Thursday, March 31, 2011

Apropos of the BSO and Levine...

....I just trawled through my saved email and I cannot find the BSO's 2011-12 season announcement.

So...they haven't announced yet. The announcement for 2010-11 was dated April, 2010, so I'm expecting the 2011-12 announcement to turn up any day. It's still not likely that much reordering or rearranging has been done in the past few weeks; it's too late for that.

No, Long Beach Opera's Production was Not the First Akhnaten on the West Coast

Everyone in Southern California seems to think that Long Beach Opera's Akhnaten was the first on the West Coast. It ain't so. Oakland Opera Theater performed Akhnaten in 2004, with countertenor Paul Flight in the title role.
  • Joshua Kosman's Chronicle review is here
  • Photos are here on Paul Flight's web site.
Darryl Taylor did a great job of stepping in vocally for Jochen Kowalski when the latter developed a cold, but I'm willing to bet that Paul Flight would have acted the role as well as sung it. Presumably LBO was not aware that there was a singer in state who'd done the part before.

Lee Hoiby

American composer Lee Hoiby died over the weekend. He had a distinguished and successful career and is best known for his songs and operas, which included Summer and Smoke. Here's evidence that Ades's is not the only worthwhile operatic version of The Tempest:

Robert Tear

The Welsh tenor Robert Tear died a few days ago at 71, of cancer. I never heard him live, but he's on any number of opera and choral recordings, and I have a few of those in my collection; a fine singer who will be sorely missed.

Here he is with baritone Benjamin Luxon in an excerpt rather lighter than what others have been posting; there's plenty more of him on YouTube:

Britten and Glass in LA

My brief reviews of The Turn of the Screw and Akhnaten are up at SFCV, in Music News. I hope to have more comments about both on this blog, as well as a report about the Monday Evening Concert of music by the odd couple of Rolf Riehm and Heinrich Schuetz. Next week's News column will have a report on the LAPO's tribute to the late Ernest Fleischmann, featuring music of Boulez, Donatoni, Salonen, and Stravinsky.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What's the BSO to Do Now?

I started thinking about the Boston Symphony Orchestra's situation today, on the long drive back from Los Angeles. The orchestra is in a tough spot right now: music director James Levine has officially resigned from that post, effective September 1, 2011. His resignation took place after the 2011-12 season had been planned and announced. The BSO would ideally have had a search committee in place months or a year ago, given Levine's health problems over the last couple of years, but their announcement said that they were forming such a committee "immediately." Well, we have no way to know whether their executives and board were putting out quiet feelers about who might be available, of course.

Let's stipulate a few things:
  • Programs in the upcoming season that are being led by guests conductors are not in trouble.
  • Programs that Levine is scheduled to conduct need covers to be in place if they aren't already, given the variability of his health. The BSO's associate or assistant conductors can cover some, but subscribers expecting Levine will want conductors of stature for most of those programs.
  • There are limits to how much program-shuffling can be done to accommodate changes of conductor. The soloists have all been hired, and there are limits to their flexibility. "Hi, Manny - never mind that Emperor you were going to play; could you do Magnus Lindberg's Second instead?" will get you only so far. (That is not a real example, though the works and the pianist are all genuine.)
  • It's highly unlikely that the BSO can get a new music director in place by September 1, given the short time and the long-term commitments of most reasonable candidates to succeed Levine. An interim/acting conductor with a one-year appointment, maybe.
Let's take a look at who might just be able to accept such a one-year appointment. Not Charles Dutoit, who  already has a short-term contract with Philadelphia before Yannick Nezhet-Seguin takes over. Not Michael Tilson Thomas, who is about to enter the most exciting SFS season in years. (Would he want to succeed Levine? Hmm.) Not Alan Gilbert, entering his third season at the NYPO. Not Donald Runnicles, who is fully booked, with one opera company and one orchestra, plus extensive guesting. Probably not Esa-Pekka Salonen, with an orchestra in London and the desire to compose more. Christoph von Dohnanyi? Daniel Barenboim? Raphael Fruhbeck de Burgos, who has had a relationship with the BSO for a good long time?

I have one candidate who is something of an outlier, but what an interesting year or two it could be with him at the helm. He has musical interests in common with Levine, he has previous experience running an American orchestra, and he's one of the world's greatest all-around musicians.

Yes, that's right. I mean Pierre Boulez. It's true that he is 85, but I saw him conducting last night and I'm seriously wondering if he'll be around as long as his good friend Elliott Carter. He looks a lot less frail than Levine does these days and, as you might expect, totally nailed Sur Incises. Draft Boulez, I say!

