Monday, September 30, 2013


Nothing but bad news today:
  • New York City won't help NYCO stay afloat; neither will private philanthropist Michael Bloomberg (or, apparently, anyone else with $7 million to spare).
  • Elsewhere, it's reported that the company raised about $2 million of that $7 million.
  • The Minnesota Orchestra Association's most recent offer, publicized by the MAO despite an agreed-upon media blackout, was still horrifyingly short of what the musicians made before the lockout and was duly rejected by the musicians. There was a $20,000 "signing bonus" in the offer, which would not come close, over time, to matching the size of the cuts the MOA was asking for.
  • Thus, the orchestra is withdrawing from the planned Carnegie Hall concerts. I can't imagine Osmo Vänskä staying under these circumstances, but no announcement has been made yet.
Both NYCO and the MOA lost a year of concerts, and income, with critical impact on their budgeting. The MOA, of course, has locked out its musicians for a year. I expect NYCO to proceed with its bankruptcy filing and the MOA to collapse more slowly: it still has an endowment left. As Alex Ross says, the boards of directors of these two organizations deserve careful scrutiny for their roles in these catastrophes.

The Met Helps You Keep Track of Who's Doing What With Whom

From a cast change advisory for upcoming performances of Rigoletto:
Two rising young sopranos will make their Met debuts earlier than originally scheduled when they share the role of Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto later this fall, replacing Aleksandra Kurzak, who has withdrawn due to pregnancy. Russian soprano Irina Lungu will sing the role on November 11, 15, and 18, and Bulgarian soprano Sonya Yoncheva will sing the role on November 21, 27, 30, December 4, and at the December 7 matinee.  Kurzak is expecting a baby this winter with her partner, tenor Roberto Alagna.

Saturday, September 28, 2013


Lots happening this weekend and next.

More NYCO Links

NYCO's million-dollar-goal Kickstarter campaign has made it all the way to $229,472, according to regular reports on Parterre Box. They're not going to make it.

Here are a couple more news/analysis articles on the company:

Friday, September 27, 2013

Minnesota Deadline Approaches

The Times reports that the Minnesota Orchestra Association has made yet another inadequate offer to its musicians:
The new proposal offers the players an annual average salary of $104,500 and a signing bonus of $20,000, made possible by special financing provided by a group of Minnesota foundations and community support organizations. 
The proposal is to expire at noon on Monday. Next week has been specified by Osmo Vanska, the orchestra’s music director, as the latest the orchestra can begin rehearsing for its new season, which includes important concerts at Carnegie Hall in early November. The musicians’ salaries have been the main issue in the dispute. Under their last contract, the players were making an annual average salary of $135,000.
The "average salary" business amounts to weasel words. What you need to know is the base salary and increments over time.

That said, here are some remarks I made a couple of years back about responsibilities within an orchestra or opera company:
....let's remember the division of labor at opera companies and symphonies:
  • The musicians and singers are paid to put on concerts and operas.
  • The nonmusician union members are paid to make costumes and sets and wigs and move stuff around the stage.
  • The administrators are paid to raise enough money to pay for putting on concerts and operas, and to perform myriad administrative tasks with some degree of smarts.
If an opera company or symphony orchestra finds itself in financial trouble, it's rarely because the musicians can't play and the costumers have forgotten how to sew. (If you know of such a case, please provide details in the comments.) It's invariably because the administration has failed in some way or there has been a major economic downturn. They haven't raised enough money, there's been some kind of major leadership failure, they have incurred new costs for some reason - and so on. And it's important to keep in mind that the administrators were involved in union negotiations, and signed the contracts with their eyes open.
I also said that the Philadelphia Orchestra and NYCO were poster children for bad management. Well, Minnesota tops them all, I gotta say. My expectation as of now, I am sad to say, is that Vänskä will quit and the orchestra will fold.

A Little More on NYCO

A report in the Times indicates that NYCO had to scramble to come up with their $1.3 million share of the cost of producing Anna Nicole at BAM.

