Wednesday, November 26, 2014

And in that Other Opera with the Tubercular Soprano...

Quinn Kelsey will sing Giorgio Germont in the first three performances of La Traviata, substituting for Ludovic Tézier, who is sick. Marina Rebekah sings Violetta and Stephen Costello Alfredo Germont.

And the Answer is.....

One of the two originally-scheduled tenors, plus four tenors subbing in for the other of the originals. Note: One of the subs is also subbing for a sub (Demuro in for Castronovo on November 24).

Ramon Vargas has withdrawn from the rest of his scheduled appearances in the Met's La Boheme. Francesco Demuro and Michael Fabiano (currently in robust good health in San Francisco) will take the remaining performances not already accounted for, Demuro on December 1 and 5, Fabiano on December 10 and 13.

So let's add this up. Vargas was originally scheduled for November 14, 20, 24, 28, December 1, 5, 10, 13, Jean-Francois Borras for January 15, 19, 24.

  • Ramon Vargas: 0
  • Bryan Hymel: November 14, 20, 
  • Charles Castronovo: November 28
  • Francesco Demuro: November 24, December 1, 5
  • Michael Fabiano: December 10, 13
  • Jean-Francois Borras: January 15, 19, 24, presumptively
I wish Borras the very best of health!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Conductor Changes, LAPO, SFS

Canadian conductor Bernard Labadie has withdrawn from all of his conducting commitments through the first half of 2015. He's being treated for a lymphoma that was diagnosed over the summer.

In Los Angeles, Trevor Pinnock replaces Labadie on December 19, 20, and 21, and will conduct the following all-Mozart program, with soprano Miah Persson singing the vocal selections:

Overture to La clemenza di Tito
“Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben” from Zaide
“Dove sono i bei momenti” from Le nozze di Figaro
Piano Concerto No. 9, K. 271
“Ch’io mi scordi di te—Non temer, amato bene,” K. 505
Symphony No. 39, K. 543

In San Francisco, Paul Goodwin will conduct SFS on January 29-31, with soprano Lydia Teuscher:

J.S. Bach                     Orchestral Suite No. 3 in D major, BWV 1068
"Al desio, di chi t'adora," K.577 from Le nozze di Figaro, K.492
Mozart                          "Ruhe sanft, mein holdes Leben" from Zaide, K.344(336b)
J.S. Bach                     Cantata No. 202, Weichet nur, betrübte Schatten (Wedding Cantata)
Mozart                          Symphony No. 31 in D major, K.297(300a), Paris

I'm very sorry to hear of Labadie's illness and wish him the easiest possible time during treatment and a swift and full recovery.

How Many Tenors Does it Take to Sing Rodolfo?

In San Francisco, two (so far) for 13 performances: Michael Fabiano and Giorgio Berrugi.

At the Met, they'll let us know at the end of the run: Charles Castronovo, who was scheduled to sing tonight and November 28, is ill. Perhaps he has whatever has knocked Ramon Vargas out. Francesco Demuro, who was supposed to make his Met debut singing Alfredo next month, will make his debut tonight as Rodolfo instead.

(Demuo has appeared here in Rigoletto, Cosi fan tutte, and Falstaff. He was best in Cosi, and I sure hope Frizza keeps the orchestra down for him.)

This Just Makes Me Want to Curse Loudly.

Found in yet another Times story about the ongoing GM ignition fiasco:
Ms. Anderson, 21 at the time of the crash, suffered serious injuries, including a lacerated liver. But the guilt surrounding her own survival and her boyfriend’s death, for which she was prosecuted on an intoxicated manslaughter charge, because of the trace amount of Xanax in her system, caused her more enduring pain, she said. 
Until this year, she wrestled with questions about her role in Mr. Erickson’s death. The police trooper who investigated the accident had deduced that Ms. Anderson was intoxicated before her drug test results came back. His police report referred to the seemingly inexplicable circumstances of the accident, her history of recreational drug use, “witness testimony and Anderson’s behavior at the scene,” which was disoriented and emotional. 
She pleaded guilty to criminally negligent homicide in October 2007, five months after G.M. had conducted an internal review of the case and quietly ruled its car was to blame. She served five years probation and paid more than $10,000 in fines and restitution. 
G.M. did not disclose its culpability when federal safety regulators asked about the cause of the crash in a so-called death inquiry. Instead, in June 2007, the automaker wrote to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it had not assessed the cause of the crash when, in fact, it had: A G.M. engineer had ruled just a month earlier that power to the vehicle had most likely shut off.
In other words, GM, knowing its car had caused a fatal accident, let one of the victims plead guilty to criminally negligent homicide and suffer for ten years over the accident and the death of her then-boyfriend. The suffering, in this case, included tremendous guilt and significant problems in nursing school admissions because Ms. Anderson had a wholly undeserved criminal record.