Update: Definitely read Evan Tucker's comprehensive review of candidates to succeed Levine and his views on the problems with a short-term appointment.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Music & Libretto

The Unrepentant Pelleasite quotes Harold Schoenberg thusly:
Operas don't remain in the repertory because they have great librettos. They remain because the music is great.
Just for fun, a few operas with great music that somehow haven't quite become repertory staples because of their librettos:

  • Ernani Lots of great, dark-tinted, Don Carlos-like music, but an unbelievable, confusing, poorly-structured libretto that ends with the hero committing suicide. What?
  • La Forza del Destino has not exactly dropped from the repertory, but has been replaced, more or less, by Don Carlo. Why? Because modern people mostly don't buy the whole fate thing, plus the careening plot and Preziosilla are both a little hard to take.
  • La Fanciulla del West has absolutely glorious through-composed music....and the libretto, which isn't by Puccini's usual librettists, is a dog. It's undramatic, it has no real climax, the ending is mild....woof! I predict that after the round of Voigt-inspired revivals it'll go back into hiding for another 15 or 20 years.
  • Pelleas et Melisande. The exquisite music just isn't enough to conquer the obscure-to-most, allusive, undramatic libretto. It'll never be repertory standard.

Buff? Supernumeraries Wanted for SFO RIng

The press release is informative about such things as the rehearsal periods for Die Walkuere and Goetterdaemmerung:



Application Deadline For Das Rheingold Child Supers March 28;
Die Walküre Götterdämmerung Male Supers Casting Call April 13

San Francisco, March 21, 2011—San Francisco Opera announces a public casting call seeking children and physically fit men to appear in the Company’s highly anticipated Summer 2011 presentation of Richard Wagner’s epic Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung).  Ethnically diverse children ages 6–14 are needed as supernumeraries in Das Rheingold and physically fit men are needed as supernumeraries in Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung.  Supernumeraries, also known as supers, act as extras (in costume with full make-up) on the stage in non-speaking, non-singing roles.  Supers work alongside the many talented and acclaimed artists who bring San Francisco Opera productions to life on the stage of the historic War Memorial Opera House.

Child Supernumeraries / Das Rheingold – Applications due March 28
Forty ethnically diverse children—boys and girls between the ages of 6 and 14—are needed as supernumeraries in Das Rheingold.  Child supernumeraries are paid minimum wage for each hour they are in attendance at rehearsals and performances.

  • Flexible schedule – planned rehearsals change frequently
  • Acting/performing arts experience preferred but not required
  • Children under age 18 require a work permit issued by the Department of Labor and a Coogan Trust account in their name

Time Commitment:
  • If selected, the child may be called to any rehearsal between April 12 and June 14 and for afternoon/evening rehearsals on May 21, May 22, June 3, June 4 and June 10
  • Performances:  June 14, 21, 28, 2011

If you and your child are interested, please email a photo along with the child’s approximate
height, chest and waist measurements to by March 28, 2011. For more information, call 415-565-6481. Super roles are limited and are cast at the discretion of the costume department.

Male Supernumeraries / Die Walküre & Götterdämmerung – Public Casting Call April 13, 7 p.m.
Physically fit men are needed as supernumeraries in Die Walküre and Götterdämmerung. This is a non-speaking, non-singing, non-paid volunteer role.  

  • Male adult
  • Physically fit
  • Flexible schedule
  • Acting/performing arts experience preferred but not required

Time Commitment:
  • If selected, you will be required to attend a minimum of eleven Götterdämmerung rehearsals from May 18 through June 2 and five Die Walkürerehearsals from June 7 through June 11.  Additional rehearsals may also be called between April 14 and June 5 for Götterdämmerung and between April 14 and June 15 for Die Walküre
  • Götterdämmerung performances:  June 5, 19, 26 & July 3, 2011
  • Die Walküre performances:  June 15, 22, 29, 2011

April 13 Public Casting Call
A public casting call will take place at 7:00 p.m. on Wednesday, April 13, 2011 at Zellerbach B Rehearsal Hall (located at the corner of Hayes and Franklin Streets in San Francisco).  To reserve a place in the casting call, members of the public interested in auditioning should call (415) 565-3200 and leave name and phone number, or send an email to Calls/emails will not be returned unless there is a change to the audition schedule. Super roles are limited and are cast at the discretion of the stage director.

About San Francisco Opera’s Der Ring des Nibelungen
One of the greatest works ever conceived for the operatic stage, Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) is presented in three complete cycles this summer (June 14–19, June 21–26, and June 28–July 3) in addition to stand-alone performances of Siegfried (May 29) and Götterdämmerung (June 5).  The four operas in this new production by San Francisco Opera artistic adviser and internationally celebrated director Francesca Zambello—Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung—are presented for the first time as a complete cycle.
 Maestro Donald Runnicles, one of the world’s most acclaimed Wagner conductors and former San Francisco Opera music director, will lead the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus in these performances that feature an internationally renowned cast featuring some of the greatest Wagnerian singers of our time.  Zambello and set designer Michael Yeargan use imagery from various eras of American history to illuminate Wagner’s legend in which human virtue and nature’s sanctuary fall prey to greed and lust.  San Francisco Opera has long been regarded as one of the world’s leading companies to present the entireRing cycle, with past acclaimed presentations at the War Memorial Opera House in 1935, 1936 (omitting Siegfried), 1972, 1985, 1990 and 1999.

On the Advice of His Doctors...

