Thursday, February 28, 2013

In Memory

A melancholy moment to remember other musicians who've died following a stroke or heart attack on stage.
  • Giuseppe Sinopoli (2001, Deutsche Oper Berlin, conducting Aida)
  • Richard Versalle (1996, Metropolitan Opera, Vec Makropoulos)
  • Tatiana Nikoleyevna (1993, San Francisco Performances, Shostakovich Preludes & Fugues)
  • Giuseppe Patane (1989, Munich, conducting The Barber of Seville)
  • Arvids Jansons (1984, Manchester, conducting the Halle Orchestra)
  • Fausto Cleva (1971, Athens, conducting Gluck's Orfeo)
  • Joseph Keilberth (1968, Munich, conducting Tristan und Isolde)
  • Hermann Uhde (Copenhagen, 1965)
  • Leonard Warren (1960, Metropolitan Opera, La forza del destino)
  • Dimitri Mitropoulos (1960, Milan, rehearsing Mahler's 3rd)
  • Eduard van Beinum (1959, Amsterstam, rehearsing Brahms 1st)
  • Simon Barere (1952, Carnegie Hall)
  • Walter Widdop (1949, London, the day after a Proms appearance)
  • Felix Mottl (1911, Munich, conducting Tristan und Isolde)
  • Armand Castelmary (1897, Metropolitan Opera, Martha)

William Bennett

William Bennett
SFS photo

Bill Bennett has died at 56, following a cerebral hemorrhage on stage at San Francisco Symphony this past Saturday. 

I know I've written before about how regular SFS audience members feel about the individuals in the orchestra: they're our home team, our players, the pride of San Francisco. We follow their careers, their solos, their triumphs. We feel as though we know them, even though we don't, really. We know their artistic personalities and how they present on stage. 

Bill Bennett seems to me to have always been a cheery and friendly presence on stage, chatting with the other wind players before a concert, warming up, playing his gorgeous solos. I simply can't imagine what it's like to play with someone for decades - he'd been a Symphony member since 1979, which must have been right out of school - and lose him under these circumstances.

This is a sad, sad day for Bill Bennett's family and friends, his colleagues at SFS, and his many students. My deepest condolences to all.

Bennett at a rehearsal
(SFS Photo)

Met Auditions Semi-Finalist Hye Jung Lee!

Hye Jun Lee as Madame Mao, 2012. 
"The book, the book!"
Photo by Cory Weaver, SF Opera

That's our Madame Mao in the semi-finals of the Met Auditions!

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Van Cliburn

The American pianist Van Cliburn has died, age 78, of bone cancer.

Anthony Tommasini has a long and informative obit on the front page (just now, anyway) of the Times. It's quite clear that Cliburn's importance was more cultural - an American won the Tchaikowsky Competition! - than pianistic. He seems to have been terrific in a small repertory, but didn't grow much as a musician or fulfill the early promise.

Cliburn was trained first by his mother, who'd studied with a Liszt pupil and been thwarted in her desire for a music career, then by the great pedagogue and pianist Rosinna Lhevine, at Juilliard. He did well for himself in his career, making money and investing it well enough to become wealthy.

Update: Matthew Guerrieri and Mr. CKDH on Cliburn. Matthew's posting might be summarized as "Cliburn was Liberace in disguise." Okay, I exaggerate, but not by all that much.

San Francisco Opera Knows How to Make Things Easier for You

I've written before about how much better the subscription and exchange policies are at SF Opera than across the street at the Symphony. Yes, I understand that it's partly because they're handling a smaller inventory of programs and performances, but I maintain that SFS should be able to do a better job.

Now I've got another little marvel to add: because I only want to see five of next year's eight operas, I figured I would have to get a compose-your-own subscription. BUT SF Opera has an instant exchange policy for subscriptions: you get a subscription, and at the time of purchase, you can swap out 2 or 3 performances (depending on whether you have a half or full subscription) for something else. This extends to swapping opera A for opera B.

So, I can get five-opera sub and swap out Butterfly and Traviata for the operas I'd rather see. Hooray!