Here's something I wrote about NYCO two years ago:
NYCO and the Philadelphia Orchestra are poster children for weak or incompetent administration. At NYCO, the board made at least two terrible mistakes: the appointment of Gerard Mortier, evidently without due diligence about what kind of budget he would want, and the renovation of the NY State Theater at Mortier's request, which left the company with their usual bills to pay, no place to perform, and no income. Mortier skedaddled without ever coming to NY or staging a production, leaving the board scrambling to find a new director. They wound up with George Steel, who had about as much experience running an opera company as do: several months at Dallas, which was preceded by great success as the concert presenter at the Miller Theater. Maybe Steel is the third big mistake; hard to say at this point. He's in a terrible position, where he'll get blamed for mistakes other people made. Honestly, you'd have to be a miracle worker to pull them out of the current skid. 
Oh, I forgot about the way NYCO has run through its endowment. Once valued at $55 million, presumably at the height of the boom, the endowment is down to $9 million. That's the fourth terrible mistake. They've also got an inexperienced board president, appointed just a few months ago, who says things about not disclosing their finances. As a non-profit, hello, you are legally required to release financial information to the public. Don't talk about keeping things under your hat. It only makes you look bad. So, let's call this the fifth mistake.
I certainly will stand by all of that.

Joana Carneiro Withdraws from Berkeley Symphony Opening

The conductor is presently suffering from medical conditions that preclude air travel. She'll be replaced next week by Gerard Schwarz, former music director of the Seattle Symphony and Mostly Mozart Festival.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

As I Was Saying....

Unless someone comes along to rescue NYCO, the company expects to enter bankruptcy proceedings next week.

The Times article, by new-ish writer Michael Cooper, was kind to George Steel, omitting the following godawful stupidity that the Washington Post published:
“It’s incredibly difficult to run an organization of this size with our eye so closely fixed on the week-to-week cash flow. It saps the energy of the staff and frankly it undermines the bigger point, which is that the company by any measure in better financial shape than it has been in a long time,” City Opera general manager George Steel said. “We’ve been creating some of the best work we have ever done, but what we cannot do without is the capital to make our shows happen.”
No, George, when your company is one week from bankruptcy, you cannot describe it as "in better financial shape than it has been in a long time."

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Il Corsaro, Town Hall, December, 1981

IF, dear readers, you happen to stumble across a private recording of Verdi's Il Corsaro from December, 1981, NYC Town Hall, please let me know. It was the opera's NYC premiere, and Carlo Bergonzi was the tenor.

Vanessa, Once More

First, be sure to read Robert Gordon's long comment on my previous Vanessa posting. Second, reader MD sends a link to a Guardian article about Barber, Menotti, and Vanessa that is well worth reading. It is interesting that as of when the article was written, none of the biographies of the two went so far as to say they were a homosexual couple. This seems at once...strange....given their decades of living together, but perhaps also typical of their generation.

One or two final thoughts from me: perhaps the piece sounds significantly better with a bigger orchestra and more rehearsal time. And just what is the story with niece Erika? There is no mention of Vanessa having a sibling, and at 20 Erika is exactly the right age to be Vanessa's child by Anatol I.

Advice Sought

Seating at the Metropolitan Opera. What are the advantages sight- and sound-wise of the different sections? I have only sat in the Family Circle and Balcony.

Worry not about the price structure.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Another Classical Blogger is Awarded a MacArthur Fellowship

Congratulations to pianist and blogger Jeremy Denk, who has been named a MacArthur Fellow.

(This year's crop also included jazz pianist Vijay Iyer, physicists Ana Maria Rey and Sara Seager, medieval historian Robin Fleming, statistician Susan Murphy, and public health historian Julie Livingston. As always, the MacArthur Fellows are an enormously talented group!)

To This We've Come

I had been looking forward for quite some time to West Edge Opera's semi-staged production of Samuel Barber's Vanessa, because I've been wondering about the opera for a good long time. I even listed it in season 5 of my Fantasy Opera series.

I hoped it would be a lost masterpiece, but it turns out that when an opera sinks like a stone and doesn't get performed often, there are usually good reasons for that. In the case of Vanessa, the problems are simple: the libretto and the music.

The libretto, by Barber's life partner Gian Carlo Menotti, is a mess: it's wordy, overwrought, and lacking in psychological insight into the characters. Just why did Vanessa go into seclusion for 20 years, awaiting the return of the lover who deserted her? Just how does that lover's son, who must be many years younger than Vanessa, fall for her? Just why does niece Erika disclose what young Anatol did to her too late and to the wrong person? Maybe we've all been in analysis and can figure this out for ourselves.