...and in what must be the least surprising cast-change advisory coming from the Met, James Levine is turning over all performances of Il Trovatore to Marco Armiliato and, more surprisingly, he is giving up the March 30 and April 2 performances of Das Rheingold, which  Fabio Luisi will conduct.

Levine is still scheduled to take all performances of Wozzeck and Die Walkuere, as well as a pair of concerts by the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Any bets on how many he'll actually conduct?

Update (10:47 a.m.): Read La Cieca's take on this.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Annals of Proofreading and Stupidity

The NY Times's writers and editors have a problem distinguishing between "libertarian" and "liberal." Found on page two of the obituary for Warren Christopher:
After earning degrees at U.S.C. and Stanford’s law school, Mr. Christopher won a clerkship with the libertarian Supreme Court justice William O. Douglas, during which he helped draft book chapters.
Quoth Brad DeLong: Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Performing Surgery

My girlfriend was a little surprised this morning to hear me muttering something about performing surgery on my chorus music. Then she came into the kitchen, where I was at the table surrounded by staff paper, three different pens, a pencil, a ruler, my music, and a pair of scissors. "Oh! You really are performing surgery."

Indeed I was. My chorus gets its music from a variety of sources: publishers, photocopies of out-of-copyright editions, photocopies of unpublished, handwritten transcriptions (that Zelenka work a couple of years back!), and the Choral Public Domain Library. There can be issues in any of these that make reading the music a little tough for the chorister, especially the chorister with bad eyes and progressive lenses:
  • Poor print quality
  • Placement of the words
  • Placement of the musical lines
The first is presumably self-explanatory. I'll just say that the copies we have of the 19th c. Mendelssohn edition's version of "Richte mich, Gott" are weirdly unfocussed, and I'm certain that it's the original engraving that is at fault. (The look of the type and text would be familiar to anyone who has seen any 19th or early 20th c. edition of older music.)

Well, wait. Now that I look more closely, the problem might be that the original was reduced from a large-format page so that it could be photocopied onto 8 x 11 paper. This work is in eight parts, meaning that with two sets of staves of eight parts each, there are 16 lines of music on the page. Out of these, I have to follow the Alto II part. I did something I rarely do with choral music: I used a highlighter to mark the correct line of music. I didn't draw the highlighter across the page, mind you; I just marked the the G clef in each set of staves, at the start of the line. This draws my eye sufficiently.

As it happens, this edition also demonstrates the second bullet point: placement of the words. The editors of this edition chose to print the music only under the first soprano, first alto, first tenor, and first bass lines. Seconds, you're out of luck - you have to take in the words in an unaccustomed location, above the staff where your music is written, rather than below.

If you're thinking that I could write in the words.....well, I tried, with a pencil. I can't produce print small enough to fit. Remember, this edition is already reduced in size.

My solution to this problem? I got the CPDL version of the motet.

The CPLD had two editions; one of them worked a lot better than the other and that's the one I took. This edition has four lines of music to each of the Mendelssohn Edition's five, so the print is larger and much easier to read. Also, it was surely set using a music notation program; I printed it from a PDF.

The edition exhibits the third issue, of musical placement. To make the music fit on sets of four staves rather than eight, S I & II, A I & II, etc. are on the same staff. Mostly this works fine; there is no rhythmic variation between the first and second alto parts, so one set of words works fine.

In a couple of places, though, the parts cross over each other, with the second alto line moving higher than the first alto line. Once again, you have to distinguish your part from an unfamiliar location, above the nominally higher line and with the stems running in the "wrong" direction to indicate the part correctly. I solved this problem by carefully running a highlighter over my lines.

For two works though, I had to transcribe a few measures by hand, even though they are both nicely engraved, one in a CPLD edition and one printed by a publisher. Lemme tell you, this really makes me appreciate what professional copyists did in the days before Finale and Sibelius, meaning, for about 99% of music history. I don't have a Rapidograph or even a fine-line pen handy, so I used the finest-point ball point pen I could locate. 

Here are the two problems I had to solve: 

In Mendelssohn's "Denn Er hat seinen Engeln befohlen," the Alto I and II parts are on the same staff, and for a couple of measures they were so close to each other that the stems confused me. For these measures, I wrote out the Alto II part with the stems going up instead of down, omitting the Alto I part entirely. I was able to fit in the words. The musical line, when disentangled from its companion, proved to be quite simple, but I'm willing to bet I'm not the only singer who had difficulty making it come out right because the notation made it hard to see the line.

In Rheinberger's Stabat Mater, there was exactly one measure driving me crazy, and, from the sound of things, driving everyone else in the chorus crazy. It's because the edition we have is dual-language, with both Latin and English texts, and the musical rhythm has to accommodate both. Occasionally, this means breaking up a note into two shorter notes or slurring together two notes that are for two syllables in the Latin but only one syllable in English.

