Monday, November 28, 2011

Jurinac and Figueras Obits

The NY Times catches up; both obits are by Zachary Woolfe:
  • Sena Jurinac (Rudolf Bing had a few things to say about her nonappearance at the Met.)
  • Montserrat Figueras. ("...a kind of Patridge Family of early music"?? I prefer "the Savall cabal," my own coinage.)

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Letter to the Times, Unpublished

Anonymity on the Internet is the subject of this week's Times Sunday Dialog section of the Sunday Review. It started with a letter from Christopher Wolf of the Anti-Defamation League. Read his letter, letters of response, and his reply here. I sent in a letter that didn't get published in the Times:

To the Editor:

Christopher Wolf of the Anti-Defamation League must have spent much less time on the Internet than I have if he sincerely thinks that a real or legal names policy in any way improves the quality of conversation. I have seen many forums made uncivil by people writing under their (apparently) real names.

He must also not have thought much about the political dissidents, members of sexual and ethnic minorities, and members of other groups who would put themselves at great personal risk if they were to participate in Internet discussions under their real names. There's a handy list of people so affected at the Geek Feminism Wiki. I strongly encourage Mr. Wolf to read it.

Yrs truly, &c,

It's worth noting that this blog is under my real (legal) name and almost everything I've said on the Internet is under my real name. I've occasionally posted pseudonymous comments at the NY Times, but that's about it. But I care a lot about those for whom anonymity or pseudonymity is a matter of survival; I'm friends with plenty of people in that situation.

I Live in the Computerized Home of the Future, Circa 1979

They got just a few things wrong:
  • I mix my own drinks.
  • The video phone fits in my pocket.
  • My clothes are not that dorky.
  • Tape? What's that?

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

WQXR's Beethoven Piano Sonata Marathon

Missed last Sunday's Beethoven piano sonata marathon at the Green Space in NYC? The nice people at WQXR have created a video archive of the whole darned thing, in convenient two-hour chunks. Listen to it at your leisure, in whatever order appeals.

Sena Jurinac

A while back, I came into a copy of Wilhelm Fürtwangler's RAI Ring, passed along to me by a friend who'd gotten a better transfer. It sat for a couple of years, because of the usual reason - time - and fear of Martha Mödl. Eventually, with the approach of the 2011 San Francisco Ring, I got over my terror and made the time.

The prelude was as expected, but I sat bolt upright and dove for the cast list when I heard the Rheinmaidens, because clearly one of them was a cut, no, two or three cuts, above the standard for Rheinmaidens. The booklet told all: In a remarkable stroke of luxury casting, the recording rejoices in Sena Jurinac as Woglinde. She returns in Götterdämmerung as the Third Norn, Woglinde, and Gutrune, giving an especially memorable performance in the latter ungrateful role.

The great soprano died yesterday at her home in Germany, age 90. She was an enormous star at the Vienna State Opera from 1945 until her retirement in the early 1980s; a commenter on Parterre Box notes that she sang a staggering 1198 performances there. She still made time to sing in San Francisco, Glyndbourne, and other leading theaters, though somehow she never appeared at the Met.

She sang a wide range of music during her long career, from Cherubino, Octavian, and the Composer (roles taken now primarily by mezzos) to the Countess and Donna Anna to a select few Verdi and Puccini roles, among them Butterfly and Elisabetta di Valois, to Jenufa and Marie in Wozzeck to Wagner's Eva. Every recording of hers that I've heard is immaculately sung, with beautiful tone, a secure line, perfect intonation, and dramatic canniness. Even as Elisabetta, with a voice not at all Italianate, her feel for the line and her sense of drama carry the day:

Here she is as a different Elisabeth, this one Wagner's, at La Scala in 1967. And as Mozart's Susanna:

Montserrat Figueras

Via Alex Ross comes the sad news that Montserrat Figueras has died at the young age of 69. The soul of Hesperion XXI and other groups led by her husband, viol pioneer Jordi Savall, she sang with a darkly beautiful soprano both passionate and playful. I never saw Hesperion in concert, which I deeply regret.

You can hear her on some 60 CDs recorded by the Savall Cabal, which include the couple's daughter and son. If you do not know their work, start with Villacicos y Danzas Criollas and Tonos Humanos, then, well, anything from their vast and rich catalog. You can buy directly from Alia Vox, Hesperion's own record label, or elsewhere on the web. I see that there's a set of Monteverdi secular works with Figueras, Andrew Lawrence-King, and Rolf Lislevand; I do not have this, and I will be remedying that shortly.

Here's "Un sarao de la chacona," as infectiously joyful a performance as I've ever heard of anything:

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Occupying UC

An article in the Huffington Post gets at the root cause:
....what is at issue is the dismantling of public education in California. Just six years ago, tuition at the University of California was $5357. Tuition is currently $12,192. According to current proposals, it will be $22,068 by 2015-2016.
In the 1970s, friends of mine attended UC Berkeley for the giant sum of $75/quarter; an acquaintance reports $200/quarter at UCLA. They could rent a room in a shared house for $100 or so a month. This is why Prop. 13 was so hugely destructive: instead of a public university that anyone could afford to attend, we have a public university that is out of reach for most without taking on a crushing level debt before entering the workforce.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Monday Miscellany

I have four performances to write up; of course, the programs are all elsewhere. To mark the day:

Dan Wakin reports on the NYPO's search for a replacement for retiring president & CEO Zarin Mehta; the local angle is that Brent Assink of the San Francisco Symphony was approached and decided to stay in SF....The Berkeley Hillside Club has a couple of enticing concerts coming up with members of the SFS: Symphony Players (includes Peter Wyrick, Jonathan Vinocour, and others) in Mozart & Mendelssohn string quintets on Sunday, Nov. 27 at 7 p.m.; Sarn Oliver, Mariko Smiley, and Robert Pollock play a wide range of trios and duets, by Oliver, Pollock, Edward T. Cone, Milhaud, and Takemitsu on Thursday, Dec. 1 at 8 p.m...In London, the New Queen's Hall Orchestra starts a Brahms cycle on Nov. 23, celebrating their 20th anniversary....The Princeton Symphony Orchestra, which has consistently interesting and thoughtful programming, has a newly redesigned web site....So does the mighty Boston Symphony Orchestra; you should have seen me tweeting bug reports to them last week....Seventh Avenue Performances has a good-looking season with lots of early music...

