Thursday, August 30, 2012

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Defense Against Irate Review Subjects

[Actually, I'm sworn to use my powers only for good.]

SFO Cast Change, Rigoletto

The lovely David Lomeli has withdrawn from the second-cast Rigoletto at San Francisco Opera; the press release cites "personal reasons."

Given his wife's past health problems - she is soprano Sara Gartland, and she had a stroke a couple of years back at a young age - I've asked SFO whether that's the reason for his withdrawal. I certainly hope she is well.

Francesco Demuro, from the first cast, will sing two additional performances. Arturo Chacon-Cruz, making his SFO debut, takes the remaining four performances.

Say It Ain't So!

Over at SF Gate, Joshua Kosman has his annual San Francisco Opera season study guide up. I'm a partisan of the Kempe Lohengrin (and of a pair of Bayreuth performances, Steber/Windgassen/Varnay/Uhde and Grummer/Konya/Gorr/Blanc), and Solti is never my first choice in Wagner, but whatever.

What dropped my jaw was his second-choice Tosca (I hope I don't need to tell you what his first choice was): Maazel/Nilsson, Corelli, DF-D.

The last time I heard that recording, I thought it was pure party music: Nilsson is certainly accurate (Conrad L. Osborne called hers the best Tosca on record from a purely vocal standpoint), but she is also steely, unidiomatic, and unable to project vulnerability. I remember Corelli as bawling and tasteless, DF-D shouting a lot and rather in over his head. Maazel doesn't add much of distinction to this mix.

I'll have to give the set another shot. Maybe it's better than I thought. But if you're in the market for a Tosca other than the obvious choice, consider von Karajan/Price. The conducting is rather different from de Sabata's on the classic set, and, right, Price doesn't have Callas's dramatic point. Still, plenty to treasure.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Wanted: Patron with $75 Million and Three Opera Houses

Extreme opera nuts like me need something exceeding the length of the Ring!

And after reading Tim Rutherford-Johnson and Mark Berry's rave reviews of Mittwoch, from Stockhausen's monumental Licht opera cycle, it's apparent that some enterprising company - or, more likely, a consortium of companies - needs to stage the whole cycle. Or maybe the whole enterprise should just be turned over to Birmingham Opera and Graham Vick, who did such a stunning job with Mittwoch. I'd travel for it - and I hear Birmingham has a pretty good orchestra, too.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

One Small Step

Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on Earth's moon, is gone, age 82.

Here are his steps down the ladder and onto the moon, July 20, 1969:

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Britten 100

Benjamin Britten celebrates his 100th the same year that heavy hitters Verdi and Wagner celebrate their 200th. And the Britten-Pears Foundation has a web site set up for all things Britten. Want to know where the great composer's works are being performed, and when? Click the What's Going On link.

Free Events

The fall season is almost upon us, and several organizations have free events of one kind or another coming up:

  • San Francisco Opera, Opera in the Park. September 9, 1:30 p.m., Sharon Meadow in Golden Gate Park. Take public transit and walk, if you can; parking is impossible.
  • San Francisco Opera, Rigoletto from the ballpark. September 15, 8 p.m. Sign up for tickets here.
  • San Francisco Symphony, free concert in Justin Herman Plaza, September 21, 5 p.m.
  • Cal Performances, Fall Free for All, Sunday, September 30, UC Berkeley (various venues) 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012


The other night at the Merola Finale, soprano Elizabeth Baldwin sang an aria from Verdi's Il Corsaro. The next day, at Stern Grove, tenor Michael Fabiano did the same. (Right, different aria.)

Coincidence or preparation? Is it possible that San Francisco Opera is planning what would very likely be the West Coast premiere of this early Verdi opera? [Ooops, no; San Diego Opera performed it long ago.]

I was in the chorus of the New York premiere of the work, back in 1982. [In retrospect, sure, we were undoubtedly the least idiomatic Verdi chorus you'll ever hear.] David Lawton, scholar and conductor, was a big fan of early Verdi, and also put on a concert reading of the first version of Macbeth, and I was a student at Stony Brook at the time. I can't tell you how stageworthy it is, but I recall some gorgeous music, with meaty roles for tenor, mezzo, and soprano. And it didn't hurt a bit that the tenor soloist for the performance was the great Carlo Bergonzi.

NB: If you ever happen to see a bootleg of that performance, please let me know.

Monday, August 20, 2012

Donal Henahan

Donal Henahan, former chief music critic of the Times, has died at 91. He joined the paper in 1967, succeeded Harold C. Schonberg as chief music critic in 1980, and retired from the Times in 1991.

