Saturday, April 27, 2013

Wagner & Dvorak at San Francisco Symphony

It's a double-header of Matthias Goerne and Christoph Eschenbach this week at Davis; tonight is the last of three programs of Wagner excerpts and the New World Symphony, tomorrow it's Schubert's Winterreise. I attended the symphony concert last night and came away with what you might call mixed feelings:  dissatisfaction with Eschenbach over a few issues, and love for Goerne co-existing with mild frustration.

Let's start with the length of the first half of the program. Okay, the two excerpts are nice bleeding chunks, but man, Die Frist ist um is an odd way to open a concert, creeping on stage as it does. Why not fatten up the program by starting with the overture to The Flying Dutchman? Rehearsal time issues? Um, maybe. I can't think of when I last heard so many messy brass entries as last night, and from a brass section that has been sounding unbelievably great for the last couple of years.

Goerne sang with his characteristic virtues: a gorgeous voice and an unerring line, deep intelligence combined with raw passion. I really could listen to him singing the telephone book; I'm sure he would project each individual's life story effortlessly based only on their name and address.

He could be the greatest Wotan ever, but only under highly controlled circumstances: if he has the stamina,  in a small house with a conductor willing to keep the orchestra's volume under control. In the giant barn that is Davies, he really didn't have a chance. His low notes disappeared - this happened in last year's stunning Mahler / Shostakovich recital as well - and Eschenbach gloried rather too much in the SFS brass, so that Goerne's voice disappeared in the racket at some critical moments. It's pretty impressive to hear an orchestra of this quality cutting loose in Wagner, but you have to wonder how much opera Eschenbach conducts, considering that he did a pretty poor job of supporting the singer.

And you'd also have to wonder how much Wagner he conducts. I do not know Dutchman well, so no comments on the tempos in Die Frist ist um, but jeez, the tempos of the last 2/3 of Wotan's Farewell seemed slow almost to the point of dragginess. Well, presumably they were at least partly Goerne's idea, and they did not cause him trouble. It's not as though the tempo caused any of the balance problems.

Eschenbach's New World performance, lacking a soloist, didn't have the kinds of balance problems the two Wagner excerpts had. I think I have never heard it live, and what a beauty, though a discursive beauty, it is. Still, I left vaguely dissatisfied: the brass issues continued, making the gorgeous chords at the opening of the slow movement less than mysteriously beautiful; some tempos were off (slow movement could've been slower, scherzo could have been quicker and more savage, etc.), and there were a couple of times when you knew, really knew, that Eschenbach is German, not Bohemian. Why the performance got a standing O is beyond me, other than that the loud parts were really, really loud.

UPDATE: Joshua Kosman and I were at the same concert, though he was there Thursday. He's blunter about Eschenbach's failings, too. He reminds me to say: Russ deLuna, you are a marvel. I hope to hear you play the Tristan solo some day.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Mobius Trio

Via Joe Barron comes word of a local group, the Mobius Trio, which was formed at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and is dedicated to commissioning and performing new music for guitar trio. Very cool!

Less cool is the unreadable web site: guys, I have a large, high-quality monitor and I can hardly read 6 point grey-on-black type. Suggest you reconsider the hipster design; I know the Command-+ trick for making the type bigger (Control-+ on Windows), but not every potential ticket buyer does.

On Stage at SFS

Some personnel notes, with thanks to SFS Communications for providing the information -

  • Jeremy Epp, who is a substitute, was the excellent timpanist for Herbert Blomstedt's two programs. It'll be interesting to see who is on stage this week for Christoph Eschenbach.
  • Stephanie McNab played third flute and piccolo in the bang-up Nielsen Fifth last week. Her usual gig is flute & piccolo with the San Francisco Opera orchestra.
  • Chris Gaudi will play principal oboe for the nonce. Auditions for principal oboe haven't been scheduled yet. (You can check the schedule of planned auditions here.)

