Monday, February 28, 2011

Hell Weekend, Redux

Pulling it all together, not quite an even dozen. I must be missing something.

I can't get to all of this, obviously. Currently likely, Merce Cunningham, Other Minds, Cal Bach, and if I can squeeze it in, SFS.

To be in Boston

Upcoming at the BSO:

Friday, March 25, 7 p.m.
Saturday, March 26, 8 p.m.
Thomas Adès, conductor
Anthony Marwood, violin
Hila Plitmann, soprano
Kate Royal, soprano
Toby Spence, tenor
Christopher Maltman, baritone

ADÈS Violin Concerto, Concentric Paths
SIBELIUS Prelude and Suite No. 1 from The Tempest
ADÈS Scenes from The Tempest

(Concentric Paths is a great, great piece that I've been lucky enough to hear in concert twice, once at Cabrillo, once at SFS. It was written for and has been recorded by Mr. Marwood, who take the solo at the BSO.)

Sunday, February 27, 2011

"Comment," Unedited

I have a "comment" in today's NY Times Arts & Leisure section, about Charles McGrath's mostly-very-good article on Wesley Stace and Stace's new novel. Apparently there are no letters to the editor in A&L these days.

Here's the unedited letter I sent last week, two minutes after I finished the article:

To the Editor:
In his otherwise excellent article on novelist/musician Wesley Stace and his new book ("Musical Whodunit From a Musician Most Literary,", Feb. 20, 2011) Charles McGrath twice uses the term "cowpat" to refer to some English composers of the era from about 1900 to World War II. I object to this: it's a pat term to haul out, lumping together quite different composers while simultaneously dismissing them as worth consideration as individuals. The specific composers he lists, Vaughn Williams, Warlock, and Bantock, had rather different career trajectories and musical styles. Bantock, in particular, was influenced as much by Wagner and other German Romantic music as by English folk songs. The RVW of the symphonies is more musically complex and interesting than his most popular music might indicate.
Mr. McGrath must surely be aware, also, that Warlock and Bantock might be "half-forgotten" in the United States, but that's not the case in Great Britain. I, for one, would love to hear live performances of just about any of Bantock's works, especially his lengthy oratorio, Omar Khhayam, which could easily be staged as an opera.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

March Madness

I'm going to outsource to Patrick the horrifyingly long list of programs I would ideally like to get to in March. He missed a couple of things, including Cal Bach's Buxtehude concert (first weekend of the month)  , the Philharmonia Baroque program, and a few tasty SFEMS concerts.

Then again, there are the goings-on in Los Angeles. I am tentatively planning a trip, which would include the following:

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The VPO and Its Discontents, or Bravo, Joshua!

Back in 2009, Joshua Kosman took a trip to Dresden, where he heard the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra play Sibelius and Shostakovich under Valery Gergiev. He blogged about the trip, and among other things said this:
My God, it was magnificent. There's no way to listen to the VPO without feeling some tinge of moral unease at that unbroken sea of white male faces (some of my fellow critics amused themselves during the applause by scanning for the two or three women that are now scattered among the orchestra's ranks). But it's just as hard to resist the magical sound of this orchestra — the warm, fluid string textures, or the glowing, utterly distinctive brass.
This past week, he went into more detail, this time in the San Francisco Chronicle, about why, exactly, the white-male-makeup of the orchestra is such a problem and why it's worthy of our consideration. The headline has the short version: Vienna Philharmonic must answer for exclusion. Because, of course, until the grudging agreement some years ago to admit women - not that that agreement has made much of a dent - it was an explicit policy of excluding people who were not white and male. (I'm not sure whether anyone has tried to figure out whether you also have to be a Christian. Exclusion of Jewish people would raise a few hackles too.) 

The heart of Joshua's Chron article is this:

Perhaps there's no problem here. For all we know, there may be some musical performances that can only be produced by an orchestra of white men; and it may also be that those performances are so illuminating, so transcendent, that they trump the fundamental American values of equal opportunity and fairness. I'd love to hear someone make that case.
What we can't do, though, is pretend that the VPO is an orchestra just like any other. It's not. It's the living embodiment of an exclusionary philosophy that should, at the very least, give any thoughtful person pause.

