorite line in the story is this:
Even the firm defending Dell in the lawsuit was affected when Dell balked at fixing 1,000 suspect computers, according to e-mail messages revealed in the dispute.
Maybe they need to join the lawsuit they're defending against.

The two-year period during which the defective computers were sold ran from May 2003 through July 2005. I missed it by that much! And I see no reason to give my future business to a company that behaved so unethically.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Complexity Elsewhere

Daniel Wolf has another excellent discussion of both the term and what composers are doing when they write music.

Further Blogroll Updates

I made more updates to the blogroll over the weekend, primarily by retiring to their own list several blogs that have gone inactive. I am deeply sorry that Jonathan Bellman and Phil Ford have retired the wonderful and always-stimulating dial "m" for musicology, but the site does live on.

I have also added in Harpblog, which replaced Helen Radice's Twang Twang Twang a while back.

Anecdotal Evidence

Overheard by my office-mate at yesterday's San Francisco Opera performance of La Fanciulla del West, said by a woman who evidently didn't care for what she was hearing:
An opera has to have beautiful melodies to make an impression on me.
Just to emphasize: this was at a performance of an opera by Puccini. It has plenty of beautiful melodies; they just don't come in the form of discrete arias.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

P. S.

If you're reading this blog, it's highly unlikely that you're one of the majority of the audience that I posit isn't hearing what I (for example) hear at concerts.

Which raises the question of why people go to live classical music performances. Here's something I posted at Sticks & Drones a couple of weeks back. It started as a list in email about why people go to the opera.
  • They know a lot about music.
  • They subscribe to the organization’s performances.
  • They love a particular work.
  • They love the composer.
  • They love one or more of the performers.
  • They love the conductor.
  • They love the theatrical aspects of opera.
  • They find live music more exciting that recorded music.
  • They trust the conductor and they're willing to take a chance just because s/he is conducting the piece.
  • They’ve never heard the particular work being performed and they’re curious about it.
  • The work or production or performance got a great review and they were curious about it.
  • The work or production or performance got controversial reviews and they’re curious about it.
  • A friend took them or encouraged them to go.
  • They just moved to the big city from someplace else and they’re checking things out.
  • They know someone in the performance.
  • It’s the norm in their social circle. I saw Nancy Pelosi, George Schultz, and a few other famous people at opening night of SF Opera a few years back. I have no idea whether they’re opera fans, but there they were.

More on Complexity

So, I'm pretty sure Terry just doesn't like that stuff and is looking for justification beyond that dislike. It's a big shrug for me, because people like what they like. I just worry that articles like his keep people from actually listening to extremely complex music. There are some people who might like Carter, et. al. who might not give it a shot. One reason I listen is that I like having my brain twisted up a bit; another is that the sounds themselves are arresting and often beautiful. And hey, I like a challenge.

I'd encourage anyone thinking about this to take a look at Daniel Wolf's posting today, about his recent orgy of re-hearing a huge amount of serialist music, which makes me want to hole up in a cabin for a month with his iPod and a stack of scores.


Terry Teachout has an article in the Wall Street Journal speculating that music by Carter and Boulez (he doesn't mention Babbitt but must have him in mind) is too complex for the human brain to perceive and understand within the time period in which it's performed, and therefore will never achieve general audience acceptance. He cites a 1988 paper by Fred Lehrdahl - which I have not read - as evidence.

Now, in one sense he's probably right, that those guys are never going to be on the classical hit parade. My local "classical" radio station will never play them (on the other hand, that station doesn't play Puccini, either, at least not with the voices, except for their monthly SF Opera broadcast).

But my big reaction to this is "So what?"

First off, I don't necessarily agree with the other big premise of the article, that this stuff is in some sense too complex. Terry trots out the example of Finnegans Wake and says, sure, he could spend the time getting to know it, but why bother? He could read Proust instead. The thing is, there's no reason to depend on one hearing of a Carter or Boulez work to get to know it. It'd take less time than reading Finnegans Wake, in fact, especially if you take the time to get your hands on a score. ( find Carter's music easier to understand if I am not giving myself a headache looking at the score, because I try to count it and things fall apart very fast.) Musicians spend lots of time getting to know less complex music, so that's nothing new.

And somehow, there are plenty of musicians around who are happily studying and playing Carter, Boulez, Babbitt, Fernyhough, and so on. I like to mention a couple of times a year a fact that Alex Ross dug up long ago: in the early 1970s, there were two new music groups in New York City. (I wonder if this included the computer-music group at Columbia. Maybe there were three!) There are now more than 50.

Here's one reason for my "so what." It's important to remember that classical music is not a single thing and the classical music audience is not a single thing. It's a group of niches, including:
  • New music (say, going back to 1900 for a lot of stuff)
  • Opera
  • Symphonic music
  • Chamber music
  • Solo recital
  • Early music
These niches and audiences don't necessarily overlap. I am a fairly rare person who loves all of the above; I get to fewer solo recitals than any of the other genres above, I would say. (And maybe solo recitals should fall under chamber music, anyway.) Opera fans are a niche unto themselves.