Sunday, November 20, 2011

A Few Suggestions

  • For San Francisco Symphony: how helpful it would be if you posted concert running times on your web site.
  • For San Francisco Symphony: it's good that each concert on the front-page calendar has a Buy Tickets button. Unfortunately, the button doesn't link to the ticket-buying system. It links to the concert landing page, where you click another Buy Tickets button, which really does take you to the ticket-buying system. Why the lying Buy Tickets button??
  • For San Francisco Opera: when the stage is as brightly lit as it was for Xerxes, the supertitles are washed out and difficult to read. More contrast, please.
  • For San Francisco Opera: it's always a good idea to check how the whole show looks from the back of the balcony. For instance, did you know that the stagehand tossing bits of greenery over the set curtain was visible from row L?

Friday, November 18, 2011

Lehman Out, JHM In: Met Goetterdaemmerung

I am not surprised. From the Met press office:
Jay Hunter Morris will sing the role of Siegfried in Siegfried on April 21 matinee and April 30, 2012, and in Götterdämmerung on May 3, 2012. He replaces Gary Lehman who has withdrawn due to illness.

The BSO Answers

A couple of postings back, I wondered out loud, very loudly, about the Tanglewood website design. I now have a tweet from the BSO in response my tweet last night about the hidden information there:
This is part of the cleaner design of the site 
Oh, dear.

"Clean design" should not be the goal of a web site. An arts organization's web site needs to do two things as well as it possibly can:

1. Provide information.
2. Make it easy to buy tickets.

A "cleaner design" that hides information defeats both those purposes. There's less information readily visible, which means people have to work a little harder to get the information they need for decision-making purposes. I mean, I always want to know who's playing and conducting a concert before I buy the tickets.

Salzburg Festival Commissions

Four new operas are coming at future Salzburg Festivals, by Gyorgy Kurtag, Marc-Andrew Dalbavie, Thomas Ades, and Jorg Widmann. I wonder how hard it will be to get tickets....

Why, Oh, Why?

The BSO has a spiffy-looking web site for Tanglewood, but I just don't understand one design decision: When you scroll down the performance listing and click the More Details link for a specific concert, the performer names are not visible. You have to mouse over a photograph to see who is conducting or playing.

Take the opening concert.See the gray-haired gent? Because it's an all-Beethoven program of the Leonore No. 3 and the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, I can guess that he is not a soloist. I happen to recognize him, in fact. But if I didn't, I'd have to mouse over the photo to discover that he's Christoph von Dohnanyi.

However, I don't recognize the guy conducting the Stravinsky & Brahms program or the pianist playing the Brahms series. I have to click through and then mouse over their photos.

And seriously? You have to click on a tiny, light green, More Details link to see the details. You can't click on the date or the photo accompanying each listing.

Is there some reason to hide performers' names in mouse-over text?? Not a good one, I'll tell you that.

Hoisted from the comments, so the maximum number of people see it; reader Unknown says:
You're absolutely spot-on with these comments, except you didn't ask what to me was the most obvious question: why can't I just download or look at a simple text file with all of the season information? Why do I have to keep scrolling down the page and click on "More Details" boxes to learn just the basic information (e.g., what's being played and who is playing it) about each concert?
Unknown is right! Why not?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Your Brochures

Dear Concert Presenters:

For crying out loud, DO NOT print your brochure in 7 point, light red, light-stroke-weight print on bright white paper and expect anyone to be able to read it!


Tossed My Copy in the Recycling

Exchange Policies at SF Symphony and Opera

I am being charged $10 (or so I was told) by San Francisco Symphony to exchange a ticket for Nov. 18 for a concert in the same series on Nov. 20. Herein, let us review the exchange policies for SF Symphony and SF Opera.

San Francisco Symphony exchange policy:

Please note that all exchanges must be received by Patron Services 24 hours in advance of the performance date printed on the tickets that you are exchanging. We’ll do our best to accommodate your request.

Ticket exchanges in person and by mail are free for subscribers, while faxed requests will result in an $9 charge. Non-subscribers will be charged a $10 exchange fee for each in-person or mailed transaction and $19 for each fax request. Phone requests are $12 subscribers and $22 for non-subscribers. Exchange requests into a higher-priced performance or section will be charged the difference. The difference for exchange requests into a lower-priced performance or section will not be refunded, but will be considered as a donation.

[$22 for a phone exchange if you're not a subscriber. Jeez. I mean, I think they shouldn't charge subscribers anything, and a much lower fee for non-subscribers. These fees are the kind of nickle-and-diming that piss people off even more than high ticket prices.]

San Francisco Opera exchange policy:

Subscriber Exchanges:
  • There is no fee for exchanges to another performance of the same opera.
  • Full and Half Series subscribers may exchange to a different opera with no fee.
  • All other series subscribers may exchange to a different opera for $10 per ticket (compared to $25 per ticket for non-subscribers).
  • Subscribers may exchange tickets over the phone (you must have your tickets in hand; please see below).
  • Note that there are no exchanges from a different opera into Lucrezia Borgia.
  • Note that there are no exchanges for Ring cycle tickets.
  • If there are no alternative performance dates that work for you, consider returning your tickets as a donation. You may donate your tickets by calling the Box Office; an acknowledgment will be mailed to you for a tax deduction.

