Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The Continued War on the Poor

In addition to cutting taxes for the rich, the Republicans, or at least some prominent Republicans, would like to raise taxes on the poor. Well, that would be in line with their general philosophy of concentrating power and money among the few.


Mitt Romney:
Career politicians got us into this mess, and they simply don’t know how to get us out!
Personal to Mitt: If you're the ex-Governor of Massachusetts and you're on your second run for the presidency, you're a career politician!

Also, no one is stupid enough to believe you when you say that what was right for Massachusetts isn't right for the United States. It's sad that saying "I was first with mandated universal health care," which would get you votes across political lines all across the nation, is anathema to so much of your party.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Four Saints in Three Acts

Yes! I'm finally getting to the point, after moaning about YBCA's ticketing system and making fun of their web site.

In short, I was completely charmed. I liked the opening Luciano Chessa piece perfectly well, especially video artist Kalup Linzy's appearance as a gospel-singing angel. It set the stage dreamily, and the fact is, I think a slightly altered state - certainly a big old suspension of your ground in reality - is a good thing when you're about to see even a shortened version of Four Saints.

I had never heard any of the main event before, so the transition was, to me, seamless, especially given that one section of the Chessa sounded like a riff on Thomson.

I loved the music and loved the surrealist/experimental air of the lyrics. As somebody once said of Oklahoma, "what's the plot? It ain't got." There is some kind of a plot there, at least a hint of an outline of the lives of Sts. Teresa and Ignatius, perhaps as seen by a child or a person in medieval times, only with operating theaters and electric chairs. And all this accompanied by the most naive and direct Americana possible.

Well, it worked for me. The excellent singing went a long way, as did the delightful staging by Brian Staufenbiel and terrific conducting of Nicole Paiement.  Kudos to Eugene Brancoveanu (Ignatius), Heidi Moss (Teresa I), Kristen Choi (Teresa II), John Bischoff (Compere), and Wendy Hillhouse (Commere) for their contributions.

Now, out there in new and old media land, Patrick loved Four Saints and wrote about it at great length; Sf Mike is one of the policemen in the production and clearly adores the opera. Janos Gereben has expressed puzzlement to me and isn't a fan. Joshua Kosman is down on it. Jeff Dunn liked it while seeming to want more musical substance than there is.  (Joshua liked Caliban Dreams, which I totally do not get.) Closer to home, my girlfriend loved it. Me, the next time it's done I want to see the full 1934 version rather than the abbreviated-for-radio version from the 1950s.

Looking at that list, I'm left wondering: do you need some kind of queer sensibility to let go enough for Four Saints to make some kind of sense? And if so, what is that sensibility?

Not Enough Web Designers to Go Around?

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, meet LA Opera:

H/T Tim Mangan, who happened to mention "redesigned LA Opera web site" on his blog.

Copy-Editors Wanted, Voice Type Edition

Which prominent member of the Four Saints cast was listed as a voice type completely at odds with every other mention of the singer I have seen in the last decade?

Cranky YBCA Posting

Yes, this is going up before I say anything about Four Saints.

First, a warning: if you're thinking of going to an event at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, buy your tickets over the phone or in person. That's because their on-line ticketing system doesn't give you a choice of where to sit. So I got to YBCA Friday night and discovered that seats B13 and B14 were in the second row up against the far left wall. This would have been physically intolerable because I can't stand having my head turned that far for the length of a musical performance. (I once swapped a whole season's worth of SF Opera tickets for seats scattered around the Dress Circle because the seat originally assigned to me was too close to a wall.)

Luckily, there was just enough time for me to run to the box office, fork over an additional $50, and get our seats moved to the center section in row Q. This was far enough back that I was sorry I hadn't brought my binoculars, but whatever. I was not in pain!

Now for the real crankiness. I just received email thanking me for attending Four Saints. Okay, that's fine, but it reminded me that I needed to send email to someone at YBCA about the on-line ticketing issues. So I went to the Contact Us page and found what I consider to be a major problem: not one actual human's name is listed there, just a bunch of email aliases.