Sunday, November 23, 2014


About Suzuki: see the comment from Daniel Wolf on my original posting and see this article about Mark O'Connor's remarks about Suzuki. See Elaine Fine's comments on her blog. I should have kept my damn mouth shut, given the reasonable doubts about O'Connor and his motives.

About the Chetham's and RNCM sex abuse scandals: Nicholas Smith sentenced to prison, Duncan McTier admits abuse. Lots more details about RNCM at The Guardian.

Saturday, November 22, 2014

So You Think We Have Problems with Congress.

I'm reading Christopher Clark's The Sleepwalkers:  How Europe Went to War in 1914, and hoo boy, am I ever learning a lot. First, the 65 pages on Serbian history in the decades before the war were riveting; now I have started the long chapter on the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

The Empire had two Parliaments. The Budapest Parliament consisted almost entirely of ethnic, Magyar-speaking Hungarians, and the eastern part of the empire had a policy of ruthless suppression of other languages and linguistic minorities. In the western Parliament, which met in Vienna, well, things were different:
Nowhere were the frictions generated by nationalist politics more in evidence than in the [western] parliament, which met from 1883 in a handsome neo-classical building on Vienna's Ringstrasse. In this 516-seat  legislature, the largest in Europe, the familiar spectrum of party-political ideological diversity was cross-cut by national affiliations producing a panoply of splinter groups and grouplets. Among the thirty-odd parties that held mandates after the 1907 elections, for example, were twenty-eight Czech Agrarians, eighteen Young Czechs (Radical nationalism), seventeen Czech Conservatives, seven Old Czechs (moderate nationalists), two Czech-Progressives (Realist tendency), one 'wild' (independent) Czech and nine Czech National Socialists. The Poles, the Germans, the Italians and even the Slovenes and the Ruthenes were similarly divided along ideological lines.
Since there was no official language in [the western region] (by contrast with the Kingdom of Hungary), there was no single official language of parliamentary procedure. German, Czech, Polish, Ruthenian, Croat, Serbian, Slovenian, Italian, Romanian and Russian were all permitted. But no interpreters were provided, and there was no facility for recording or monitoring the content of speeches that were not in German, unless the deputy in question himself chose to supply the house with translated text of his speech. Deputies from even the most insignificant factions could thus block unwelcome initiatives by delivering long speeches in a languages that only a handful of their colleagues understood. Whether they were actually addressing the issues raised by the current motions, or simply reciting long poems in their own national idiom, was difficult to ascertain. The Czechs in particular were renowned for the baroque extravagance of their filibustering. The [Vienna] parliament became a celebrated tourist attraction, especially in winter, when Viennese pleasure-seekers crowded into the heated visitors' galleries. By contrast with the city's theatres and opera houses, a Berlin journalist wrily observed, entry to parliamentary sessions was free.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Guess I was Wrong About That

Here I am, on Monday, March 13, 2013:
 [Jorge Mario Bergolio] is from the same mold as Cardinal Rat, and yes, we will be going through this again in 10 years or so.
Whoops! No, not really from the same mold as the Pope Emeritus at all, and I hope Pope Francis will live to a very ripe old age.

The Future is Now: Adler Fellows' Concert

The annual event, from the press release:

Tickets for The Future is Now: Adler Fellows Gala Concert are priced from $30 to $65 and may be purchased at or by calling the San Francisco Opera Box Office at (415) 864-3330. $15 Student Rush tickets are available on the day of the performance with valid ID (subject to availability).