I certainly read plenty of his reviews and articles, but darned if I remember much about them. Anyone else?

One Too Many

A little over three years ago, I wrote a blog posting that I called How Many Social Networks Do You Need? My motivation was that San Francisco Symphony had set up its very own social network, and I was, to say the least, skeptical:
I'm just not sure what use single-organization social networking sites are. In the arts world, I can see organizing around a high-passion art form like opera more readily than around a particular opera company or symphony orchestra. (See parterre box, for example, with its heady mix of technical discussion, diva-worship, and lurid gossip.) 
Does SFS think that hundreds or thousands of its audience members have the time and energy to post in its forums and consume the content on the site? Will the social-networking site increase ticket sales? Does it make more sense to just have a major presence on Facebook or MySpace? Do organizations have any idea how much moderation is likely to be necessary to keep discussions focussed and nonlibelous? What breadth of commentary will be allowed? Has anyone bothered to look at the comments at the NY Times web site? They vary from smart at Paul Krugman's blog to compassionate and experience-based at The New Old Age blog to ghastly in other political commentary or whenever the words autism and vaccination appear. 
I rather think that what we're seeing is the second wave of the web, and it will shake out just like the Web 1.0 flurry of community sites did. Some social networking sites with take off and thrive; most will collapse or be abandoned or semi-abandoned. Organizations will invest tons of money but won't necessarily see a lot of return. For one thing, they're a little late to the party, and many heavy web users are already overloaded. I can't keep up with reading all the worthwhile classical music blogs; I haven't touched Twitter; and I certainly haven't got time to read social networking sites for every arts organization I care about.
Well, today I'm claiming a big "I told you so." I was writing up some thoughts on social networks and marketing for a friend the other day, and wondered what was going on with the SFS social network. I took a look, couldn't find it, and emailed SFS. Today I heard back: they shut down the network back in June, to focus their social networking efforts on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.

I can't say I'm surprised. I looked in on the network from time to time over the last few years, and I think its membership never got above 3,000. That's not many more people than can fit into Davies Symphony Hall, which seats around 2,200 2,739. It's not really a network; it's more of an echo chamber with a limited number of people talking to each other. Because it's stand-alone, it's difficult to get new people into it, as opposed to persuading some of the 750 million people on Facebook to hit Like or subscribe to your Facebook page. The official SFS page on FB has 19,000 or so likes, a nice multiple of the number of members at the social network. I tell you, I'm curious about the amount of money and staff time that went into setting up and maintaing the network. It can't have been trivial.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Let Me Count the Ways

Zachary Woolfe has yet another article in the Times about the state of opera. My jaw dropped open around the second or third paragraph, no, wait, when I read the headline. Doesn't somebody bother to read this stuff before it goes into print? And then think, for even thirty seconds, about what they're reading?

Let's start with the headline, which I admit, Woolfe didn't write: "How Hollywood Films are Killing Opera."

My first thought was, duh, movies are attended by millions more people than get to live opera, because, duh, the biggest indoor opera house in the world, the one not far from Times headquarters, holds about four thousand people and can only put on one performance at a time, Ariadne auf Naxos notwithstanding. Movies have been cutting into live performances since the turn of the last century, just as recordings have reduced the need for live musicians in dance clubs, night clubs, all sorts of clubs. This is not a revelation. It's stating the obvious.

Then there's the first film that Woolfe discusses, Kevin Lonergan's Margaret. You may have read about this picture....which had a theatrical release of fifteen minutes before various ugly disputes got it pulled. It's now available on DVD and is supposed to be a masterpiece. I'd like to see it, but its portrayal of opera isn't killing, or even wounding, the form, because nobody has seen it.

He then mentions, almost in passing, that some of the issues he sees in American opera predate the recession by decades, such as the stagnant repertory and stubborn insistence on traditional staging. Again, duh: all you have to do is glance at the on-line archives of San Francisco Opera or the Metropolitan Opera to see that new and unusual works are rarely given more than one run and popular old works cannot be dislodged, ever. (It's a big surprise that, for once, the Met isn't staging La Boheme in its upcoming season. Or was that the season just past?) Opera is expensive; bills have to get paid; yes, you'll see a lot of Traviatas and Bohemes scheduled.

Next, and this is less of a duh: he completely mischaracterizes the role of La Boheme in Moonstruck. Let me make one of my own personal prejudices clear: I consider Moonstruck to be one of the greatest film comedies of the last fifty years. It's beautifully acted and put together like The Marriage of Figaro: the complicated clockwork of the plot works itself out, in the end, with all of the strands tied up nicely. Danny Aiello's double or maybe it's a triple-take in the scene at the end: priceless.