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

You Need Me to Proofread Everything

Found in a novel I'm reading: The front and back covers and the title page call the book The Atrocity Archives. The header on every page of the text calls it The Atrocity Archive.

My bad: Daniel Wolf quite rightly points out that The Atrocity Archive is the name of one of the novellas in the book, so the header is correct.

LA Times, what's wrong with this picture?

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Cal Performances 2013-14

I'm sorry, I have to start out with a boring statement you've all heard from me before: once again, Cal Performances has a great season coming up, loaded with great performers, premieres, the rarely-seen-or-heard, the new, the old, the in-between.

Okay, it doesn't have this past year's lineup of operas (Wozzeck, Einstein on the Beach, The Secret Garden), but it does have the return of the Vienna Philharmonic and terrific piano and vocalist series, plus a Mark Morris premiere or two.

Almost everything counts as a highlight:
  • Ojai North! curated by Mark Morris. Too much good stuff to describe, even though mostly it's dead guys. One highlight will be Morris's take on Le Sacre du Printemps with music by The Bad Plus.
  • Three performances by the VPO, with Danielle Gatti, Andris Nelsons, and Franz Welser-Most each taking a program. The three programs aren't in and of themselves that thrilling, but I'll go anyway.
  • Mark Morris Dance Group with McGegan & the PBO, Handel's Acis & Galatea, orchestra by WA Mozart
  • Manny Ax with Ann Sofie von Otter (Brahms, Mazzoli, Muhly)
  • Manny Ax with Yo-Yo Ma (Brahms, Hillborg, Dean)
  • Kronos Quartet 40th birthday program
  • Vocal series: Kelley O'Connor & Jessica Rivera with Robert Spano; Gerald Finley with Julius Drake (Winterreise), Iestyn Davies with Thomas Dunford, lute, Christianne Stotijn with Rick Stotijn and Joseph Breinl (the latter program has lots of new music)
  • Piano series: Wosner, Goode, Bronfman with P. Zukerman, Lewis, Biss, Uchida
  • New music series: Eco Ensemble, Calder Quartet, Kronos Quartet
  • Chamber music series: Musicians from Marlboro, Danish String Quartet, Jerusalem Quartet (all-Shostakovich program), Takacs Quartet (all of the Bartok quartets in two programs), David Finckel  & Wu Han
  • Jordi Savall, Hesperion XXI, and Tembembe Ensemble Continuo
  • Mariza (fado)
  • Wu Man (pipa)
There's also a jazz series, some theater, lots of dance, and a "family" series.

Women? Missy Mazzoli has something on the ASvO/Ax program and Wu Man will play some of her own music.

More on the BSO Season

I count six orchestral works by living composers and six chamber works by living composers. Looks like two of the 50th anniversary commissions for the BSO Chamber Players are by women, plus...argh, Amy Beach's dreadful piano quintet makes its appearance. So, two of 12 new pieces are by women and 1 of the rest is by a woman.

UPDATE: Oh, wait, links:

The web site itself is useless: they still have a format where you see a photo and a tagline for a concert, but can't see who all of the performers and works are without clicking through and mousing over. Folks, this is the worst possible design. Alex Ross and I have been complaining about this kind of thing for years. Just stop doing it.

Bill Bennett Memorial at SFS

From the press release:

The San Francisco Symphony and the family of the late William Bennett, the Principal Oboist for the Orchestra who passed away in February, invite the public to a memorial tribute in celebration of his life onMonday, May 6 at 4 pm in Davies Symphony Hall. This event is free and all seating is general admission; no tickets are required. 

Paying tribute to Bill and honoring his life, in words and music, will be members of his family and friends, SF Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, musicians of the San Francisco Symphony, SF Symphony President Sakurako Fisher, and SFS Executive Director Brent Assink.

TICKETS: This is a free, general admission event. This is not a concert, and no tickets are required.

4 pm
Davies Symphony Hall
201 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco, CA

False Alarm, Sorta

The BSO announcement went out at some point yesterday - not to me (?!), but I saw reports elsewhere.'s another season of guest conductors! No new music director!