The Scottish Rite Masonic Center is located at 2850 19th Avenue in San Francisco. For more public transportation information, visit and

Featuring the 2014 Adler Fellows
Stephen Lord, Conductor
San Francisco Opera Orchestra

Thursday, November 4, 2014; 7:30 p.m.
Scottish Rite Masonic Center, 2850 19th Avenue, San Francisco

The planned program (subject to change!) is:

La Clemenza di Tito
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Pelléas et Mélisande
Claude Debussy
“Ah, ah, tout va bien”
Maria Valdes, soprano
Philippe Sly, baritone

Ariadne auf Naxos
Richard Strauss
“Es gibt ein Reich”
Erin Johnson, soprano

The Rake’s Progress
Igor Stravinsky
“No word from Tom”
Maria Valdes, soprano

I Lombardi
Guiseppe Verdi
“Non fu sogno”
Jacqueline Piccolino, soprano

Georges Bizet
“Parle-moi de ma mère!”
Julie Adams, soprano
A.J. Glueckert, tenor

“C’est toi! C’est moi”
Zanda Švēde, mezzo-soprano
A.J. Glueckert, tenor
tutti Adler Fellows

Samson et Dalila
Camille Saint-Saëns“Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix”
Zanda Švēde, mezzo-soprano

George Frideric Handel
“Tirannia gli diede il regno”
Efraín Solís, baritone

Dom Sébastien
Gaetano Donizetti
“Sur le sable d’Afrique,” “O Lisbonne, o mie patrie!”
Efraín Solís, baritone

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
“D’Oreste, d’Ajace”
Erin Johnson, soprano

Così fan tutte 
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
“Rivolgete a lui lo sguardo”
Hadleigh Adams, baritone

Antonín Dvořák“Pisen Rusalky O Mesiku” (Song of the Moon)
Jacqueline Piccolino, soprano

Les Pêcheurs de Perles 
Georges Bizet
“L’orage s’est calmé” 
Hadleigh Adams, baritone

Worth a Look

Found on the Web:

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Cough, Cough: Vargas Out Again

Ramon Vargas is still sick - hey, in Boheme, it's the soprano who has the lung problems - and will miss several more performances of the Met Boheme. He is expected to return to the stage on December 1.

Bryan Hymel (Nov. 20) and Charles Castronovo (Nov. 24 and 28) will sing Rodolfo in his absence.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Special Classes at Berkeley Dan Zan Ryu

I am currently planning to schedule the following special classes at Berkeley Dan Zan Ryu during the first half of 2015.
All classes will be at Studio 12, Sawtooth Building Bay 1, 2525 8th St., Berkeley, CA. This is immediately south of Dwight Way.
If you'd like more information about either of these classes, send me email ( or call my dojo voicemail (510-842-NAGE).

Women's Self-Defense

You'll learn alertness, awareness, & avoidance; practical defenses against common attacks; basic kicks and strikes. Suitable for women age 14 and up.

Dates: 6 Saturdays, January 17 to February 21, 2015
Times: 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Cost: $125 + short-term AJJF membership. No one turned away for lack of funds. Class must have a minimum of six participants registered to go forward.

(If these dates & times don't work for you, I can schedule a class if you have six or more women who'd like to enroll.)

Safe Rolling & Falling
The basics of safe rolling & falling for people who don't study martial arts. Open to all.

Dates: 10 Saturdays, March 28 to May 30, 2015 (Memorial Day to be discussed)
Times: 1 p.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Cost: $200 + short-term AJJF membership. No one turned away for lack of funds. Class size maximum of 8.

Please feel free to send this information to any friends or family who might be interested.

I am Not the Intended Audience.

Well, I had been looking forward to the San Francisco Symphony's SoundBox series, which will take place in a smaller space in Davies than the main concert hall. The inaugural concert, some details of which may be found at this web site, is on Saturday, December 13, 2014. (That's 12/13/14, just for fun.)

Unfortunately, the concert starts at 9 p.m., a pretty clear signal that these programs aren't aimed at people like me. Not that I wouldn't love all of the music, some of which is old, some new, but that is a tough start time. Yeah, I know, if it were Tristan I'd be at the opera house until 11:30. But I think I'm more likely to be found at the International Orange Chorale program - all new music - that night. It starts at 7:30 and it's a short drive away.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Tosca at San Francisco Opera

Long-time readers of this blog know that I have some antipathy toward Tosca, largely because I want to slap the title character silly at multiple points during the opera, but perhaps secondarily because it has not been well-conducted all that often during the last decade or so. I offer as evidence my write-ups of the runs with Patricia Racette and Adrianne Pieczonka. There's a passing remark elsewhere about weak conducting in the November, 2004 run (Jobin/Vaness, Dvorsky, Delevan), but no full review. I remember almost nothing about the 1997-98 run, conducted by Nello Santi, other than that James Morris just couldn't get the nasty on for Scarpia and that Carol Vaness looked a lot better than she sounded.

