Saturday, April 30, 2011

Season Announcement Season: San Francisco Performances

The local season announcement season has finally more or less ended. The summer festival have announced, and the last three local presenters have announced for 2011-12. My jaw more or less dropped when I saw the San Francisco Performances schedule; it's astonishing, on par with that of SF Symphony's 100th anniversary season.

The highlights include:

Tribute to Frederica von Stade.

Piano recitals by Marc-Andre Hamelin (Hamelin, Berg, Liszt), Pierre-Laurent Aimard (Debussy, Schumann, Kurtag), and Leif Ove Andsnes (Chopin, Debussy).

Vocal recitals by Stephanie Blythe, Karita Mattila, Simon Keenlyside, Christopher Maltman (presumably rescheduled from this year), Dawn Upshaw, Mathias Goerne (whose pianist is Andsnes!), Jessica Rivera

String quartets include the Arditti (Beethoven, Berg, Ades, Bartok!), Brentano, Alexander (which will play a premier by Jake Heggie with Joyce DiDonato), Ebene. The Alexander takes their Bartok & Kodaly survey to St. John's in Berkeley, as well.

Stephen Isserlis, cello, and Robert Levin, fortepiano, play the Beethoven sonata for cello & piano.

Hector Berlioz Has a Fan

From p. 201 of the Dover edition:

   I was afraid to compromise the performance by again conducting. Habeneck obstinately refuses; but girard, at that time one of my staunch friends, consented to accept the task, and acquitted himself well. The Symphonie fantastique again figured in the programme, and took the whole room by storm, being applauded throughout. My success was complete, and the former judgment on me was reversed. My musicians -- it may be imagined that I took none from the Theatre-Italien -- looked radiant with delight as they left the orchestra. Lastly, my happiness was crowned when the public had all gone, and a man stopped me in the passage -- a man with long hair, piercing eyes, a strange and haggard face -- a genius, a Titan among the giants, whom I had never seen before, and at the first sight of whom I was deeply moved: this man pressed my hand, and overwhelmed me with burning eulogies that set both my heart and brain on fire. It was Paganini.

Hector Berlioz is Hard on the Italians

From his memoirs, p. 183 in the Dover edition of the Newman translations:
   When I reached Milan, Donizetti's L'Elisir d'amore was being played at the Cannobiana, and to satisfy my conscience I went to see it. I found the theatre full of people talking at the top of their voices, with their backs to the stage; the singers all the time gesticulating and shouting in eager rivalry. So at least I judged by seeing their huge open mouths, for the people made so much noise that it was impossible to hear a sound beyond the big drum. In the boxes some were gambling, and others were having supper. I therefore retired, since it was no use hoping to hear the smallest fractiom of the music, which was then quite new to me. It appears, however -- so at least I am assured -- that the Italians do occasionally listen. But, at any rate, music to the Milanese, no less than to the Neapolitans, Romans, Florentines, and Genoese, means nothing but an air, a duet, or a trio, well sung. For anything beyond this they feel simply aversion or indifference. Perhaps these antipathies are mainly due to the incompetence of their choruses and orchestras, which effectually prevents their knowing anything good outside the beaten track they have so long followed. Possibly, too, they may to a certain extent understand the flights of men of genius, if these latter are careful not to give too rude a shock to their rooted predilections. The great success of Guillaume Tell at Florence supports this opinion, and even Spontini's sublime Vestale obtained a series of brilliant representations at Naples some twenty-give years ago. Moreover, in those towns which are under the Austrian rule, you will see the people rush after a military band and listen with avidity to the beautiful German melodies, so unlike their own insipid cavatinas. Nevertheless, in general it is impossible to disguise the fact that the Italians as a nation really appreciate on the material effects of music, and distinguish nothing but its exterior forms.

   Indeed, I am much inclined to regard them as more inaccessible to the poetical side of art, and to any conceptions at all above the common, than any other European nation. To the Italians music is a sensual pleasure and noting more. For this most beautiful form of expression they have scarcely any more respect than for the culinary art. They like music which they can assimilate at a first hearing, without reflection or attention, just as they would do with a plate of macaroni.

Letter to the Times: Solo Medical Practitioners

The Times didn't publish this letter, so I'll put it here. I really wanted the patient I discuss to see my comments.

To the Editor:

I was sympathetic toward Dr. Ronald Sroka until I reached the account of his treatment of Alice Beall's plantar fasciitis. (, April 22, 2011). 