I'm sorry: you're a nonprofit institution, and you should list your administrators' names, and preferably their email addresses, or you look like a bunch of cowards. For that matter, why are there only fax and phone numbers for Administration? Who are you hiding from? People who might want to contact you??

Benefit to Buy New Pianos for Bing Hall

An announcement from Stanford University's Music Department:

Faculty Piano Showcase: A Benefit Concert

Wednesday, Sep. 7, 8:00 pm in Dinkelspiel Auditorium

Members of Stanford's piano faculty will be featured performing a variety of
works including Schubert's Allegretto in C minor and Klavierstück in E flat
minor (Thomas Schultz, piano); Chopin's Ballade in G minor, Op. 23
(Frederick Weldy, piano); Lutosławski's Paganini Variations for two pianos
(Laura Dahl and Frederick Weldy, pianos); Rachmaninoff's Etude tableaux Op.
39, No. 2 and No. 8 (Kumaran Arul, piano); selections from Prokofiev's
Cinderella arranged for two pianos by Mikhail Pletnev (Kumaran Arul and
George Barth, pianos); and Dvořák's Gypsy Songs, Op. 55 (Nicolle Foland,
soprano, accompanied by Laura Dahl, piano). Proceeds will support the
purchase of new pianos for Bing Concert Hall, set for completion in 2012.

Tickets are $25.

For tickets please visit:

Just to make something clear: the budget to construct this building is nearly $112 million. It is a concert hall and here we have the Stanford Faculty putting on a benefit for something that should have been fully budgeted.

I note that the foyer of this building will be called the John A. and Cynthia Fry Gunn Lobby. The Gunns have given tens of millions of dollars to the San Francisco Opera and must have thrown a few bucks into Bing Concert Hall. Can't someone pony up a half-million more for pianos??

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Dear SFS Patron Services:

Dear Patron Services,

I had sent you (the email below) last weekend hoping that I'd get email on Monday.

I didn't, so I called the box office around noon and got the answer to my major question: I have to start from a particular URL in order to get the subscriber price for a choose-your-own subscription. Okay - maybe that information could go someplace in the depths of Tessitura.

I got home in the evening and found I'd gotten a phone call from someone offering to help me. The only information I needed was this:

To compose your own package, start at this URL and click the Continue button: http://www.sfsymphony.org/subscriptions/series/serieslist.aspx

I sent email because I wanted an email response. I'd appreciate it if you'd put something in my patron file saying "Do not phone unless a phone call is requested."

I see that your web site still doesn't reflect the fact that the box office isn't open on Saturdays all year round. This would be helpful for your patrons. For example:


San Francisco Symphony Box Office

(415) 864-6000

Monday-Friday, 10am-6pm; Saturday, noon-6pm; Sunday, 2 hours prior to concerts

So, just to let you know, I remain deeply frustrated by the compose-your-own experience. I just tried to order a subscription. I find that what I have to do is designate a section....and then you will pick my seats.

I want to be able to choose my own seats. I don't need and don't want to be in the same location for every concert. For a few, I REALLY REALLY want orchestra prime. For others, side seats are fine, or even Second Tier.

If I could go through the single-seat process and then get subscriber prices, that's what I'd want to do. (Remember, I'm trying to buy tickets to more than 20 concerts. Many or most will be in the orchestra.) Is this possible?? Can you set up Tessitura so that when someone gets to some number of seats ordered they get the subscriber prices? Or do I need to phone the box office (I hate doing these transactions on the phone) or visit in person? Which I cannot do before the box office is open on Saturdays?

Thanks very much -

-- Lisa
Lisa Hirsch

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Buy Google eBooks from an Independent Bookstore!

Want electronic books from a source other than Amazon? Want a small, independent bookstore to get a cut of your purchase?

Google eBooks are available from various independent bookstores. One of them is my local bookstore, Laurel Bookstore! If you're thinking of buying Google eBooks, consider buying through Laurel. Start right here.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Monday, August 15, 2011

Higdon Update

Jon Finck at San Francisco Opera confirms in email:

There was no news release sent at the time.