Monday, February 25, 2013

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Bill Bennett Update

More news about San Francisco Symphony principal oboist William Bennett, who collapsed on stage last night: the NY Times ArtsBlog quotes SFS Director of Communications Oliver Thiel saying that Bennett has had a brain hemorrhage and is hospitalized in guarded condition.

Terrible and sad news, in so many ways. Wishing Bennett the best and swiftest possible recovery; wishing strength and hope to his family members, who are surely stricken, and to his colleagues at SFS.

UPDATE (2:10 p.m. February 25): Various reports indicate that the paramedics were in the hall within 6 or 7 minutes of when Bill Bennett was stricken. No word from SFS today on his condition.

UPDATE (2:27 p.m.): More details in Joshua Kosman's Chron article. Twenty minutes for the paramedics to arrive? I hope that is not correct.

Wolfgang Sawallisch

Conductor Wolfgang Sawallisch has died at 89.

Sawallisch was a real giant; I have a couple of his opera recordings and they're superb. Peter Dobrin has a nice obit up that doesn't mention that  Sawallisch's Frau ohne Schatten recording is both one of the few complete sets of the opera but one of the best sung and conducted.

I never heard Sawallisch live, which I'm sorry about.

Update (9:27 a.m.): Dobrin blogs some tributes to Sawallisch here.

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Bill Bennett Collapses at SFS Concert

Janos Gereben emailed me earlier this evening with the news that Bill Bennett, SFS principal oboist, collapsed on stage during or at the start of the Strauss Oboe Concerto. Janos now has confirmation about this from Oliver Thiel of SFS. Bennett was taken to the hospital, where he is being treated.

They took an early and longer-than-usual intermission, then resumed around 9. All await further news, with best wishes for Bennett's complete recovery.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Zheng Cao

Zheng Cao in 1998
(Photo by John O'Hara)

Mezzo-soprano Zheng Cao, a wonderful singer and a great favorite in San Francisco, has died at 46, several years after a cancer diagnosis. Joshua Kosman has an obit up in the Chron.

I saw her in most of her San Francisco Opera roles, including Cherubino, Suzuki, Baba the Turk, and Ruth Young Kamen. She was the best thing about The Bonesetter's Daughter, a misconceived and embarrassingly poor work; her performance was sincere, gorgeously sung, and dramatically dead-on. She was in the 2007 Butterfly with Patricia Racette, Brandon Jovanovich, and Stephen Powell, Donald Runnicles conducting, which stands as perhaps the greatest single opera performance I've ever seen. I still remember Cao's utter anguish at Butterfly's continued optimism that Pinkerton would return to her.

I also saw her as Zerlina in LA in 1999; I'm not a fan of mezzos in what's obviously a role for a light soprano, but she sang it well and certainly acted the part appropriately!

I last saw her at the von Stade Gala in December, 2011, when she came on stage with a hand from (I think) Jake Heggie and sang a verse or two of "You'll Never Walk Alone."

She didn't walk alone through her long final illness, owing to the help of friends like Flicka and Jake; she married one of her doctors a year or so into treatment. RIP, Zheng Cao, gone much too soon and greatly missed.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Dale Clevenger to Retire

Via All is Yar, the word comes of a press release from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra announcing the retirement of principal horn Dale Clevenger.

I have a couple of reactions to this.
  • The San Francisco Symphony had better make it worth Robert Ward's while to stick around.
  • Clevenger is taking a teaching job at Indiana University. If IU is aware of Clevenger's reputation as a harasser, really, they should read recent coverage of the Chetham's/RNCM scandals carefully.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Where Time and Space Become One

Reviews accumulating for the new Met Parsifal, which, if you're not going to be in NYC, will play in movie theaters on March 2.

Friday, February 15, 2013


The netcast of the Met Parsifal primo is under way. You have some time to join in; it'll be on for another five and a half hours or so.