So it's just not important whether Carter and Boulez are audience favorites. They have an audience, regardless of the size. SF Performances sold about 400 tickets to the Carter 100th Birthday Weekend, which featured all of the string quartets and all of the piano music, all brilliantly played. It'd be interesting to find out whether more living people have heard a Dufay mass performed live or a Carter string quartet. I would not take bets.

The other reason for my "so what"? Terry's argument depends, in part, on an implicit assumption that people who go to concerts understand and are taking in a lot of what goes on in what they hear. That's the only reason the "too complex to understand" argument might hold any water. I am absolutely certainly that the majority of people who go to concerts do not hear most of what's going on. Most of them hear pretty tunes and the beautiful and varied textures of classical, especially symphonic, music. They're not necessarily catching the structural complexities, though I would guess most recognize the standard repeat patterns of classical symphonies. So...who cares if they listen? They're not going to hear that much more in Brahms than in Babbitt.

On Moderation for Now

If you're subscribed to comments for any of the last 35 or so blog postings, you know that I got heavily spammed last night. From the timings, it wasn't a bot. But I've put the blog on moderation at least temporarily. No need for my readers to get this junk in their email.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Eventual SFS Music Director Sweepstakes

You've seen the SFCV article, now read my original thoughts; Janos and I just kept adding to this list. Drew McManus has picked up the salary side of the issue at Adaptistration.

It's easier to make a list of the unavailable than of the available. Not: Muti, Abbado, Gilbert, Levine, Nezhet-Seguin, Dudamel, Salonen (sob), Jurowski, C. Davis, A. Davis, Haitink, Mackerras (double sob), Barenboim, Nelsons, Rattle, Runnicles (sobbing even more)

People we don't want: FW-M (busy with contracts in Vienna and Cleveland, anyway), Mehta, Previn, Schwarz, Ashkenazy, Maazel, Masur. :)

Been there/done that/don't come back except as a guest: Ozawa, de Waart, Blomstedt.

Probably not: Simone Young

Wish We Could: Le formidable Boulez (say it with a French accent), nearly 85 and with regular guest gigs in Chicago and Cleveland

I would look to the frozen north, and I don't mean Canada). One of the Baltic states, Scandinavia, Finland. There's someone there, maybe someone we know: Osmo Vanska? Sakari Oramu? Where are Neeme Jarvi and Mariss Janssons working? How about Marek Janowski? Eschenbach? Dohnanyi? But the latter two are both 70-ish. So is Frubeck de Burgos.

Favorite from the frozen north: Susanna Malkki, who is Finnish, female, young, and made a big splash in NY at Mostly Mozart a year or two ago.

Who has had a great rapport with the orchestra the last few years? Could Conlon wedge in an orchestra? Yan Pascal Tortelier?

Who is currently conducting at Birmingham, Liverpool, and Bournemouth in Great Britain?

What about Marin? What about Robertson?

Where does Dutoit fall? Spano?

Former assistant conductors of East Coast orchestras: Julian Kuerti, Shi-Yeon Sung, [NYPO had a good assistant as well, a young woman from China, but I cannot dig up her name]

Current, well-reviewed, incredibly young assistant conductor of LAPO: Lionel Bringuier

What about former assistant conductors of SFS? Alasdaire Neal, James Gaffigan (who is VERY good), Edwin Outwater?

Or maybe somebody we don't know yet. Who woulda thunk Alan Gilbert would get the NYPO job AND make a great success of it?

Welcome to the Blogroll

Recently added:
I've also updated the listing for The Rest is Noise, since Alex Ross is regularly blogging there again.

Tanglewood TBDs are D'd

The substitutes for James Levine's remaining open programs have been named. Herbert Blomstedt returns to his native Massachusetts* to conduct an all-Brahms program, while Juanjo Mena of the Four Last Songs and Mahler's First with soprano Hei-Kyung Hong.

* What, you thought he was Swedish? He is, but he was born in Springfield, MA, and lived there for a couple of years until his parents took the family back to Sweden. Presumably he has dual citizenship.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Performers and Reviewers

I've occasionally gotten email from performers I've discussed on this blog, and I know from talking to other bloggers that I'm not the only one. Sometimes performers even post comments; I've gotten a few from Carey Bell, principal clarinetist of the San Francisco Symphony and formerly of San Francisco Opera's orchestra, and one from soprano Laura Claycomb.

It's evident in some cases that the performers who contact me found the blog postings via a web search, very likely by searching on their own names. Thinking about this, and about the relationship between performers, critics, and reviews, the question arises, why would performers bother reading reviews?