I've been a member of Kaiser Permanente since 1990. Here's what happened when I went to my primary care physician with pain in my foot. First, she referred me to a podiatry department class on heel pain. At the class, the podiatrist discussed stretches, shoes, orthotics, anti-inflammatories, and steroids, with a recommendation to try stretches and orthotics before steroids. My primary care physician also sent me to physical therapy, where the physical therapist determined that the plantar fasciitis was very likely secondary to multiple ankle sprains in my past. He prescribed a course of stretches and strengthening exercises. Additionally, I have off-the-shelf inserts for my shoes.

Dr. Sroka prescribed anti-inflammatories, to be followed by steroids, for Ms. Beall. She loves him, but his care for her didn't meet the current standard of care for plantar fasciitis. That's just one reason that large group practices are superior to solo practitioners.

Very truly yours,

Lisa Hirsch
Oakland, CA

I had some other issues with Dr. Sroka: he won't go to electronic records, he doesn't provide health insurance to his five part-time staff members, and he's opposed to joining a group practice because of their use of nurse practitioners for primary care. NPs and PAs provide high-quality primary care at a lower cost than MDs, and his view seems to be straight out of the hierarchical past rather than the team-oriented, collaborative present.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Joanna Russ

I'm sad to report that writer Joanna Russ has died, age 74. She was fierce and uncompromising in her books and in her life. Her books were vastly influential and often ahead of their time; she hadn't written much these last years because of chronic ill health.

How to Suppress Women's Writing is the book I point people to who are convinced that women's work, of all kinds, is never minimized, never defined out of existence, never ignored except for reasons of quality. It is a brilliant look at the mechanics of exclusion.

If you haven't read it, you should; I still regret not buying a copy for the professor with whom I had this discussion many years ago:
Me: I am a second year musicology grad student and I have never seen any mention of Hildegard of Bingen before this year. I rather suspect it's because she's a woman.
Prof: What would be the nature of such a conspiracy?
I was absolutely thunderstruck - and I note that the 600-page music history textbook in general use at that time mentions one female composer. (It had other glaring prejudices not visible to me at the time: Debussy and Bartok, both profound influences on the music that came after them, are brushed off as "nationalist" composers. That is, not German, thus, not interesting.)

The (male) professor I'm anonymously quoting went on to do some interesting work on gender in music history and musicology, so I believe I would not have the same conversation with him today.

Rest in peace, Joanna Russ. I honor the work you did and the words you wrote.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

And Speaking of Organs

Alex Ross's latest posting, which explains his Fanfare, brought this to mind, an entry I wrote and did not post a while back:

Dear Audience Members:

You were exactly perfect during the performance itself. I can't complain about that. But I had to restrain myself multiple times to keep from turning around and chatting with you of your slightly misinformed statements, as expressed before the concert and during intermission.

I get that you don't care for the organ, but "whiney"? "No better than a glorified harmonica"? I have to wonder if you've heard a good organ well-played, or if you know that French, German, and American organs don't necessarily sound alike, or that a giant 19th c. organ sounds rather different from a small Baroque organ. "I like calliopes better. the sound is clearer." Okay, chacun a son gout and all, but you do realize that a calliope is a glorified steam whistle, right? [I admit that pipe organs work on similar principles: air under pressure is forced through tuned pipes.]

Then there was the bagpipe joke: "I heard the Irish invented the bagpipe and gave it to the Scots, who didn't get the joke." There is still an Irish bagpipe. In fact, there are bagpipes all over Europe, North Africa, the middle east, and as far east as India. Hint: many models were meant to be played outdoors.

It's coincidence that the chorus we were hearing currently performs at Episcopal churches. The group is not affiliated with any religious organization or denomination. A limited number of venues have the right size, configuration, acoustics, and date availability for any particular chorus's performance. Locally, a large number of those churches happen to be Episcopal.

That bit about a very large Gothic-style Catholic cathedral in SF? Maybe you mean Grace, which is Episcopal. The current Catholic cathedral in SF is St. Mary Maytag, so nicknamed because of its resemblance to the central dasher of a washing machine. As far as "what we think of as a cathedral," you probably mean high Gothic style, but what defines a cathedral is that it's the seat of a bishop, not the architectural style.