I would also love to hear someone attempt to make the case that some musical performances can only be given by an orchestra composed of white men. Because I have not noticed any lack of technical skill or spirit in the playing of any other orchestra I've heard, and they all contain women and non-Euro-Americans.

You might or might not want to read the comments to the Chron article, which run the gamut from thoughtful to eye-rolling. But Joshua has at least temporarily revived his blog to post some material that didn't make it into the Chron article, and you'll definitely want to read that. He goes into some detail about why the racial situation in United States orchestras differs from that of the VPO and other European orchestra. (Briefly, there's plenty of demand in U.S. orchestras, but no supply because so few African American and Hispanic kids play classical music, so that there are almost no African American and Hispanic kids going into and graduating from American conservatories.)

I want to add one thing. Blind auditions are the only way to ensure that an orchestra is hiring based on a performer's playing rather than on the performer's skin color or sex. We know this because when U.S. orchestras started using blind auditions in the 1970s, the number of women with orchestra jobs immediately began to rise. The string sections of quite a few orchestras are around 50% women now, because women are not automatically excluded based on being, you know, female. And given the makeup of other European orchestras, we know that the VPO isn't using blind auditions.

Related: Anthony Tommasini addressed the all-white-men issue in the Times in 1999; Joshua Kosman in the Chron in 1997.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Over at Out West Arts, Brian has posted a review of a production of Mozart's Zaide, which he aptly terms "the one that got away." What interests me most is that the opera he saw, styled as a rescue-from-the-Turks comic opera, differs so greatly from what I saw at the Mostly Mozart Festival in NYC in 2006. That production was directed by none other than Peter Sellars, who modernized it and set it in a third-world sweatshop. Just a small twist, and you get something quite different!

I didn't write a contemporaneous blog posting but I will say in retrospect that the performance was stylishly played by the Concerto Koln, with Louis Langree at the helm, and well-sung as well. Lots of lovely music, indeed, and more convincing to me than to Allan Kozinn. I liked Norman Shankle a great deal when he was an Adler Fellow in SF; his roles included the soon-to-be-dead husband of Lucia in the eponymous opera and one of the smaller parts in the legendary Poppea with LHL. I'm happy to see that he has a good career going now. I also recognized a certain red-headed coloratura soprano and said hello to her during the intermission. Wish we could get her back to S.F. Opera!

That First Weekend in March

As if you didn't already have enough to sort through, Philharmonia Baroque performs on March 4, 5,  6, 8 and 9. The program features mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao and works by Rebel, Handel, Gluck, Stookey, and Rameau.

Yes, one of those things is not like the others. The Stookey work sets poems by none other than the great Frederica von Stade. Flicka was originally scheduled to sing this program but unfortunately withdrew a couple of weeks back. Cao is also a wonderful singer, so you might want to check out the program despite Flicka's absence.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Hell Weekend

I know you don't have enough to do on March 3, 4, 5, and 6, so I offer the following possibilities. Good luck!

I'm exhausted just looking at that list.

New Music, New York

Some great things happening in contemporary music this weekend, one-third of which, more or less, I'm spending in an all-day chorus rehearsal, at least if you are in New York:

Avant Music Festival

I managed to miss blogging this festival, which started on the 11th, and it is probably too late for you to make tonight's performances. However, there's always tomorrow, February 19! Here's what's on:

The Avant-Premiere of Apparitions of The Four Pillars with Their Lowest Additive Primes as limited to the 3rd, 7th, 9th, and 11th New Primes chosen Cyclically, The Toll of Premonition, The Memorial Connector over the Outlying Primal Abyss, and The Mid-Winter Ending by Randy Gibson
Performed by Randy Gibson, William Lang, and The Apparitions String Ensemble (Drew Blumberg: Conductor, Violin; Catherine McCurry: Violin; Mariel Roberts: Cello), with video by Oscar Henriquez.
8 p.m.
The Wild Project
195 East 3rd
New York, NY

More details are here.