I can think of a reason or two, but just as many reasons not to read reviews. It's wonderful to read a positive or glowing review, of course. But in most cases...I'm not sure what's to be gained.

What if you get a bad or equivocal review? I'm convinced that performers don't benefit from reading these. I've been on stage enough times myself, as a chorister or flutist, to know perfectly well that most performers have a very good idea of how well they did on a given night. I am always more aware than anyone in the audience of the errors I've made or that the chorus or orchestra has made or where somebody really missed a cue badly (including conductors who forget to throw a cue the chorus is expecting). Is a performer going to learn much from reading a critic who says the tenor blew the high note or the bass has a wobble or something else like that? I think not.

A couple of people have said things to me along the lines of, well, a performer might learn something and change from reading reviews. I don't buy that.

Reviews are not pedagogical. A review is one person's perception of what happened in a particular theater or concert hall at one performance. It's a snapshot, and that's it. It has real value as a bit of history. It doesn't show what happens in the course of a run. For example, several people have told me that post-primo performances of Die Walkuere here in SF have been very good, but apparently not as great as what we saw on June 10.

The blogosphere is good for making up this particular lack in reviews; most reviewers don't have time to get to two performances in an operatic run, let alone take in a whole Ring cycle more than once.

And reviewers know these things. We know that we're hearing one or one hundred and fifty humans doing their best for anything from an hour to six hours. We're aware that there's variation and inconsistency. We know what we don't know: whether there's a crisis in a violinist's family and the whole section is sad, or whether the mezzo has a cold or the tenor has allergies. Yes, sometimes there are announcements. Sometimes there aren't.

So do reviews have any value at all for performers? Maybe. I think it's a good idea for performers to have trusted people - partners/spouses, coaches, teachers, a publicist - read and screen reviews, passing along some to the performer according to agreed-upon criteria. If ten reviews by different people over the course of a year make similar points about some perceived lack in the performer, well....maybe that's something to consider.

But a performer shouldn't be learning those things from reviews. The trusted people, especially teachers and coaches, are the right people to say "you've started scooping" or "what about this habit you are developing" or "you look consistently uncomfortable on stage." It's their job, not a reviewer's.

Possible Additional Fiddling

Yeah, I might fiddle with the colors. And while I like having the blog archive at the top, I also like having the links easier to find without scrolling. So tomorrow, or later today, you might see a three-column blog.

David Brooks is Even Stupider than I Thought

Today's column postulates a liberal Dr. Faustus asking the Devil for things like a huge economic disaster and a huge environmental disaster, to discredit conservatives and persuade the citizenry that only liberals have the answers.

Is he kidding?

For one thing, he cleverly picks 2007 as the year for this conversation. BZZZT. Try reading your Times Op-Ed page neighbor, Paul Krugman. The housing bubble, which led to the financial crisis, was well under way by 2005, which is when a few people started predicting disaster.

For another, no, sorry, no liberals I've ever met hope for a disaster like the BP spill to prove anything.

Why oh Brad DeLong would say.

Music Director Sweepstakes, San Francisco Symphony Edition

With all the recent changes in music director at various U.S. orchestras, it was inevitable that somebody would speculate about San Francisco. And that somebody just happens to be me - and SFCV stalwart Janos Gereben. You can read the results here.

No, we know nothing; not a hint that he's planning to leave. Just a certain sense that things aren't what they were a decade ago, and knowing it's best if the MTT/SFS doesn't get stale. The 100th anniversary season is coming up and I hope it's a humdinger, in fact, revitalizing the symphony and its music director.

SF Opera at Stern Grove

A great program if you like American staples. It's not really my thing even with Patricia Racette in a few arias and songs that look like good fits, and even with the glimpse of Leah Crocetto.

July 4, 2 p.m.
Stern Grove
19th & Sloat
San Francisco, CA

Ian Robertson's conducting the whole program.


Overture Orchestra with Maestro Robertson

AARON COPLAND: Variations on a Shaker Melody Orchestra and Chorus


Ain’t It a Pretty Night? Patricia Racette

AARON COPLAND: The Tender Land

Stomp Your Foot! Orchestra and Chorus


I’m Fixin' to Tell Y’Bout a Feller John Relyea, Leah Crocetto and Chorus


Glitter and be Gay Susannah Biller

Walk Together, Children

Traditional Spiritual, arranged by Moses Hogan Chorus


To This We’ve Come (The “Papers Aria”) Patricia Racette


Make Our Garden Grow Susannah Biller, Sara Gartland,

Brian Jagde, Austin Kness, Chorus


JOHN PHILIP SOUSA: The Stars and Stripes Forever Orchestra and Chorus


Bess, You is My Woman Now Leah Crocetto and John Relyea


Losing My Mind Patricia Racette


Selections arranged by Russell Bennett Susannah Biller, Sara Gartland,

Brian Jagde, Austin Kness


Ol’ Man River John Relyea


Embraceable You Patricia Racette

GEORGE M. COHAN: Patriotic Fantasy Orchestra and Chorus

Arranged by Walter Ehret and Paul Yoder

Minor Warning

The blog's appearance might be changing in the next day or so ten minutes, to something a little sharper looking.

