Thursday, October 31, 2013

Now We Are Nine.

For once, I remembered my blogoversary. The name was to be The Witching Hour, but that was taken - by someone who made three postings - so I settled on a favorite Shakespearean moment.

No Proselytizing

Email sent in response to a comment, which was not from a regular reader:

Dear [redacted]:

You have attempted to proselytize for Christianity in a comment on my classical music blog, Iron Tongue of Midnight.

I must ask whether you read the blog posting to which you attempted to post. It is about the sexual abuse of minors at the Royal Northern College of Music and Chetham's Music School in Great Britain.

Comments at my blog are moderated, and I will not be publishing yours. It is off-topic and I do not allow religious proselytizing in the comments.


Lisa Hirsch

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Why I Don't Belong to the Music Critics Association of North America Any More

I was a member of MCANA for a couple of years, and even participated on a panel at the 2011 meeting, which was held in San Francisco.

At the time that I joined, I heard that the group was trying to recruit bloggers. I heard about this from an MCANA member, and I never did hear of any kind of concerted effort to get bloggers into the group. It's easy to understand why: two years ago, MCANA had fewer than 100 members. There are more than 300 classical music bloggers, of varying degrees of quality, writing in English, with a large proportion of those based in North America. The folks getting paid regularly for their reviews would quickly be overrun by nonpros.

MCANA has never presented specific criteria for a blogger to join, and I think that perhaps the effort to recruit bloggers was short-lived. I was able to join because I had four or more published professional reviews in the previous year. At the time, MCANA didn't even have an online application, so I had to print out a selection of my online SFCV reviews to snail mail to the organization. I understand that this has changed, but what??

I quit for a few reasons.

1. For my $100/year, I could spend a lot of money traveling to the annual conference location, where I could get free tickets to whatever festival was close by. Not a huge benefit, because I can afford to pay for my own tickets. In 2011, there were also a couple of seminars of no particular interest to me, also at distant locations.

2. No mailing list. Seriously, it's the 21st century, and the "mailing list" is "copy this list of member email address and send them all email." So there is no archive and no encouragement of intramember communications and discussion. It takes ten minutes to set up a Yahoo mailing list or Google Group, or if you want to live dangerously, Listserv.

3. I got omitted from a mailing coming from the organization itself, presumably as a result of the above.

4. MCANA just launched a new web review magazine. Did you know that? I bet you didn't, because I found out about it 1) in email containing a link to Robert Commanday's Dolores Claiborne review 2) from Alex Ross's blog. Uh, emailing prominent bloggers and musical organizations might get you some publicity - and hits! But people don't read what they don't know about.

5. Terrible outreach. I don't understand why MCANA hasn't tried to get every SFCV writer to join, but evidently they haven't tried. (I was asked if I wanted to join the membership committee. No, I did not.)

6. The worst web site imaginable.

7. I run a technical writer organization at my workplace that has twice as many members as MCANA, and thus I know from personal experience that it's not so hard to do things better than MCANA has been doing things.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

I Hope the (Other) CSO is Embarrassed by This.

Columbus, OH music blogger Heather Brown tells you what it's like to make an online contribution to various nonprofits around town:
  • Opera Columbus: Five (5) steps.
  • Promusica Chamber Ensemble: Five (5) steps.
  • Columbus Symphony Orchestra: Up to twenty (20) steps. The process is so confusing that it's barely possible to determine how long it will take any particular individual.
As I've been saying for quite some time on my Web Site Basics page, make it as easy as possible for people to give you their money. The CSO is failing this, bigtime. My advice: put a PayPal button on your home page somewhere. Really.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Musical Invective: Jenufa

As several guessed, the opera in the previous posting was Leoš Janáček's wonderful Jenufa, a work that was greeted with a certain amount of derision on its US premiere in 1925. It took a while for public and musical opinion to catch up with the great Moravian composer's music.

Here are a bunch of reviews from the Metropolitan Opera Archives. You can tell how new and different Janáček's music was for these reviewers; they all manage to find different ways to misunderstand it. "Not really an opera," "prettily light comic material" (!), "conventional operatic formulae," "Janáček's colorless music" (!!!), "The best that one can say for the music is that it does not ruin the histrionic effects." Etc.