Gurnemanz - Rene Pape
Parsifal - Jonas Kaufmann
Amfortas - Peter Mattei
Klingsor - Evgeny Nikitin
Kundry - Katarina Dalayman
Conductor - Daniele Gatti

And a few other singers, Met chorus & orchestra, etc. H/T La Cieca for reminding me.

Tetzlaff Media Roundup

Might as well get started. Watch for updates. I saw a few of my fellows at the concert.
  • Be'eri Moalem, SFCV. Interesting review; he heard what I heard but liked it more.
  • Lisa Hirsch. To explain my title, the three sonatas on the program are similarly constructed, following the structure of the Bach. The entire program, then, was an homage to JSB.
  • Joshua Kosman, Chron, discussing Gil Shaham and Hilary Hahn - hey, that rhymes! - in the same review as Tetzlaff.

Homage a J.S.B.

Christian Tetzlaff came to town this week and put on a recital that I'd been looking forward to for nearly a year: works for solo violin by Ysaye, Bach, Kurtag, and Bartok.

Tetzlaff is an awesome violinist, a champion of new and recent music who absolutely killed me in the Brahms concerto the first time I heard him. But in this program, I came away more awed than moved by a curiously unsatisfying program.

With one obvious exception, or maybe two, there wasn't anything wrong with the program. Tetzlaff has  absolutely bulletproof technique, from dead-on intonation to fast fingers to an immense dynamic range to the stunning range of timbres he can produce. Still, something was missing.

Let's work backwards, from what obviously did not work. The last movement of the J.S.Bach Sonata in C Major, BWV 1005, was a disaster, played at such a speed and with so little rhythmic inflection that I had to consult the score to discover what the time signature was. It's in 3/4 time, that is, waltz time. Now, the waltz is not a dance Bach would have known, and the rhythms within each measure don't immediately suggest 3/4, but Tetzlaff ought to have made something out of the meter and the rhythmic conflicts in the music. But he didn't. He rushed headlong through the music, and while it was quite a technical display, it was completely lacking in grace.

The rest of the Bach was much better than the last movement, and his structural handling of the giant second-movement fugue - it dwarfs the other movements - was outstanding. But the entire piece was afflicted with rhythmic rigidity in a way that made the phrasing feel, well, frozen. It was well-thought-out and entirely from the head.

This sense of rigidity was less of an issue in the Kurtag miniatures and in the Bartok sonata. Those works are more rhythmically and metrically varied than the Bach, and my sense was that Tetzlaff cut loose more in the fiery, and sometimes folk-based, Bartok than in the rest of the program. Still, there were times in the Bartok when I wished he were even closer to its wild and improvisatory spirit, where there were more musical chances to be taken.

I was thoroughly delighted with the Kurtag pieces, tiny amuse-bouche works playing out just a single idea, much like his Jatekok for piano, excerpts of which I heard Leif Ove Andsnes play last year. And I loved the opening Ysaye, a work entirely new to me. It is gorgeous, especially the rich and ghostly first movement. But it did not have much charm, and I couldn't help wondering what it would have sounded like with a French or Russian violinist playing, someone with, perhaps, less technique, but more heart and more grace.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Poulenc/Berlioz Roundup

We're variously weighing in. JK and I called it pretty much the same way, though everybody liked the soloists better than I did.
  • Joshua Kosman, Chron, loved the performances and works and agrees me with about the craziness. Pleased to see that the adjective Beethovenian came to mind for both of us.
  • Lisa Hirsch, SFCV
  • John Marcher, A Beast in a Jungle. But isn't the Poulence pretty compact and understated compared to the Berlioz?
  • kalimac. I would not expect someone who thinks Mahler is a bad composer to like the Berlioz, no, I would not.
  • Axel Feldheim, NFFO, happy to have heard these pieces.
  • Richard Scheinin, Mercury-News, preferred the Poulenc.
  • SF Mike rhapsodizes, and who can blame him? I agree with every word.
  • Janos Gereben, SFCV Music News, bids the program a fond farewell.
Now, about the soloists. I loved Erin Wall the first time I heard her, but since then, she's not ringing my bell. For the Poulenc, the recording I have (Ozawa) features Kathleen Battle at her luminous, silvery best. I dunno, Wall seems a little generic to me for this music.