(Okay, I'll see how I feel about this in a day or two. I saved the old template settings to my home machine, so I can restore them if I need to.)


From John Keegan's The Price of Admiralty, chapter on the Battle of Jutland:
What might have happened in Tiger came even nearer to happening to Lion. Her Q turret was hit by a 12-inch shell from Lützow at 4 o'clock, which killed everyone in the gun-house. One of the gun-numbers, as he died, involuntarily sent the loading cage of the right gun down into the working-chamber with cordite in it. A fire, spreading apparently down the turret's electrical cables, ignited the cordite in both the cage and the working-chamber; and fire then passed down the turret trunk towards the magazines. The turret officer, Major F. J. W. Harvey, managed with his dying breath (he had lost both legs) to order that the magazine doors be closed and the magazine flooded. The giving of this order, for which he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, saved the ship.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Next Year's Ring in SF

Reports from the post-primo performances of Die Walkuere are both encouraging and discouraging.
  • Nina Stemme continues to amaze and impress; everyone is raving about her.
  • Christopher Ventris has been running out of steam by the end of Act I in all performances I've heard about. This kinda surprises me; he was fine in Parsifal way back when, and in Lady Macbeth.
  • Mark Delavan. You knew I'd get here eventually. I'm hearing decidedly mixed reviews and doubts about both his power and stamina. I'm seriously concerned about how he'll do when he has to sing Wotan on consecutive nights in Rheingold and Walkuere.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Further Details

John Marcher is surprised that I didn't say more about Faust, especially considering Patricia Racette's presence in the cast. Well, here goes.

I'm just surprised she took the gig at all. Marguerite is an innocent young thing, seduced and abandoned; she is girlish and easily impressed. Any soprano undertaking the role ought to have a good trill and excellent flexibility to bring off the jewel song. Racette more or less trilled last night, albeit with a big, big preparation, but the rest of the aria was a hash. I don't remember her Violetta some years ago being less than well sung, so it's possible that all that Puccini has affected her agility. Roi de Thule worked much better and was in fact extremely good. Later i the opera, though, she had pitch problems above the staff and seemed, well, not entirely accurate.

Dramatically? Racette's great roles are in the verismo repertory, if you consider Janacek to be closer in mood to verismo than any other particular stylistic school. They call for a kind of committed intensity and involvement that she excels in. The later scenes were best, because they call for more intensity, innocent young girl just isn't right for her. Among her other roles, Jenufa comes closest, but Jenufa is knowing and aware and she grows through the course of the opera. Ditto Butterfly, with her spine of steel.

What to say about the rest of the cast. Stefano Secco sang decently, if a bit monochromatically. Ditto John Relyea, but I worry about his singing per se. His voice sounds woofy at the bottom and sometimes it's hard to tell exactly what note he has landed on. He worked awfully hard inBelshazzar's Feast at SFS a season or two back, and I hope he is not overdoing it. Daniela Mack was an adorable Siebel. Brian Mulligan as Valentin was, vocally, the standout of the show for me, singing with a beautiful, open, and consistent tone. But what was with the stage direction? Why the heck did he wander around the stage bolt upright for five minutes after being stabbed repeatedly in a duel?

French opera calls less for intensity than for grace and exceptional command of the language. No one in this cast has anything like the skills of French singers trained in the 19th and early 20th centuries. They seem to all have had the ability to trill and sing runs easily and to put the words out front as the controlling aspect of singing.

And, let's face it, Faust is nothing to write home about dramatically. In 2010, a troop of soldiers fending off Satan by crossing their swords or villagers shocked, shocked by an unmarried woman's pregnancy just aren't going to make much impact. As staged, they were almost laughable.

Honestly, this opera calls out for a Regie production. And for cutting most of the interminable dialog between arias.

There is No Good Reason to Ever Perform Faust Again.

Six good arias strewn among two and a half hours of boring filler do not an opera make. Especially when performed by an Anglophone cast plus one Italian and one Argentinian, when none of them project the text the way a French cast of, say, 1900, would have. Especially when the Marguerite is miscast. Especially with terrible stage direction. Especially when the Siebel and Valentin are the most interesting to watch or listen to.

This thing should be performed as a half-hour of excerpts if it's performed at all. I will see it next when Nellie Melba comes back from the grave to sing Marguerite.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Heuwell Tircuit

San Francisco music critic Heuwell Tircuit died on Monday, June 7, 2010, at age 78. Obits are here:
Tircuit's career at the Chron ended rather abruptly in 1987; Michael's obit has accounts from Robert Commanday and Janos Gereben indicating that Tircuit wasn't treated fairly at all.