Tune In Festival

Again, should have gotten this up earlier, considering that it's been on for several days. Sunday's program looks like a don't-miss (as did tonight's). Bring earplugs: I assume that 70 (seventy!) percussionists in one place make an unholy racket. Details here. H/T Alex for the pointer.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Season Announcement Season: Metropolitan Opera

If you read Parterre Box - c'mon, you do, you know - you've already seen some of the highlights and a lot of the bitching. I'm just going to highlight a few things, including items buried surprisingly deeply in the press release.

Let's start with the new commissions! Yes, the Metropolitan has commissioned a few new works, hooray, in addition to Nico Muhly's upcoming Two Boys and Michael Torke's Senna. Today, they announced the following (quoted directly from the press release):

  • Composer Michael John LaChiusa and librettist Sybille Pearson are collaborating on an original story loosely based on the Scheherazade tale. 
  • Composer Jeanine Tesori and playwright Tony Kushner are collaborating on a project based on an original story by Kushner. 
  • Composer Scott Wheeler is working on an adaptation of Romulus Linney’s play The Sorrows of Frederick, adapted by the playwright before his death in January. 
Note that the Met has commissioned a woman. Yay! The last opera they performed that was written by a woman was very likely Ethel Smythe's Der Wald, back in 1903. Let's hope they also pick up an opera, any opera, by Kaija Saariaho, hmmm? Or perhaps Peggy Granville-Hicks's Nausicaa?

The LaChiusa piece looks like a lot of fun too!

Now, I feel especially pleased to see Scott Wheeler's name up there. He was among my theory lab teachers when I was at Brandeis, and is a nice guy as well as a good composer. I gotta say, The Construction of Boston, which I have on CD, doesn't sound much like what I remember of his works from the 70s. It sounds a lot better and much more individual; it's stylish, with good vocal and text settings, and plenty of humor.  Congratulations, Scott, on this important commission! I am thrilled to see it.

(That's actually not my only one-degree-of-separation connection to the upcoming commissions: I went to high school with Michael Korie, librettist of the Torke commission, and his sister.)

The Met will have seven new productions:
  • Siegfried
  • Gotterdammerung
  • Faust (intriguing concept, great cast, even Jonas Kaufman would not get me in the door for this turkey)
  • Manon
  • Anna Bolena
  • Don Giovanni (great casts, could possibly get me in the door)
  • The Enchanted Island (amusing-sounding and well-cast pastiche)
Netrebko is in both Manon and Anna Bolena

My favorite revivals would be The Makropolos Case, with the winning team of Mattila and Bělohlávek and Satyagraha; also Rodelinda and Khovanshchina. I'm not a Barber of Seville fan, but I am a Peter Mattei fan. Hmm. Ernani looks strongly cast (and it is a terrific opera, or, well, it has a ton of terrific music despite the weak plot). I love the Pelly Fille du Regiment, a charmer if ever there was one, and if I could stand Elisir, Damrau, JDF, and the divine Mariusz would get me there. There's a revival of the Welsh National Opera's production of Hansel und Gretel, the greatest opera Wagner never wrote, with a fine cast that includes Robert Brubaker as the Witch. The brilliant Stefan Margita takes over Loge in Das Rheingold, yay, and you get the fabulous Eva-Marie Westbroek in  Die Walkuere.

Meanwhile, let's slap Robert Lepage around for this:
“Götterdämmerung is different from the other Ring operas because it is about society,” Lepage says. “The more the story progresses, the more it moves away from the realm of the gods to focus on the power and ambition of human beings. Götterdämmerung is about Brünnhilde in society, her journey as a character, and her role as the heroine who must restore balance to the world.”
Uh, did you notice the realm of the humans in Die Walkuere? I sure hope so.

Stupidest Idea I Have Ever Heard

Monopoly with a computer dictating moves, money, etc.