In this particular measure, the rhythm quarter note, dotted-eighth + sixteenth, dotted quarter + eighth, gets rewritten to dotted-eighth + sixteenth, dotted-eighth + sixteenth, dotted quarter + eighth. This wouldn't be so bad if the quarter note of the Latin didn't share a note-head with the first dotted eighth and if it didn't mean that there's a sixteenth note at the end of the first beat that you just don't sing if you're doing the Latin version. This also means that the first beat of the measure looks like it's either a dotted quarter note or a dotted eighth. Contradictory! So you have to sort out this visual distraction on the fly, and even after singing it many, many times, it's still confusing some people.

But not me, not any more. This is the second place where I performed surgery. I pasted one measure of rewrite with the correct original rhythms and the Latin text underlay, and now all is joy.

Now, all of this might be easier to do if, say, I had a musical notation program around. I am not going to get Sibelius or Finale, which are each around $600. I'm guessing that Finale Notepad, which costs about as much as a movie ticket, might be adequate for my annual scribbling and the occasional musical example for this blog. Is that correct? Are there inexpensive or shareware music notation programs that would work for me?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Starbucks Buying Peet's Coffee?

Starbucks Coffee is rumored to be in talks to buy Peet's Coffee.

I've already emailed Peet's to tell them that they will lose my business forever if they sell, despite my affection for their Assam Golden Tips tea and Garuda blend coffee. (You can email them too.)

That said, if they sell out, there are plenty of local alternatives.

  • Uncommon Grounds
  • Thanksgiving Coffee Company
  • Blue Bottle
  • Ritual Roasters
  • Jeremiah's Coffee
  • Berkeley Bowl
  • Farmer Joe's

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Chora Nova Sings Mendelssohn and Rheinberger

My chorus is performing a gorgeous concert of mid-19th century choral music, by Felix Mendelssohn and Josef Rheinberger, this Saturday. I hope you can come!

Saturday, March 19, 2011
8 p.m.

First Congregational Church of Berkeley
Dana between Channing & Durant


Includes the Rheinberger Stabat Mater, Die Nacht, and four motets; Mendelssohn's Wie der Hirsch schreit, O for the Wings of a Dove, and other works by both composers.


Over at San Francisco Classical Voice, Michael Zwiebach's article "The Top Ten Underrated Composers," a response to Anthony Tommasini's top ten composers project, has generated a nice comment thread. Take a look!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Hoisted from the Comments: Amplification

A comment on my last posting from the user known as The Unrepentent Pelleastrian deserves its own discuss:
No other issue in opera gets me more worked up than whether or not to use some type of amplification.
I enthusiastically APPROVE of it. As a matter of fact nothing would make me happier than to see opera managers focus primarily on the aural experience over the dramatic. Today things are just getting out of hand with all the focus on the visual (titles, scenery, Mr. Regie whatever, 3-D. 
I have also heard people complain that the voices/music often sounded like a 'distant murmur' depending on where they sat.... Now that is frustrating. 
I don't know why but my hunch is that Wagner would have embraced amplification as well.  
(Ah, nothing like hearing the raspy Mime on good volume or Siegfried pound that anvil with some good amps) 
Fasolt, Fafner, Erda, Donner.. .
Hindemith's Cardillac, Verdi's Falstaff, Pfitzner's Palestrina, Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, Messiaen's Saint Francis of Assisi, Smetana's The Bartered Bride, Lehar's The Merry Widow... the list goes on.  
No seriously, I think we need to understand what electro-acoustic sound enhancement systems can offer before we dismiss them. 

First, you can try to figure out for yourself how much of the above is serious. I'm not going to respond to every point. I will respond to a few, though.

1. "Wagner would have...." with just about anything coming where I've put ellipses is a straw man. We just don't know and it's not useful to try to guess unless it's something he specifically wrote about.

2. I have no idea what that list of operas is about.

3. "I think we need to understand what electro-acoustic sound enhancement system can offer before we dismiss them."

Um. We know what they can do because we've heard examples of this for the last 85 years.

You can hear the effect of amplification on singing in both the popular realm, since everybody has been amplified since the mid-1920s or early 1930s, and in opera. 

Before amplification, there was one way to sing and (with some national differences) all singers, regardless of what they sang, learned to sing in pretty much the same way. But the advent of amplification created a split. Microphone singers don't need to project to the back of the hall; they don't need to enunciate in quite the same way, they don't need the same support. They can whisper, croon, have a tiny voice, and still be heard.

You can hear the effects of amplification in opera by simply attending any vocal work by John Adams. Vocal perspective goes right out the door; hall resonance is eliminated as a factor; the composer doesn't need to pay as much attention to his orchestration; the musical landscape is flattened. It sounds a lot worse than naturally sung opera.

Sid Chen, aka The Standing Room, is classically trained. A few years back, he did some vocal work that was amplified and mentioned in passing on his blog that he had to unlearn an awful lot to be successful.

Amplification in opera: a bad, bad idea.