A Local Blogger

Ross's Fanfare

Check this out, but turn down the volume on your headphones first.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

James Fallows on the Current Idiocy

Read James Fallows on what one can only hope will be the last chapter of the utterly baseless claims that Barack Obama isn't a U.S. citizen.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Notes from Valhalla

That's the name of San Francisco Opera's Ring blog. Check it out; there are postings up by director Francesca Zambello and Third Norn/Sieglinde/local favorite Heidi Melton.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Crisis, Charisma, and Conductors

Read all about it:

Voice Doctors?

A chorister friend is having problems singing, following a bad cold, and is seeking a doctor who works with singers and has lots of experience with their issues. If you know of a good doctor, I would appreciate references; for that matter, anti-recommendations would also be good. Email is best; there's an Email Me link in the sidebar.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Osmo Vanska at SFS

Media roundup, including my own review:
  • Me, in SFCV.
  • Joshua Kosman in the Chron. He's rather more to the point than me about the problems with Barantschik's Mendelssohn VC. "Someone forgot to tell him he was the star," indeed. Let's just say that a terrific concertmaster does not always a terrific soloist make.
  • David Scott Marley, at Scratchings, liked the Mendelssohn better.
  • Opera Tattler
  • kalimac
Kalimac seems to be the outlier on how the RVW went, not that he actually disliked it; everyone heard essentially the same things about the Mendelssohn, with some liking how Barantschik played lots better than Joshua and I did. I'm the outlier on the Larcher, liking it more than everyone else, and, yeah, it was obvious that James Keller hadn't heard the piece.

The Philadelphia Story

And I don't mean the one starring Katherine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and James Stewart. No, I am talking about the Philadelphia Orchestra, which filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last week.

They're not the first American orchestra to do this, but they are far and away the biggest and most prestigious. I wrote the following summary of their situation on the Well:

The Philadelphia has a number of problems, some of which you might not know unless you have been following the story for a while:
  • Declining philanthropy for the arts, which is a problem throughout the world of concert music. It is closely tied everywhere to the aging audience and, I think, to a younger generation of philanthropists who are giving money to medical and social causes (think of the Bill & Melinda  Gates Foundation, or Sergey Brin's big donations to Parkison's research,  or all the Microsoft and Google millionaires setting up social justice-oriented foundations).
  • When the Philly moved from the Academy of Music to the new concert hall, their rent apparently skyrocketed AND they lost income that came to them from certain other shows at the Academy. I would guess that rent is their second biggest cost after labor.
  • A serious leadership vacuum at multiple levels. They have been without a permanent music director for a couple of years after Christoph  Eschenbach left in a big hurry in 2008. They have a new music director coming in next year, but he is young and comparatively inexperienced at the business side of the business, as it were. That's four years without  someone responsible for a consistent artistic vision and directorship.  
  • They had problems with their executive director and, again, I think there was a period of floundering under someone temporary before Alison Vulgamore joined from the Atlanta Symphony a couple of years back.
  • Their current financial crisis quite clearly indicates that there are failures of marketing and long-term development/fund-raising.
Matthew Guerrieri has a typically thoughtful post about the Philly's situation, which I urge you to read. I learned a lot from it, including:

  • Their problems go back to the strike of 1996.
  • The orchestra froze pension fund contributions in 2004. They've managed to avoid dealing fully with that problem for seven years now, and the pension plan is currently underfunded by $21.8 million.
  • The Kimmel Center lease is costing more than twice the occupancy costs at the Academy of Music - which the orchestra owns.

Matthew links to an informative article by Peter Dobrin about the orchestra's situation.

I find that I'm appalled by the whole thing. There's the inability of the board and administration to solve these problems during the years they've been developing; obvious major leadership problems. There's the matter of the endowment: how exactly, as Matthew says, are they going to claim poverty when they're sitting on something between $114 million and $140 million, depending on who you believe?

Then there's this: the orchestra is being represented by the law firm Dilworth Paxson. A partner in that law firm, Joseph Jacovini, sits on the orchestra's board of directors. Mr. Jacovini won't be involved in the legal proceedings and won't benefit from any income from the case - but goodness. It sure looks like a conflict of interest and should have been avoided. It is not possible that Dilworth Paxson is the only firm capable of representing the orchestra in this matter.

Attempted Spelling Correction

There's a new comment to a posting from January, as follows:
Before you so self-righteously critique music (though KDFC's endless Dvorak,and Bizet iterations are awful), I suggest you learn to spell.  
In your letterhead, it is not "told" bells but "tolled". And your contributor should know it is Nacht not Nach regarding Mozart. 
Uh, regarding self-righteous critiquing: everybody's entitled to their opinions. I've been critiquing KDFC for a long, long time; I have a folder of correspondence with Bill Leuth and numerous postings here to prove it. And since this is my blog, I will say whatever I please. Needless to say, if you don't like what I write, don't read it.  (If you give a damn about my credentials, read this.)