Here’s How to Exchange:

Exchange tickets at least 24 hours prior to the performance; there is a $10 per ticket fee for day-of exchanges up to two hours prior to the performance* for all subscribers; all exchanges are subject to availability.
  • Call (415) 864-3330 (please have the tickets you’d like to exchange in hand). 
  • Visit the Box Office in person, and bring the tickets you’d like to exchange.
  • Mail your tickets and exchange request:
    [SF Opera doesn't charge different fees depending on how you make your exchange. Good policy: it's really hard to say why SFS charges you based on whether you phone, mail, fax, or walk up to the ticket office. The latter is an option only for people who live or work nearby or who can arrange to visit. But getting to the box office, for me, means a major time commitment to save the money. Not. Worth. It.]

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Erzsébet: The Opera

Dennis Bathory-Kitsz's new opera Erzsébet premiered a couple of weeks ago, with three performances in Vermont. Now it's ready to travel.

Erzsébet tells the story of Countess Erzsébet Bathory, the notorious blood countess. Dennis has been researching the subject and working on this opera for quite a few years. I've heard a recording of one of the performances and it sounds terrific: colorful, mysterious, and very operatic. It's scored for a small ensemble and has what looks like a difficult but rewarding soprano part. The only unusual scoring is for cimbolom.

Are you interested in performing Erzsébet? Read Bring Her to Your Town! and use the link there to contact Dennis about the options. If you're in the Bay Area and want to see the score, contact me: I have a copy.

One Can Hope

Alex Ross discusses some tantalizing sketches that might be the remains of the Sibelius Eighth. Be sure to read the story he links to and of course listen to the run-through of just a minute or two of the sketches.

Beethoven Piano Sonata Marathon

So, yeah, I rolled my eyes at the thought of Beethoven Awareness Month. But WQXR is putting on one event that I'd go to if I were in NYC: a Beethoven piano sonata marathon. A tag team of pianists will perform all 32 - not, alas, in order - from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. this Sunday, November 20. A nice launch to the holiday week, I would say. It'll be at the Greene Performance Space, NYC.

Here's the lineup:

WQXR Beethoven 32 Piano Sonata Marathon
The Jerome L. Greene Performance Space, NYC
Sunday, November 20
All-day passes are available here; for tickets to each of the two-hour parts, see links below.

Part I: 11am – 1pm
Marina Radiushina: Sonata No. 1 in F minor, Op. 2, No. 1
Hyung Min Suh: Sonata No. 4 in E-flat, Op. 7, “Grand Sonata”
Alessio Bax: Sonata No. 8 in C minor, Op. 13, “Pathétique”
Philip Edward Fisher: Sonata No. 10 in G, Op. 14, No. 2
Evan Shinners: Sonata No. 11 in B-flat, Op. 22
Tickets for Part I are available here.

Part II: 1pm – 3pm
Daria Rabotkina: Sonata No. 2 in A, Op. 2, No. 2
Michael Brown: Sonata No. 22 in F, Op. 54
Michael Brown: Sonata No. 15 in D, Op. 28, “Pastoral”
Qi Xu: Sonata No. 25 in G, Op. 79
Inon Barnatan: Sonata No. 27 in E minor, Op. 90
Alessio Bax: Sonata No. 31 in A-flat, Op. 110
Tickets for Part II are available here.

Part III: 3pm – 5pm
Ching-Yun Hu: Sonata No. 3 in C, Op. 2, No. 3
Yuchiong Wu: Sonata No. 19 in G minor, Op. 49, No. 1
Yuchiong Wu: Sonata No. 20 in G, Op. 49, No. 2
Inon Barnatan: Sonata No. 6 in F, Op. 10, No. 2
Benjamin Hochman: Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, “Appassionata”
Ching-Yun Hu: Sonata No. 28 in A, Op. 101
Tickets for Part III are available here.

Part IV: 5pm – 7pm
Valentina Lisitsa: Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2, “Moonlight”
Benjamin Hochman: Sonata No. 7 in D, Op. 10, No. 3
Drew Peterson: Sonata No. 16 in G, Op. 31, No. 1
Timothy Andres: Sonata No. 21 in C, Op. 53, “Waldstein”
Steven Beck: Sonata No. 30 in E, Op. 109
Tickets for Part IV are available here.

Part V: 7pm – 9pm
Louis Schwizgebel: Sonata No. 9 in E, Op. 14, No. 1
Jonathan Biss: Sonata No. 12 in A-flat, Op. 26, “Funeral March”
Joyce Yang: Sonata No. 18 in E-flat, Op. 31, No. 3, “The Hunt”
Timothy Andres: Sonata No. 24 in F-sharp, Op. 78, “A Thérèse”
Jeremy Denk: Sonata No. 29 in B-flat, Op. 106, “Hammerklavier”
Tickets for Part V are available here.

Part VI: 9pm – 11pm
Jonathan Biss: Sonata No. 5 in C minor, Op. 10, No. 1
David Kaplan: Sonata No. 13 in E-flat, Op. 27, No. 1, “Quasi una fantasia”
Natasha Paremski: Sonata No. 17 in D minor, Op. 31, No. 2, “Tempest”
Louis Schwizgebel: Sonata No. 26 in E-flat, Op. 81a, “Les adieux”
Jeremy Denk: Sonata No. 32 in C minor, Op. 111
Tickets for Part VI are available here.