PLEASE. Half the fun is mayhem games where you make up your own rules, usually at random and as you go along.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Dear LA Opera:

Please spare my sanity and get the choose-your-own-seat module of Tessitura already. Please.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Sunday Miscellany

Powerhouse percussionist Steven Schick has been appointed artistic director of the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players. I saw him in Los Angeles in 2007, playing Kaija Saariaho's Six Japanese Gardens; he was tremendous. This is a great thing for SFCMP, and for us, if we get to hear him locally....Speaking of SFCMP, their next concert is on Monday, February 28, 8 p.m., at Herbst Theater in S.F. They are playing works by Ligeti, Du Yun, Ronald Bruce Smith, and Brian Current; Donato Cabrera conducts....LA Opera presents two performances of Britten's Noye's Fludde, at 4 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Saturday, March 19, at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, which is not far from the opera house. Richard Paul Fink, just off a run as Henry Kissinger at the Met, and Kate Lindsey lead the cast; James Conlon conducts. Tickets go on sale tomorrow...Stanford Lively Arts presents the Bay Area premier of Steven Mackey and Rinde Eckert's Slide; eighth blackbird joins them. Slide is just another thing to try to get to on what I am casually calling Hell Weekend: it's on Saturday, March 5, 8 p.m., at Dinkelspiel Auditorium on the Stanford campus....Opposite this and several other don't-miss performances is the Other Minds Festival, which is chock full of new music. It's on March 3, 4, and 5 at the San Francisco Jewish Community Center. Featured composers include Kyle Gann, Louis Andriessen, Agata Zubel, and others.

American Bach Soloists plays a tasty program of Handel and Purcell on February 25, 26, 27, and 28 in Belvedere, Berkeley, SF, and Davis. I'm not linking to their web site because it plays music at you whether you want it to or not; that music also has nothing to do with the upcoming program....More for Hell Weekend: California Bach Society, whose web site is more polite than ABS's, performs music of Buxtehude on March 4, 5, and 6, in San Francisco, Palo Alto, and Berkeley. Paul Flight conducts; I'm sure it will be great....And last but far from least, over the same damn weekend, the bravura contemporary music chorus Volti sings music of Kui Dong, Diesendruck, Hearne, and Lang, in San Francisco, Mill Valley, and Berkeley....If you don't have enough to do the first weekend of March, go see the Merce Cunningham Dance Company on its valedictory tour, at Cal Performances.

Memo to DG

Kirsten Flag-schtadt as if German: no. It's more like Flah-stah. Ask a Norwegian.

Memo to Max Frankel

Calm down and don't take it so literally. It's fiction. And see Alex Ross, too.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Press Releases: Tell Me What You Think

If you get them....

  • Love 'em? Hate 'em?
  • Do you read them?
  • Are they usually too long/too short/just right?
  • What information do you care about in addition to who, what, when, where, ticket prices?
Comments or email would be great.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Dear Link Spammers:

I have now gotten several notices about my blog being "chosen" to be "featured" in some way on web sites that are obvious link farms - web sites created to persuade people to put different kinds of badges and so on on their blogs or web sites. This creates linkage that raises web sites in search engine rankings, or is hoped to do so.

Uh, please note that I work for Google. Asking me to cooperate in gaming search engines is not going to get you very far.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

For Sale

I can't really afford this house....which is extremely spacious....but maybe it comes with a piano?

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Fantasy Opera Elsewhere

Around the blogosphere:
I detect a palpable longing for modernist and unusual operatic repertory. Opera houses and orchestras of the world: take note! The New York Philharmonic sold out three performances of Le Grand Macabre. You, too, can tap into the unmet desires of musical minorities. And yes, I'd settle for concert or semi-staged performances of just about all of the operas we've listed.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Compare and Contrast 20

Nixon in China finally reaches the Metropolitan Opera House. Anthony Tommasini and Martin Bernheimer report rather differently on the effects of amplifying the singers:
  • Tommasini, in the NY TimesAs with all his operas, Mr. Adams insisted that the singers wear body microphones. But even with amplification, the voices did not always emerge from the thick orchestration, with its synthesizer, two pianos, four saxophones and brasses aplenty.
  • Bernheimer, in the Financial TimesAnd Adams' insistence on (over)amplifying the voices creates grotesque distortion.....[paragraphs later] The cast looked terrific, acted with ardour and, thanks to the microphones, sounded pretty awful.
Those comments are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and I'd suggest reading both reviews carefully. While Tommasini sounds like more of a fan of the opera than Bernheimer, read together the reviews aren't very far apart at all in assessing the particular weaknesses of the score. Their assessments of the singers are consistent. Tommasini is allowed a considerably larger word count than Bernheimer, who of necessity is terser and can't wax eloquent on what he does like. Importantly, he takes the space needed to note his own partial reassessment of Nixon.