This fall, we will send out a news release  updating the status of the Company’s plans for world premieres.  That news release will include a formal cancellation of the Higdon project.
Both the Opera and Ms Higdon withdrew from the project as we were unable to come to terms with a workable contract.
Alas and alack - I'm deeply sorry about this. I'm also curious about the "dozens of properties" considered and about David Gockley's "interventionist approach." Some new operas pretty obviously needed more outside input than they got, including both the Stewart Wallace operas done here - Harvey Milk under Mansouri, The Bonesetter's Daughter under Gockley. The Dr. Atomic libretto is a mess, but the music is glorious, head and shoulders above the Wallace operas and the other new works done at SFO. A general manager might reasonably say, you're limited to x number of principals based on a budget of y. So it's hard to know what exactly was going on here.

Oh, well - at least I'll get to see it in Santa Fe.

Higdon Commission to Santa Fe

So you thought that the first opera by Pulitzer Prize winner Jennifer Higdon was going to appear at San Francisco Opera, as announced in the 2009-10 season announcement?

Think again.

Santa Fe Opera announced the other week that Higdon and librettist Gene Scheer's Cold Mountain will appear at Santa Fe, in a co-production with Opera Company of Philadelphia, in 2015. Note that the press release calls it Higdon's first opera.

I have an inquiry in to the San Francisco Opera press office about this, because I have not seen any formal announcement from them. However, David Patrick Stearns is on the case:
The Higdon announcement is the most dramatic - not just because the Philadelphia composer won last year's Pulitzer Prize for music, but because the project had seemed dead when Higdon and librettist Gene Scheer split with the San Francisco Opera. The project's two years under San Francisco's aegis, 2009 to 2011, were mostly spent looking for subject matter and being thwarted, sometimes by lack of suitability for operatic adaptation, but more significantly by rights issues.

"We went through several dozen [properties]," said Higdon. "Getting Cold Mountain took 10 months of pushing and taking back avenues to make it work. It was a major ordeal. Miramax, which holds some of the rights [because of its 2003 film version, based on the best-seller by Charles Frazier], was up for sale when all of this was going on, and we had to wait until it was bought."

Earlier this year, however, the commission for what was to be Higdon's first opera was canceled. A spokesman for the San Francisco Opera said the parties parted over financial terms: The creators were asking more than the company wanted to pay. "There's no ill will between us. We're all very happy for her and think it's a great subject matter," said the spokesman.

Though Higdon admitted that financial negotiations were a small factor, she also cited conflicts with San Francisco Opera general director David Gockley, who built an extensive new-opera record in his years running the Houston Grand Opera, and who takes what Higdon described as an interventionist approach toward the creative process.

"Other people have done operas with him, and that's the way he works," she said. "I didn't feel that it was right to ask him to change the way he runs his opera company."
Thanks to Patrick Vaz for catching this one - regrettably, I saw something in a comment at Parterre Box about this a couple of weeks ago and didn't follow up.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Fantasy Opera, Season 6

Unbelievably, I omitted Respighi from the first five seasons.
  • Respigh, La Fiamma
  • Delius, Koanga
  • RVW, Hugh the Drover
  • Peri, Dafne
  • Offenbach, La Belle Helene
  • Tippett, King Priam
  • Chabrier, L'Etoile
  • Chausson, Le Roi Artus
  • Bolcom, A Wedding
  • Britten, Curlew River
  • Turnage, Anna Nicole
  • Glass, Einstein on the Beach
  • Musgrave, Mary, Queen of Scotts
  • Sciarrino, Lohengrin
  • Gretry, Richard Coeur de Lion

Saturday, August 13, 2011

SFS Ticket Ordering FAIL

So, I've waited longer than I should have to order my SFS tickets for the centennial season, which opens in just a couple of weeks. Still, there are enough tickets left that I'll be able to more or less sit where I want, especially if I go during the week.