But there was so much more to know: about his Army service, the years in Japan, the music degree acquired comparatively late, that he was a composer. We met only once, and I'm sorry I didn't know him better.

Ernest Fleischmann

Ernest Fleischmann died at the age of 85 on Sunday. As executive director (later managing director and executive vice president) of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, he hired Carlo Maria Giulini and Esa-Pekka Salonen as the orchestra's music director. He was instrumental in getting Walt Disney Concert Hall built.

The NY Times obituary is delicious in many ways - he can have a talk about that abstinence business with Arturo Toscanini - and the LAPO press release is solemn, quite properly calling him impresario and visionary. Tim Mangan talks about Fleischmann here.



Scandinavian Mysteries

Today's Times has an entertaining article about how publishers are scrambling, in the wake of Stieg Larsson's wild success, to publish more Scandinavian (and Icelandic, and Finnish) mystery novels. Here's a sample:
If there is a formula to the genre, it often includes a cold, stark setting and a grizzled detective figure who consumes too much coffee and junk food. The book covers tend to the bleak and icy, with images of frozen lakes, barren forests and perhaps a foreboding bloodstain.
And another:
At Powell’s in Portland, Mr. Larsson’s books are selling so quickly — at least 1,500 a week — that the store’s grateful employees have given them a nickname.

“We call them ‘The Girl Who’s Paying Our Salaries for the Next Few Months,’ ” said Gerry Donaghy, the new-book purchasing supervisor.
That makes these books the Harry Potter series of 2010.

I'm surprised, though, that this article doesn't mention the Martin Beck series, written by Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo in the 1960s and 1970s. They're the real progenitors of the Scandinavian style; the books are bleakly plotted and you get a real sense of the looming darkness of the Swedish winter. Give them a try!

Monday, June 14, 2010

The Tanglewood Shoe Drops

The press release headlines from the BSO say it all:




His replacements include MTT, Dohnanyi, Debus, Graf, and TBA.

Next question: will he conduct opening night and the run of Das Rheingold at the Met? Watch this space.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

See Before Judging

Uh, if you think the SFO Ring is Eurotrash, try following the Name-the-Regie-Opera series more closely. One-word summations - well, I'm more interested in detailed examinations of why a production works or doesn't. Hard to judge that without seeing the production in person, too. I had no idea how I would feel about the Freyer Ring before I saw the Goetterdaemmerung.

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Media Roundup on Die Walkuere, SF Opera

Honestly, I can barely remember the last time everybody agreed about the greatness of a performance. Yeah, there are some quibbling differences, but never mind. (Well, almost everybody!)
  • Joshua Kosman
  • Janos Gereben
  • Opera Tattler ("stunning" is exactly right)
  • Civic Center ("the performance turned out to be of legendary quality," with great credit to Runnicles)
  • I filed my own too-long rave and have now linked to it. A point I did not manage to jam into the review: the incredibly beautiful orchestral counterpoint and rubato during Act I. How I love Donald Runnicles.
  • A Beast in a Jungle likes the singing and conducting, hates the production.
  • Mlle. La Taupe at parterre box. Um, I admit to some confusion over the reference to leather trench coats in German productions, considering that this Ring is produced by two American companies and directed by an American.

More Random Notes

  • If you think you might be pregnant, call for Brünnhilde. Sieglinde has been knocked up for what, ten hours at most? by the Annunciation of Death scene.
  • Best bit in the press kit: "The fire scene at the end of Act III is created with a perforated pipe filled with gas that is progressively lit. Both Mark Delavan and Nina Stemme are wearing fireproof costumes, and Delavan also has fireproof gloves." (Why isn't this stuff in the regular program??)
  • This also belongs in the program: The photos of the fallen heroes are images of American soldiers who have died in the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, used with permission of the soldiers' families.
  • Wonderful bass clarinet playing from Anthony Striplen at crucial moments.
  • Please sign Eva-Marie Westbroek up for something, anything.
  • I would buy a messenger bag like the one Brunnhilde was carrying.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Random Notes on a Night at the Opera

Watch SFCV for my review, but until then -
  • Get tickets to Die Walkuere right now. Seriously.
  • Suppenkuche can get you out the door 40 minutes from when you sit down even if you take five minutes to figure out what to eat.
  • I dressed as formally as I ever dress.
  • Wondering if I will wind up in the Tattling section of OT. Not that I was talking! or coughing! or reading email during the performance! But I hadn't realized that the positioning of my notebook - occasionally right in front of my nose, given the low lighting - might distract other opera goers. Sorry!

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Where Your Chicken Comes From

An extremely enlightening blog posting, in a horrifying way, about chickens bred for eggs or meat. Yes, it does reinforce my interest in a backyard coop, but we only have enough space to legally have four birds, which isn't enough for meat chickens, given the frequency with which we eat chicken. (Not to mention the likelihood of our dog eating the chickens first.)