As for the music, it has some fine moments, mostly when Barber manages to forget that it's 1958 and he's supposed to be writing dissonant modernist music, not the big arching tunes and postromantic harmonies he was good at. And there are some fine arias and ensembles and lovely moments. But too much of the rest of it sounds like watered-down Bernard Hermann. (Note that I consider Hermann a great composer, but too much of this score sounds like outtakes from Psycho.) The work is also weirdly balanced, with the first two acts totally 90 minutes and the second a bit less than one hour. WEO performed it as two acts, and boy, those were 90 very long minutes.

Weirdly, the WEO web site has a quotation that you might think comes directly from 1950s reviews of the piece - "hopeless conservative, shameless neo-Romantic and lushly tonal panderer." A little web searching reveals that this is Anthony Tommasini, writing a 2007 review of a Vanessa performance and describing past reactions to the work, rather than quoting from specific reviews. He does not name the critics who dismissed Vanessa. WEO goes on to make some claims I don't agree with, including that we've "sent dissonant music from the 1950s to the archive" (not me) and prefer to experience in the intense lyricism of works such as Vanessa. Well, I have nothing against 20th c. romanticism, but Vanessa is a stylistic mishmash and, uh, just not very good.

WEO's orchestra was smaller than ideal - a dozen or so strings where 40 would have been appropriate - and sounded more than a little scrappy and underrehearsed through most of the evening; a number of singers from Berkeley's Chora Nova provided the too-small chorus.

Far and away the best part of the evening was the singers, who were excellent all around. Marie Plette sang beautifully and kept a straight face as the overly-patient Vanessa, while Nikola Printz made a sensational rich-toned and vulnerable Erika. Lyric tenor Jonathan Boyd was a terrific Anatol (the CAD), and Malin Fritz an excellent Old Baroness. Local favorite Philip Skinner made a great drunken doctor, the comic relief in a mostly grim opera. Mark Streshinsky relocated the action to the 1950s, which resulted in some anachronisms (sleighs??) but mostly worked.

Reviews elsewhere:

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Racette Future Seasons

Coming up for Our Pat:
More new roles are coming soon: Minnie in Puccini's La Fanciulla del West, Marie Antoinette in John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles and the title role in Richard Strauss' Salome, which she will debut next summer in a concert performance at the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago.
I knew she wanted to give Minnie a shot, but Salome?! I just think she's not deranged enough.

Friday, September 20, 2013

If You're Free Saturday Night

That is, if you are not at SF Symphony for Mahler 9, or at West Edge Opera for Vanessa, check out Piccola Morte, the new chorus, which repeats its Lassus secular music program in Oakland:

Music of Lassus: The Agony and the Ecstacy
Cathedral of Christ the Light
2121 Harrison Street, Oakland, CA 94612

8 p.m.

Tonia D'Amelio, soprano
Danielle Reutter-Harrah, mezzo
Brian Thorsett & Eric Tuan, tenors
Nicholas Nackley, baritone
conducted by Christopher Kula

A quintet of impressive solo talent joins forces to present the exquisitely crafted polyphony of Franco-Flemish master Orlando di Lasso (ca.1532–94), exploring the philosophical side of the madrigal and the expressionistic, lurid side of the motet: the grey area between secular and sacred.

Lassus wrote several books of Italian madrigals, but a fraction of a vast oeuvre spanning several genres and languages. Many of his madrigals are composed on the dark, transcendent poetry of Francesco Petrarca, a.k.a. Petrarch (1304–74). The expansive, six-movement madrigal Standomi un giorno (Visions of Petrarch) recounts a wild series of hallucinations of beauty, destruction, and strange redemption. The motets Veni in hortum meum and Veni dilecte mi, on the other hand, set passages from the Old Testament’s prototypical contribution to the genre of the steamy romance novel, the Canticum Canticorum. The concert will also feature pieces in praise of St. Cecilia, patron saint of music (Cantantibus organis, Caecilia virgo), and of Orpheus, the mythical musician who sang his way into, and back out of, Hades (Deliciae Phoebi), as well as other madrigals from throughout the composer's career.