I was going to go to the box office today - their web page says it's open noon to 6 p.m. - but I decided to try ordering on line first. It's mighty slow, because I often had to loop through to another date if the seats I wanted weren't available. Then I noticed that the site was telling me that my login did not qualify for subscriber prices.

Say what? I was in the process of ordering tickets to 20+ concerts. That should get me subscriber prices in the build-you-own-series program.

So I picked up the phone to ask about this....and discovered that the box office is not open on Saturdays during August.

Gosh, it would have been nice if the web page said that!

And I killed my order. I need to know if I'm getting subscriber rates before I pull the trigger on the order, since I expect to spend $2,000 or so. (Yes, I know I could probably get comp tickets, but I cannot guarantee a write-up (I spend a LOT of time writing every week), and frankly, sometimes I just want to go listen without having to write about it afterward.)

Friday, August 12, 2011

The Return of the Concert Attire Discussion

Yuja Wang wore an orange, barely-there dress to play a concert the other day; Mark Swed reviewed, and now a bunch of people are talking about it. Here are the relevant links:
Be sure to read the comment threads where available.

Long ago, I discussed a related issue: Lara St John's Bach album, on the cover of which she is dressed in her violin. There was a lively comment thread, which has, alas, disappeared in the demise of Haloscan. (Somebody remind me why I used Haloscan for comments back then, hmmm? What a mistake!)

I saw Wang for the first time in June in San Francisco, playing Bartok in a concert that was a mess. The balance between the piano and the orchestra was awful where I sat among the members of the Music Critics Association. Moreover, the concert was on Thursday night between Die Walkuere and Siegfried, so I was a little tired out, hence no blog posting about the program. Anyway, Wang was wearing high heels and a short dress, as in the program Swed reviewed.

My personal policy is not to comment on performers' dress in paid reviews unless the performer is filthy, unkempt, wearing a dirty or damaged outfit, etc,, though I've occasionally made such comments here. (I must have mentioned that orange paisley number Anne-Sophie von Otter wore at a Berkeley recital once, right?) I am not being paid to comment on fashion, though I'd be happy to editorialize on the general topic of concert dress. And in fact, I will!

Briefly, I'm fine with a wide range of on-stage outfits, from tails for men and long black for women to Nehru jackets, black turtlenecks, brightly-colored loose tops with stirrup pants, whatever. I see no reason to reflexively dress orchestras and other performing arts groups in the stiffest and most formal clothing. For some string quartets, a particular look is part of their image. The Pavel Haas players didn't wear tails or long dresses in the SF debut; the St. Lawrence String Quartet has worn black, but not formal attire, the couple of times I've seen them. I'll mention that cellist David Finckel of the Emerson looked overdressed and a little silly in white jacket and bow tie when he played second cello in the Schubert Quintet with the SLSQ back in 2005. On the other hand, the Labeque sisters were absolutely adorable in non-matching, slightly eccentric, outfits at SFS a couple of years back.

But I think there's a risk in dressing too revealingly. Do you want to call attention to yourself or to your performance? Especially for women, you risk being taken less seriously if it looks as though you're selling your looks rather than your chops. For that matter, didn't that happen to Nigel Kennedy when he was appearing dressed as a hipster?

Midgette somewhat misses this point, I think, in her defense of Wang; she talks about how sexist it is that women's clothing choices get criticized in ways that men's don't. Well, think about that for a minute: any male performer showing as much skin as Wang would get comments and criticism in the press. Try to imagine the shrieking if Kennedy turned up dressed only in shorts, suspenders, socks, and shoes. You bet you'd hear about it, and critically, too.

The reason you are not hearing about it is simply that women can dress in a wider range of clothing than men without being completely scandalous. I've seen women play, sing, and conduct in trousers, in formal suits, in long dresses, in tuxes, in skirts & blouses. This is just one of the asymmetries of expectation regarding women and men. And it's useful to keep in mind that women can get away with some of the outfits they wear because they conventionally remove certain body hair. You are just not going to see naturally hairy women's legs and underarms on the concert stage - although I think I may have caught a flash of underarm hair decades ago on a female soloist at SF Symphony.