Note Jeremy Denk's finger-busting assignment of the Hammerklavier and Op. 111.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Massenet Reconsidered

Until a couple of years ago, I would have agreed with a comment Joshua Kosman made about 19th c. French music:
I have no particular use for any 19th-century French music that isn't by Berlioz (remember, "Gounod" is an anagram of "ungood")
Well, mostly agreed: unlike Joshua, I'm fond of Saint-Saens. (Yes, I've got tickets to see both the Organ Symphony and Piano Concerto No. 5 ("Egyptian") at SFS this year - how could I possibly miss them?) Perhaps this particular perversion is balanced by the fact that I have developed something of an aversion to Carmen.

In any event, a few years back I gave a listen to Massenet's Esclarmonde, via Parterre Box's Unnatural Acts of Opera archive. You could say that I was both surprised and positively impressed: the piece has sweep and power, an advanced harmonic language, and an absolutely killer soprano part. I began to suspect that perhaps the problem was not Massenet, but his most-heard opera, Manon, which I feel is best presented as a concert of excerpts.

Then San Francisco Opera put on the composer's Werther, and again I was positively impressed and had a perfectly good time. Charming domestic interludes, adorable children's chorus, some truly remarkable harmonic language. The work got a fine performance, too, with Ramon Vargas in the title role and Alice Coote an extremely strong Charlotte. (Vocally, at least; from the balcony, I found her acting chilly.) 

This afternoon, I got to hear a serious rarity, Sapho, performed by OperaLab, a group of singers who put on concert versions - okay, public read-throughs, with very minimal rehearsal time - of unusual repertory that interests them.

You already know the plot: young man from the provinces - literally; like Alfredo Germont, he's from Provence - moves to the big city, meets and falls in love with an attractive woman, moves in with her, discovers she has a Scandalous Past, leaves her, goes back to her, she leaves him, realizing he'll always be suspicious of her and jealous of her Past. Yes, it's La Traviata, or, more precisely, La Rondine, on a rather different scale. Nobody dies, however much unhappiness there is.

Well, it's a lovely opera! Five acts of consistently interesting and beautiful music; I'm pretty sure that it's perfectly stageworthy, as well. Much charm in the domestic music (the tenor's parents and adorable cousin make appearances); considerable beauty to the arias given to the tenor and the leading soprano, several good character roles. 

Everyone sounded great and sang gorgeously: Tania Solomon as Fanny (Sapho); tenor Ray Chavez as Jean; Elizabeth Wells as Jean's mother; Roger McCracken double-cast as Jean's father and a good friend; Cass Panuska as his cousin Irene; Wayne Wong in several small roles. Robert Ashens played piano quite marvelously. Big kudos to all; I'm so glad to have heard this rarity done with such style and grace.

Masses by Mozart

I'm not singing with Chora Nova this year, but I am sure many would find their first program a tasty one!

Chora Nova's sixth season launches with two beautiful, powerful, and popular Masses by Mozart: his Requiem, left unfinished as he raced to complete it on his deathbed, and the lovely Mass in C ("Coronation"). Dr. Paul Flight directs the chorus, orchestra, and four excellent soloists: Michele Byrd, Ruthann Lovetang, Brian Thorsett, and Paul Murray. This year, we also initiate a series of pre-concert talks, free to all who attend the concert.

Tickets are $20 general, $18 senior, and $10 student with ID. Tickets are available through the Chora Nova website,, at the door or from any chorister.

Date: Saturday, November 19, 2011
Location: First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, Dana St. between Haste and Channing
Time: Pre-concert talk 7:30 p.m.
Concert 8:00 p.m.
Program: Mozart: Requiem, K. 626; Mass in C, K. 317, "Coronation"
Tickets:, at the door
$20 general, $18 senior, $10 student with ID

Saturday, November 12, 2011

If You're Wondering...

...why I haven't had a lot more to say about the S.F. Opera fall schedule, here's the scorecard:

  • Turandot: attended the dress rehearsal. Though it just fine, with the exceptions of terrible stand-and-deliver direction, blocky chorus movement, and Luisotti's decision to go for huge grandeur at the expense of some momentum. Like Irene Theorin; found Marco Berti about four times better than as Manrico (who knew??); though Leah Crocetto lovely. Still love the opera and the lurid Hockney production.
  • Heart of a Soldier: couldn't stomach the thought.
  • Don Giovanni: Not for a few more years, thanks; the 2007 production was great, don't need to see for a while.
  • Lucrezia Borgia: see previous posting.
  • Xerxes: seeing it this coming week as I woke up the day of the primo with a sore back.
  • Carmen: Only if it's Conchita Supervia back from the grave. Maybe in another five or ten years. 
So, right, I am only seeing two of the fall operas during their run. And I'm only planning to see Attila and Nixon in China in June, unless Magic Flute turns out to be the best thing since sliced bread. Hoping for better luck next season, but I have less and less interesting in spending money to see operas for the third, fourth, fifth time unless they're works I particularly love. The SF Symphony Bluebeard will be my fourth over 19 years and I'm not tired of it yet.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

To the surprise of many, including myself, my opera subscription this year included a ticket to see Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, starring soprano Renee Fleming, who hadn't sung in San Francisco in a decade. Surprise because, of course, I am a fan of neither Donizetti nor Fleming. I've even walked out on two Donizetti operas (La Favorite and Elisir) and one performance with Fleming (but it wasn't her fault).

I'm surprised to report that I enjoyed the opera itself greatly. If I'd heard large chunks of it blind, I would have said it was some early Verdi opera or another. Shades of Rigoletto, which wouldn't be actually be written for another 18 years; you could certainly hear where much of Verdi's musical and gestural language came from.