And before you so self-righteously criticize my spelling, I suggest that you consult a good edition of Shakespeare. The Riverside Shakespeare, one of the authoritative editions of the last 40 years, has exactly what's in my colophon (not letterhead). In the edition I have, it's on page 246, first column, line 363. 

In addition, try consulting Google: 34,000 or so references on the Web support my spelling, versus 45 for yours. If "told" is good enough for Shakespeare, I presume it's good enough for you, hmmmm?

Regarding a misspelling in a comment, jeez. This is the Web. People make typos. Live with it.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Peter Lieberson

I'm tremendously sad to hear of the death of composer Peter Lieberson, this morning in Israel where he was undergoing treatment for lymphoma. A 2010 article about him in the Boston Globe, written at the time that Gerald Finley premiered Songs of Love and Sorrow, discusses his illness; diagnosed in 2007, he said in 2010 that he was probably ill while caring for his wife, the great Lorraine Hunt Lieberson, during her own final illness. Alex Ross has a touching blog entry up about Lieberson; Christian Carey remembers Lieberson at Sequenza21. Bridge Records has kindly granted permission to Sequenza21 to post one of Lieberson's works.

Update: The Times obituary, by Zachary Woolfe, is here.

Friday, April 22, 2011

In Addition to That...

Today's playlist:
  • Parsifal: The Complete Karl Muck Parsifal Recordings; Orchestral Suite (Alfred Hertz, 1915); Good Friday Spell (1927)/Naxos. This set  contains the only recording of the original Bayreuth bells, which were melted down during WWII.
  • Parsifal: Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires, 22 September 1936. Fritz Busch/Singher (Amfortas), Destal (Titurel), Kipnis (Gurnemanz), Krenn (Klingsor), Maison (Parsifal), Lawrence (Kundry). 
Passing on the Italian-language Callas for now. (Yes, I do have more recordings of Parsifal at work than most people own. There are a couple more at home, too, the famous Kna and also A. Jordan with the fabulous Robert Lloyd as Gurnemanz.)

Good Friday

Parsifal, "Good Friday Spell," from Bayreuth, 1933: Alexander Kipnis (Gurnemanz), Max Lorenz (Parsifal), conducted by Richard Strauss. (I had no idea.)

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Cast Change: SF Opera Ring (Updated)

Updated, because I should read the whole press release before I post.

Jay Hunter Morris to sing the title role in Siegfried; Ian Storey takes the role in Goetterdaemmerung. From the press release:
“Over recent months, Ian Storey was dealing with an illness which greatly interrupted his learning period for the role of Siegfried. When he arrived in San Francisco, he realized he could not catch up with both operas, choosing instead to focus his attention on the role of Siegfried in Götterdämmerung. We are fortunate that we had a very capable cover for the role in the person of Jay Hunter Morris, a talented artist who knows the role of Siegfried very well. It was a unanimous and enthusiastic choice to put Jay Hunter Morris into the title role of Siegfried,” said San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley.  
“With great reluctance, I am going to have to withdraw from San Francisco Opera’s Siegfried and instead concentrate on my performance and role debut in Götterdämmerung. I’m greatly saddened that I can’t sing both and have had to make this decision, but I need to do the best thing for me and for San Francisco Opera,” said Mr. Storey.
I heard Morris in the tenor roles in Legend of the Ring last year at Berkeley West Edge Opera, and he was mighty impressive - admittedly in a tiny theater. Darned if I remember much about his Walther von Stolzing at SFO a decade ago; he has also sung a number of smaller roles at SFO.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Plane Ticket Wanted, or Maybe I Should Swim

I was not planning a trip to London this year, and certainly not during high tourist season, but the Proms will include a performance of Havergal Brian's Gothic Symphony, and when will there ever be another chance to hear that one live?

Other highlights include a performance of Guillaume Tell, Berlioz's arrangement with French translation of Der Freischutz, and a lot of recent music. Get whole story here.

With Malice Toward None

Abraham Lincoln died this day in 1865.