Paul Groves has seemed overparted and miscast in almost everything I've seen him in. He was lovely some years ago in Stravinsky's Le Rossignol (I looked up my review....), but sounded over his head in Iphegenie and again this week in the Berlioz, which really does call for a heroic French tenor. Honestly, every time I hear him I think it's a part Ben Heppner should be singing or should have sung.

What's next for him? Enee in Troyens? Oh, look: here's a press release from LOC. Not Enee, but Parsifal. I don't buy it for a second.

Monday, February 11, 2013

RNCM and Chethem's Join the Catholic Church, BBC, and Penn State

Reports in Great Britain make it quite clear that more than a decade ago, the Royal Northern College of Music hired a string teacher with a known history of sexually harassing, abusing, or assaulting his female students. Even though one of its professors challenged the head of the college, even though he went to the school's board of directors-equivalent. Even though they received letters from people outside the college who knew the instructor's reputation.

Chethem's music school also hired and kept a couple of teachers with similar histories. One was just convicted of criminal acts - and one of the women he'd abused as a child committed suicide after giving testimony against him.

I'm not going to link to all of the articles. Jessica Duchen is on it; follow her blog for links and her own thoughtful responses.

For the Papal Scorecard

Catholic News photograph

Wikipedia has a handy sortable list of living cardinals. The rules are that cardinals over age 80 cannot participate in the upcoming Papal conclave, which knocks out a large number of these guys, though I am also reading that a maximum of 120 can vote in any papal election. Only five members of the College are under 60; I'm counting 118 eligible cardinals out of 209 living cardinals.

But Seriously....

....since the election of John Paul II in 1978, the College of Cardinals has been packed with conservatives. Don't expect any surprises in the upcoming election, like a comparatively liberal Pope who might support American nuns rather than trying to suppress them on fake doctrinal grounds, or who might seriously pursue those within the Church, like Roger Mahony and Bernard Law, who protected child abusers instead of sending them to jail in disgrace.

Pope Resigns; Wave of Poisonings Sweeps College of Cardinals

"We thought we had years to prepare for this," says one Vatican insider who insisted on anonymity.

Saturday, February 09, 2013

Poppea at West Edge Opera

Christine Brandes (Nero) & Emma McNairy (Poppea)
Photo by Jamie Buschbaum

To start with, a confession: It's pretty warm in the El Cerrito Performing Arts Center (aka El Cerrito High) auditorium, and I dozed off during Act I, missing about 20 minutes of the show.

This version of L'incoronazione di Poppea, as previously noted, is trimmed to about two hours of music, with a running time of maybe 2 hours 20 or 30 minutes. It's a little hard to tell because I know the show started between five and ten minutes late, and I was not obsessively checking the time. For comparison's sake, the Harnancourt recording, which is the one I own, runs to four CDs. SF Opera's 1998 production had at least three hours of music, to the best of my recollection, but my program has no estimated running time on the cast page.

The new performing version more or less succeeds in cutting the opera down to the point where you get just a couple of the story lines: the Ottavia/Nero/Poppea trio, and the related duo of Ottone (in love with Poppea as the opera opens) and Drusilla. Seneca's story line is there as well - sort of - but without his disciples and with the trimmed story line, it's hard to see how an audience unfamiliar with the full opera would have a sense of how important he was to Nero and what a betrayal it is when Nero orders Seneca to commit suicide.

I missed the servant couple; I missed the divinities; I missed Nero's friendship with the poet Lucano. I still have fond memories of David Daniels and Matthew Lord in the drinking scene in the 1998 SFO production, you bet. I believe that the opera loses a great deal of its richness when cut down to this size: it's just another boy-betryas-girl story, with nasty politics. Poppea is still performed after 350 years because of its rich world-building and the range of the characters and sub-plots. You could probably cut down Nozze di Figaro by leaving out a few subplots too, but I bet that West Edge Opera has no plans to do so.