No Amplification

San Francisco Symphony tells me that Susannah Biller and Maya Lahyani were not amplified in last week's performances of the overture and complete incidental music from A Midsummer Night's Dream. I've updated my posting on the concert to so indicate and am stating it here for completeness. What it means is that Susannah Biller just didn't sound very good, alas. She was fine in The Makropoulos Case in November, so I have no idea what's going on here.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

More on M/M

Over at A Beast in a Jungle, John Marcher is unhappy with last night's performance of the incidental music from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Among other things he says this:
After the intermission came the the complete A Midsummer Night's Dream. Most of us know only parts of this work- the Overture and the Wedding March, and to hear the entire thing is a rarity. I, for one, now know why. It's an incredibly tedious piece. Despite the game efforts of the orchestra, especially the flutes of Tim Day and Linda Lukas, and a truly outstanding turn by Itay Tiran as the narrator, the piece is just didn't work for me in a concert setting. The music starts and then suddenly stops, as the narrator constantly interjects between passages that increasingly seems like merely repetitve snippets which grow shorter as the works gets longer. 
I don't think the incidental music is at all tedious; I've got two recordings of most or all of the incidental music (Davis, from the 70s; Mackerras rather more recently with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment) and I think it is delightful. Last night, though, was neither fish nor fowl: the music wasn't played all the way through without interruption, but neither did we hear it in context.

He also mentions that Masur used minimal gestures. He's right about that; Masur's upper arms barely moved, he didn't use a baton, and there was almost  no hand-waving. I'm not sure how well-known it is that Masur was seriously injured in a 1972 car accident that killed his second wife. I wonder if some of his apparent frailty and minimal gesturing is the result of those injuries.

Masur's Mendelssohn

And thus to last night's Mendelssohn program at San Francisco Symphony, where I'm sorry to tell you that the answer to my question was no, he did not take the first-movement repeat in the Italian Symphony. I just don't get it - this would add a big five or so minutes to the program, but it balances out the first movement and you get to hear some lovely music that you otherwise would not.

Joshua Kosman gave this concert a glowing review. I'm willing to bet that some things sounded better where he was sitting (I was once again under the overhang, this time in the last row of the orchestra), but my major complaint about the Italian has to do with tempos. Joshua hints at the speed of the first movement with "sacrificed a bit of momentum in favor of textural clarity," but I'll be blunt and say that it was just too slow. Yes, you did get to hear more detail than might have been audible at a faster tempo, but it was not only too slow, it was lacking in rhythmic sharpness and crackle. The last movement had a similar problem. It started out fast enough, then, I swear to you, it got slower. Oy. Both the movements lacked internal drive and, yes, momentum. The middle movements were fine; the minuet especially graceful.

Now, here I'd better confess that I grew up with Toscanini's recording of the Italian, a classic, and as you might guess, it is on the driven side. I also have the Mackerras, which has much of the speed and snap of the Toscanini while sounding less driven and more relaxed. Masur's performance had a certain softness to it that just didn't work for me, and it wasn't helped by poorer coordination of entries than is typical of the SFS. I will say that I was happy to hear scattered applause between some of the movements, though I wasn't pleased enough with the performance to join in myself.

I wonder how much the unusual seating arrangement had to do with the slightly messy entries. Masur had the flutes front and center, approximately where they would usually be, but with, at most, one row of violins or violas between him and the flutes. The oboes were to the audience right of the flutes, still on the floor. The other winds and brass were off the right on the risers, with the cellos in their usual places, so they were almost facing the flutes and oboes.

One aspect of the seating worked extremely well, though, and other conductors should take note of it: the basses were against the back wall, just off center, where the brass usually are. The bass lines were quite a bit more present and audible than they usually are, which helped the sound balance quite a lot. Masur used fewer than the full complement of violins, but with double winds and bass only, there were no problems hearing them . (In my experience, the violins are most likely to disappear under the onslaught of large wind and brass sections, perhaps a result of the poor acoustics of Davies.)

Now, the Overture and Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream. The Overture was fine, though the first violin entry sounded weirdly scattered, with mostly lovely playing. Again, I would have liked a bit more snap to the playing.

For this performance, SFS chose to have an actor, Itay Tiran, as what they called a "narrator." Well, no, he was not a narrator: he didn't read a  summary of the plot as the performance progressed, he read, and acted, excerpts from the play. He did this extremely well, but I hope everyone in the audience was familiar with the play or had read the program notes very, very carefully. Otherwise, you'd never be able to figure out what was going on.

Looking at the score - yes, I happen to have a full score of A Midsummer Night's Dream hanging around - it looks as though the performance followed Mendelssohn's specifications fairly closely. I think they added some of the text from the play to the cues in the score - I can't find "The iron tongue of midnight hath tolled twelve," but I certainly heard it last night.

Now, I am sure lots of people in the audience loved this. It didn't work so well for me. I mostly found it distracting, because I was there to hear a musical performance. Yes, I'd love to see the play with the incidental music played in place! but this performance was not that.

The San Francisco Girls Chorus was on hand for the two choral numbers, with soprano Susannah Biller and mezzo Maya Lahyani taking the solos. The chorus sounded lovely, just right and with very good diction. I was actually shocked by how bad Biller sounded; her phrasing was clumsy, her voice thin, and she sounded squawky in register changes. Lahyani sounded fine.