The Gettysburg Address:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

The Second Inaugural Address:

At this second appearing to take the oath of the presidential office, there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first. Then a statement, somewhat in detail, of a course to be pursued, seemed fitting and proper. Now, at the expiration of four years, during which public declarations have been constantly called forth on every point and phase of the great contest which still absorbs the attention, and engrosses the energies of the nation, little that is new could be presented. The progress of our arms, upon which all else chiefly depends, is as well known to the public as to myself; and it is, I trust, reasonably satisfactory and encouraging to all. With high hope for the future, no prediction in regard to it is ventured. 
On the occasion corresponding to this four years ago, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it--all sought to avert it. While the inaugeral [sic] address was being delivered from this place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war--seeking to dissole [sic] the Union, and divide effects, by negotiation. Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came. 
One eighth of the whole population were colored slaves, not distributed generally over the Union, but localized in the Southern part of it. These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was, somehow, the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union, even by war; while the government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it. Neither party expected for the war, the magnitude, or the duration, which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with, or even before, the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God's assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men's faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes. "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" If we shall suppose that American Slavery is one of those offences which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South, this terrible war, as the woe due to those by whom the offence came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a Living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope--fervently do we pray--that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man's two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said "the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether" 
With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.
Let us this day continue his work.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Single Tickets to the SF Opera Ring Cycle Now on Sale

SF Opera has sold 85% of the tickets to the upcoming Ring cycles as full cycles; now you can buy single tickets.

Seating is limited; I took a glance around a day or so ago, didn't see that many free seats, so get yer single tickets now. You can, of course, still buy full cycles.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Trouper of the Year

Juan Diego Florez just barely made it to the Met Saturday afternoon for the HD broadcast of Le Comte Ory....because he had been up all night with his wife.....who was IN LABOR.

Their son, Leandro, was born at 12:25 p.m., thirty-five minutes before curtain time! JDF caught the baby!

And the show went on!!

Previous winner: Joyce DiDonato, also starring in Ory, for a run of Rosinas at Covent Garden sung from a wheelchair after she broke her leg at the first performance.

Fantasy Opera, Season 5

Still daydreaming.
  • Barber, Vanessa
  • Britten, Gloriana
  • Delius, A Village Romeo and Juliet
  • Argento, Postcards from Morroco
  • Weisgall, Esther
  • Bennett, The Mines of Sulphur
  • Humperdinck, Konigskinder (aka The Goose Girl)
  • Mascagni, Isabeau
  • Albeniz, Merlin
  • Dallapicolla, Il prigonniero (need companion opera...)
  • Lully, Cadmus et Hermione
  • Charpentier, Medee
  • Rameau, Samson
  • Cherubini, Medee
  • Martinu, The Greek Passion

Daniel Catan

The LA Times reports that composer Daniel Catan (Florencia en el Amazonas, Il Postino) has died unexpectedly in his sleep. He was teaching at the University of Texas, Austin, this semester.

Very sad; he was only 62 and surely had many fine works to compose. I hope to see his operas some day.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Los Angeles Media Round-Up

Reviews of The Turn of the Screw, Akhnaten, and the Fleischmann tribute:
Speaking of the Fleischmann program, it is apparently still available on line at KUSC. Give it a listen!

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Fleischmann Concert Review, Bachtracks, etc.

I'm in Music News twice today:
  • Janos Gereben picks up on my Bachtracks posting and runs with it, with an assist from Charlie Cockey. Update: See the resounding comment at the end of Music News from critic and editor Robert Commanday, founder of SFCV.
  • I report on A Tribute to Ernest (Fleischmann) at Disney Hall last week. I'll have more to say about the program, I expect.

Some Ramblings: Blogging, Identity, and the Variable Quality of Reviews

Some random musings, probably not well organized, after reading publicist Maura Lafferty's posting about who reviews and using social media effectively (make sure to read the comments).

Yes, indeed, the ABS review that Maura links to is not what I would call a music review, because there is just about no discussion of the music beyond the level of "it was pretty." Okay, well, it's Bach and Telemann. The question then arises, what is the article that is now going by "review"?

Well, it's one person's experience and observations about attending a concert. In the comments, John Marcher writes about the "slippery path" of blogging, noting that he was a rock listener who now writes about a range of performing arts, including opera and concert music.

That question of who reviews. SFCV's reviewers are mostly current or past performers, music students, music teachers, and music journalists, but I know of at least one reviewer who is a deeply experienced listener to and reader about music; he started writing for SFCV by sending in a review he'd written. SFCV liked it: hired!