While one article I read said "a season with something for everyone," I'm scratching my head. An Asia tour led by Lorin Maazel? Yefim Bronfman plays the Beethoven piano concertos? (He has the same gig at NYPO.) All of the conductors and almost all of the non-vocal soloists are men (I saw Anne-Sophie Mutter, Alisa Weilerstein, and Yuja Wang). No music by women that I saw. The season schedule is here.

How much longer can this go on??

Monday, April 22, 2013

Friday, April 19, 2013

Augustin Hadelich with Blomstedt, SFS

So, two things you need to know about this week's SFS program, which I attended on Wednesday:
  • Alone of all attendees, I hated the Beethoven violin concerto.
  • The Nielsen 5 was absolutely fantastic and worth the price of admission. (Everyone agrees with this.)
Why did I hate the Beethoven? It was deadly dull, boring as hell. Beethoven should never be boring! It was pure moderato, everything well-behaved and in place, without any vigor or inner muscularity at all.  

Joshua Kosman writes that "Blomstedt and the orchestra were oddly tentative," so presumably that's what he heard. He also noted balance issues at the start. Hmm. The balances were fine from where I sat, two rows behind and five seats to the left of Joshua. As for Augustin Hadelich, eh. He also put me to sleep, and unlike JK, I heard intermittent intonation issues.

Meanwhile, David Bratman also heard energy problems; sitting closer than me, he has an interesting take on Hadelich's sound qua sound. We were at the same concert. 

Other commentary:

Monday, April 15, 2013

Season Announcements

I have fallen far behind in tracking season announcements. There are just a few major announcements still to come, from my perspective.
  • Boston Symphony Orchestra. Will they, or won't they, name a new music director, two years after James Levine's resignation?
  • Cal Performances. The announcement is a week from tomorrow. They put on the best show and I plan to be there.
  • S.F. Performances. Coming soon, either late this month or early next month.
Are there any other major orchestras that have not announced? I need to do some reportage on Philly, Chicago, Cleveland, etc.

It's a Great Day for Errors at the Times

They need me to proofread everything they say about musicians.

  • In the obituary for the late pianist and composer David Burge, the author refers to the tenor Axel Schiotz. By the time Mr. Burge worked with the singer, Schiotz had suffered a stroke and retrained as a baritone.
  • In the ArtsBlog obit for the late, great Sir Colin Davis, the author says that "It was not until 1992, with his masterful interpretation of the Sibelius cycle with the London Symphony, that his authority became apparent and his fame began to spread." Um, what? Davis was world famous long before 1992, especially for his interpretations and championing of Berlioz. Alex Ross mentions a run of Peter Grimes at the Met in 1969 that got national attention. Davis had a gigantic discography, with a recording career going back to the 1960s. The claim in the obit is outrageous and ignorant. I hope there's a full-length obit still to come that's written by a member of the music criticism staff. 

Which is Which?

Sunken Garden, Secret Garden, can you tell the difference?

I can assure you that SF Opera didn't make extravagant claims about how The Secret Garden represents a new phase of operatic production. And West Edge (nee Berkeley) Opera has been presenting terrific productions with projections for quite some time, at least since their first Bluebeard's Castle in 1996.

Note to writers and bloggers everywhere: the composer of Sunken Garden is Michel van der Aa, not Michael. I can mention this without guilt because I made the same damn mistake a while back.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

Sir Colin Davis

From the LSO home page

Sir Colin Davis has died at 85. He had been in poor health for some time and I believe was hit particularly hard by the loss of his wife a few years ago.

He was a major figure in the Berlioz revival of the last 40 or 50 years. I assume he recorded all of Berlioz's orchestral and operatic works at least once; he is certainly among the go-to conductors for Berlioz. I also have him in Sibelius and a most graceful and charming recording of most or all of Mendelssohn's incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream.