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Chopin in the Times

On May 27, the NY Times published a big spread called 1 Composer, 2 Centuries, Many Picks. This was a compendium of the Times music critics' picks of favorite or recommended Chopin recordings, since this is the bicentenary of Chopin's birth. Here are the pianists whose recordings the critics chose:
  • Tommasini: Rubinstein, Horowitz, Zimerman, Perahia, Lipatti
  • Kozinn: Tharau, Ax, Bolet, Li, Ashkenazy
  • Smith: Rubinstein, Moravec, Argerich, Tharaud, Anderszewski
  • Schweitzer: Pollini, Fliter, Argerich, Kissin, Pires
No sign of Oesterreich, no idea of why.

Here's what interests me, which nearly led to a letter to the Times. The Times reviewers missed the earliest generation of pianists on record completely, and focussed almost entirely on pianists who lived and recorded after World War II. Rubenstein (b. 1887) and Horowitz (b. 1902) are the oldest of the pianists mentioned. It's true that Bolet is a player cut from Romantic cloth, and I'd love to hear the Ax recording Kozinn cites, because Ax plays a model of a mid-19th c. Erard piano.

But look at some of the pianists who were omitted, all worth hearing in Chopin, many of them legendary: Paderewski, de Pachmann, Friedman, Rosenthal, Hoffman, Koczalski, Tiegerman, Rachmaninov, Cortot, Lhevinne, Hambourg, Moiseiwitsch. Of pianists who concertized well into the stereo era, I'm surprised at the omission of Arrau and especially the wonderful Cherkassky.

So what's going on here? Were there criteria set, such as "can't be perceived to be obscure" or "readily available" or "in stereo or good mono" (that is, LP era or later) or "plays in a modern style"? Because I don't believe that the Times reviewers just haven't heard or just don't like all of these great pianists.

Of course, Tommasini makes a disparging remark about "expressive rubato and Romantic liberties" in Chopin and recommends late Rubinstein recordings. Buh? I'm under the impression that Rubinstein's pre-war Chopin is widely considered better than the post-war recordings. And from my perspective: bring on the rubato!

World Cup

Do a Google search on this term today:

World Cup

Take a look at the results and definitely make sure you scroll down to where you would click for additional pages of results.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Hector Berlioz Tells Us What's Wrong with Mozart

Yes, he does, on p. 65 of the Dover edition of his memoirs: was owing to this cause that my admiration for Mozart was so lukewarm. Only Gluck and Spontini could excite me. And this was the reason for my coolness with regard to the composer of Don Giovanni. Don Giovanni and Figaro were the two of Mozart's works oftenest played in Paris; but they were always given in Italian, by Italians, at the Italian opera; and that alone was sufficient to prejudice me against them. Their great defect in my eyes was that they seemed to belong to the ultramontane school. Another and more legitimate objection was a passage in the part of Donna Anna which shocked me greatly, where Mozart has inserted a wretched vocalise which is a perfect blot on his brilliant work. It occurs int he allegro of the soprano aria in the second act, "Non mi dir," a song of intense sadness, which all the poetry of love finds vent in lamentation and tears, and which is yet made to wind up with such a ridculous, unseemly phrase that one wonders how the same man could have written both. Donna Anna seems suddenly to have dried her tears and broken out into coarse buffoonery....I found it difficult to forgive Mozart for this enormity. Now I feel that I would shed my blood if I could htereby erase that shameful page and others of the same kind which disfigure some of his work.(1)
(1) Even the spithet "shameful" scarcely seems to me strong enough to blast this passage. Mozart has there committed one of the most flagrant crimes recorded in the history of art against passion, feeling, good taste, and good sense.
Given in Italian by Italians! You don't say!

Saturday, June 05, 2010

Wild Weekend IV: Götterdämmerung at LA Opera

(Wild weekend III will appear this weekend, I hope.)

LA Opera has been rolling out its Ring production, the first in its 25-year history, over the last year or so. The production design and direction are by the German artist Achim Freyer. He has directed opera in Europe but this is the first I've heard of him working on the west coast and perhaps in the United States. It's been an enormously expensive enterprise, something like $32 million to produce the four operas. A couple of months ago, LA Opera had to take out a $14 million loan from LA County in the form of bonds guaranteed by LA County to stay afloat and pay their bills. There's no reason to think they won't manage to pay it back, but, to say the least, yikes.

The production has gotten both raves and brickbats, with the most recent brickbats coming from two of the principal singers, Linda Watson (Bruennhilde) and John Treleaven (Siegfried). This is rather astonishing: the singers complained on the record to a reporter between the final stand-alone Götterdämmerung and the first of three complete cycles.