Not that the opera comes close to matching Rigoletto's emotional impact or its formal perfection. How could it? The title character is a cross between Lady Macbeth and Rigoletto, and Donizetti simply did not have the musical vocabulary to portray those extremes of emotion and personality. Still, there's plenty of lovely music, even when it falls short of matching the drama.

And, of course, the plot is preposterous: the title character somehow misplaced her son as an infant, apparently handing him over to a lower-class person for caretaking, then lost track of him completely. At a ball, about to fall in love with him, and with him definitely falling for her, she realizes he's her long-lost offspring. Her jealous husband thinks the son is her lover, and tries to kill him. She has the antidote to the poison - look, she is a notorious poisoner - and saves him.

Then, attempting to kill off a large group of political enemies, who quite rightly hate her because she mudered some of their relatives, she accidentally poisons him too. Because he and his buddy Maffio Orsini have sworn to live and die together - we've heard this before, or, rather, we'll hear it again, in Forza and Don Carlo - he refuses to take the last bit of antidote.

By and large, the opera got an excellent performance. Debuting conductor Riccardo Frizza moved the music along well and in shapely fashion; the proportions were good, tempos appropriate and varied, nothing sagged, nothing was out of place. Tenor Michael Fabiano, making his SF Opera debut, was a terrific Gennaro, displaying a lovely voice with good size and projection, lots of ping, and plenty of stage presence. As his brother in arms, Maffio Orsini, mezzo Elizabeth DeShong sang with swagger, and handled the decorations in the last-act drinking song with aplomb. (If you know anything from this opera, it's the drinking song, quite possibly in a famous recording made about a century ago by the great contralto Ernestine Schumann-Heink). Vitalij Kowaljow made a menacing Duke of Ferrara, overcoming a slightly wobbly start. A sprinkling of Adler Fellows took the minor roles and sang them well.

Now for the bad ...

The set is a rather dark unit set, with various parts moved around to create a ballroom, the Ferraras' basement, a street, etc., etc. Inoffensively uninteresting, in other words. The costumes are a mixture of more-or-less accurate 15th c. dress and leather steampunkish fantasy Renaissance outfits. Now, I like steampunkish fantasy Renaissance as much as the next opera goer, but we've seen this before, done better, in the wonderful Lamos/Yeargan DiChirico-influenced Rigoletto, with its stylized outfits, lurid colors, and sickly lighting. Next to that production, this looks mighty tame.

Worse, the direction is limp and, well, directionless. Too much stand-and-sing, not much interaction among the characters. And it shies away from showing the possibilities in the Gennaro/Maffio relationship, too.

....and the ugly.

Lucrezia Borgia has never been perfomed before at San Francisco Opera, and given the weakness of the libretto and the failure of the music to rise above the enjoyable and energetic, it's easy to see why. The piece is a novelty that will not, and should not, earn a place in the standard repertory, regardless of how many Sutherlands and Caballes and Gencers perform the title role.

SF Opera staged it solely as a vehicle for yet another diva; crucially, one utterly lacking the chops brought to it by those earlier singers. I would have to say that it was the worst performance I have ever seen live by a major singer: dramatically vapid and uninvolved, vocally wayward. Fleming's voice has no core to speak of; it's lovely and round and smoothly-produced without having much projecting power or edge or character. She trills nicely (and did, a few times) and can sustain a floated high note that soars over an ensemble (and she did, in the one place the score calls for this particular effect).

But the role calls for so much more: passion and theatricality; dramatic range and easy coloratura that sounds tossed off rather than labored over. Of this, Fleming had nothing. Her coloratura had no dramatic feel, no sense of outburst or passion; rather, she sounded careful, the kiss.of death in virtuoso music. She lost the line utterly in trying to get through the little notes. Dramatically, she was simply absent, smiling vacantly when passion or tenderness were called for, and certainly never seeming like a murderous poisoner. Joshua Kosman had a few things to say about her, you bet. (I agree with him straight down the line.)

And however much the press releases about her and this opera call Lucrezia a "signature role," she has sung it in perhaps two productions before this. For me, "signature roles" are the roles that immediately come to mind when you think of a singer: Nilsson and Isolde, Bruennhilde, Elektra, Turandot; Sutherland and the bel canto repertory; Zajick and Amneris, Azucena, and other big-gun mezzo roles.

When I think of Fleming, I think of the Marschallin, Countess Almaviva, Donna Anna, the Cappriccio Countess. This is Kiri te Kanawa territory, the roles that can be brought off with a beautiful voice and a generalized vacant nobility. (Well, maybe not Donna Anna; it's not possible to sing "Or sai chi l'onore" without some degree of brilliance.)

I know I've written before about the gala performance at the War Memorial where I heard Ruth Ann Swenson and Fleming in close proximity. The differences were surprising: Swenson had by far the larger, better-projected, more brilliant, and more beautiful voice than Fleming. Believe me, I know that Swenson was  not the deepest actor to be found on the operatic stage, but only once did I come out of a performance of hers feeling seriously let down, a Manon where she, her co-star, and half the rest of the cast was announced as indisposed. We used to hear Swenson nearly annually at San Francisco, though she seems largely, and prematurely, vanished from the major houses. You bet that I spent about half the opera thinking how much better a Lucrezia Swenson would have been in her prime than Fleming was; she would have sung with more sweep and assurance and very likely considerably more drama and passion.

Nadine Sierra, Here and There

Young soprano Nadine Sierra, one of the winners of a recent Metropolitan Opera auditions, is variously in the news.