I myself am curious about where each was sitting and what effect that might have had on the effects of the amplification. In the orchestra, of course, but where?

Readers of this blog know that I find it disappointing - okay, sometimes maddening - that Adams insists on the use of microphones. He has said himself that he doesn't care for typical operatic singing style, but he doesn't seem to get that amplifying the singers makes it worse for the audience and has a flattening and distancing effect on what the audience hears. I wish he would drop this and work differently with the singers.

Hot Air Music Festival This Sunday

Yes, opposite the Super Bowl! Wouldn't you rather hear some great contemporary and new music? For free? With lower blood pressure, too!

Hot Air is at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, 50 Oak St. at Van Ness Avenue in Civic Center. Directions are here.

Again, the lineup!

1:00pm             Reception, meet-and-greet with performers and festival organizers Matthew Cmiel and Kelsey Walsh in Room 512
1:45                  Triumphant Digitally Synthesized Fanfare To Hot Air Music Festival by Red Bennett
2:00                  Michael Gordon’s Industry, Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Violin and Percussion and Osvaldo Golijov’s Dreams and Prayers of Isaac the Blind in the Recital Hall
3:00                  Paul Bergel’s Winchester House of Mystery Suite and George Crumb’s Vox Balaenae in the Recital Hall
3:30                  Reception, meet-and-greet with performers, including the Mobius Trio and the Delphi Piano Trio (pending confirmation) in Room 512
4:00                  Music by Matthew Cmiel, John Russell, Derrick Spiva, Jr. and Christopher Porter in the Recital Hall
5:00                  Music by Louis Cruz, Pantawit Kiangsiri, Pierre Jalbert and David Gottlieb in the Concert Hall
                        Music by Anthony Porter, Luciano Chessa, Harry Whitney and Alden Jenks in the Recital Hall
6:00                  Music by Devon Farney and Stephen Hartke in the Concert Hall
                        Music by Clayton Moser, Aaron Pike and David Lang’s Little Match Girl Passion in the Recital Hall
7:00                  Louis Andriessen’s Worker’s Union and Steve Reich’s Six Pianos in the Concert Hall
8:00                  Samuel Adams’ Tension Study No.1, Arvo Paert’s Spiegel im Spiegel and Dan Becker’s Gridlock in the Concert Hall
9:00                  Kajia Saariaho’s Pres and John Adams’ The Dharma at Big Sur in the Concerto Hall

There will be a TV available for watching the Super Bowl, too. 

Fantasy Opera, Season 3

Assuming I'm a billionaire, of course.

  • Chin, Alice in Wonderland
  • Mussorgsky, Khovanshchina
  • Wagner, Rienzi
  • Rossini, Guillaume Tell
  • RVW, Sir John in Love
  • Nicolai, The Merry Wives of Windsor
  • Verdi, Aroldo
  • Auber, Manon Lescaut
  • Maw, Sophie's Choice
  • Marschner, Der Varmpyr
  • Blomdahl, Aniara (you can all look it up - I have the recording!)
  • Rimsky, The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronia
  • Smyth, The Wreckers
  • Handel, Orlando
  • Pfitzner, Palestrina

Yeah, maybe all three Falstaff treatments belong in the same season. And maybe I should schedule a Shakespeare season or the Trojan Wars season.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Personal to the NYPO's Web Editors

Pssst: the headline refers to a composer named "Nielson," the body text to "Nielsen." The body text is correct. I have a screen shot, too.