Not all music criticism that gets published is of the same high quality and we should not pretend that it is. Because of the sheer number of reviewers (and because of the light hand of the editors, which is mostly a good thing), the reviews at SFCV do vary a good bit in quality. I've seen a few reviews there where I wish the editors had had a little talk with the reviewer, yes, I have.

This goes on at all levels. I mean, you've seen me slagging Bernard Holland, right? He was the NY Times's lead classical music reviewer, and during his last few years at the paper, after Anthony Tommasini took over as lead, man, Holland was pretty damn variable. I don't read Mark Swed regularly; I know there are folks who have a few bones to pick with him. The name Martin Bernheimer makes some people see red - and MB is an excellent writer, whether you agree with him or not. I once saw an article in the S.F. Opera program about sopranos that talked about how of course we prefer listening to Liu to listening to Turandot, because Liu "is a mezzo." Well, no, she's not. That was a failure both of the writer and the editor.

I realize that Maura is pointing to a slightly different problem, that of the person who apparently knows little about music but is getting a platform to write about it at a journalistic organization anyway; see, for example, the Madama Butterfly review she links to. This is happening now, more than before, because of general problems in the newspaper world, the decline of respect for expertise, and the rise of blogging and other social media. Everyone's always been a critic, but now it's easier than ever to get your opinions out there for people to read. As the lines between journalism, criticism, and social media continue to erode, yes, we are going to get more nonreviewers reviewing classical music, and we're going to see more sites like Bachtracks, which I discussed in a previous entry.

In the comments to Maura's posting, John Marcher also discusses what happened when his blog entries were also published at Well, if you're a blogger, it's a good idea to retain your own identity. Case in point: In October, 2009, Alex Ross greatly reduced his blogging at The Rest is Noise to blog primarily at The New Yorker. (I was apparently the only person to express doubts publicly about this move.) By June, 2010, he had resumed using Noise as his primary blog. Moral of the story: if you have a location that works, it's best to stay put and to have an individual identity.

I'd say there's one semi-exception to this. Bogging at a high-profile, high-prestige group site such as ArtsJournal, Sequenza21, or Inside the Arts is a major benefit. You're in the kind of company where there are synergies. Somebody reading you will read other bloggers at that site and vice versa.

He's Baaaaaaack!

Beloved reader Henry Holland has reactivated his blog, My Island Elysium, where he writes about a variety of subjects. One of his last entries back in 2008 was about the birthday of mighty Pierre Boulez, whose incredible sur Incises we were both lucky enough to hear the maitre conduct a week ago; read that and then check out the new entries.

Monday, April 04, 2011

Caveat Lector

When you read a music review, you hope that you're getting an accurate view of what one reviewer heard and saw at a given concert on a particular day. By and large, that is what you can expect, though as we all know, five people can go to a concert and come away with five different opinions of what they just heard.

If you read the reviews on the web site Bachtrack, though, you should be aware that they have a policy of not publishing strongly negative reviews. I found out about this because I was asked if I'd like to review for them. I asked a few questions about this policy, which they stated up front, and then told them no, bad fit. They also don't think it's helpful to comment on the "minutae" of a movement, which I didn't ask about, or by severely criticizing a performer. 

Let's put it another way: the email exchange from Bachtrack made it clear that they want to publish reviews that will generate enthusiasm in the reader. Folks, that is not the purpose of reviews. The purpose of a review is to provide a record of what happened at a performance and to evaluate what happened, whether the reviewer heard greatness, horror, or mediocrity. Evaluation is what sets a reviewer or critic apart; a reviewer theoretically has enough knowledge and experience to support the opinions they form about a performance.

I usually don't quote email directly, but in this case, you need to see what the situation is. Here's the initial comment about negative reviews:
We don’t want overwhelmingly negative reviews because we don’t think they help anyone. We’d rather not write up a review of a concert that’s a disaster so I simply ask a reviewer to email me and let me know so I can have a quiet word with the promoter.
I asked for more details and they told me that they want to "support the classical music world" and that reviews will be on their site forever. They also said that negatives within a neutral review are acceptable, but reviews of irredeemably awful concerts would not be published. I asked what that meant and this was the reply:
You go to an orchestral concert and you think the conductor can't hold the orchestra together, the tempo is too slow, the soloist can't make himself heard and there's nothing good to say about the event. (We don't publish). 
On the other hand there's a slow start as the orchestra and conductor find their feet, the odd wobble but some very good moments. As long as you are happy to start and end with a positive, you can add some negatives.
That's the point where I told them what I'd been thinking from the first email: no way. I will not be subject to any preconditions of reviewing and I certainly won't guarantee a positive review. I believe what they're doing is actively harmful, in fact, to the very style and institutions they think they are supporting. 