(The photo is the story is from the Blutbruedershaft duet in Act I. Note the blood, actually bright red fabric, flowing from their arms. Both are wearing masks, but prior to this scene, Siegfried was not. The mask is part of how Freyer represents Siegfried's transformation from independent hero to one of the Gibichungs.)(All production photos I link to are by Monika Rittershaus; I cannot persuade &*$()@ Blogger to embed them here.)

Discussion at Parterre Box, 185, no, more, comments deep:

Discussion at the OC Register Arts Blog, where Tim Mangan, the Register's critic and a fan of the production, calls the two singers crybabies:

They have since apologized, sort of, to the LA Opera, saying that they were quoted selectively and in a biased fashion and that they fully supported the Opera. They did not say they had been misquoted.

I have seen only Götterdämmerung, but I would give the production an almost-completely-unqualified rave. I found it riveting, unusual, exceptionally deep both intellectually and emotionally, stimulating, mysterious, witty, and beautiful. I cannot possibly describe every scene in detail, and normally I do not focus particularly on production details when I write about peformances, but this one is so individual I will take more space than usual on the physical production.

You should know, first of all, that the entire production is done on a steeply raked stage, supposedly with a 14% rake, and behind a scrim. The latter can be visually wearing, I know, and there were moments when I wanted a clear view of the stage, but the scrim is used extremely effectively, for projections and sundry lighting effects. It certainly helped set and maintain the atmosphere of mystery, providing a bit of distance and enhancing the many moods of the piece. Mostly, I forgot it was there and simply accepted it as part of the scenery.

The opening Norn scene is typical of how Freyer dresses the characters and handles them on stage. There's a photo here that shows the stage and the three Norns, but bear in mind that they moved around the stage a fair amount, albeit slowly, and the stage colors shifted more or less continuously.

As you can see from the photo, the singers are mostly enclosed within gigantic balls, with their arms and heads protruding - except that one of the heads is a puppet head and that Norn's arms are puppet arms. I could only tell this when I used my binoculars, even though I was sitting in the orchestra section, row N. Their thread was represented by a triangular construct of some kind of piping that was flown in. During the scene, it went up, it went down, it rotated, it broke...Various other props and constructs hanging into the set also changed colors, were lit up or not; there were also sundry projections on the back wall of the set and on the scrim.

All of the characters were costumed in a stylized and almost puppetlike fashion. Hagen wore a brilliant yellow formal suit that had very short legs that were puppet legs; Eric Halvorson, playing Hagen, had his own legs dressed in black and carried around the yellow-costumed legs in front of him. Thus was Hagen's dwarf ancestry acknowledged. Photo here.

That's Alberich (Richard Paul Fink) with him, in the striped suite and wearing his own mask. During Hagen's Watch, the entire stage was filled with the vassals, frozen in place with light-sabres (yes, really) in front of them. At the beginning of the scene, Fink and an identically-costumed supernumerary glided slowly around the stage, mirroring each other and sometimes interacting a bit. It was as if you were staring straight into his mind. The entire scene with Hagen was as creepy and hair-raising as can be, with Halvorson sometimes sleeping on Fink's shoulder.

Gunther (Alan Held) and Gutrune (Jennifer Wilson) were both masked, wearing large, almost featureless white pape-mache masks complete enclosing their heads. Photo here.

Siegfried and Brunnhilde were not masked, though both wore stylized makeup and costumes. When Siegfried drank the potion and pledged blood brotherhood to Gunther, he took off his distinctive blue shirt and put on a colored garment much like those of Gunther and Gutrune, making him visually one of the family.

The fantastical costumes, the constantly, slowly shifting stage, props, lighting, and projections, the makeup - all served to create a unique physical world. I found it all extremely persuasive, the kind of production that I would love to see several times over a decade or more because of the brilliant world-building and psychological insights. There were only a few points when I thought, no, not quite right, doesn't work for me: Hagen's remote control, which evidently controlled the sword used to kill Siegfried and Gunther; the moment in the Immolation when the rear projections were long lists of numbers (I initially thought this must be a malfunction, but OC Register critic Tim Mangan mentioned it in his review, so....); and one misstep that definitely ought to be corrected. During almost the entire opera, a pair of large, cutout ravens sit on opposite sides of the set at the very lip of the stage (not visible in the photos on the LA Opera web site). At "Flieg heim, ihr Raben!" in the Immolation, they disappear from view....and in their places, you can see the PROMPTERS and their music. NO NO NO NO NO. It's just too big a break from what we've seen.

On to the musical aspects of the production. So, not knowing what his previous experience with Wagner is, I came away from the performance with mixed feelings about James Conlon's grasp of the score. I would have to call it adequate; everything was done competently, but there were no revelations. He does not yet have the full architecture and the ebb and flow of the music under control; the whole was flatter than it ought to have been and sometimes lost tension and forward movement. The proportions aren't quite right and he doesn't fully project the quieter and more introspective parts of the score. (This week, I've been listening to Furtwangler's RAI Ring, and, well, there is a conductor who gets the proportions exactly right and makes every last note sound important and an important part of the fabric. No, you cannot go wrong with live Furtwangler and Wagner.)