It's been on my don't-need-to-see-for-a-while list since I saw Racette in it, because she was so charming and dramatically convincing in the part, so I did not expect to see this year's revival: same production, same Cavaradossi (Brian Jagde, whom I didn't like at all in 2012), same Scarpia (Mark Delevan). I went into San Francisco last Saturday assuming I'd pick up a rush ticket to see SFS (S.Adams, Prokofiev, Ravel)....but I was urged to come over to the opera house to see debuting soprano Lianna Haroutounian, and Jon Finck, of SFO, very kindly offered me a seat while doing the urging. So, what the heck, I went.

The bad news first, just to get it out of the way: Riccardo Frizza is a dab hand at bel canto, and I'd liked him a great deal in his previous SFO appearances, in which he conducted Lucrezia Borgia and I Capuletti e i Montecchi. But Puccini is hard, with a deeply layered orchestra and rhythmic/metrical complexities galore. Just take a look at the first page of La Boheme if you don't believe me.

I'd have to see him again in Tosca to tell you exactly what went wrong and where, but Frizza led the worst-conducted Puccini opera I have ever heard. The performance had almost no drive or dramatic tension, and this is an opera with a ton of excitement and drama. It wasn't a matter of tempo; the performance took about the same amount of time that Tosca usually takes. It was more a matter of emphasis and phrasing. Unlike the last run - conducted very well by Nicola Luisotti - Act II felt shockingly lifeless, despite the torture scene and despite the great scene with Tosca and Scarpia.

But there's plenty of good news: Lianna Haroutounian is the real deal, a terrific singer with a beautiful voice. This was her role debut, and while I think she's got a ways to go in working into the part - her characterization was a bit one-dimensional compared to Patricia Racette's -  this was a wonderfully sung and reasonably convincing assumption. Haroutounian has a big, colorful voice, great legato, and sterling control; every note sounded strongly and was sung with a beautiful line. Joshua Kosman was effusive about her in his review, and he was absolutely right, though at the last performance there was a bit of shrillness at the very top of her range.

She was decently partnered by Brian Jagde, much improved from his last appearance as Cavaradossi and yet still somehow lacking. His voice is much better integrated and handled the tessitura more cleanly than two years ago, when there was a lot of audible gear-changing and some very square phrasing. The big moments were big, but this opera has intimate moments as well, and those were lacking in, well, intimacy. "Recondita armonia" ought to have lilt and charm; I grant you that Jagde didn't get much help from Frizza, but the color of his voice and ability to deliver a bit of a smile in the tone are up to the tenor. And "E lucevan le stelle" (which dragged interminably) wasn't nearly as despairing as I'd like to hear it.

(If you're wondering how it should be done, look no further than the meltingly beautiful performance of Giuseppe di Stefano on the great, great, great Victor de Sabata recording, which fully lives up to its enormous reputation after sixty years. It is absolutely indispensable for anyone who gives a damn about Italian opera.)

Mark Delevan remains a deeply sadistic and threatening Scarpia, although his voice continues to lose the edge it had more than a decade ago when he sang the Dutchman at SFS.

And a long Rubin Institute aside: I heard part of Anne Midgette's pre-performance talk on Tosca, and am sorry I didn't hear the whole thing. I got there on the late side, and her talk got cut short by a few minutes, so she didn't get to say everything she had to say. She played an excerpt of Franco Correlli exhibiting his magnificent sound and lung power; impressive, but I wish I'd asked her about the conductor, because he was terrible. I gotta say that I also think what Correlli did called attention to himself rather than the music, and I wish he hadn't.

All that aside, she said some interesting things about the opera, one of which I wish more directors realized: when that last act curtain goes up, Tosca and Cavaradossi are both in a state of exhaustion because they've been awake for around 24 hours, during which one of them was tortured and the other committed murder. I think they are in slightly different states; Cavaradossi is on the verge of collapse, between the torture and anticipation of his execution, while Tosca has been preparing for their departure from Rome and is exhausted but running on adrenaline. I hope to see a production some day that takes note of this.

I nabbed poor Anne between when she got kicked off the podium and when the performance started, and subjected her to a few of my pet theories about the opera. Well, actually, I started by agreeing with her about one point she made: that Puccini was completely deliberate in how he composed one particular section, I believe when Mario is realizing that the "fake" execution is going to be real. Anne noted in her talk that her husband disagrees about this, but he is completely wrong: I dare you to find a bar of Puccini after 1895 when he isn't completely in control of the emotional content of what he is writing. (Okay, Turandot, I know, I know, but you know it would have been different if he'd lived, right?)