Here are the many, many reasons why:

Performers give bad performances; directors sometimes suck; productions can be very bad indeed. This is just the way the arts work. They should be covered as such.

Music and audiences don't need to be protected from bad reviews. It's not bad reviews that keep people out of concert halls. (If anyone out there thinks this the case, with the exception of the occasional bad review of an opera with a long run, I would like to see solid data supporting that view. I mention that SF Opera did well with Madama Butterfly last year despite a majority of poor reviews of the performers and production.)

Bachtrack essentially guarantees concert presenters a positive or mixed review, and evidently they are aware of this policy. Journalists should not collude in that way with the subjects of their coverage.

Readers can't trust that they're getting an honest perspective from Bachtrack. They do not know what the site isn't reviewing or why.

Reviewers' opinions differ. I might hear an unmitigated disaster where someone else hears charming eccentricity.

The policy assumes that a bad review of a performance is a turn-off. That's just not the case - people love reading negative reviews, which are often more fun and more sharply written than a positive review. Anyone out there read The New Yorker? Some of the reviews I remember best are Anthony Lane dismembering bad films.

Assuming that a bad review of a performance is a turnoff assumes that the performance and the music are so strongly identified that readers will confuse them or be turned off from a work by a bad review. That's a bad assumption. People can tell the difference between The Marriage of Figaro, the opera, and a poor performance or dumb production of The Marriage of Figaro.

People develop their own ears and standards of judgment by listening to many works and performances, and by reading a wide range of reviews, including multiple reviews of the same performance, hopefully taking in a range of opinions. I can point to any number of concerts with reviews that strongly diverged from each other. That is useful to readers.

Negative reviews certainly are a help: to people in deciding what to see and why, whether it's now or next year. They can help presenters decide who not to hire or invite back. They act as a counterweight to what publicists say. They help readers figure out what a reviewer's likes and dislikes are.

Honest reviews are important for the historical record. If a performer sang like a pig or the conducting had no momentum or thrust, the review should so state. And that review should be published.

I'm actually surprised that Bachtrack even approached me, given their review criteria. I try to be fair to performers and I don't write viciously about them, but it should be clear from what I write here, perhaps less so in my SFCV reviews, that I can be a crank, that I have my own axes to grind, that there are performers I never go see because they are bores or annoyances, that there are composers I just can't stand. I put my dislikes out there openly because anyone reading me should know about them and take them into account when reading me.

Bachtrack has the admirable goal of getting more people to listen to classical music and to attend concerts. But they're seriously misguided in going about it this way.

10 Questions for....Darryl Taylor

Last Sunday, countertenor Darryl Taylor stepped in vocally for Jochen Kowalski in Long Beach Opera's second performance of Philip Glass's Akhnaten. He's kindly agreed to answer some questions here, in the format popularized by Brian at Out West Arts.

1. A singer is more likely to grow up dreaming of becoming Placido Domingo or Cesare Sierpi than Alfred Deller. When and how did you discover that you are a countertenor?
My model voice was in the tenor range and it was during my studies in this
fach that it was pointed out to me that I might be a countertenor. I went
on the record a few discs as a tenor that were fairly successful. Still,
the altissimo range kept calling to me. I decided to give the countertenor
inside me wings and to let it fly. I've had tremendous opportunities to
present themselves since then and I couldn't be happier about the change.
And no, I don't sing in both fachs. It's an either/or proposition.
2. What are your favorite roles?
Handel's Medoro and Tolomeo; Britten's Oberon. Glass' Akhnaten fit me very well, too!
3. What's the role in your fach that you will never, ever sing, and why?
Hmm, thant's an interesting question. I doubt that I'll sing the bearded
lady in The Rake's Progress. I know someo other counters sing it, but I'd
be shy about taking it on. I don't think I'd say never, ever...but it
would take a bit to persuade me.
4. What role outside your fach would you sing if you could? (Patricia Racette said "Cavaradossi" in response to this. My dream role is Isolde - a big stretch for a chorus alto!)
There are a few that intrigue me. Probably  a big, sweeping Calaf!
5. What singer, living or dead, would you love to share the stage with?
I think one learns so much from sharing the stage with great artists. I
can only imagine what I'd learn from singing next to Leontyne Price. She's
an artist that has reduced me to speechlessness, on more than one
6. Who is the opera director you'd most like to work with?
I'd love to work with Ken Cazan. I had the pleasure of working with him
once and find him to be a motivating genius!
7. You accidentally leave your iPod in a pants pocket and it goes through the wash. What do you miss most?
Gosh, I can't say. It's like choosing a favorite child. I listen to music
quite a lot, in various styles. The thing I'd most miss if I couldn't
recover it would be Aretha Franklin's tribute to Dinah Washington.
8. How much time did you have to learn or restudy Akhenaten for last week's LBO performance?
I was called on Thursday to cover a Saturday performance, so I learned the
part in two days. I had another week of work before my performance on
9. What do you do for fun when you're not singing/rehearsing/teaching/learning new music?
I enjoy travel, going to the beach, and jogging.
10. What are you reading this week?
Brushing up on my German! And reading Carlos Ruiz Zafon's "The Shadow of the Wind."
Bonus question 11: What's your latest recording?
I have a new CD, "How Sweet the Sound - a charm of spirituals" on Albany
Records, and maintain a channel at My web site is