Biller and Lahyani were placed behind the narrator toward the back of the stage, and I just don't understand why. I think they were amplified, always a bad idea; I have an inquiry out to SFS about this. Update, 3/14: SFS tells me they were not amplified. Biller sounded lousy on her own, in other words.

So, a mixed bag of an evening! And I think it might be the last time I sit under the damn overhang.

Two Concerts

So I made it out last weekend to a couple of concerts, San Francisco Symphony and California Bach Society. Yeah, I skipped Other Minds entirely, though I at least half-wish I'd gone there Saturday night instead of the SFS.

The Symphony program was attractive: Hindemith's Concert Music for Strings and Brass, an assortment of Scandinavian and Finnish songs with the lovely Anne-Sofie von Otter, and Brahms's First Serenade.

I'd never heard the Hindemith before, and in fact I'm not sure I've ever heard any Hindemith in concert; he has never been in fashion in my concert-attending life. I played his flute sonata and Eight Short Pieces for Flute, excellent works, long ago. The Concert Music is a large-scale piece, highly contrapuntal, and I can't say much more than that; I did not take notes.

The songs were somewhat problematic. I had a rush seat and was back under the overhang; consequently, von Otter sounded far, far away. It wasn't a matter of the accompaniment overwhelming her; MTT did a fine job of keeping the orchestra colorful but in check. The songs were absolutely lovely and von Otter sang them with love and affection....there was just not much impact way back there. I've had no problems hearing vocal soloists such as Michelle DeYoung or Susan Graham or the Mahler 8 soloists when out in the middle of the orchestra section or in the balcony. (Patrick, whom I saw at intermission and after the concert, was up in the loge, off to the side, and reports that it was like watching a parade go by. This was exactly my impression when I sat there for an Osmo Vanska program a few years back.)

The closing Brahms First Serenade was a marvel; a great piece, well-conducted and played. It's longer than some symphonies and just as ambitious, but less formally rigorous (besides having more movements than yer typical symphony).

Then there was Cal Bach's Tunder and Buxtehude program. The first half - well, the part before intermission - was two motets by Tunder; they were fine, but not especially memorable. The Buxtehude, his Membra Jesu Nostri, took up the second half of the program, but easily 2/3 or 3/4 of the time on the concert - I wish I'd looked at my watch.

Membra Jesu Nostri consists of seven short cantatas, each discussing one of the wounds on the crucified Jesus. I cannot imagine that they were intended for performance in this fashion, as a set. Perhaps they would all have been performed between Good Friday and Easter Sunday at a series of services.

And that is how it should be. The chorus sounded utterly fantastic, with beautiful sound, clean and accurate attacks, superb phrasing, great dynamic control...and yet it was too much of a muchness. The cantatas aren't that different, or, perhaps, music director Paul Flight didn't differentiate them to the extent needed by consecutive performance. I would have especially liked to hear more variety of tempo. Still, the program would have better if only three or four of the cantatas had been performed, much as I understand the attractiveness of a complete performance.

All this aside, I am plugging Cal Bach's next concert well in advance: it's called Johannes Brahms and the German Legacy, and will feature music of Brahms, Schuetz, and Hanssler. It's on April 29 and 30 and May1, and I am sure it will be lovely!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Speaking of Hot Tickets...

I thought Jonas Kaufmann's recital at Cal Performances (7 p.m., Sunday, March 13) would be one of the season's hottest tickets, but as it happens, there are many seats available in all sections, at prices ranging from $40 to $100. So if you've been procrastinating like me, it's not too late to see the talented tenor. He's singing Schumann and Strauss, including Dichterliebe.

Will He or Won't He?

Take the exposition repeat in the first movement of Mendelssohn's Italian Symphony, of course. Plenty of tickets, including rushes, still available for Kurt Masur's Mendelssohn program at SFS tonight and tomorrow night, which also features the complete (and absolutely wonderful) incidental music from A Midsummer Night's Dream. The overture is the best piece of music ever written by a 17-year-old. You spotted snakes, indeed!

Cancellations Everywhere

The news rolls in:

  • Valery Gergiev is out of tomorrow's Met performances of Boris, ordered not to travel by his doctors. He remains in St. Petersburg. 
  • Sir Colin Davis has withdrawn from performances at the BSO, owing to "ongoing health issues," which I am very sorry to hear about. He will be replaced by Johannes Debus and Stephane Deneve; Debus's program will be as originally scheduled, but Deneve's will change, with Roussel's Symphony No. 3 (now, that is a rarity!) and Ravel's La Valse replacing Sibelius's Third and Tapiola. Jonathan Biss will still appear in the Emperor Concerto.

Google's Japan Earthquake Person Finder

Google has put up a person-finder page for those looking for people or with knowledge of people's locations following the 8.9 earthquake that hit Japan last night. It is available in English and Japanese. All information posted is public and searchable.

If you know where someone is - including yourself - or you are looking for someone, post about it on the people finder.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Rolling of the Eyes 2

Today I got yet another email from someone associated with a link-farm operation, telling me about an essay they'd published about the benefits of music in the schools - I should feel free to use my discretion about linking to this essay so that my readers could see it.