Fantasy Opera, Season 2

Why not?
  • Nielsen, Maskerade
  • Verdi, Il Corsaro
  • Carter, What's Next?
  • Bellini, La Sonnambula
  • Sessions, Montezuma
  • Saariaho, L'Amour de Loin (I cannot believe I left this out of season 1!)
  • Floyd, Susannah
  • Janaceck, The Excursions of Mr. Broucek
  • Meyerbeer, Robert le Diable
  • Double bill: Busoni, Turandot (I am not making this up); Bartok, A kékszakállú herceg vára
  • Leoncavallo, La Boheme
  • Handel, Tamerlano
  • Faure, Penelope
  • Berlioz, La Damnation de Faust
  • Boito, Mefistofele

If I Were a Rich Geek

Okay, I'm going to stop complaining - well, mostly - about opera seasons that don't match my admittedly peculiar, out-of-the-mainstream, interests, because I'm simply at the point where I've seen most of the Big Standards and I'm mostly interested in works I haven't seen, whether old or new. No opera company in the world is going to program the season I really want to see.

If I had managed to make a mint in my 14 years as a technical writer (someone I saw recently jumped to the conclusion that "works at Google" = rich, which is not at all the case, not if you started long after the IPO), I would so have an opera company. It's an extremely expensive proposition, even if you pay everyone a salary, say, $50,000/year. You won't get big stars to sing for that kind of money, though I expect that you could put together a good orchestra of freelancers and recent conservatory grads for a steady salary.

That said, if I were a rich geek, here's the opera season of my dreams:

  • Ades, The Tempest
  • Hoiby, The Tempest
  • Birtwistle, The Minotaur (or one of his other operas)
  • Reimann, Lear (which I did not see in SF in the 1980s)
  • Britten - anything except Billy Budd
  • Janacek, From the House of the Dead
  • Berlioz, Les Troyens (would settle for Beatrice or Damnation)
  • Weinberger, Schwanda the Bagpiper
  • Strauss, Die Frau ohne Schatten
  • Verdi, Falstaff (would settle for Les Vepres Sicilienne, the only middle or late Verdi I've never seen)
  • Handel, any of the ones I haven't seen; there are plenty!
  • Zimmerman, Die Soldaten
  • Schreker, anything, even Gezeichneten, which I've seen
  • Korngold, Die Katrin or Der Wunder des Heliane, because I have seen the Decker production of Die tote Stadt that's been making the rounds. There are even singers around who know Heliane!
  • Monteverdi, Il ritorno d'Ulysse in Patria
Believe me, I know that it's impossible. Just putting on Frau and Troyens could bankrupt a company! Even my personal company of salaried everyone would have a tough time with learning and rehearsing that repertory, whiich takes in just about every style imaginable.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Definitely Falling

No sooner did I post my responses to Ivan Katz's article on the Met and San Francisco Opera than a press releases about SFO's audited financial statements appeared in my inbox. Here are the important points, with the ellipses denoting deleted paragraphs:
San Francisco Opera Association President George Hume today announced the Company concluded Fiscal Year 2009-10 (FY 10) with a deficit of $1,553,608 on an annual operating budget of $65,251,246..... 
San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley, the San Francisco Opera Board of Directors and the Company’s executive administration provided strong and vigilant fiscal leadership in this time of economic challenges resulting in an overall decrease of 3.6% in operating expenses. Despite these very substantial savings, the deficit reflects a decline in the Company’s operating revenue from $34,043,999 in FY 09 to $27,113,297 in FY 10, with income from ticket sales for the main season repertory falling from more than $24,000,000 in FY 09 to $18,656,120 in FY 10. Contributions to the annual fund were $36,334,341 from 9,000 generous donors....

As the national economy continues to plunge the arts into turmoil, the Opera’s executive staff and board are taking significant and meaningful steps to address the Company’s operational structure and financial obligations. The core issues include the modernization of the War Memorial Opera House’s antiquated backstage production capabilities; the consolidation of the Company’s disparate administrative, rehearsal, costume and scenic functions onto the War Memorial campus; a re-examination of the amount of opera repertory to be presented each season; a reorganization of the Company’s operating business model and its crippling fixed costs that is financially out of balance with the new economic realities; and the necessity to establish a more meaningful endowment that is four times the size of the Company’s operating budget.
What we can expect in the future: a shorter season, a switch to a stagione system from the current repertory system, an emphasis on modular sets and projections, and an attempt to reduce what union members get paid (that'll be the chorus, orchestra, stage crew, costumers, etc.). It is not going to be pretty, and I wonder what will happen to the company and its artistic standards.