Review in the Evening Journal by Irving Weil
From time to time Mr. Giulio Gatti-Casazza seeks to fatten the German repertoire at the Metropolitan Opera, but in spite of such bits of promising nourishment as he picks up here and there, the repertoire seems to remain statically Wagnerian. Young Erich Korngold's "Die tote Stadt" and Max von Schilling's "Mona Lisa" do not appear to have been ecstatically absorbed, and the General Director's latest experiment, "Jenufa," offered up for the first time on Saturday afternoon, is not likely to do any better.

The new opera-new, however, only to New York, for it has been available any time these twenty years-is a setting by the Bohemian, Lèos Janacek, of a tale by Gabriella Preissova. Neither of these names, of course, means anything here, for none of Janacek's music heretofore got across the Atlantic and the librettist is an unknown. Janacek, who is now seventy, is a Checho-Slovakian-a Moravian, to be more specific-and his opera is a Moravian "Cavalleria Rusticana," minus anything remotely as good as Mascagni's music.

Why Mr. Gatti-Casazza ever came to look hopefully upon "Jenufa" would be a mystery if one did not happen to think that he has in his company a Bohemian conductor, a Bohemian ballet master who, nevertheless, is given to offering advice, and a Moravian prima donna. Probably all three were too much for him and therefore, "Jenufa." But no one ought to take it into his head from this that "Jenufa" is the worst opera we have ever heard. As a fact, it is a long way from that. The unforgettable "Mona" of Horatio Parker, the "Cyrano de Bergerac" of Walter Damrosch, "The Polish Jew" of-who was it wrote that one?-were immeasurably worse. Indeed, now we have begun cataloguing, we can think of a score or so far, far worse. But "Jenufa" is quite worse enough.

For one thing, the opera tells a tale of the Moravian contodini over which it is difficult to become greatly excited. Jenufa is ruined, as they used to put it in "Bertha, the Beautiful Sewing-Machine Girl," by a young Don Juan of the Moravian hills, and being that sort he refuses to make her an honest woman, as they still put it in Max Marcin melodrama. Her stepmother conceals her till the child is born and then tells the young Don Juan's brother, who is also crazy about Jenufa, the whole story. The child, she adds, is dead. The brother then agrees to marry her. Meanwhile the stepmother takes the child and drops it under the ice in the offstage river and tells Jenufa it died. But the little thing is of course found by the villagers and Stepmother confesses.

It is easily conceivable that such a tale, or something like it, could be made a gripping affair. One has only to think of Sydney Howard's current peasant drama, "They Knew What They Wanted" with Pauline Lord, or of "Cavalleria Rusticana" itself for that matter, to realize this. But there are a dozen reasons why it isn't. One of them is that the Metropolitan Opera House is the Metropolitan Opera House. Another that Maria Jeritza, the Jenufa is no Pauline Lord; still another that the German translation is either poor stuff or the original is the same. And, chief of them all, that Janacek's music is a pretilly light comic matter trying to characterize the tragic. This music flows along gently and unobtrusively, with a Wagnerian twist and turn every now and again, but never achieves so much as a profile of the drama. Mr. Janacek has theories about song-speech in opera, but he forgot or was unable to make his song-speech say or sing anything definite or apt.

So far as the performance on Saturday went, Margaret Matzenauer, the stepmother, Buryja, walked away with the opera. She was the one person on the stage in whom you had any belief, the only one who put anything of the tragic into the tragedy. Her acting, to be sure, was of the type sometimes designated as all over the place, but, anyhow, it made its point. And, after all, peasants, we suppose, are not expected to be subtle. Her singing was matzenauerian, as usual, but it was rather less atonal than customarily.

Mme. Jeritza's Jenufa seemed to be a girl who, in spite of those Moravian costumes, ought to have known how to take care of herself better than she did. She had her moments, to be sure, and as nearly always, contributed her acrobatic bit, but she was scarcely impressive. And her singing, for the most part, was exceedingly loud. So was Rudolf Laubenthal's, who was the local Moravian Don Juan. He seemed to have the heroic tenor complex for the afternoon and it didn't agree with him very well. Mr. Bodanzky conducted. Mr. Von Wymental did some excellent stage directing.

Here's Ernest Newman:

  "What a crew" said a well known dramatic critic of the characters in one of the Ibsen plays. 'What a crew!" we may say also of the people of "Jenufa" that had its first performance (in German) at the Metropolitan Opera House on Saturday. A more complete collection of undesirables and incredibles has never previously appeared in opera.

