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.