Anyway, no, La Boheme is not an excuse for nostalgia and a nice night out in Moonstruck. Ronnie Cammareri - that's Nicholas Cage - has a deep emotional connection to, and affection for, the opera. That's why he makes Cher listens to it, and why it's a big, big deal for him to take her to the opera. He's serious about the opera.

Next up: films have taught Americans a particular idea of opera. Let's start with this: Pretty Woman is from 1990, Moonstruck from 1987. Are they current, and currently interesting, to younger people? How much did they really influence people who were adults when they saw the movies?

Honestly, our ideas about opera are formed by opera houses themselves and how they present the form, and by rags like the Times, which write about opera every day. And did you notice that in the US, the big opera houses were founded by either the Italian community (San Francisco) or high society snobs (the Met)? And that people of all classes have always gone to the opera?

I'm totally with Woolfe on the timidity of opera production in the U.S. I am not sure how to get around that: it's not as though public TV or profit-making TV is making the work of Herheim and Bieto available on a regular basis. The federal and state governments are not going to suddenly put a billion every year into opera subsidies, freeing our companies from market demands.

But I think Woolfe might consider taking a look at companies that are doing better than the Met (San Francisco Opera will show three 21st c. operas during this coming season, all SFO commissions or co-commissions). And I definitely wish he'd work less hard setting up straw men to knock down.

Only in Tokyo

My friend Jonelle Patrick has spent the last few years living part-time in Japan, part-time in her home town of San Francisco. She speaks and reads Japanese and has been sending fascinating reports about things she's learned and people she's met. And she has a blog, Only in Japan. You know about the Living National Treasures - sword makers, potters, papermakers, painters - but did you know about the Goth Lolitas?

Now her first Only in Tokyo mystery novel, Nightshade, has been published. It's a police procedural, a novel about the clash between the modern and the traditional, and an anthropological look at some of the odder subcultures of Japan, all rolled into one. It is great fun, and I learned a few things, too. Did you know that in Japan, an email address can be tied to a phone, not to an email provider?? The characters are strongly drawn, interesting, and varied; highly recommended!

Now, Nightshade is published by a new imprint of Penguin, and currently it's available only as an e-book. No whining that you don't have an e-reader! If you can send email, you can read electronic books (me, I finished Nightshade on a plane over Colorado, on my Macintosh laptop, after the smartphone ran out of juice). Here are your options:
  • If you already have a Kindle, Nook, or other e-reader, you know the drill. Go spend the $4.99.
  • If you have a PC, Mac, smartphone, or table, get the Kindle app for your platform here. Then spend the $4.99.
  • If you have a Google/Gmail account, Google Books on any platform is here. Then indulge yourself! Spend the $4.99.
The next book in the series, Fallen Angel, will be out next year. Try not to tear your hair out waiting for it.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Happy 100th, Julia Child!

The great cook was born 100 years ago today and lived to the great age of 92. In her honor, the NY Times has dedicated today's Dining & Wine section to her.

I picked up used first editions of Mastering the Art of French Cooking some years ago. They're solid, practical cookbooks, and beautifully printed. You can learn a lot about cooking from them, and the recipes are great.

So tonight, drink a glass or two of wine in her honor, and then have coq au vin or steak au poivre or a humble omelet for dinner.

P. S. If you're at all interested in the history of good food - and good food writing - in the US, I highly recommended David Kamp's amusing and delightful United States of Arugula. This is especially important if you buy the line that Julia Child was the first significant American food writer. She was hugely important, but not the first.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Jujitsu Schedule

So I'm getting past the soft-opening point and will even announce my jujitsu teaching schedule starting in September:

  • Saturdays, 10:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m.
  • Tuesdays, 8 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.

(August classes are late Sunday afternoons.)

Classes are here:

Sawtooth Building, Studio 12
Dwight & Eighth St.
Berkeley, CA

I'm sharing space with these excellent organizations:

Come by and check us out!

Cabrillo Festival Review

My review of the program called "Rose of the Winds" is up at SFCV now.

I had a few thoughts that aren't in the review:

  • The hyper-accordion had a small enough part that I couldn't hear it most of the time. Would have been nice to hear it sounding really hyper.
  • The kamancheh is a lovely instrument but pretty out of place in a Western orchestra; it would have been completely inaudible without amplification.
  • The hyper-accordion player was the composer-performer whose work provided the basis for a recent Golijov commissioned work.
  • I wish there had been more helpful printed program notes about I Was a Stranger
  • I wish the program book were less visually busy.
  • The acoustics in the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium are execrable, requiring everything to be amplified just to be audible. Isn't there a college or university in the area that can provide superior performance space??
  •  And the bleachers rather dangerous: steep concrete steps of varying heights and no handrails. How long until someone has a serious bad accident on them?