Piccola Morte (“the little death”) is the newest affiliate organization of MusicSources, Center for Historically Informed Performance, and performs early Baroque madrigals of Monteverdi and others as part of the MusicSources 2013–14 concert season (February 7, 2014). For more information about the concerts and the ensemble

Admission $15 / $10 students and seniors. Tickets available at the door or online at:

More information can be found at:

This event is all ages and wheelchair accessible.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

Luisotti, Then and Now

Nicola Luisotti
Photo by Terrence McCarthy; courtesy San Francisco Opera

It's only been four years since Nicola Luisotti assumed the music directorship of San Francisco Opera, so a bit short of the usual five-year lookback, but perhaps some of us were overly optimistic in 2007 when the appointment was announced:

  • Joshua Kosman: It's Nicola ("Anyone who can shape a performance like Luisotti's Forza — and inspire the confidence of the excellent but somewhat demoralized Opera Orchestra — can only be a force for good.")
  • Me: Dream Come True ("jumped up and down a lot when he conducted Forza here during the 2005-06 season. I'm so glad about this decision.")
  • Joshua Kosman, reviewing Mefistofele: "Music director Nicola Luisotti's tendency to linger fondly over every phrase and transition...." 
  • Me, discussing Cosi fan tutte: "Nicola Luisotti does not understand what Mozart conducting requires...."
  • I hated his Salome. Lohengrin was better, but still lacked sufficient Wagnerian pulse.
I missed Luisotti's Butterfly and Fanciulla del West; the Boheme was very good and so was Rondine
(which Luisotti did not conduct). I detect a certain lack of skill in diverse repertory, which Joshua was concerned about in his 2007 blog posting. You could say that I have had my moments of missing Donald Runnicles in the last four years.

Dolores Claiborne Media Roundup and Random Comments

Patricia Racette as Dolores Claiborne
(Photo by Scott Wall;
Courtesy of San Francisco Opera)

The reviews are coming in.
  • Lisa Hirsch, Chicago Classical Review
  • Janos Gereben, SFCV. (Everybody was hoping for the headline Dolores and Dolora, but we didn't get it, did we?)
  • Janos Gereben, Examiner. 
  • Opera Tattler
  • Zachary Woolfe, NY Times. Uh....I have no idea what planet he was on last night, though he's onto to something about Racette lacking a bit in the pugnacity department. She is less salty in stage temperament than I'd imagined Dolores to be.
  • James Tarmey, Bloomberg. WTF? He thinks it's overblown and mediocre.
  • Richard Sheinin, Mercury News. Loves the singing, considers the music a mish-mash.
  • Joshua Kosman, SF Chronicle. Likes the drama and staging, down on the music. Also manages to get "shaggy" and "doggedly" into the same sentence.
  • Robert Commanday, Classical Voice America. Very positive about all aspects of the opera.
  • SF Mike, Civic Center. Very enthused.
  • Cedric Westphal, SFist. Also enthused.
A few things I could not wedge into the review: We're all used to seeing Patricia Racette in glamorous or sexy or youthful roles, say, Floria Tosca; she transforms herself here into a dowdy and defeated character, with a little help from makeup and lighting.

There's a very odd moment when Vera Donovan sings music that sounds straight out of the Rheinmaidens' music in Das Rheingold, but I could not figure out why. (Joshua Kosman identifies this as the Forest Bird's music from Siegfried. Wish I had the Dolores score handy!) The Maids' Chorus joins the opening of Elektra as a great short ensemble for female voices. And apparently one of my self-edits removed a remark about some inexplicable sounds coming out of the orchestra.

Kudos to Racette for the Herculean task of learning this very tough role on very short notice, and to , the musical staff and Racette's spouse Beth Clayton for their help. There were a couple of points last night where stage coordination wasn't perfect; OT calls out a moment when Selena is telling Dolores to let go of her while Racette is still standing three feet from Susannah Biller and hasn't yet touched her, but whatever: these things happen on opening night and will be fine by the second performance.

In her last appearance here, which I never got to writing up, Elizabeth Futral was a chilly and unsympathetic Violetta, a performance I hated in a 1920s production that added absolutely nothing to the story. I was seriously impressed, in a good way, with her sincere, committed, and well-sung Vera. 

As for Dolora Zajick's reasons for withdrawing (physical and musical demands), it's a long role that doesn't seem to be much more physically demanding than a typical operatic role. I own that I have no idea just how troublesome her knees are; the sheer length of the role might be more than they can handle. Musically, yeah, it's different from her usual repertory, and undoubtedly more difficult, but the piece was workshopped last year and she must have had the score at least since early this year.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Seen at the Opera House

Tonight was the world premiere of Tobias Picker's Dolores Claiborne, libretto by J.D. McClatchy, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name.