My favorite story about Davis is that, as a wind player in the early 1950s, he was denied entrance to a conducting degree program because he wasn't a pianist. Given where he went as a conductor, the joke is on the degree program and that requirement.

He was a towering figure in British musical life, and will be greatly missed.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

It's Over.

San Francisco Symphony and its musicians officially ratified a new 26-month contract a day or two ago. A big sigh of relief here, and also some real perplexity over the musicians' statement, which contains all kinds of inflammatory remarks.

Seriously, folks? You have a strong case that you presented as badly as possible; you keep sniping at management (which has been entirely professional in its public communications); your statement sounds as though you're still on strike and still fighting.

Do you understand the concept of declaring victory and celebrating? Okay, obviously not. And that's from someone who is on your side and who thinks orchestral musicians should be paid much better than even the best-paid are. Next time you're faced with a labor dispute, please hire better PR people and think carefully about who speaks for you publicly.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013


Yes, folks, it's one of those weekends, when there are about eight concerts you might want to attend. Let's take a look at the last weekend of April, call it April 25 to 28:
  • Christoph Eschenbach conducts SFS in a program of Wagner & Dvorak. Note: the Wagner is a couple of bleeding chunks sung by the great baritone Matthias Goerne.
  • Goerne & Eschenbach perform Schubert's Winterreise on Sunday, April 28
  • California Bach Society presents the Symphoniae Sacrae by Heinrich Schuetz
  • Opera Parallele presents Trouble in Tahiti and A Hand of Bridge
  • Volti performs David Lang's battle hymns at Kezar Pavilion
  • SF Conservatory stages Die Fledermaus. (I like this a lot, but SFO put it on brilliantly a few years ago and I don't need to see it again just now.)
  • Handel & Haydn Society - of Boston - presents Handel's Jeptha
  • Pocket Opera has Orpheus in the Underworld at the Hillside Club in Berkeley (Sunday only)
I have a ticket to Winterreise and am weeping as I debate what to see next. battle hymns is currently in the lead because it sounds quite remarkable, but SIGH.

Friday, April 05, 2013


A large photo of Marina (or Marianna) Cherkasskaya (or Tcherkasskaya), as Bruennhilde, in the same costume she's wearing in my icon, though it's a different pose:

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Iain Banks is "Officially Very Poorly"

Cover art of The Wasp Factory
Linked from Iain Banks's web site

Iain Banks, author of the Culture science fiction novels and many "mainstream" novels, has terminal cancer, discovered when he went to the doctor for a backache in January. He was jaundiced, and further investigation revealed cancer of the gall bladder that had spread to his liver and pancreas.

Banks is a great writer, one of my favorite living authors; I've read most of his science fiction novels and a few of the others. One of the other is his first novel, The Wasp Factory. It creeped me out so much that I left my copy of it behind in London when I returned from my 2004 sabbatical.

Composer Ben Frost has an opera on The Wasp Factory premiering this year at the Bregenz Festival, and then it moves to the Royal Opera House. I hope Banks lives to see it, and I wish him all the best for however much time remains to him.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Philharmonia Baroque/Nicholas McGegan: Brahms Serenades

I've had this gem of a CD around for a while and have been listening to it a lot lately: Nicholas McGegan conducting the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra in the two Brahms Serenades.

There's a good chance that if you're reading this blog, you already know the Brahms Serenades, Op. 11 and Op. 16. If not, you certainly should: they are perfectly lovely works, large scale and ambitious without being as ambitious (or scary to compose) as a symphony, and also gorgeous.

They are much-recorded, as well they should be. This particular set stands out because PBO uses period instruments. For the most part, I can't tell from the liner notes exactly which period their instruments are rigged for on this CD, although a number of the winds are clearly 19th c.

In any event, you'll want to hear this set, which you can buy at PBO's web site. The performances are fairly relaxed; more the genial and charming Brahms than the heaven-storming, though there's some of that too. The sound is beautiful, the playing characterful. For contrast, try this brisker and more emotionally intense Boult performance of the second Serenade.

Monday, April 01, 2013