  • Nicholas Romeo's new book Driven: Six Incredible Musical Journies follows several young musicians who've appeared on NPR's radio show From the Top. It has a chapter about Sierra; you can read it here.The book is available through your local bookseller or on line.
  • The soprano sang locally in San Francisco Performance's Salons at the Rex series. John Marcher has the story. She's now an Adler Fellow at SF Opera.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Ojai Music Festival, 2012

This might trump the ticket I have to see Charles Dutoit and the Philadelphia Orchestra on June 9:

66th OJAI MUSIC FESTIVAL, June 7-10, 2012
Thomas W. Morris, Artistic Director
Leif Ove Andsnes, Music Director
Concerts at the new Libbey Bowl unless otherwise noted

Thursday June, 2012
location TBA
Festival Symposium
Ara Guzelimian, symposium director
Topics and guests to be announced

Thursday, June 7, 2012
Libbey Park
            John Luther Adams: Inuksuit (for 48 percussionists)                                                         
                        Steven Schick, director

Thursday, June 7, 2012
            Program to include:
Shostakovich: Six Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva, Op. 143a 
                        Christianne Stotijn, mezzo soprano
Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
Ives: Concord Sonata                                                                
            Marc-André Hamelin, piano

Friday 9, 2012
Ojai Community Church
Festival Symposium
Ara Guzelimian, symposium director
Topics and guests to be announced        

Friday, June 8, 2012
Janáček: String Quartet No. 2 “Intimate Letters”    (arr. for string orchestra)
            Norwegian Chamber Orchestra
            Reinbert de Leeuw: Im wunderschönen Monat Mai (“In the Merry Month of May”):    A Cycle of 21 Songs on Schumann and Schubert”                           
                        Reinbert de Leeuw, piano                                                           
                        Barbara Sukowa, actress
                        Norwegian Chamber Orchestra
Saturday, June 9, 2012
Eivind Buene: Langsam und Schmachtend                                             
            Norwegian Chamber Orchestra
            Wagner (arr. Mottl): Wesendonck Lieder                         
            Christianne Stotijn, mezzo soprano
                        Norwegian Chamber Orchestra
                                    interspersed with
            Berg: Four Pieces Op. 5                                                  
                        Martin Fröst, clarinet
                        Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
Berg: Four Songs, Op. 2                                                
Christianne Stotijn, mezzo soprano
Marc-André Hamelin, piano
            Beethoven: Piano Sonata No. 21 n C Major, Op. 53 “Waldstein”                                                    
Leif Ove Andsnes, piano                                                
Saturday June 9, 2012
Haflidi Hallgrímsson: Poemi, Op. 7                                                                     
Norwegian Chamber Orchestra
Terje Tønneson, violin
Bent Sørensen: Piano Concerto No. 2 “La Mattina”   American premiere
Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
Norwegian Chamber Orchestra
Anders Hillborg: Peacock Tales (version for clarinet and tape)
Martin Fröst, clarinet
Mozart: Trio in E flat “Kegelstatt”  K. 498                         
                        Martin Fröst, clarinet
Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
Antoine Tamestit, viola
György Kurtág: Hommage à Robert Schumann                            
                        Martin Fröst, clarinet and bass drum                                           
                        Leif Ove Andsnes, piano
                        Antoine Tamestit, viola

Sunday, June 10, 2012
            Bartók: Contrasts                                                                      
            Marc-André Hamelin, piano
Martin Fröst, clarinet
Øyvind Bjorå, violin
            Grieg: Holberg Suite (arr. for string orchestra)
Norwegian Chamber Orchestra   
William Bolcom: Cabaret Songs  (selection)                                            
            Marc-André Hamelin, piano
            Christianne Stotijn, mezzo soprano
Copland: Clarinet Concerto                                                        
                        Martin Fröst, clarinet                                                                 
                        Norwegian Chamber Orchestra

Sunday June 10, 2012
            Debussy: Danses sacrée et profane                                           
                        Norwegian Chamber Orchestra
            John Adams: Shaker Loops                                                       
Reinbert de Leeuw, conductor
                        Norwegian Chamber Orchestra
            John Luther Adams: Dark Waves (version for two pianos and tape)
Leif Ove Andsnes, piano                                                
Marc-André Hamelin, piano
Stravinsky: Sacre du printemps                                      
                        Leif Ove Andsnes, piano                                                
            Marc-André Hamelin, piano

Monday, November 07, 2011

Camerata Pacifica

If you're in the greater Los Angeles or Santa Barbara area, you'll want to check out Camerata Pacifica, a chamber music group that performs on a monthly basis in the southland, giving each of their programs four times. Their programming is an attractive mix of the well-known with the new and the offbeat. Rossini wrote string quartets? Apparently so, and you can hear his String Sonata No. 3 later this month, along with Schubert's Trout Quintet and works by Luytens and Wiegold.

Kate Aldrich Withdraws from San Francisco Carmen

Kate Aldrich has withdrawn entirely from the SF Opera Carmn. Kendall Gladen will sing the performances of November 9, 26, 29 and December 2, 4.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

A Martinelli / Lauri-Volpi Moment

Alex Ross has a posting up about Giacomo Lauri-Volpi's 1934 recording of the Improvviso from Andrea Chenier. Here's Giovanni Martinelli's, from 1926; one of the great tenor's best. Note the breadth of the phrasing and the impassioned delivery.

And here's my favorite Lauri-Volpi recording. He had a heftier voice than one generally hears in this aria and it's an absolutely gorgeous recording, with marvelous rubato:

Looking around YouTube, I see that there's also an acoustic recording, from 1922, and a concert film from 1933.