To [the] crude story, Janacek has written music that is obviously the work of a man who, however many works he may have to his credit, is only a cut above the amateur. The best things in the score are the national songs and dances, which are charming. For the bigger moments he has mostly nothing but conventional operatic formulae. It is a little puzzling, to the non-Czech listener, to find cheerful national dance rhythms running though the most tragic scenes. Apparently in these Central European countries, you do everything to these rhythms; you shave yourself to a Krakoviak, cut a man's throat to a Mazurka, and bury him to a Czardas…

The company labored hard to make these absurd stage figures credible to us, but Mr. Laubenthal, for all his intelligence, could not bring them to life, and Mr. Oehman seemed none too happy as Laca. Mme. Matzenauer was duly convulsive as Burya, and admirably realistic, for naturally you could not expect a poor woman with so much on her mind to sing with perfect melodiousness. I did not see Jenufa anywhere, but her clothes were worn by Mme. Jeritza, who, if she was more self conscious than I imagine the real Jeritza would have been, sang infinitely better. The opera was charmingly staged, and the costumes were a delight to the eye.

 Lawrence Gilman in the Herald Tribune:
The Metropolitan's production of the work is admirable. The opera is beautifully mounted, intelligently directed, and effectively impersonated. It is not easy to imagine a more perfect embodiment of the role of the ill-used peasant girl than Jeritza's. Her handling of the scene in which she learns of the death of her child is as beautiful and affecting a thing as she has done here; it is on a par with her Tosca for veracity and skill and power. We shall not soon forget her moving delivery of "So starb es, mein süsses Herzenskind" And Mme. Matzenauer has done nothing in recent years as adroit and fine as her performance of the Sexton's Widow - save for those few moments at the close of the second act when she overstresses her indication of superstitious dread by excess of movement and gesture. She should study Chaliapin s exquisite economy of movement in his acting of a similar scene in "Boris."

Mr. Laubenthal, as the perfidious Steva, bettered by a good deal his previous impersonations here - his first act bun(sic) is a thing to marvel at. The Laca of Martin Oehman (the Swedish tenor who is new this season at the Metropolitan) was an efficient performance, praiseworthy for its intelligence and its quiet force. These were the chief roles; the others were for the most part capably done.

Mr. Bodanzky conducted devotedly and with authority, as he always does. The settings are delightful, and the charming costumes, with their gorgeous embroidery, their furred coats and their captivating flowered hats would lure us again and again to the Metropolitan, even though we had to. listen to Janacek's colorless music. The audience, a huge one, was extraordinarily enthusiastic. the Metropolitan has played a winning card. "Jenufa" is better than "I Compagnacci."

Review signed S. L. L. in the Philadelphia Public Ledger

Famous Diva and Mme. Matzenauer Magnificent in Exceedingly Intense Drama Given by Metropolitan Company

One of the most curious "operas" ever given in Philadelphia was presented by the Metropolitan Opera Company of New York at the Academy of Music last evening when Janacek's "Jenufa" was sung by a group of stars to a stupendously powerful orchestra accompaniment led by Artur Bodanzky. The story of the opera is a singularly disagreeable one, but it gives full scope to the extraordinarily dramatic powers of Maria Jeritza and Margaret Matzenauer, both of whom improved their opportunities in this line to the utmost.

Musically the opera is in a class by itself, for nothing like it in musical content has ever been heard here. It is really not opera at all, but incidental music accompanying an exceedingly intense drama. The work follows no precedent. There are many themes which recur throughout the opera, but this recurrence has nothing in common with the Wagnerian "leit- motif," because they are repeated virtually in toto and without development of that reference to previous characters or scenes which is carried out to so high a degree by the master of Bayreuth.

At the same time, it must be admitted that the music never intrudes upon the dramatic action. In the intensity of some of the scenes the hearer is entirely unconscious of any music at all, which shows in itself that it fits the dramatic situation. Did it intrude, it would be incongruous and therefore unfitting. Nevertheless, it is by no means great music, for the thrills which the work contains (and there are many) are entirely dramatic and not musical ones. The best that one can say for the music is that it does not ruin the histrionic effects.

But there are unquestionably points in the opera where the music rises to considerable heights. The greatest of these is the monologue of the Sexton's Widow (Mme. Matzenauer) where she decides on the death of the baby as the best way out of a most undesirable situation. Also the ensuing scene, where Jenufa (Mme. Jeritza) discovers the absence of the child, and again in the same act where the explanation is made.

The opera was superbly staged and magnificently acted by Mesdames Jeritza and Matzenauer. There are defects of operatic and libretto techniques throughout, as both the second and third acts end in anti-climaxes and the emotional tension in both these acts is too long sustained for the hearer. Had the curtain been rung down when Jenufa discovers the loss of the child and sinks faintingly against the locked door, the audience, wrought to the highest emotional pitch of the evening, would have "gone crazy" to use a stage term. Instead, the explanation and the first love scene follow. There is a limit of emotional endurance to the audience as well as to the performers and Mesdames Jeritza and Matzenauer were manifestly "all in" when they responded to the curtain calls at the close of the act.

Columns more might be written of this unique opera. The tenors (it calls for two of these) were moderately good in the persons of Messers Laubenthal and Ohman and Kathleen Howard was very fine, vocally and dramatically, as Grandmother Buryja. The numerous lesser roles were well taken by Arnold Gabor, Ellen Dalossy, Grace Anthony, Charlotte Ryan and Marie Mattfeld. Mr. Bodanzky, with his usual lack of appreciation of the wonderful acoustics of the Philadelphia Academy of Music, allowed the orchestra to overpower the singers most of the time, even admitting that the orchestral parts are more important than the vocal ones.

Musical Invective

What opera's US premiere is under discussion in the following review excerpts? No fair using web search.

From time to time [general director redacted] seeks to fatten the German repertoire at the Metropolitan Opera, but in spite of such bits of promising nourishment as he picks up here and there, the repertoire seems to remain statically Wagnerian. Young Erich Korngold's "Die tote Stadt" and Max von Schilling's "Mona Lisa" do not appear to have been ecstatically absorbed, and the General Director's latest experiment, [redacted], offered up for the first time on Saturday afternoon, is not likely to do any better. 
The new opera-new, however, only to New York, for it has been available any time these twenty years-is a setting by [composer] of a tale by [librettist]. Neither of these names, of course, means anything here, for none of [composer's[ music heretofore got across the Atlantic and the librettist is an unknown. [composer] is a [nationality], to be more specific-and his opera is a [nationality] "Cavalleria Rusticana," minus anything remotely as good as Mascagni's music.
[couple of paragraphs redacted in their entirety, as they are total spoilers]
It is easily conceivable that such a tale, or something like it, could be made a gripping affair. One has only to think of Sydney Howard's current peasant drama, "They Knew What They Wanted" with Pauline Lord, or of "Cavalleria Rusticana" itself for that matter, to realize this. But there are a dozen reasons why it isn't. One of them is that the Metropolitan Opera House is the Metropolitan Opera House. Another that [diva], the [leading role] is no Pauline Lord; still another that the German translation is either poor stuff or the original is the same. And, chief of them all, that [composer's] music is a pretilly light comic matter trying to characterize the tragic. This music flows along gently and unobtrusively, with a Wagnerian twist and turn every now and again, but never achieves so much as a profile of the drama. 
I'll provide a link after the opera in question is guessed.

Oropesa in for Stober in 10/15 SFO Falstaff

Heidi Stober is ill; I have heard that she only sang Act I yesterday, though she acted the rest while a last-minute substitute sang. Tomorrow night, October 15, the wonderful Lisette Oropesa sings the role of Nanetta.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Separated at Birth?

Legendary Viennese tenor Richard Tauber:

Legendary Hungarian conductor Fritz Reiner:

Saturday, October 12, 2013

Privacy, Ads, and Google: A Public Service Announcement

You may have seen this article in the NY Times about a change to the Google Terms of Service and the reasons for it. Google wants to take your +1s and use them in ads, as "personal endorsements." The terms of service change enables Google to do this without your explicit consent for each use.

You can opt any existing Google accounts you have out of this policy and you have some time to do it.

Here's what you do.

1. Log in to your Google account (say, sign in to Gmail).

 2. Click the icon representing you in the upper right-hand corner of the screen. For example, I would click the little photo of Marina Tcherkaskaya that I use for my profile photo:

 3. Click Account.

 4. In the left-hand menu, click Google+.

 5. Find the line Shared Endorsements.

 6. If the value is Off, you're fine - your +1s, etc. will not be used in search ads as endorsements.

 7. If the value is On, click Edit.

 8. Read the explanation, if you care. It includes examples of what this  looks like.

 9. To turn Shared Endorsements off, scroll down to this line:

 10. Uncheck the check box.

 11. Click the blue Save button.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Breaking: Peninsula Symphony Missing Half Its Money

Rather shocking news:

Larry Kamer of the Kamer Consulting Group
( or 415.290.7240)

On Oct. 10, 2013, the Peninsula Symphony of Northern California issued the following statement:

The Peninsula Symphony of Northern California, a well-respected 65-year old non-profit arts organization based in Los Altos, whose musical presentations cover the San Francisco Peninsula, recently discovered that nearly all of its endowment and operating funds are missing. The Symphony immediately notified the Los Altos Police Department.

Symphony leaders have engaged, pro bono, the nationally known law firm of Baker & McKenzie to assist with the Symphony’s efforts to recover the missing assets. The Board of Directors is also in the process of securing the services of a professional accounting firm to investigate the financial losses and is implementing strengthened financial control mechanisms to protect future donations and contributions. The Executive Director has resigned and a search for a replacement is underway.

Upon learning of the situation, Symphony Board members and musicians rallied together within five days to pledge new contributions to fund nearly half a season’s scaled down operating budget. These pledges and donations by the musicians and the Board have allowed the Symphony to plan to present its complete announced season, beginning with concerts onOctober 25 and 26, featuring the legendary Irish pianist, John O’Conor, and the Masterworks Chorale, and followed by concerts at the new Bing Concert Hall at Stanford University with the Stanford University Symphonic Chorus on November 22 and 24.

Each year the Peninsula Symphony performs concerts for over 10,000 audience members from every community on the San Francisco Peninsula; presents more than 50 concerts to children in schools that lack their own music programs in Redwood City, Mountain View, and Sunnyvale; and offers master classes for hundreds of area high school musicians. The Symphony also performs free Family Concerts and outdoor concerts; provides performing opportunities for the community’s finest young musicians through the Marilyn Mindell Piano Competition and the Young Musicians’ Competition; and offers a wide variety of other educational programs through its Bridges to Music program.

The Symphony is appealing to all of its supporters and to the community at large for additional financial support to restore the organization to good financial health for many years to come. Key supporters have renewed their commitment to the future success of the Symphony by pledging a matching grant.

Donations may be sent to the Peninsula Symphony, 146 Main St., Suite 102, Los Altos, CA 94022, or made online

Notably, the organization doesn't appear to have an executive director or a board president at the moment. The most recent 990 shows Steve Carlton as a paid employee, though without a title; some research shows that he was the ED from 2009 until....when?

Who had sufficient access to these accounts to abscond with the money, and how was it done? Over how many years?

Updates: kalimac points out in comments that the orchestra board has a chair and vice-chair: my bad, looking for a board president. Also, kalimac found a news report about the missing money, which he sent me in email.

Wednesday, October 09, 2013

Unfair Comparisons

But if you're thinking about how good a singer is, it might as well be by comparison with the best there is.

Here's Kirsten Flagstad singing Senta's ballad in 1937; she is transported and you will be too:

And here's Astrid Varnay, sterner than Flagstad and not nearly as delicate, but still impressive (1950):

It's Official: Lise Lindestrom Replaces Petra Maria Schnitzer as Senta

Rumor confirmed: Petra Maria Schnitzer withdraws from Flying Dutchman for health reasons, in this case, bronchitis and swollen vocal cords. Bay area native Lise Lindstrom replaces her, making her San Francisco Opera debut.
Here she is in Senta's Ballad, in New Orleans a few years ago:

This Made Me Happy

Not an Improvement

Dear SFO,

The version of Tessitura you recently installed isn't much of an improvement - from the end-user standpoint - over the version you used to have. I don't see any information it didn't already provide. The bigger graphics probably make things easier for some people. It seems to be slower than the previous version.

I hope that it's providing features you need or find useful.


Local Crank

Monday, October 07, 2013

Put Steve in Charge

Composer Steve Hicken has a few things to say about how concerts should work. I endorse every last one of his recommendations, so let's put Steve in charge of all concerts, now and forever.

As I told him in email, we can just swap in my fantasy opera series for the Utopia Opera Company, since it's funded by an anonymous opera-loving billionaire. And his stricture about big-name soloists is fine with me, because my man Marc-Andre Hamelin has the weirdest recorded repertory of any pianist, living or dead, and technique sufficient for any new work you might throw at him.

Patrice Chéreau

Patrice Chéreau, director of Bayreuth's Centennial Ring, has died, much too young, at 68, of lung cancer.

I have not seen any of his productions live, but the Salzburg From the House of the Dead is on DVD, and it is beautiful and deeply moving. Yes, I will get that Ring on DVD one of these days.


Vänskä's Farewell


Alex Ross has links to coverage.


Seen in the NY Times: an umlaut!

I thought their style guide was based on hot type (or something) that didn't have diacriticals, but there it is, in an article about the Nobel laureates in medicine:
The Karolinska Institute in Stockholmannounced the winners: James E. Rothman of Yale University; Randy W. Schekman of the University of California, Berkeley; and Dr. Thomas C. Südhof of Stanford University.
So why doesn't Osmo Vänskä rate his own umlauts?

Sunday, October 06, 2013

Oh, SFS....

  • SFS sent me a survey about a concert I attended. I view these with dread; my interests and tastes are so out of the presumed mainstream that a season constructed with the aim of pleasing other people is likely to be a season I recoil from.
  • Moreover, the survey asked about the wrong concert. I attended last night's orchestral program, not Thursday's chamber music program. (Shoulda gone, couldn't drag myself there.)
  • And I couldn't send email to the right people about this, because the latest SFS web site redesign removed the email addresses of staff members. How come? Too much spam? Solution: better spam filtering. Too much email from patrons? Solution: deal with it. Making it harder to contact people at SFS isn't a good business practice.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Reviews - Not By Me - of Shapero Memorial Concert

The Justice has a review and an interview with Sally Pinkas. I'm guessing the reviewer is not a music student, either, since she was surprised that a piece for "piano four-hands" meant the pianists were sitting side-by-side at the same instrument.
The Brandeis Hoot has a review of sorts. "Huge impact on the world of classical music" is debatable. He wrote a smallish number of very good pieces but had a 40-year composer's block; he taught many students, some of whom became terrific composers, many of whom loved and learned a lot from him. But "huge impact"? I reserve that kind of hyperbole for people on the Bernstein or Copland level.

Updated October 5 and moved to top of queue.

Friday, October 04, 2013

Awaiting Ticket

And while I wait, I am listening to recordings and a podcast. Some links and observations:
  • The podcast is here (h/t Bill K., with thanks). Only quibble so far: I alternate between calling it Frau and FROSCH.
  • If you have one of those all-access Google Music subscriptions, the Solti recordings, which is complete, is available streaming.
  • I have a vague feeling that the Sawallisch is better conducted than the Solti, but holy cow, Domingo!!! Yeah, his German isn't ideal, but wow. He sounds fabulous, and how many tenors do you call fabulous in Strauss? (The entire Solti cast sings like gods, actually.)
  • The libretto is just as loathsome as I remember. Good thing the music is beyond fabulous.
  • The only previous time I saw Frau was in 1989, in SF. Gwyneth Jones was the Dyer's Wife, and she was on, and on fire.
  • Listening to the opera for the first time in about five years, I wanted to strangle the falcon by the end of Act I.
  • The first time I heard Patricia Racette, she was singing the Voice of the Falcon in that 1989 production.
  • The Guardian of the Threshold of the Temple is possibly my favorite character name in all of opera, equaled - maybe - by the Omniscient Mussel. (And someday I'll see Die Aegyptische Helene, I hope.)
  • You have not lived until you've heard Leonie Rysanek as the Empress. There are better-sung performances; Cheryl Studer is certainly more accurate, and achieves a kind of otherworldly tone that is just right for the character. But Rysanek owned this role for about 30 years, with good reason. Fortunately, you can hear her in several commercially-released and numerous pirate recordings.

Thursday, October 03, 2013

The Rolling of the Eyes


Yes, well, I suppose in some sense the failure to sell enough tickets is underrated as a cause of arts institutions' financial distress, but lordy. If an organization isn't selling enough tickets, you do have to look at WHY. Does the marketing stink? Is the venue inaccessible or unknown? Is the programming too esoteric for the size of the venue? Does the programming just suck? Are the performers unknowns or undistinguished?