There's another point where I disagree with Midgette: she notes that it's perfectly normal for young women of 24 to dress the way Wang does, especially young actors. Well, sure: it's part of their job to draw attention to their bodies and looks, and to get out there looking good. But being a babe is not the work of a classical musician. It's a false equivalence. It's okay to have different expectations of classical performers than of actors; they're not in the same business at all. Really, classical music should be working to distinguish itself from other entertainment options, not trying to be just like them.

And keep in mind that what looks cute or sexy on a thin 24-year-old very likely will not look so good on a 45- or 65-year-old. We all age, unless we're dead; the image that works when you're young might not work so well when you're older.

Lastly, I think Midgette is completely wrong to say that Wang's dress and manner "represent some of the best chances we have of getting those under-18-year-olds into the concert hall to begin with." Really? And what evidence is there that young people will go to see Wang because of how she dresses? I want to see the evidence, because I bet there is none, other than a few anecdotes collected by Greg Sandow about young people being put off by formal dress. While I think there are good reasons for performers to wear a greater range of clothing styles than they currently do, I also think that young people are perfectly capable of learning about and becoming comfortable with formal dress conventions.

Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Four Saints in Three Acts

Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein's Four Saints in Three Acts will be playing at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts from Thursday, August 18 through Sunday, August 21, 2011. This is an opera you don't get to see very often: I've managed to see The Mother of Us All in two different productions, but this'll be my first Saints.

If you're going to opening night, you might also try to get to a fascinating talk at the Contemporary Jewish Museum across the street from YBCA. Here are the details:

The Art of Four Saints in Three Acts
In this short talk, Steven Watson, author of Prepare for Saints: Gertrude
Stein, Virgil Thomson, and the Mainstreaming of American Modernism, takes
you on a journey into the oddest and most influential collaboration in the
history of American modernism, Gertrude Stein and Virgil Thompson¹s opera
Four Saints in Three Acts. A sensation from the start, it became the
longest-running opera in Broadway history to date and the most widely
reported cultural event of its time.

Come early and see rare footage, art, and ephemera connected with the opera
on display as part of the Museum¹s exhibition Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five

Watson¹s talk precedes the opening night debut of a newly commissioned
production of Four Saints in Three Acts organized by SFMOMA and Yerba Buena
Center for the Arts and taking place August 18-21 at YBCA¹s Novellus

Steven Watson is a cultural historian of the American avant-garde. He is
also the author of Harlem Renaissance (1995), The Birth of the Beat
Generation (1995), and Strange Bedfellows: The First American Avant-Garde

Thursday, August 18, 2011

6:30-7 PM

Contemporary Jewish Museum
736 Mission Street (between Third and Fourth streets)
San Francisco, CA 94103

www.thecjm.orginfo@thecjm.org info@thecjm.org>  or call

FREE with regular admission. Admission is $5 after 5 PM.

Saturday, August 06, 2011

Everybody Lies

Over at Musical Assumptions, Elaine Fine has posted a list of memorable memoirs by an assortment of musicians, including singers, string players, and of course the great librettist Lorenzo da Ponte.

Here I must step in and quote the great physician Gregory House: Everybody lies.

And when they're not lying, they're forgetting or just plain making things up or repeating stories somebody else told them as their own. You should read memoirs not with a grain of salt but with a metric ton of salt.

Elaine's list doesn't include the memoirs of either Wagner or Berlioz. One need only glance at the footnotes to modern editions of those memoirs, or any reasonable biography of the composers, to see how much is just plain wrong. In the case of Berlioz, it seems many of the errors are inadvertent, a matter of writing about the 1820s and 30s from the vantage point of the 1860s, though some are self-serving enough that they're probably lies. In the case of Wagner, he lies about a lot, coloring events to match his later perceptions or the image he'd like to project about himself.

Then there's John Culshaw's famous, and hugely entertaining, and very, very self-serving, Ring Resounding. I'll take just one WTF example: he mentions that Decca had recorded a Ring at Bayreuth in the mid-1950s, but it just wasn't satisfactory and thus hadn't been released. Well, that Ring cycle is now available, on Testament; it is the real first stereo Ring, with Joseph Keilberth conducting, and it is in many ways more satisfactory than the Solti, because it is much better sung. Self-serving, you think?

On a smaller scale, there are any number of lies in the Eva Turner interview in Lanfranco Rasponi's The Last Prima Donnas. She didn't sing Turandot 200 times, except in a world where 75 equals 200; she was probably singing in Portugal when Turandot premiered, so any claims to have been present are just wrong (or they're deliberate misrepresentations or deliberate repetition of a famous story as if she was there); her La Scala career, on which she traded constantly in retirement, consisted of six or seven performances (a single Turandot as a cover; a few Sieglindes and Freias in the mid-20s Ring cycle).

Everybody lies. Keep that in mind any time you're reading a memoir.

Caliban Dreams, Berkeley West Edge Opera

I know that it will take me approximately five years to stop referring to West Edge Opera as "Berkeley Opera," since I've been using the latter name for the last fifteen years. After all, lots of people still call Martin Luther King, Jr. Way in Berkeley and Oakland "Grove Street." Name changes are hard!

Anyway, last night to a third-full house - dismaying at the outset - for Clark Suprynowicz and Amanda Moody's Caliban Dreams, a riff on Shakespeare's Tempest. Apparently potential audience members had read the reviews, which I had not, but which I'm told were not good.

If I'd been reviewing, I would have given it a bad review myself. The libretto is messy and dramatically incoherent, variable in tone, from the high to the low, with no apparent motivation. It contains a couple of jarring anachronisms, too. The one I remember is "piano wire." Mmm-hmm, in the early 17th c.?

The plot seems to be: Prospero is about to leave the island. Caliban doesn't want him to leave, because of Miranda, but also wants to kill Prospero. He falls asleep and has many dreams. I am not sure whether he WAKES UP by the end of the piece. I do know that Ariel has three sisters who are trapped inside a tree, and the only way they can be freed is if Caliban breaks Wotan's, er, Caliban's staff. And at the end they are free! So maybe it wasn't all a dream.

The music is certainly competently written and often pretty or striking from moment to moment, but it's also formless. It's more a collection of cabaret-style songs than a coherent whole, and  the style actually gets irritating because, well, they're not anywhere near as good as classic French or German cabaret, let alone, say, Stephen Sondehim's songs. There's no structure to the whole, no real climax or grandeur or sense of getting anywhere. There's a LOT of dialog between the numbers. Closest thing to a real climax was when the sisters came out of the tree....but it wasn't sustained for more than 30 seconds.

The singing was fine, though you have to believe that the veteran tenor John Duykers was chosen in part because of the aged condition of his voice; the orchestra was lovely; Jonathan Khuner did what he could to move along a collection of songs all written at tempo moderato. (Hmm.) 

Summing it all up: If you're thinking of going to the last performance and you don't have a ticket, pick up a copy of Thomas Ades's wonderful opera on The Tempest instead.


Yes, I have hardly been blogging: the unintended semi-hiatus is because I have been swamped at work, a situation that will continue through the end of the year. I also did not attend a single performance in July, because I have no Music@Menlo tickets and SFS's offerings just now....well, not for me.

Also, this handsome girl came to live with us three weeks or so ago, and training her has been taking up a lot of time when I'm not at work:

Her name's Lila and she came from the Oakland Animal Shelter even though we'd planned to get a cat-friendly dog from a rescue group. We think she is some kind of shepherd/hound mix. Some part of her, often her tail, is moving in most of the photos I've taken of her. More photos of her here and here.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Mystery Composer

Anyone care to identify this work and/or its composer? (No, silly, it's not a mystery to ME.)