Picker is a New Yorker, and he has a friend Ruth who came out from the East Coast for the first performance. Apparently they visited during the intermission, and I saw them together as he escorted her to her seat in the orchestra.

That would be after Ruth's Secret Service security detail more or less elbowed me out of their paths. Her day job? Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

(Oh, the opera? My review will be published at Chicago Classical Review tomorrow, but for now I'll just say get tickets now because they will fly out of the box office once the reviews are out.)

Found in the NY Times

Photo by Lambert Orkis

Interesting week:

Tuesday, September 17, 2013


In Japan, an idol isn't exactly what you might think, or maybe it is: an idol is a bigtime pop star. These stars are recruited by a promoter during their teen years and developed into money machines over a long period of time. As you might guess, an idol's life isn't much like yours or mine.

If you're a mystery fan, or you're interested in the less-known byways of Japanese life, or, best of all, if you're both, you are sure to enjoy my friend Jonelle Patrick's Only in Tokyo mystery series. I blogged publication of Nightshade, the first book in the series, last year, and cleverly forgot to blog the publication of the second, Fallen Angel.

Now the third book, Idolmaker, is out. If you're still on tenterhooks from the ending of Fallen Angel, well, pull out the e-reader right now. If you're not, I urge you to pick up Nightshade and can promise that when you finish it, you'll want to read the second and third books too.

If you don't have an e-reader, you can still buy the Only in Tokyo books by installing the Kindle or Kobo app on your computer, phone, or tablet.

Separated at Birth?

SFS Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas

Monday, September 16, 2013

Los Angeles Philharmonic: New Labor Agreement

Minnesota Orchestra Association, take note: The LAPO and its musicians have a new labor agreement, reached with no fuss, no muss, no strike, no walkout, no lockout.

Congratulations, LAPO management and musicians alike, for the agreement and for setting a good example in so many ways.

Here's the whole press release, which quite properly mentions the "collegial spirit" of the negotiations; the one item I am seriously curious about is the "restructured" health care offerings:


September 16, 2013—The Los Angeles Philharmonic Association (LA Phil) and Professional Musicians, Local 47, today jointly announced an agreement on a new four-year labor contract, effective immediately.

“The collegial spirit in which issues were addressed and a new contract reached are emblematic of the collective commitment of the musicians, Gustavo Dudamel, and the board and staff of the LA Phil to maintain the very finest musical organization. It is my privilege to work with as fine a group of artists and people as one can imagine,” said Deborah Borda, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Association.

Vince Trombetta, President of Professional Musicians, Local 47, praised the hard work and diligence of the Union’s bargaining committee and stated: “We are extremely pleased that the bargaining teams for the Union and the Association have reached agreement on a new contract for the talented musicians of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and that our members enthusiastically ratified the contract. Both sides want the same thing: to employ musicians of the highest caliber and protect their wages, benefits, and safety conditions and have the best Orchestra in the world. The Union is encouraged that the parties were able to join together and overcome the obstacles present in today’s difficult bargaining and economic environment.”

Highlights of the new four-year agreement include:

·     annual increases to the musicians’ minimum weekly scale wages, which, in the final year of the contract, will increase to $2968.00.
·     managing the Association’s healthcare expenses through restructured healthcare plan offerings.
·    additional compensation elements include a housing allowance and new contributions to a 403(b).


Zerbinetta Reveals Her Secret Identity

She is Princeton musicology grad student Micaela Baranello. Her CV is here. (That's Bohemian soprano Mizzi Gunther, who created the title role in The Merry Widow, posing prettily.)

I guessed that she was a musicologist some time in 2011 and emailed her about it in January, 2012, noting that she simply knew a whole lot more about opera history than other opera bloggers.

And I'm looking forward to reading her dissertation!

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Sign Up Now!

I still have a few openings in the women's self-defense class that starts on Saturday, September 21.

Dates: Six Saturdays from September 21, 2013 through October 26, 2013
Time:  1:15 to 3:15 p.m. (six two-hour classes)
                 2525 8th St.
                 Berkeley, CA
Cost: $95 (no one turned away for lack of funds)

Contact: or 510-842-6243 (Google Voice for the dojo)

Here and There: "Orchestral Crisis" Re-Visted

One last time! Alex Ross discusses the non-death of classical music and points to Jon Silpayamanant's timeline of "orchestral crisis". I suggest reading Jon's blog post Questions About the State of Classical Music (and keeping in mind that people who make money from talking about crises have no incentives for discovering that, uh, there isn't a crisis).

Back in the good old days of 2004-5, a number of people arm-wrestled with Greg Sandow about these issues, and eventually gave up for various reasons. If you have some historical perspective, it's obvious that musical institutions will come and go (New York City Opera, hail and farewell). It's a tragedy when an organization like the Minnesota Orchestra is (willfully?) gutted, and likely killed, by its own board, but more commonly, the economy and run-of-the-mill management errors do in organizations. In the Bay Area, the Oakland Symphony died and returned as the Oakland-East Bay SO, and the San Jose Symphony died and was replaced by the Symphony Silicon Valley. This is the normal state of organizations: some succeed, some fail. Of more interest might be the number of American musical institutions that survived and even grew during the current prolonged and serious recession. Or the growth in certain areas. I will trot out some numbers Alex dug up years ago: between the 1970s and around 2005, the number of new music ensembles in the greater NYC area grew from 2 to 50. Does that sound like an art form in crisis??

Elsewhere, Bruce Ridge tells it like it is to the people of Minnesota, in an op-ed that is related to general talk of an "orchestral crisis".....Here's Jon again on pundits crying wolf....and Ron Spigelman with a few words on the same topic.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Separated at Birth?

Can you name these three guys?

Hint: not Paul Krugman, not Tom Friedman.

Shapero Memorial Concert

Not what it's called, but that's what it is:

The Piano Music of Harold Shapero with Sally Pinkas and Evan Hirsch
Saturday, Sept. 28, at 8 p.m., Slosberg Music Center, Brandeis University
Free and open to the public

The Brandeis Department of Music pays tribute to Harold Shapero, a beloved Brandeis professor emeritus and acclaimed neo-classical composer. The event will include a display of his accomplishments, speakers from the music community, and a performance by the virtuosic Hirsch-Pinkas Piano Duo, featuring Sally Pinkas and Evan Hirsch. Shapero was a contemporary and lifelong friend of Aaron Copland and fellow Brandeis faculty members Arthur Berger, Leonard Bernstein, and Irving Fine. His compositions were recognized with numerous accolades, including the Prix de Rome, a Naumburg Fellowship, two Guggenheim Fellowships, and a Fulbright Fellowship.

More on concerts at Brandeis here.

[Update: typo in Aaron Copland's name fixed, as it has been on the Brandeis web page.]

Jacaranda (Los Angeles) Season Announcement

Jacaranda, a Los Angeles-area presenter that focuses on the new and unusual, celebrates its tenth anniversary with a great season of works from the 10 previous Jacaranda seasons. (Okay, I guess it is actually turning 11?) I do seriously mean it's a great season, but it's also a little disheartening: seven concerts and a special event on the Santa Monica carousel, no works composed by women except for the Gubaidulina at the carousel. (That event is based on Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise, which is itself short on discussions of women who compose, giving a couple of pages to Ruth Crawford Seeger and a hat-tipping couple of paragraphs toward the end. I predict an additional chapter somewhere for the second edition; the book's organization would easily allow this.)

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Opera News Awards

The honorees this year are Patrice Chereau, Juan Diego Florez, Christa Ludwig, James Morris, and Nina Stemme. It's a pretty good mix, but I had to say WTF at the following comment about Stemme, taken from the press release I received:

Online Editor Adam Wasserman salutes Ms. Stemme:

Nina Stemme has emerged as the indisputable dramatic soprano of her generation. With her molten midrange, gleaming top and generous phrasing, Stemme makes real the joys and sorrows of Wagner, Strauss, and Puccini heroines in a manner that is at once classic in style and unlike anything we’ve heard before.”

Uh, what does "the indisputable dramatic soprano of her generation" mean, anyway? Is there an adjective missing? And there's plenty of dispute about Stemme's voice qua voice. "Gleaming top" is pure cliche, plus, has this guy heard her live? I have, and the way she plants herself and lunges for anything above a high A is the antithesis of what I think of as a "gleaming top," because it's such a struggle for her to get there.

Monday, September 09, 2013

Lotfi Mansouri

Photo Courtesy of San Francisco Opera*

Lotfi Mansouri, fourth general director of San Francisco Opera, died in San Francisco on August 30 at 84 of pancreatic cancer. 

The Iranian-born Mansouri came to SFO in 1988, following the financially-disastrous five-year tenure of Terry McEwan, and served until 2001. He put the opera company back on a decent financial footing (only to have successor Pamela Rosenburg run the company into another hole), brought Supertitles, his own invention, to the War Memorial Opera House, got together enough money for badly-needed earthquake strengthening of the opera house as well as some renovations and a small expansion, ran the project so that it came in on time and on budget, and managed a season out of the opera house while the work went on, making good use of the Orpheum for several productions and the Civic Auditorium for the rest. 

He commissioned a few operas while at SF: Conrad Susa’s The Dangerous Liaisons, André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer, Stewart Wallace’s Harvey Milk, and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. He staged a number of Russian rarities, including Ruslan and Ludmilla, The Fiery Angel, Betrothal in a Monastery, and The Tsar's Bride. He brought Donald Runnicles to San Francisco Opera as music director, following Runnicles' great showing in the 1990 Ring

Mansouri also directed many productions at SFO, too many to list. I can't say I thought he was more than a competent director, as I can't remember a single particularly insightful production. Casting under Mansouri (and Christina Scheppelman) was erratic; Carol Vaness was engaged for dramatic soprano roles, hastening her vocal decline; Wolfgang Schmidt was a little too much in evidence; too many stars never made it to SF or seemed to be excluded for thinner singers with less voice.

Other obituaries:

The bas relief in the opera house lobby shows a grim Mansouri - all wrong; he was a smiler.

The Nerds and Nerdettes of Berkeley

Went shopping at the Berkeley Bowl last night wearing the above t-shirt; got three compliments on it.

Sunday, September 08, 2013

Any Billionaire Opera Fans Out There?

New York City Opera needs $7 million by the end of September and $20 million by the end of the year, or the company will cancel most of this season and all of next season, according to a report in the NY Times.

They are soliciting donations on their web site and....there is a Kickstarter campaign as well, to raise the first million. It has reached the grand sum of $4,433 as of right now.

Folks, you need a new development department. There are dozens of rich people out there who could bail you out by writing a single check. Where, for example, is David H. Koch? Didn't he donate a few bucks to renovate your theater?

Friday, September 06, 2013

The Road to Hell

In Minnesota, it isn't paved with good intentions.

  • Reports indicate that the Minnesota Orchestra Association (MOA) has purged their mailing lists so that patrons who've objected to the lockout don't receive certain emails. See Emily Hogstad and a commenter at Adaptistration.
  • The MOA is determined to stay the course even if it costs them the opening of their renovated hall, the Carnegie Hall dates, and their music director. (Link is to a Graydon Royce article in the Star Tribune.)
  • Alex Ross lets fly.
  • Robert Levine dismantles the MOA's financial review. (H/T Alex for the link.)
  • The MOA thinks musicians are interchangeable, and looks to an exciting future with new musicians. It's not true at all: wholesale replacement of orchestral musicians plus a new conductor would result in an entirely new sound and style of playing. An orchestra's characteristic sound and style are created by tribal knowledge, of sorts, of how individuals all work together when there are only a few annual personnel changes. SFS has had maybe four or five changes in personnel annually in the years I have been following them closely. (Greg Sandow commented a couple of years back about how exciting it would be to have the Philly musicians replaced by recent conservatory grads. Look, conservatory orchestras are great; current conservatory musicians play at a professional or near pro level. You can hear that in any conservatory in the world. But they're not the Philadelphia Orchestra - and Sandow should have known that.)

Wednesday, September 04, 2013

Metropolitan Opera Aida, 2013

Wow, or maybe I mean anti-wow: there's a PBS broadcast of this production tonight, and I turned it on in time to catch a chunk of Act II. It's the at-this-point elderly Sonja Frisell production, with the following cast:

  • Liudmyla Monastyrska (Aida) 
  • Olga Borodina (Amneris)
  • Roberto Alagna (Radamès)
  • George Gagnidze (Amonasro)
  • Štefan Kocán (Ramfis)
  • Miklós Sebestyén (The King) 

Here's what you need to know: the direction is embarrassingly bad, with amateurish blocking and nothing particularly reflecting the passions at play. Worse, the conducting is shockingly dull, with little sense of either grandeur or intimacy. Honestly, the opera was just about limping along with no sparkle or life when I turned it off.