The Need to Understand

Some of you know that in one of my other lives, I'm a martial artist. I started Dan Zan Ryu jujitsu in 1982 and I hold the rank of nidan (second degree black belt) in the style. A little over a year ago, I started Chen style Tai Chi: I need a style I can do in old age, and DZR is hard on the body, I've always wanted to study Tai Chi, and I've wanted to take classes with Sifu Alex Feng for a good long time.

When I started jujitsu, I was what you might call a talky student. Now, the jujitsu organization I've been in for all these years is talky; American martial arts instructors generally talk too much. In a traditional Japanese dojo - and you can see this in many or most Aikido dojos - there's not much talk. The sensei demonstrates an art, everybody does it or tries to do it. And tries and tries and tries. I'm not sure when students get to ask questions; the emphasis is very much on learning by observing and doing.

Anyway, I was a big talker. I asked a lot of questions when I was on the student end, I talked a lot when I was teaching. (In the school where I started, after you were okay'd on a set of techniques, you were given assignments to teach them to lower-ranking students, even when you were both beginners.)

This went on for a pretty long time. At some point in my practice, I heard the late, and deeply lamented, Professor Pat Browne say "Don't listen to what we say, watch what we do, because we'll lie to you and we won't even know it." This eventually sank in, to the point where my most frequent question became "Could I see that again?" I've asked that question at conventions, classes, and workshops with all ranks and with only black belts on the mat. I figure if I'm not sure what the instructor is doing, a bunch of other people also want to see it again.

I also spent a lot of time - a LOT of time - teaching at a school where the head instructor had great arts but wasn't much of a talker. I tried to STFU in part because it seemed only fair and only polite. This was someone I could talk rings around any day of the week, and because she was the school head, it would not have been right.

So when I started Tai Chi, I took my strong, silent persona with me. I'm a baby beginner, for one thing, even after a year, even though I am an experienced martial artist. But mostly I just wanted to learn by doing, and that means repetition. Do the set. Do the set again. Do it again. Repeat repeat repeat. When I'm learning a new movement in the form, I will ask to see it again, often several times, and occasionally I will ask Sifu Alex for clarification on something. That is a once every two or three weeks occurrence, because mostly I just watch him as closely as I can.

Repetition is the key. You learn martial arts with your body, not your head - believe me, I have seen people who were even more in their heads than I ever was, and who are fairly advanced students. It's just a fact of life that you have to get out of your own head so that you can feel what's going on in your own body and so that you can connect with others. Connection is important in both DZR and Tai Chi; in DZR you can do serious damage to your workout partners if you can't tell what's going on with them physically. For that matter, you can do serious damage to yourself by not knowing what's going on in your body, by not being able to anticipate without thought the effects of a particular choice.

There's a student in the school where I'm studying who has learned a few more elements of the set than I have. He likes to ask questions. Sometimes they're general questions, sometimes they're quite specific. But once he asks a question, there tends to be a discussion, with the instructor answering, more questions, and so on. A conversation. I'm usually standing thinking "In the time we're talking about this, I could do the set twice over, and that would be more helpful to me than this chatter."

He said something last night about needing to do this because his brain tells his body what to do. At some point, I might try to catch him after class and say something about my own experiences as a martial artist. I can't recall whether he's one of the people who knows about my past (Sifu Alex does...he trained in DZR for many years and we share a lineage). He hasn't yet learned that in the martial arts, doing precedes understanding. You do, and eventually you understand. Your body trains your brain, not the other way around.

The Sky Probably IS Falling

Over at the HuffPost, Ivan Katz has some things to say about the Met HD broadcasts and about San Francisco Opera. He starts out sounding as if he's going one way, then seems to go another. I'm not a regular reader of his column; my previous experience of it was his blast at the amount of money LA Opera lost on the Freyer Ring.