Bring on the Proofreaders

Two big typos in the Cabrillo program book just for the concert I reviewed:
  • Dylan Mattingly's birth year is given as both 1972 and 1991, in different place. 1991 is obviously correct.
  • A reference to the "University of Southern California Music Ensemble" in the notes for Andrew Norman's Gran Turismo. I'm sure USC has several, and I'm sure the program means the Contemporary Music Ensemble.
Also, when you have eight violinists performing a particular piece, your program ought to name them.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

I Have to Wonder About This

Received from the New York Philharmonic:
NY Philharmonic Offers Discounted Tickets for the 2012–13 Season
One-Week Sale August 12–18;Box Office Opens August 19  

From August 12–18, in advance of the box office opening for the 2012–13 season, the New York Philharmonic will offer tickets for $69.50 with the purchase of three or more subscription concerts, up to 48% off regularly priced tickets. Fans of the Philharmonic on Facebook can access the sale early for one day only on August 10 (12:01 a.m. until midnight).  
Single tickets for the New York Philharmonic’s 2012–13 season go on sale August 19, and the season opens September 19, 2012, with a concert conducted by Music Director Alan Gilbert with pianist Leif Ove Andsnes. 
Click here to explore the season and buy tickets. 
Reading between the lines, this means "tickets aren't selling so well so we are going to start discounting them a whole lot earlier than we ordinarily would."

Also reading between the lines, I conjecture that this means "this year's boring programming doesn't sell so well." Alan Gilbert, go back to your crazy programming ways!

Saturday, August 04, 2012

West Edge Opera, 2013

West Edge Opera has quite a season coming up:
  • L'incoronazione di Poppea, by Monteverdi, with Christine Brandes, Emma McNairy, Ryan belongie, and Tonia D'Amelio, February 1, 2, and 3
  • Bonjour M. Gauguin, by Fabrizio Carlone, with Shawnette Sulker, April 6, 12, and 14
  • The Turn of the Screw, by Britten, featuring Laura Bohn, July 20, 26, and 28. Thank goodness, a local opera company remembers the Britten centenary.

City of Sin, West Edge Opera

West Edge Opera's City of Sin double bill has one more performance, tomorrow (Sunday, August 5) at 3 p.m. A few comments on last night's performance, with the aim of persuading you to buy a ticket.

The double bill consists of Weill & Brecht's Mahagonny Songspiel, the half-hour seed of the full-length opera The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. WEO has given it a splendid staging, with the pit band on stage, projections in the background, and imaginative sets and direction. The six-member cast really dug in, too, with committed singing and acting: Aimee Puentes, Laura Bohn, Thomas Glenn, Michael Desnoyers, Daniel Cilli, and Paul Murray. The band was also terrific, entirely comfortable with the mixed classical/cabaret idiom.

Vera of Las Vegas must be one of the weirder operas I've seen, with a plot that involves a couple of IRA guys on the run (I think), an airline stewardess, and a drag queen. The music went exceptionally well with that of the Mahagonny Songspiel, and composer Daron Hagen arranged it to match the band for the Weill. Again, great direction, acting, and singing from Brian Asawa in the title role (he moves very well in a dress and heels, better than I would, in fact), Heidi Moss as his co-conspirator, and Paul Murray and Thomas Glenn as the Irish guys.

Jonathan Khuner conducts, as usual, and plays piano in the band. He has quite a connection with Mahagonny Songspiel, too, through his late father Felix, who was (among other things), the second violinist of the famed Kolisch Quartet. The older Mr. Khuner very likely played violin in the Baden-Baden premier of the Weill, if I'm reading the program notes correctly. But you should go, and read the programs notes for yourself.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Get Your Priorities Straight, People

I just filled out an audience survey for Santa Fe Opera, which tells me my opinion is important to them.

  • The survey asked only factual questions, mostly about waiting times for parking, restroom, etc., as well as questions about whether my experience with various activities (buying tickets, example) was satisfactory.
  • The survey asked no questions about the musical performances.
This is exactly backwards. I don't give a flying fuck about whether I'm waiting in line for the bathrooms. I care a whole lot about the quality of the musical productions, the singing, and the conducting. That is why I'm willing to fly to Santa Fe, take time off, and spend a lot of money attending the opera: to see top-flight productions of works I won't see anywhere else in the US.