These tenors both had unusually long careers. Lauri-Volpi, born in 1892, was still singing when Callas was in her heyday in the 1950s, and made some records into the 1970s. By the mid-40s, his voice had hardened and he usually sang forte. Martinelli sang opera until 1950, but I've never listened to any of the bootlegs after about 1941. However, there are some lovely or interesting concert records from the 1950s and even 1960s, including a genuinely beautiful "Winterstuerme," al'Italiano, from a radio concerto in 1957 and "Or son sei mesi," from Fanciulla del West, made with piano around 1962. He was an old man by then, and sounds it, but still.

Friday, November 04, 2011

Met Goetterdaemmerung Cast Change

I bet you figured this one out when you saw the post title:
Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi will conduct the Met’s new production of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung which premieres January 27, 2012, and continues on January 31, February 3, 7, and 11 matinee. Luisi will also conduct the MET Orchestra concert at Carnegie Hall on January 15, featuring Renée Fleming as soloist. He replaces the Met’s Music Director, James Levine, who is continuing his rehabilitation after a fall last September that necessitated emergency back surgery. Luisi stepped in for Levine to conduct the new production of Wagner’s Siegfried on October 27, and will lead the Live in HD performance on Saturday, November 5.
I wonder if InTrade is taking bets on 1) Levine's ability to conduct the full Ring cycles 2) the chances of Levine resigning.

Thursday, November 03, 2011

Congrats are in Order... David Finckel and Wu Han, named Musical America's Musicians of the Year. Locally, they're founders of Music@Menlo; on the East Coast, they're music directors of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center. Finckel is the cellist of the mighty Emerson Quartet; Han has a thriving solo and chamber music career.

Beethoven Awareness Month?

WQXR has decided that November is Beethoven Awareness Month. I've heard about it in their email newsletter and heard about it from the station's publicist. If you want to hear more about it, here's their declaration.

Do I ever think this is a bad idea. The Mostly Mozart Festival and the spread of Mozart on radio have contributed to making Mozart's music ubiquitous and overexposed. Beethoven is already well-known and somewhat overexposed, to the point that it is difficult for a modern listener to realize just how explosively original his music was in its day.

And there are so many composers who could use a little, or a lot, more exposure: almost everyone who composed before J.S. Bach; almost everyone who composed after Stravinsky. British composers. Scandinavian composers. Central European composers. Italian composers who aren't Vivaldi, Verdi, and Puccini. Serialists and modernists.

Can't we treat the radio audience as though it's composed of curious adults who don't all want more of the same?

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Strange Politics

Heather MacDonald has some mighty weird ideas, I must say. Previously slagged here while talking past Greg Sandow - okay, I wasn't very happy with either of them - she's now making some utterly bizarre claims based on reading Anthony Tommasini, Zachary Woolfe, and James Jorden's reviews of the new Met production of Don Giovanni. Let's start with this:
The struggle over Don Giovanni’s soul in Mozart’s opera is hardly more dramatic than the battle over the future direction of the Met. On one side is a press corps determined to push Met general manager Peter Gelb into conformity with European opera houses, where narcissistic updatings of opera plots are now de rigueur.
Huh? I read all three of those reviews. Each reviewer found the physical production dull (yet another set that looks like the Hollywood Squares set, as Zerbinetta pointed out) and the cast direction nothing to write home about.

Here's Tommasini on updating:
But Mr. Gelb has pledged to bring the best in contemporary theatrical achievement to the Met. This does not mean that every production should be updated. Whatever its merits, though, Mr. Grandage’s “Don Giovanni” is not as striking, insightful and vivid as the sexy, modern production that Christopher Alden created for New York City Opera in 2009 (though who knows when or where audiences will see the Alden version again, now that City Opera is nomadic). 
That's hardly a call for setting the opera in a urinal or Chinese restaurant or whatever MacDonald is afraid of. All he's saying is that Gelb is falling down a bit in bringing in the "best inc ontemporary theatrical achievement" and that he's seen more striking, vivid, and insightful productions.

Here's JJ:
Maybe [the singers] were demoralized by Grandage’s production, an unimaginative slab of faux-finish walls and limp period costumes in tones of taupe and dun. The stage action recycled so much antique shtick you’d think it was a revival -- except that word implies something that was actually once alive.
"Antique schtick" = "give us something that wasn't old when Gustav Mahler conducted Don Giovanni back in 1910 or so."

The result is a traditional production without the traditions that have made this opera so beloved: energy, detail, and honest feeling. Things were almost certainly thrown off-balance by the last-minute substitution of Peter Mattei for Mariusz Kwiecien, who underwent back surgery, in the title role. But Mr. Mattei performs ably, and the production’s problems, seen at the second performance on Monday, are too pervasive to be explained away by even a major cast change.
He goes on to critique a set that jams much of the action too close to the lip of the stage - which is also a problem with the problematic Lepage Ring that the Met is currently rolling out - and dull interactions among the characters.

The New York critics’ response to this nobly conceived production is emblematic of the most powerful political program in opera today. 
There's simply no way that an honest commentator can read a call for Regie into these reviews, or make the claim that the three reviewers are somehow enemies of traditionally staged opera. There are no "threats of ongoing critical assault" except against dullness. I have to wonder if the conservative MacDonald is upset because Woolfe  brings up the failure of the production to deal with the crucial class differences that motivate much of the action of the opera.

Oh, wait, here's MacDonald again
But the most hilarious aspect of the vendetta against the Grandage Don Giovanni is the critics’ double standards. After sniffing that the production is “disastrously dull, a non-event,” Zachary Woolfe complained in the New York Observer that it “ends up ignoring class almost entirely.” This is the same Woolfe, a regular freelancer for the Times, who wrote a 2,000-plus-word love letter to Gerard Mortier in July, calling this leading perpetrator of Regietheater “one of the most celebrated and bravest impresarios of our time, with provocative glory trailing him from Frankfurt to Brussels, from Salzburg to Paris.” Mortier virtually insists that opera settings be updated to modern times. But no modern setting can possibly preserve the class distinctions of the ancien regime;
I, for one, would love a little more Regie in American opera productions, but I'm not holding my breath - especially since there is no call for Regie in the three reviews that MacDonald is so down on.