No way. I am not giving you the link, which would increase your PageRank and possibly push you up in search engine rankings. Anyway, the "reasons" you list could apply to just about any activity that individuals or groups commit themselves to.

Not to mention, your "essay" never mentioned music's intrinsic value.

Miya Masaoka at the Berkeley Art Museum's L@TE Series

Email received yesterday from Sarah Cahill:

Dear friends- Please join us this Friday evening at 7:30 pm for a special solo performance by  composer and koto player Miya Masaoka as part of the Berkeley Art Museum's popular L@TE series.

Using difference tones, sine waves, and captured sound from the resonance of the museum, Miya Masaoka and her trusty koto will create new work specifically responding to the sonic qualities of Gallery B. The New York Times calls her “an explorer of the extremes of her instrument,” and she continues to delve into new areas of sound, light, and social and musical interaction. An acknowledged koto pioneer and a brilliant composer, Masaoka has created works for So Percussion, Bang on a Can, sfSound, Alonzo King?s LINES Ballet, Volti, and the Piedmont East Bay Children?s Choir. She is the recipient of the Alpert Award in the Arts and her work has been supported by the Wallace Alexander Gerbode Foundation, among many others. She currently teaches in the M.F.A. program of the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College, New York.

This coming Friday, March 11
Doors 5 p.m., DJ Citizen Zain 6:30 p.m.

Miya Masaoka performance 7:30 p.m.; Gallery B

2626 Bancroft Way, below College Avenue, in Berkeley
$7 admission (free for museum members)

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Fantasy Opera, Season 4

You didn't think I was done, did you??
  • Salinen, Kullervo. I have a recording of this; I've heard some of his music live and on record, and I'd love to see a production of this one.
  • Monteverdi, L'Orfeo
  • Krenek, Jonny Spielt Auf
  • Weill, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny
  • Leoncavallo, La Boheme
  • Reyer, Sigurd
  • Hindemith, Mathis der Maler
  • Adamo, Lysistrata
  • Verdi, Les V


    pres Sicilienne
  • Saint-Saens, Henry VIII
  • Ponchielle, La Giaconda (So sue me - I love this one, at least on record. I have more recordings of Giaconda than I have of all Rossini operas put together.)
  • Dvorak, The Devil and Kate
  • Weber, Oberon
  • Dukas, Ariane et Barbe-Bleu
  • Zandonai, Francesca da Rimini
  • Martin, Le Vin Herbe

Cast Change Advisories

Well, it's been quite a week for the Metropolitan Opera. How many cast change advisories have we received?

  • The lovely and reliable Hei-Kyung Hong replaces Angela Gheorghiu, who is ill (we're told), in all upcoming Met performances of Rome et Juliette.
  • Marina Poplavskaya replaces Angela Gheorghiu in the initial run of next season's new production of Faust. Gheorghiu has withdrawn for "artistic reasons." (Poplavskaya was already scheduled for the second run of performances.)
  • Show of hands: Does anyone believe Gheorghiu will turn up for her scheduled performances in Tosca at Covent Garden? 
  • Speaking of Covent Garden, they fired Micaela Carosi, who was an adequate, not-great, Aida this past fall in San Francisco.
  • Alan Held replaces Matthias Goerne in all performances of Wozzeck; Goerne is having knee surgery. Sigh. This is the one that gets me. Held is an excellent singer and a fine Wozzeck, but Goerne is in a class of his own among currently-active baritones. I've seen him live only once, singing the solos in the Brahms Requiem, and it was like nothing I've heard before, either in person or on record from the greats. Where other baritones tend to go big in this music, he sang introspectively and intimately, and had enormous impact as a result. Also, stating the obvious: what a voice. He seems absolutely ideal for Wozzeck, given his intensity, which even in the Brahms nearly reached the wild-eyed.
  • Pavel Smelkov replaces the jet-setting Valery Gergiev, who evidently wasn't up for conducting Boris at the Met while in the midst of a run of Ariadne in Russia. If you thought Levine's Wagner/Mahler weekend was more than a little crazy.... 
And speaking of James Levine, if you haven't read the insanely long comment thread at Parterre Box about him and Voigt (and, parenthetically, Terfel), you should. In general, you should be reading Parterre Box!

Sunday, March 06, 2011


I owe many people responses to accumulated email. I've had a lousy couple of weeks and am just getting myself pulled back together. I got sick on Feb. 20 with whatever it is that's going around; I had a bit of a cough, but mostly a fever and tiredness that would not go away. It was March 1 before I went back to work, and on Feb. 28 I was still taking a couple of naps during the day. I missed some rehearsal time with Chora Nova (sigh), two-thirds of a three-day weekend (one-third of which I spent at a long rehearsal), and five days of work. Oh, and the Vienna Philharmonic, Rothko Chapel at SFS, and Glass's Orphee. Grump.

