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.