Heather, honey, calm down and reread those reviews.

I have to laugh at the idea that these three are somehow pressuring Gelb to bring on the Regie, not to mention the implication that they might be in cahoots. (Maybe I'm misreading MacDonald on that, of course, but she's working mighty hard to construct a Regie straw man to knock down.) Oh wait - here's more MacDonald:
The agenda here is clear: the New York critics are aping the European press playbook to engineer a European-style takeover of the American opera stage. Only the Wall Street Journal’s Heidi Waleson took the Met’s Don Giovanni on its own terms, praising it for its “clear theatrical and musical point of view,” which, “combined with the excellent, committed cast, made for an illuminating and absorbing evening.”
And more MacDonald:
The battle over Peter Gelb’s professional soul is still very much ongoing. It’s supremely difficult for an arts administrator to stand up to the kind of pressure now being exerted on him, even if he wants to. Audiences and donors, however, can offer some counterweight to the critics through the power of the purse.
Really? Peter Gelb, with a million-dollar salary and the weight of the Met board behind him, might find it difficult to stand up to a few bad reviews? It's nice that MacDonald thinks critics are so powerful. I wish we were!

AND furthermore....

At the MCANA meeting in June, I sat on a panel that included TT and Anne Midgette (read about it here, where Mike at Civic Center is far too kind to me).

TT led off, and part way through his ten minutes, he made a passing comment about "opera bloggers who hate me." I really wish I'd had the presence of mind, when my turn came up, to say this:
Tony, I'm so sorry I hurt your feelings when I criticized your overuse of "purist"....oh, wait. Maybe you meant Parterre Box?
Because it's just a little difficult to imagine TT in bed with JJ and the denizens of Parterre Box.

[Personal to Tony: if you're that bugged by opera bloggers who hate you, stop reading them. It's that simple.]

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

At the Conservtory in November

The San Francisco Conservatory of Music always has a full calendar of interesting concerts by students, ensembles, and faculty members. (For example, I am still kicking myself for missing a performance of Lutoslawski's Concerto for Orchestra.) If you're looking for value for money, honestly, the only competition in town is Old First Concerts or standing room at the Opera.

I've got a highlights email in hand for November that is pretty mouth-watering. I would be most interested in the following events:

Fall Opera Theatre
Music Director Darryl Cooper and stage director Michael Mohammed bring Humperdinck’s immortal classic Hansel and Gretel to life; Menotti’s comic one-act The Telephone, featuring directors Curt Pajer (music) and Heather Mathews (staging), rounds out a light-hearted evening.

Saturday, November 12, 7:30 p.m., Concert Hall, free*
Sunday, November 13, 2 p.m., Concert Hall, free* 

BluePrint | Nicole Paiement artistic director/conductor
Meet Parisian composer Philippe Hersant and immerse yourself in his lyrical music with Musical Humors, the latest offering from Nicole Paiement and the Conservatory’s New Music Ensemble. The program features six signature works by Hersant, including the American premieres of his concerto Musical Humors and chamber orchestra work Songlines. Guest appearances include Cypress String Quartet violinists Cecily Ward and Tom Stone as well as faculty violist Jodi Levitz, conductor Ragnar Bohlin, the Conservatory Chamber Choir and cellist Jean-Michel Fonteneau.

Saturday, November 19, 8 p.m., Concert Hall, $20/$15
Pre-concert talk at 7:15 p.m. with Composer Philippe Hersant

*= free, reservations required

Tokyo String Quartet: Two Members to Retire

Violist Kazuhide Isomura and second violinist Kikuei Ikeda will retire from the Tokyo Quartet in June 2013. Isomura is a founding member of the quartet and has thus played with the Tokyo since 1969. The remaining members of the quartet, first violinist Martin Beaver and cellist Clive Greensmith, are currently playing with potential new quartet members.

From the press release:
Violist Kazuhide Isomura said, “As a founding member of the ensemble, I have performed with the Tokyo String Quartet for more than 40 years, which has been fascinating, intense and very satisfying. Forming and playing in a string quartet had always been my dream, and I thought I would continue to perform this wonderful repertoire for the rest of my life. Quite recently, I began to realize that I could not do this forever. Frequent travel has become one of the more difficult aspects of our work. Following my time with the quartet, I look forward to a freer lifestyle, but I will continue to teach chamber music and viola with much passion, as well as perform in a select number of concerts. I have faith that Martin Beaver, Clive Greensmith and the new members of the Tokyo String Quartet will be very successful and continue to perform great chamber music together.”
            Second violinist Kikuei Ikeda added, “I would like to thank my colleagues and our audiences for their wonderful support over the past 37 years. I have always loved chamber music and I will continue to teach and perform through the next phase of my career.”

Euouae Returns

The new chorus performing old music, Euouae returns to Old First Concerts on November 18, with the following program:

Jacob Obrecht: Missa Sub tuum praesidium
Josquin des Prez: Salve regina à 6
Perotin: Beata viscera
Messine chant (10th c.)
Tickets $17 ($14 for students and seniors).  Discounted 5- and 10- ticket booklets available from

Last year's Missa de Tournai was excellent and I'm sure this will be too. Good luck with that weekend, which is mobbed: Brahms Requiem at SFS, BluePrint plays music of Phillippe Hesant at SF Conservatory, Chora Nova sings Mozart Requiem and Coronation Mass, and goodness knows what else.