Imagine my surprise: Fabio Luisi was conducting. I would have thought he would be good at Verdi.

Monday, September 02, 2013

Labor Day, 2013

Organized labor has done a lot for working people. If you have any of the following - and you do, if you work in the US - you owe it to organized labor:
  • Minimum wage
  • 40-hour work week
  • Occupational health & safety regulations
  • Child labor laws
  • Unemployment insurance
  • Passage of the Social Security Act
  • Passage of the National Labor Relations Act
  • Collective bargaining rights
  • Pensions
  • Passage of many civil rights laws
This is a particularly sad time to be thinking about organized labor. In Minnesota, the strong musicians' union hasn't been able to prevent or settle the eleven-month lockout. The minimum wage has completely failed to keep pace with inflation; lower-paid workers are consequently less well paid than they were 40 or 50 years ago. (Here's a NY Times story on what it's like trying to live on the minimum wage.) Fast-food and Walmart's workers often find themselves needing food stamps because the pay is so low (Walmart and MacDonald's are hugely profitable, but don't share the wealth with their workers.) Paul Krugman has a few things to say today; read it and weep.

Minnesota Orchestra: Down to the Wire

We're now a little over a week from Osmo Vänskä's September 9 deadline: if the lockout isn't settled by then, he has said that he plans to resign his post as music director of the Minnesota Orchestra.

Let's review some history here.

Vänskä has been MD of the Minnesota Orchestra since 2003; during that time, the orchestra's reputation has grown; it has made a series of highly-regarded recordings under Vänskä; has toured the US, and generally received a great deal of acclaim. It's not as though this orchestra was ever a slouch; they also made some terrific recordings under Antal Dorati, conductor from 1949 to 1960, when the orchestra was called the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra. 

Seriously, the orchestra has had a series of first-class conductors, including Edo de Waart and  Stanisław Skrowaczewsk (Mr. S). By all reports, it's now a world-class ensemble.

Eleven months ago, the orchestra's management locked out the musicians, after the musicians refused to take a 1/3 pay cut and accept significant changes to the work rules. (For details, read the Adaptistration articles on the redline contracts, which are here, here, and here.)

Since then, the orchestra has been bleeding musicians: 27 have resigned, retired, gone on leave, or accepted positions elsewhere. That's around a quarter of the orchestra. (The graphic above, from the Minnesota Orchestra Musicians web site, shows those musicians as ghosts.)

Even if the lockout is settled tomorrow - and it won't be, based on the most recent sham offer from management - the orchestra would be seriously damaged because of those losses. Despite claims in the past that it would be "exciting" or "interesting" to replace an orchestra with recent conservatory grads (and who says that recent conservatory grads want to be underpaid?), it would take years to fill 27 openings, if, of course, management wouldn't happily settle for a smaller number of musicians to pay.

Here's the biggest point you need to keep in mind in thinking about the situation: the management and board trying to cut musician pay are the same management and board that has fund-raised at least $45 million to fund a renovation of the orchestra's hall, but somehow they're not able to fund-raise enough money to keep musician salaries stable.

How is this going to play out? Here's what I wish: that the orchestra and musicians would listen to Alan Fletcher. End the walkout, sit down and talk, resume the orchestra's performance schedule, with management committing to raising the funds necessary to continue with decent salaries.

But I'm sorry to say that I think this situation cannot be healed. The board and management have shown little inclination to negotiate and little understanding of just how damaging this lockout has been. After an eleven-month lockout, I see no way for trust to be restored, although ending the walkout and negotiating in good faith would help. I believe that Osmo Vänskä will resign, that the 2013-14 season will have to be canceled, and that in the end, the musicians and Minnesota will be the big losers. 

It is a crying shame, and I would love to be wrong, but there you have it.

The Minnesota Orchestra cross-blog event is a collection of more than a dozen bloggers, musicians, patrons, and administrators writing about the orchestra's devastating work stoppage. You can find all of the contributions in the following list and the authors encourage everyone to participate by sharing, commenting, or publishing something at your own culture blog. To read a great deal of the history of the lockout, go to Drew McManus's Adaptistration (link is to his tag for the orchestra).