Yes, they did blow through a lot of money (note the $14 million bond the company issued to cover their debts); yes, there should have been more constraints put on Freyer, yes, they made scheduling mistakes. However, critics did not "largely detest it." I read strongly positive reviews from Mark Swed, Tim Mangen, Anne Midgette, and Brian at OutWestArts. I wrote one myself, because the one opera I got to was among the most engaging and interesting productions I've ever seen. Note that Katz didn't see any of the production himself, so he's relying on other, un-linked-to critics, and maybe the production photos.

But the current column goes into some areas I have thought about, and I have a few things to say about them. Briefly, you should take just about everything he says with a big grain of salt.

The first Met HD broadcast was in January, 2007, just about four years ago, meaning the planning was underway a year or two before that. Katz's claim that the Met has "reinvented itself on the fly" as a response to the economic downturn is not supportable; the planning started in 2005 or 2006, when a few people were very worried but well before the crises of 2008.

He speculates that the gargantuan Zeffirelli productions are being retired because of how they would look in HD broadcasts. Can he tie the retirements to any actual HD broadcasts? The Zef Traviata is gone, but there's no broadcast this year of the well-received new Decker production. The Boheme and Turandot productions: still around, but they're not being broadcast and they have already been in one HD broadcast each. I doubt they are going anywhere. [Updated following information kindly provided by a commenter.]

He's skeptical that the Met HD broadcasts are a money-making proposition. Well, let's do the math.

There are something like 1,500 theaters showing the broadcasts. Let's assume, conservatively, that each seats 100 people. I believe that number is probably closer to 200 or 250, but whatever. We're talking about a minimum of 150,000 available seats per broadcast. Friends who attend in various locations report sellouts and overflow; my local multiplex regularly opens a second theater for these broadcasts.

Tickets are priced around US$20. That's $3 million in ticket sales if 100 seats  are sold at 1500 venues. (Again, I believe that is conservative.) The Met splits the take 50/50 with the theaters, according to a reliable source I read, possibly Anne Midgette or possible a Times writer. There are 12 broadcasts this season, so we're talking about $36 million revenue, with $18 million to the Met.

I don't know what the production costs are for the broadcasts, but I see no way that the Met is not making a profit on the broadcasts. The equipment is paid for or is booked as a long-term capital cost. They're paying for camera crews and director and...the item I know nothing about....transmission costs. Still. I bet they're making money.

He speculates that all of this could change if the unions want a bigger slice of the pie. I do not think the unions will get their backs up about this, given the economy and the fact that the union contracts undoubtedly were already renegotiated to allow for these broadcasts.

He speculates that they want or have a monopoly on opera broadcasts. They're already failed at this; European houses are started to get some broadcasts via a different system. My local theater, the Grand Lake, has started carrying some of those.

Lastly, his view of David Gockley? Well, I've read the same Notes from the General Director that he has. I think Gockley might be telling the truth AND might be trying to 1) soften up the unions 2) get people alarmed.

I mean, if 12 families are producing 50% of donations, that is a problem. (Is it true? I should take a look at the donor pages that are published in every program and see if it could be. For one thing, what, exactly, does "12 families" mean? Is one of those families named "Hewlett"? In that case, there could be multiple revenue streams coming in, from the William & Flora Hewlett Foundation and from sundry family members. So "one family" might mean five or ten different donors.

 Katz talks about desirable efficiency; I see a revenue stream that could disappear all too fast, and that somehow isn't being expanded to the Bay Area's New Rich.

Who do I mean by that? If you look at the donor lists, you'll see a few names missing: Ellison, McNeary, Brin, Page, Schmidt*....somehow, the current generation of Silicon Valley hasn't yet been roped in. One reason is that some of those folks prefer social justice and medical philanthropy to arts philanthropy, and perhaps that'll change over time.

But one of them is just interested in building boats and getting concessions from the City of San Francisco. I wouldn't expect him to be ponying up.

So there you have my thoughts. Is the sky falling? Well, it just might be. Gockley's various notes indicate a company with both current problems and long-term structural issues. I don't think Ivan Katz's analysis is at all persuasive. Take a look at the notes yourself, if you have San Francisco Opera programs around, and judge for yourself.

*The fine print: yes, I do work for Sergey, Larry, and Eric. If I had any influence with them, I'd use it.

More on Babbitt

More on the late composer: