Saturday, October 29, 2011


During the Dutilleux last night, I kept trying to figure out just what combination of instruments could the composer possibly be using to sound like a cimbalom. (It's a concert-sized hammer dulcimer used extensively by Hungarian folk bands, and occasionally by concert-music composers such as Stravinsky.)

You bet I had a slap-the-forehead moment when I saw a cimbalom cover carried on stage during the intermission. Yes, I should have read the program more carefully! D'oh!

Mystery Man

It's another tough week for regular concert-goers, with Simon Keenlyside's recital two nights ago at Herbst, the SFS program on which the star work was Henri Dutilleux's L'Arbre des Songes, Berkeley Symphony on Thursday, Philharmonia Baroque's "Arias for Farinelli" program, Nicola Luisotti and the SF Opera Orchestra in two Beethoven symphonies, and the openings of Xerxes at SF Opera and Ariadne auf Naxos at West Edge Opera.

Apparently all the cool kids were elsewhere last night when I went see Alan Gilbert conduct SFS, because there was not a familiar face anywhere near me. Full-time reviewers will have attended the Thursday matinee, freeing up that evening for Keenlyside or Berkeley Symphony and last night for Luisotti or PBO.

This was the fourth time I've seen Gilbert with SFS, and the fourth time he has failed to make my head explode. The program was exactly the kind of thing Gilbert has typically conducted in San Francisco; an interesting new work bracketed by Classical-period standards. Here's a rundown of his past appearances:

  • April, 2008. Mozart piano concert (Goode, who was boring); Stucky (okay, not great piece); Nielsen symphony that got a great performance
  • March, 2007. Ades, Chamber Symphony; Beethoven, Triple Concerto; Mozart, Symphony No. 41, "Jupiter." Ades great, others, eh.
  • Fall, 2004. Adams, Naive & Sentimental Music (great, though The Standing Room didn't care for the performance); Beethoven, Violin Concerto (Midori), eh.
Last night was Beethoven's 8th and Haydn's 99th on either side of the Dutilleux. The program worked out almost exactly the way I feared it would: the Beethoven, played with a big string section, about the same as for the Dutilleux, took no chances at all. Tempos were moderate, articulation was overly legato, the Davies acoustics buried the cello line in a critical repeat, etc. Solidly, actually, stolidly conducted and not something I would write home about. 

The Haydn was a different story; played with a smaller band, considerable charm, and sharper articulation, it came off as a much more interesting piece than the Beethoven. Maybe it is, or maybe Gilbert is simply a better Haydn than Beethoven conductor.

In between, filling out the first half of the program, came the Dutilleux, a beautiful and intricate violin concerto here played with warmth, commitment, and a soaring line by Renaud Capucon, making his main-stage debut with SFS. I don't have notes to speak of; I liked the work and was interested to see that SFS had played it before, in 1988 with Isaac Stern, the commissioner and dedicatee, as the soloist. A generation ago, in orchestra personnel terms, though a fair number of players must have been in those concerts. Capucon is a terrific player and he has recorded the piece; I should have bought the set last night and gotten it signed.

But then there's the Gilbert problem. He did a fine job with Doctor Atomic at the Met, far as I could tell from the broadcast. He has blown my head off once, in a magnificent one-off with the NYPO, his own band, last year at Carnegie Hall, and his work in 20th and 21st c. music at SFS has been very good indeed.. I understand that when you're a visiting conductor and there's a big and complex work on the program, the concert needs to have something on it that the orchestra can toss off with minimal rehearsal. The Eighth was presumably that piece. But I have yet to be impressed with Gilbert in any classical period music. It is all competently but uninterestingly played. It's a big deficit for the conductor of a major symphony orchestra, which is the NYPO's problem, not ours. But why not program music that's more his strong suit when he visits here? Less Classical Era Big Three, more Scandinavians and Finns!

Gubaidulina Commission Postponed Again

The November SFS programs featuring the Brahms Requiem were to include a new work by Sofia Gubaidulina, but owing to the composer's illness, the new work will be replaced by Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra and Schütz’s “Ich bin ein rechter Weinstock.”  (My memory is failing me: was this work also postponed a couple of years back?)

Note to Self: Places to Visit Whenever I Return to London

  • St. Pancras Old Church, in the graveyard of which are buried Sir John Soane and Lady Soane, John Polidori, and Johann Christian Bach.
  • Liberal Jewish Cemetery in Willesden, where Conchita Supervia is buried. (I looked for her grave in Golders Green Cemetery and found that of Jacqueline DuPre instead.)

Friday, October 28, 2011

Meanwhile, in San Diego

Jay Hunter Morris was scheduled to sing Captain Ahab in San Diego Opera's production of Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick. SDO has released him from that engagement....and the role will be sung by its creator, Ben Heppner - the Met's original Siegfried.

JHM to the Rescue!

Not only is Jay Hunter Morris singing the title role in the current run of Met Siegfrieds, he's taking the same role in several of the upcoming performances of Gotterdaemmerung. Here's the scoop from the Metropolitan Opera's press release:
Jay Hunter Morris will sing the role of Siegfried in the new production premiere of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung on January 27, and in the performances on February 7 and 11. He replaces Gary Lehman, who has withdrawn due to the continued effects of a viral infection. Stephen Gould will sing the role of Siegfried as scheduled in the January 31 and February 3 performances. The February 11 matinee of Götterdämmerung will be transmitted worldwide as part of The Met: Live in HD series. 
As Alex Ross tweeted, "this is good news based on last night's strong outing." James Jorden also liked JHM, reporting that he sang well and looked the part. I am not surprised; he was an engaging Siegfried and sang beautifully in SF.

No decisions yet, apparently, about what will happen in the full Ring cycles. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

This Week in the Death of Classical Music

The sky has failed to fall in....Boston, Massachusetts!

The BSO and its musicians have signed a new contract. Here are the relevant numbers, copied directly from Adaptistration:
  • Wages (three percent increase per year): 2011-12, $132,028; 2012-13, $135,980; 2013-14, $140,088.
  • Pension (Private): Increases $2,000 to $77,000.
  • Orchestra Size: Unchanged at 101 members.
Nice figures: base salary rises 3% per year and pensions, demonized by politicians and others elsewhere, are going up two grand a year.

Why couldn't Philly do this? Let me guess: the BSO has better management.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Bells of Notre Dame

The bells of Notre Dame de Paris are getting a makeover; several existing bells, age about 150, are to be melted down and replaced by new bells that, it is thought, will be more like the bells of 1686. Read about the restoration here (if you're using Chrome, it will offer to translate the French for you) and in a NY Times article. Be sure to listen to the remarkable audio example of what the new bells are expected to sound like.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Program Change

If you bought a ticket to David Robertson's SFS concerts on May 31, June1, and June 3 expecting to hear Dawn Upshaw singing Britten's Les Illuminations, you may have missed the fact that the program is now this:

Rossini, Overture to L'Italiana in Algeri
Chopin, Piano Concerto No. 2, with Nelson Freire, piano
Dvorak, Symphony No. 7

I caught this before I clicked through to seat designation.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Liszt 200

A day late, I know, but whatever.

I'm celebrating by listening to Marston Records' newish set, Liszt Illuminated, recordings by Jorge Bolet, Gunnar Johansen, and Claudio Arrau; beautiful music, incisive and beautiful playing.

Alex Ross writes:
Kenneth Hamilton has a fine, unsentimental appreciation in the New York Times...
And do I ever disgree.

First, I don't think the article is an appreciation of Liszt. At best, it's a brief survey of critical reaction to Liszt, by composers, critics, and Liszt himself; Hamilton doesn't cite the musicological literature on Liszt to speak of, nor does he quote from the dozens of pianists and conductors who go on playing Liszt year in and year out.

As for the title, "Still Wondering if Liszt Was Any Good," see that last sentence. Those pianist keep performing Liszt for reasons beyond demonstrating their steel-fingered piano skills, and surely good performances of his piano music make Liszt's virtues quite clear. Hamilton is asking the wrong damn question.

And yeah, plenty of composers have some junk in their catalogs. I encourage a look through the works in Beethoven's other catalog, the Werke ohne Opuszahl (works without opus number). Or even listen to Wellington's Victory, an entertaining potboiler.

The sum of the article is: Liszt is madly inconsistent, wrote some good stuff and some bad stuff. Um, discuss why, please. Compare and contrast a few works. Be a critic, not just a reporter.


Cannot believe I am doing this, but, yeah, now you can follow me on Twitter.

Same Concert? / Same Concert

  • John Marcher was not at the same concert as me. (Zajick looked to me as though she was listening attentively when she wasn't singing, nothing more sinister than that.)
  • Patrick Vaz was, even though it was a different night. ("As good as it gets." Yep.)

Oh, Really?

The Times obtained an advance copy of Condoleeza Rice's memoir, and I wanted to throw it against the wall without having read it. Take this bit from the Times article: 

In November 2001, she writes, she went to President George W. Bush upon learning that he had issued an order prepared by the White House counsel, Alberto R. Gonzales, authorizing military commissions without telling her. “If this happens again,” she told the president, “either Al Gonzales or I will have to resign.”
Mr. Bush apologized. She writes that it was not his fault and that she felt that Mr. Gonzales and Mr. Cheney’s staff had not served the president well.
Really? It's not the president's fault that he couldn't control his VP and his AG? That he let them undermine other members of his administration?
And then there's this:
For the most part, though, Ms. Rice defends the most controversial decisions of the Bush era, including the invasion of Iraq. The wave of popular uprisings known as the Arab Spring this year, she writes, has vindicated Mr. Bush’s focus on spreading freedom and democracy.

What crap. You don't "spread democracy" by invading other countries. The Arab Spring is exactly a wave of popular uprisings, not something forced on them by another country. I mean, tell me again about how much democracy we've succeeded in spreading to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Friday, October 21, 2011

And If You're Not Crying About This Weekend

Several possibilities:
  • Verdi Requiem, SFS & Symphony Chorus, Conlon. 'Nuff said. Friday & Saturday. $15 to $140.
  • BluePrint at SF Conservatory, Saturday, 8 p.m. Includes a preview of The Great Gatsby, Kurt Rohde's Violin Concertino (Axel Strauss), and a work by Schulhoff
  • Pacific Collegium, Saturday at 7:30 p.m. in SF at St. Gregory of Nyssa, Sunday at 3 p.m. at St. Paul's in Oakland; Schuetz's Kleine Geistliche Konzerte, wonderful chamber-sized miniatures, wonderful singers. Tickets $10-45.

October Also Makes Me Cry

October 27: Berkeley Symphony
October 27-29: Alan Gilbert at SFS (Haydn, Beethoven, Dutilleux)
October 27-30: Philharmonia Baroque (Arias for Farinelli)
October 30: SF Opera (Xerxes opens)
October 30: West Edge Opera (Ariadne auf Naxos opens)
October 30: SFS (Cameron Carpenter, organ; Phantom of the Opera, Lon Cheney)

I have a ticket for Gilbert/SFS and I'm reviewing Xerxes. Phantom and Ariadne are out. I could theoretically go to Phil. Baroque and Berkeley Symphony, but

We Were at the Same Concert

The Verdi Requiem at San Francisco Symphony, splendor illuminated.
Looking over my review, I see that I never did succeed in making one particular point: the Verdi Requiem is a close, close cousin to both Simon Boccanegra, in its revised 1881 version, and Otello, which would come a decade or so later. The prevailingly dark tinta, the trilling trumpets, the comfort and solace of "Sed signifier sanctus Michael" - I could not get the sound and feel of the brief orchestral prelude to Otello, or the great Council Chamber scene, out of my head.

    Wednesday, October 19, 2011

    Were We at the Same Concert?

    If you're a reviewer, you hear or see that question a lot, especially if you're a daily reviewer in a paper that has comments on reviews. Even when people appear to be physically in the same place, internally we hardly ever are.

    San Francisco Symphony, Wednesday, Oct. 5, 2011
    Vasily Petrenko
    Shostakovich; Tchaikovsky (arr. Glazunov); Glazunov; Elgar
    So I'll come down, overall, with JK. I understand what Kalimac means by "all butter and no sinew;" Bell's tone is gorgeous, rounded, without cutting edge. But there's plenty of sinew in Bell's line, which is long, longer, longest, never slumping or fading. I wish singers could all do what he did in the Glazunov and Tchaikovsky.

    I told a friend the day of the concert that I didn't know any of the works on it. This turned out to be wrong. I am sure I played the Shostakovich Festival Overture in a band back in the 1970s, most likely the Teaneck Summer Band under the late Fred Streckfuss. I am even more sure that we played it at maybe two-thirds the speed that Petrenko took. With a band like the San Francisco Symphony, anything is possible.

    As for the Elgar, this was my first-ever hearing of the piece, so I have absolutely no basis for comparison. But I liked it fine; the grandeur of the work and its Mahlerian mood certainly came across firmly. Jeff Dunn knows it rather better than I do, though, and perhaps I'd be closer to his viewpoint with his knowledge.

      Hero of the Year

      Jay Hunter Morris, who took over the Siegfried Siegfried in San Francisco Opera's Ring when Ian Storey was unable to sing the role, will be taking over the same part at the Metropolitan Opera. The press release says that Gary Lehman has withdrawn because of illness.

      Saturday, October 15, 2011

      No, Flames on Stage are Not Daring

      Especially in a modern house with fire marshalls making sure you won't burn down the building:
      In this production’s one theatrically daring touch, real flames shoot up from the floor around Giovanni’s dinner table as we watch him descend into hell.
      And apparently the word of the year is "hearty:"
      A hearty young Polish baritone... 
      ...the hearty bass Joshua Bloom...

      Thursday, October 13, 2011

      Inaccessible Email Redux

      The current count of organizations who've sent me email with all information in graphical format:
      • An die Musik, NYC (has not responded to one email)
      • San Francisco Choral Society (has not responded to 2 emails  responded to my third email and is investigating)
      • Composers, Inc. (SF)
      • KeyedUp Music, NYC
      A follow up to this posting, in which I discuss the fact that putting concert information in graphics rather than text makes the information impossible for screen readers to find and understand.

        Also This Weekend

        Choral car pile-up, yeah:

        Wednesday, October 12, 2011

        This Weekend

        Three concerts of note:
        • James Conlon conducts SFS in Pictures at an Exhibition and Shostakovich's 14th Symphony, the latter with Olga Guryakova and Sergei Leiferkus. Oct. 14 to 16; the 13th is a run-out to Davis.
        • Magnificat performs Charpentier's Orphee, in Palo Alto, Berkeley, and SF, on the 14th through 16th respectively. Hoping to make this one in Berkeley.
        • California Bach Society sings a program of JS & JC Bach, Johann Schelle, and Sebastian Knüpfer, in San Francisco, Palo Alto, and Berkeley, 14th through 16. Jennifer Paulino, Brian Staufenbiel, and Jeffrey Fields are the soloists.

        Tuesday, October 11, 2011

        Another Don Giovanni Cast Change - This Time in San Francisco

        Topi Lehtipuu out (illness, they say); Shawn Mathey in. Here he is in "Un'aura amorosa" from Cosi fan tutte.  I like this a whole lot better than I liked Lehtipuu's clips from Don Giovanni, not that I have a ticket. (Or Lehtipuu's "Un'aura amorosa," which is full of aspiration.)

        Yet Another Reason We Need a Revolution Drug Law Reform

        States are trying to make clean drug tests a requirement for receiving social insurance benefits such as unemployment, cash aid, job training, food stamps, and public housing.

        Yet another way to deny help to the poor. It's bad policy, a bad extension of our already bad policy about drug use.

        Falling Sky Follow-Up

        Earlier this year, I wrote a blog posting that shredded some assertions made by the HuffPost blogger Ivan Katz. What do you know, I was right about a few things, wrong about one.

        • San Francisco Opera settled its union contracts amicably: no strike, no labor strife. I had anticipated a lot of bad things happening; happily, I was wrong.
        • The Met HD broadcasts made an $11 million profit last season. (I estimated the Met's income as a minimum of $18 million but did not attempt to say what percentage of that might be profit.)
        • The Met HD audience was around 3 million people for last season.
        Three million people attending Met performances over and above the 800,000 at the house: yes, Virginia, there is an audience for opera out there, especially low-cost opera.

        I'll take that I-told-you-so, yes, I will.

        Monday, October 10, 2011

        Windy Day

        Reviewing a CD by the Berlin Philharmonic Wind Quintet.

        Wonderful music played fabulously. AND the Berlin Phil. Wind Quintet is currently on a US tour, unfortunately not getting any closer to the Bay Area than Oregon. Catch them if you can!

        Metropolitan Opera Cast Change - a Tasty One!

        Mariusz Kwiecien hurt his back at the Don Giovanni dress rehearsal (wah!).

        High-profile new production, Luisi conducting, can't have a second-stringer stepping in for Kwiecien, so, a little shuffling of the Met schedule gets us PETER MATTEI taking over for Kwiecien! (At least for opening night.)

        This increases the chances of my showing up for the HD broadcast, you betcha, if Mattei sings the full run.

        Update: Cher La Cieca, or her spies, report that Dwayne Croft subbed in for Kwiecien for the balance of the rehearsal and apparently was the cover. Well, Croft is a good singer, but Mattei has a whole lot more animal magnetism going for him.

        Friday, October 07, 2011

        Present Music Risks Funding Loss (Signal Boost)

        A proposed budget in the Milwaukee area would cut funding for 40 local organizations, including Present Music, which puts on a range of new music concerts there. Email received includes this:

        Present Music receives approximately $5,500 in CAMPAC funding annually, but even this small investment helps us keep our ticket prices accessible, spurs collaboration with other artistic and community partners, and ensures outreach to public schools that increasingly lack art and music in the classroom. To help you contact your supervisor, ARTS WISCONSIN has set up an automated email letter generator, complete with talking points - Click Here

        Thursday, October 06, 2011

        Accessibility Hall of Shame

        If you're putting concert or other information in a graphical format or Flash, whether in email or on your web site, you're excluding potential audience members who are blind. Blind people typically use screen readers, such as JAWS, to read text displayed on computer screens. JAWS needs actual text. It can't extract information from graphic formats.

        I've started sending email to organizations that do this. Do you want to alienate potential audience members by making it impossible for them to comprehend your concert information? By all means, go on using Flash and graphics instead of text in your email and on your web sites.

        Organizations I've contacted about email received in graphical format:
        • An die Musik, NYC
        • San Francisco Choral Society
        I'm hoping to hear back from these groups. If not, I'm sending them printed letters of complaint about this. For the rest of you, make sure you're using plain text or HTML, which screen readers can deal with. Don't put important information in graphics or Flash animations.

        Tuesday, October 04, 2011

        December Makes Me Cry

        Something's gotta give:

        Dec. 2 - 4 Cal Bach (A Belen - Spanish villancicos program)
        Dec. 2 - 6 Philharmonia Baroque (Mass in B Minor - I'm okay with missing this)
        Dec. 3 - Alexander Quartet at St. John's (Bartok/Kodaly)
        Dec. 3 - Flicka gala, Herbst Theater, SF
        Dec. 3 - SF Bach Choir (evening)
        Dec. 4 - SF Bach Choir (afternoon)
        Dec. 4 - Takacs Quartet at Cal Perf (Janacek, Britten, Ravel)
        Dec. 4 - Juilliard Quartet at Stanford Lively Arts (Stravinsky, Janacek, Mozart)
        Dec. 6 - BSO at Davies (Berlioz, Mozart, Carter, Bartok)
        Dec. 7 - BSO at Davies (Harbison, Ravel, Mahler)
        Dec. 9 - Esa-Pekka Salonen at SFS (Salonen, Sibelius, Wagner)
        Dec. 10 -  Alexander Quartet at St. John's (Bartok/Kodaly)
        Dec. 13 - 18 - New Century Chamber Orchestra
        Dec. 16-18 - Magnificat (Schuetz Christmas Story)
        Dec. 17 -  Alexander Quartet at St. John's (Bartok/Kodaly)
        Dec. 18 - SFS Messiah

        Ades, Here and There

        Reviewing the Calder Quartet and Thomas Ades, piano.

        I also saw last week's SFS program: Mozart's Haffner Symphony (a competently routine perfomance), Ades's Polaris, and Stravinsky's Petruchka.

        All thumbs up on Polaris, fifteen minutes of sheer gorgeousness over what sounded like a chaconne's repeated bass line (the program notes say repeated, interlocking canons). I wish they'd played it twice; after all, the first half of the program was about 35 minutes long, not including the necessary stage management. As for the video, by Tal Rosner, sigh. Very pretty, but for me, a distraction from the music rather than an enhancement. (This is my invariable reaction to complicated music paired with video.)

        Petruchka was simply grand, a crackling performance of a great, great work. I first heard it conducted live around 1973 or 74 by Pierre Boulez; earlier this year I saw the ballet for the first time, which explained a whole lot about the music. Stravinsky: genius, but you knew that. All the musicians in SFS played their hearts out last week; great contributions by Tim Day, Robert Ward, and others.

        And can I say this loudly enough, even though he's a modest guy? TRUMPET GOD MARK INOUYE. Yeah, I hope to have something to say about the previous week's Mahler 3, in which Inouye was absolutely incredible.

        Sunday, October 02, 2011

        This Says Something About SFS. I'm Just Not Sure What.

        My first envelope of tickets from SFS included this:

        It's a small sheet of stickers to put on your calendar, reminding you of the concert you're attending that day.

        Saturday, October 01, 2011

        Dear Blogger:

        You will have to tear my current template from my cold, dead fingers before I replace it with the unreadable, photo-blog-oriented crap you're currently pushing. What is wrong with you?

        No, I do not want my blog to look like Google+!

        Oh, wait - I can tell you this internally, and I will.


        Lisa Irontongue

        Stand Down, Placido.

        Anne Midgette is right that you're a mediocre conductor at best. The only reason you get hired to conduct is that you're the World's Greatest Living Tenor. And forget about "defamatory:" nobody reading what she wrote would think that you deliberately undermined the Tosca performance she attended.