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Sunday Miscellany: From My In-Box

The Los Angeles Philharmonic has a grand radio broadcast series on KUSC, starting this afternoon at 4 p.m. with Turangalila. Want to catch E-PS's Duke Bluebeard's Castle? It's on April 17....The Sanford Dole Ensemble has what sounds like a terrific upcoming program: James MacMillan's Seven Last Words from the Cross and Robert Kyr's new On the Third Day, which the Ensemble commissioned. It's at one of my favorite venues, St. Gregory of Nyssa, 500 De Haro in SF, on April 17 at 4 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. $30/$25/$20...We hear a lot of talk about how musical organizations need to connect with their communities. The Boston Symphony Orchestra is conducting a four-week food drive in Boston. (Yes, disgracefully, people go hungry in the United States.) If you're in the Boston area, consider donating through the BSO's actual or virtual food drive; in Alameda County, where I live, consider donating now or at another time to the Alameda County Community Food Bank. Unemployment in Alameda County is over 10%, so a sad number of our fellow citizens are suffering this year.....WQXR has a new opera blog, written by Fred Plotkin and Olivia Giovetti. Looks good so far!....The Napa Valley's Festival del Sole has announced its upcoming season...This week's San Francisco Symphony program should be great: Osmo Vanska conducts a world premiere by Thomas Larcher, the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto with concertmaster Alexander Barantschik playing the very violin on which the premiere was played, and RVW's A London Symphony, a work you don't get to hear very often in these, that is, American, parts.

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Akhnaten Clarification

My review of Long Beach Opera's excellent Akhnaten production didn't get into the question of when the West Coast premier of the opera took place, but my earlier blog posting noted that the first had been by tiny Oakland Opera Theater (OOT) in 2004. That's because Tim Mangan's Opera News review stuck in my head:
  • Tim:  "More than twenty-five years after its premiere, Philip Glass's Akhnaten finally made its way to the West Coast in a production by Long Beach Opera that was clever, low-budget and satisfying (seen Mar. 19)."
  • Brian at Out West Arts got it right "But like it or not, Glass’ Akhnaten is indeed very much an opera and nearly a quarter of a century after its debut, it arrived on the West Coast for the first time in a complete form."
  • So did Mark Swed: "But none of that could lessen the significance of the first full-scale production in Southern California of a major opera by America’s best-known and most influential opera composer, erasing a shocking cultural omission."
The press release for LBO's  Akhnaten took appropriate credit for this production as the first West Coast production that was fully staged and used Glass's original orchestration. 

Friday, April 01, 2011

Friday Miscellaney: Around the Blogosphere

Kenneth Woods has a multi-part series on the top 20 conductors, challenging the silly BBC Music Magazine poll. Read part 1, part 2, part 3, and the compose-conductor posting; presumably part 4 will be forthcoming. You'll want to take the time to watch those videos, too....Matthew Guerrieri wrote a post touching on Justin Davidson's New York Magazine article on the new New York School of composers and on why he is no longer trying to make it as a professional composers - and also on Hegel....Patrick Vaz had a few things to say, all worth reading, about The Rape of Lucretia and Albert Herring in the Castleton Opera stagings done at Cal Performances last week.....So did SF Mike, who was not pleased by Maazel's conducting; Mike also has a great posting up about Britten; the story about Britten's desire to study with Berg and how he was thwarted made me want to cry....and all in all I'm glad I went to Los Angeles.