Worse, this past Friday my dog died. Molly B. was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer in January, so we knew her time was limited, but she was our beloved companion, a charming, smart, alert, and sweet dog, for more than eleven years.

Friends palmed her off on us back in September, 1999; neighbors of theirs had found her in a laundromat in Berkeley, left her at the Berkeley animal shelter, then hastily pulled her out the next day when they realized it was not a no-kill shelter. She was an adorable puppy and would have been adopted quickly, but who knows how long she would have lasted? By about age two, she had become unpredictably dog aggressive. She was fine with most dogs, but terrible with some, and liked fighting way too much. We stopped taking her to dog parks and learned a lot about introducing her carefully to other dogs. As one of her trainers said - Nancy Frensley at Berkeley Humane, who liked Molly very much - she was lucky to have us because she probably would have been euthanized by some people.

Luckily, she was Miss Perfect Dog with people, never the slightest bit aggressive; the worst she would do would be to shrug and ignore you. (Okay, she did bark insanely at an infant the couple of times she visited, but by the time this child was eleven months old, Molly was rolling over submissively at her feet.) Even the few times she was in pain at the vet's, she'd poke you with her nose to show her discomfort.

She was not an effusive or slobbery dog, always more interested in her own species than in people. (We have fond memories of her attempts to go home with a gardener who had a couple of dogs.) She liked us fine, but we also knew that she would be a comparatively easy do to rehome if need be, because she wasn't that deeply attached to any particular humans. This was fortunate, because we had a renovation project going on for much too long during the winter and spring of 2009-10, and she spent a lot of time at friends' houses.

We miss her more than I can say; it is weird to come home and not have her trot up to you with a toy or sock in her mouth, or pester you for a walk or breakfast, or break up a fight between the cats. Rest in peace, Molly B., you were a wonderful, wonderful dog.

Molly Bloom the Dog of Doom

(photo by Cynthia Dyer-Bennet)

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

And....It's Official

James Levine resigns as Music Director of the BSO, effective September 1, 2011. Search committee being formed; everybody wishes him the best, etc. The orchestra will be working with Levine to define a new artistic role for him. The link above is to the BSO's own announcement; Dan Wakin has the story at the Times.

I've got to say, this makes me sad. By all accounts, he has reinvigorated the orchestra and accomplished a great deal since joining seven years ago. I am glad he will have some kind of continuing role with the orchestra, though.

Levine: Breaking Rumor

La Cieca reports that she "hears from a generally reliable source that James Levine has resigned from his post as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Expect an official announcement later today."

I wish him improved health, of course. And I hope he visits here with the BSO next season.

Congratulations are in Order!

Fellow blogger Steve Hicken is a featured composer at Western Illinois University's New Music Festival, which is on March 7 and 8, 2011. Way to go, Steve!

Eugene Fodor Dies at 60

Remember Eugene Fodor, the American wunderkind violinist who tied for second - with two Soviet violinists - in the 1974 Tchaikovsky Violin Competition? He has died, age 60, of cirrhosis of he liver. It is a sad story, told by the Times obit.

Tuesday, March 01, 2011

More Levine/BSO News

Not the good kind, either. Parterre Box reports that James Levine has cancelled his remaining performances this season with the BSO. Those are concerts through March 19 and included performances in NY and at the Kennedy Center.

This is following last week's cancellation of performances of Mahler's 9th, which were taken over by the young assistant conductor Sean Newhouse. A friend who was there says the first performance was just fine. (My own aside: I appreciate Jeremy Eichler's care in writing his review; he is scrupulously fair to Newhouse and places the debut in the appropriate context.)

Happy Birthday, Baby!

Back in December, San Francisco Symphony released a few details of the upcoming centennial season (2011-12). I posted a bit, just a bit, because while the scheduled visits by other great American orchestras were certainly enticing, the two commissions (Adams, Bates) and return of American Mavericks seemed...well...ho-hum.

Now I must eat my words. The schedule has been released, and it is absolutely staggering. You can see the full schedule on the SFS web site; I'd like to list the whole season, because there is something great on almost every program, but...well, if you're reading this, click the link.

There are a few items of little interest to me (Pinchas Zukerman's all-Mozart program, the odd Baroque program...not my thing in the vastness of Davies; the opening concert, repertory TBD, with Lang Lang), but, seriously, I'm glad I decided to stick with my balcony subscription to the opera: more money to spend on SFS concerts.

There's a cornucopia of new music, by Adams and Gubaidulina, Lindberg and Ades, Saariaho and Carter and more; a pair of programs each by the six visiting American orchestras (Chicago, NY, Philadelphia, Boston, LA, Cleveland), fabulous guest appearances by many conductors, visiting singers galore, masterpieces rare and not so rare (Organ Symphony! more than one, in fact) and, finally, a local great-orchestra presentation of Duke Bluebeard's Castle. American Mavericks turns out to be anything but ho-hum. If you're looking for standards, they're there as well, but for me this mostly a season of the new and exciting.

After the jump, I'm listing the programs that most excite me. There's plenty I didn't list that's worth seeing, so look for the full schedule at the SFS web site.