As for the singing. Best of all were Richard Paul Fink's brief, riveting, and sharply articulated appearance as Alberich; Michelle DeYoung's gorgeously voiced Second Norn and dramatically apt Waltraute; Eric Halvorson's Hagen, who was both dominant and abject, a much more complex character than the usual snarling villain.

Jill Grove was in far better voice as the First Norn than in her 2008 SFO appearance as Erda, to my relief. The Rheinmaidens were excellent. Alan Held shouted too much as Gunther; where was all the subtlety of which he's capable? Jennifer Wilson has a good voice but seems an unfinished musician who doesn't yet know how to phrase Wagner. [minor deletion in this paragraph on 6/18 because I had Wilson confused with a different singer]

Melissa Citro was alarmingly bad as the Third Norn; acid, stressed, and generally unpleasant in tone. She has a couple of roles in the upcoming SF Ring: argh.

As for Treleavan and Watson: sigh. While I'd love to see this Ring production in its entirety, the prospect of listening to him for four hours in Siegfried is not really pleasant. He can get through the music and sometimes phrases well, but the sound is leathery and worn and sometimes badly squeezed. I know what Wolfgang Schmidt sounded like in the 1999 SF Ring and 1998 Tristan, and Treleavan is headed that way. Watson is better, but all over the map vocally, from worn and pressed to sounding really beautiful. The inconsistency is alarming, and of course you just don't know what will come out of her mouth from one scene to the next.

They both coped well enough with the physical and dramatic demands of the production, but....there are definitely better Brunnhildes (and possibly Siegfrieds!) around. Irene Theorin got better reviews at the Met last year; upcoming debutante Nina Stemme will be excellent, I am sure; and of course: Christine Brewer, the greatest Wagner soprano now singing.

Environmental Heartbreak

I haven't blogged previously about the horrifying BP oil spill because of the distractions I mentioned a couple of postings ago, but must mention that I nearly cried at the sight of these photos of oil-covered birds and other animals in the Gulf of Mexico. Yes, the spill could destroy the Gulf and its wildlife, and very likely the spill won't stop until the relief wells are drilled.

Hector Berlioz Supports My Opinion of Rossini

From page 50 of the Dover edition of his Memoirs:
As to Rossini and the rage for him which possessed the fashionable Parisian world, it aroused my passionate indignation, all the more because the new school was the antithesis of that of Gluck and Spontini. I could conceive of nothing more grand, sublime, or true than the works of those great composers; and Rossini's melodious cynicism, his contempt for the traditions of dramatic expression, his perpetual repetition of one kind of cadence, his eternal puerile crescendo, and his crashing big drum, exasperated me to such a degree as to blind me to the dazzling qualities of his genius and the real beauties of his masterpiece, the Barbiere, with its delicate instrumentation and no big drum. I used often to speculate on the possibility of undermining the Theatre-Italien, so as to blow it and its Rossini-worshippers into space. And when I met one of those hated dilettanti, I used to mutter to myself as I eyed him with Shylockian glance, "Would that I might impale thee on a red-hot stake, thou scoundrel!" I must confess that time has not tempered the murderous violence of my feelings, or cause me to change the strong views I hold on this subject. Not that I now desire to impale anyone on a red-hot stake, or that I would blow up the Theatre-Italien, even if the mine were laid and the match ready to my hand; I but I echo Ingres' words with all my heart and soul when I hear him speak of some of Rossini's music as "the work of an underbred man."

Hector Berlioz Blogs Against Home Schooling

From his memoirs, p. 6 in the Dover edition:
At ten years old I was sent away to a small school on the hill to learn Latin; but my father soon took me away again and taught me himself. My poor father! What a patient, unwearied, careful, clever teacher of languages, literature, history, and geography he was! He even taught me music, as we shall see presently.

What love in necessary to carry out such a task, and how few father there are who could and would do it! Still I cannot but think that a home education has in many respects fewer advantages than that of a public school. Children are thrown almost exclusively into the society of relations, servants, and a few chosen companions, instead of being inured to the rough contact of their fellows; they are utterly ignorant of the world and of the realities of life; and I know perfectly well that at twenty-five I was still an awkward, ignorant child.
(Berlioz was actually six when he was sent to that school, a footnote tells us. These days, of course, many home-schooling parents want their children isolated from the larger society.)


Apologies for the recent, unintended break in posting. I recently completed a big work project, my group is being moved (again - we just moved into our current building in March), and I have another biggish project on my plate for June. Plus, I need a vacation, badly. I've missed blogging a bunch of events that I'd intended to blog; there are upcoming events I'll try to preview briefly over the weekend.