One other issue with the new performing edition is the very, very dry musical arrangement, with two harpsichords, triple harp, lute, theorbo, and a few bowed strings. Lordy! I think there must be ways to justify the addition of a few winds to the score, so the whole opera sounds less like continuous continuo. I have no beef with the playing and conducting; just wish there had been more variety in the pit.

As for the production itself: the opera doesn't gain much from dressing up Ottavia as a cross between an airline stewardess and Jackie Kennedy, with Nero as JFK. It doesn't matter that it's in modern dress; they could be wearing togas or 17th c. dress and it wouldn't make that much difference.

It does matter that the continuous projections on a backdrop and bed hangings are usually ugly, rarely apropos, and always distracting. And it matters that about 30% of the singing seems to take place on the bed behind the bed curtains. Um, I like to see the singers! Much of their expressivity comes from seeing how they move! and seeing their faces! I have no idea why director Mark Streshinsky staged the opera this way. It makes no dramatic sense at all.

The performers were mostly terrific: I loved soprano Christine Brandes's boldly-sung Nero and Emma McNairy's delicately evil and self-centered Poppea. Countertenor Ryan Belongie took some time to warm up as Ottone - he sounded a bit blowsy and off-key early on - but was perfectly lovely and sincerely heartfelt after that. Tonia D'Amelio was a charming, delightful Drusilla, singing with point and verve. Tenor Brian Thorsett made a hilarious Arnalta (Poppea's nurse and confidante).

Not so teriffic: Erin Neff had the haughty air, but not sufficient sorrow to generate sympathy for the abandoned Ottavia's plight, and she sounded shallow and hooty, with glottal attacks galore. And bass Paul Thompson was wobbly and often flat as Seneca.

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Hector Berlioz was a Wild and Crazy Guy

And that's why you should get yourself to Davies Symphony Hall this week to see one of the three remaining performances of his Te Deum. The accompanying Poulenc Stabat Mater is a lovely piece, but there's no doubt that the Berlioz is the main event on the program.

Monday, February 04, 2013

Ojai 2013

Mark Morris announced the composers to be included in this year's Ojai Music Festival some time ago, but the festival program has now been posted in full. (I don't recall getting a press release, don't know what's up with that. Funny, the list of composers looks almost as though it came from American Mavericks except that it's the other John Adams:
  • Henry Cowell
  • Lou Harrison
  • Carl Ruggles
  • Charles Ives
  • Ruth Crawford Seeger
  • John Luther Adams
  • Samuel Barber
  • Igor Stravinsky
This four-day festival has some songs by Ruth Crawford Seeger, but I gotta say, as a composer list it's a retread. Can we have Andsnes back? He had a nice pile of unfamiliar works, albeit none of them by women.

And Stating the Obvious....

San Francisco Opera and LA Opera's 2013-14 seasons have no works composed by women. No women on the podium, either.

His Kingdom for a Horse

University of Leicester Photograph
Presumed skull of King Richard III

Months ago, archeologists working in Leicester, England, found the skeletal remains of a man under a parking lot, in what is now believed to be the location of the Grey Friars Priory. The man in question had grievous wounds to the skull - and scoliosis.

Today, the announcement comes that the remains are those of Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England. The news stories have plenty of photos.

Saturday, February 02, 2013

Public Service Announcement

Having paperwork such as powers of attorney and wills completed can make life a lot easier in case of a sudden death, as Chanel Reynolds discovered when her husband died after being hit by a car while bicycling. Reynolds and her late husband, Jose Hernando, didn't have their paperwork in place.

As a recent Times article recounted, Reynolds went on to start a web site to help people get their (paperwork) act together: Get Your Shit Together!, a title the Times eye-rollingly refused to print. (The Public Editor has addressed this issue.)

Anyway, if you don't have good records of your critical financial information (account numbers, beneficiaries, branch locations; life insurance policies; mortgage; etc), if you don't have a will, if you don't have powers of attorney for financial and medical issues, visit Get Your Shit Together! and start, uh, getting your shit together.