In any event, NYCO, which filed for bankruptcy today, had a plethora of problems over the years and was in serious financial trouble before. I really need to find out more of the details of their current situation, including what the budgets were for the 2012-13 and 2013-14 seasons. I mean, there are limits to how much I can speculate: the company was trying to raise $7 million in September to keep going and $20 million by the end of the year. I have no idea how much of that was for current operations, how much was toward existing debt, how much was for future seasons.

I do know a few things, though, some from the Times article I link to above:

  • NYCO had large costs and almost no income during the year the State Theater was being renovated.
  • There's undoubtedly room in NYC for a small company that uses more than one venue, but after decades in Lincoln Center (and before that City Center), NYCO wasn't it.
  • The company ran through its endowment in the last five to ten years, reducing it from $55 million at its peak to $4.5 million today.
  • There's an accumulated deficit of $44 million. (Again: when your company has an accumulated deficit that size, George, don't say the company's financial condition is the best in several years!)
  • A company putting on 16 performances a year can't possibly sell enough tickets or raise enough funds to support a full-time staff of 25, which I believe I have read is what they had.
  • Putting on a brand-new opera such as Anna Nicole is expensive. The sets and costumes were those used by the Royal Opera House for the world premiere. NYCO would have had to pay to rent them and ship them to NYC, and as recently as the summer didn't know whether they would be able to come up with their share of the production costs. There would presumably be a hefty royalty to the composer and librettist. Would renting the parts have been additional?

Tuesday, October 01, 2013

More Bad News from Minnesota

Drew McManus blogged this earlier today: Aaron Jay Kernis has resigned from his position as Director of the Composer Institute at the Minnesota Orchestra.

Kernis's statement and a brief introduction are also posted at New Music Box.

People I'm Thankful For

Whatever quibbles and complaints I have made about their organizations, and you can find them sprinkled liberally around this blog, David Gockley, general director of San Francisco Opera, and Brent Assink, executive director San Francisco Symphony, have kept their organizations running and thriving through a very tough financial decade. (Yeah, that short and still inexplicable strike earlier this year at SFS, but it was settled fast and without permanent damage to the orchestra. Whatever.)

Long may you live, and thank you for all you've done.

Put Me in Charge.

A serious first-person plan to end the disaster in Minnesota. First, you would have to fire Michael Henson and replace him with me. I would then take the following steps to re-establish the musicians' trust in the MOA and to put the orchestra on a better financial footing.

1. I would call Osmo and say to him "Osmo, we are opening the doors tomorrow and putting on the 2013-14 season as planned. Will you come back for at least the next year?"

2. I would call the musicians and say to them "We are unlocking the doors tomorrow. We want you to resume rehearsing and playing immediately. We have asked Osmo to come back. For the next year, we will pay you at the rate specified in the last in-force contract."

3. I would call the board and request the resignation of anyone who supported the lockout.

4. I would fire anyone in management who supported the lockout.

5. I would issue an apology to the musicians, the donors, and the people of Minnesota for management and board intransigence.

6. I would establish a joint musician / board / management committee to develop a plan for getting the orchestra on a better financial footing. This would include a comprehensive fundraising plan, projections, etc.

7. I would try to bring back some of the musicians who are on leave or who have resigned. There are, after all, many holes in the orchestra right now.

8. I would consult regularly with orchestral CEOs who have a history of good financial management and good labor relations: Mark Volpe, Deborah Borda, Brent Assink.

No Equivalence

In the wake of Osmo Vänskä's resignation, I'm hoping for a few thundering editorials over this tragedy. I do realize that editorial writers just now are rightly more concerned with the fiasco of House Republicans shutting down the federal government's operations.

Still, I'm sorry to see a few people trying for some kind of equivalence, by saying that management and musicians are equally at fault. They are not. If you were locked out of your job for year because you refused to take a one-third cut in pay, would you be equally to blame for not accepting that giant pay cut? 

If you see such claims, remember, ignorance or ideology is at work; take your pick. It's apparent from the behavior of management that they do not understand what it takes to make a great orchestra.

They're happy to spend $50 million on concert hall renovations while claiming there's no money for musician salaries. And if you read the weasel words on the MO website carefully, you'll see that individuals in management haven't taken anything like the cuts they've asked the musicians to take. It is perfectly clear that management's priorities have nothing to do with making music.

"A very sad day."

You bet, Osmo.