I do think that the compactness of the opera, as opposed to the sprawling Sardou play from which it is drawn, acts against making Tosca completely believable. The play makes it very clear that she is an innocent, a child of nature, someone motivated by her emotions and with no concept of politics. Face it: anyone with a little worldly knowledge would understand that Cavaradossi is a dead man from the moment Scarpia's men round him up, regardless of whatever deal Scarpia seems willing to make. He  is a sadist and he enjoys not only the anticipation of getting into Tosca's panties, but knowing that he won't be making good on the deal.

It's very much up to the soprano to bring out not only Tosca's emotionalism - the easy part - but her worldly naivete, and hoo boy, that is a very difficult assignment.

Anne and I also chatted a bit about Joe Kerman's notorious characterization of Tosca as a "shabby little shocker." It's been a great jumping-off point for all kinds of writing and speaking about the opera, among other reasons because it is pretty obvious that Kerman had little liking for the work and that he didn't understand what Puccini was doing at the point in the opera that he was describing. I think it is too bad that the phrase is what the general public associates with Kerman, because he was an important musicologist who did great work in a number of areas - and I think he wrote that line when he was in his mid-20s. Look, we all said a few dumb things in our 20s. I didn't even like Puccini at that age; I was close to 40 before I got the message. I have no idea whether Kerman changed his mind about Tosca as he aged, or whether he had more sympathy for Puccini in general, but it is certainly possible.

Tattling: SF Opera Boheme

Why I fled my dress circle seat, paid for by me, at intermission:
  • To the lady to my immediate left: I know that the seats are tiny and there's no room, but please try not to elbow your neighbors every ten minutes or so. I know that I was not slopping over into your space. Please keep your elbow out of mine.
  • To the ladies behind me: if you need to chat after the music starts, I can recommend any number of fine recordings of La Boheme for you to chat the privacy of your living rooms.
I fled to orchestra standing room, and a friend very kindly offered me his unfilled companion seat, but Boheme is not that long, and yes, I would have stood rather than deal with more audience misbehavior.

I have had different people to my left throughout the season, and this is the first trouble I have had with that spot, but I'm pretty sure the ladies behind me were there at a different opera, also chatting away. They did not respond to being shushed, either. Next time, perhaps I will inform an usher, or leave an anonymous note, or something. I admit that I should have politely said something to the woman on my left about her elbow.

Not exactly an aside: the seating at the opera house is awful in every section. In the balcony and dress circle, the seats are tiny and the leg room absurd. In the orchestra, the seats are about an inch from the ground and vary in size. San Francisco Ballet told Janos Gereben a while back that they were fund-raising to replace the seating, and I cannot wait, though if the number of seats is to be preserved, I don't know how they can improve things other than by raising the seat height in the orchestra.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

That Was a Tough One.

My review of Curlew River is posted at SFCV. I filed it about 13 hours late; not that I think anyone noticed, but in theory I should have filed by 9:30 p.m. last night.

Usually I don't have problems getting my thoughts together about a music-dramatic work, but this was particularly tough. I can't point to very much that was wrong with what I saw, but it felt as though it just sat there. It didn't move me at all, and it's a potentially deeply moving story.

I was not alone in this, either; I've now seen a number of reports saying that some viewers were bored. Not me; I've wanted to see this for decades and I think it is a gorgeous piece. I missed the 1990s productions at Theater Artaud, both of which starred Chanticleer, and what must have been a Merola production in 1995 (San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, Patrick Summers conducting - right?).

This would have been a good performance to turn the Rubin Fellows loose on. It's more recent than anything else they reviewed, for one thing. For another, it's not like very much in the Western canon.

I had to consciously make sure I was reviewing the performance in front of me, rather than the one I have in my head: it is just not Ian Bostridge's fault that he isn't Peter Pears, whose voice haunts Curlew River as much as it haunts any other work by Britten. Bostridge sang impressively - his voice is much bigger than I'd expected. He is also odd looking in a Benedict Cumberbatch-ish way; he towered over the rest of the cast, he is obviously very thin, and his face is...just slightly off. I would like to hear him again. He is a very good singer.

A friend asked me what would have made the performance more satisfying, and here's what I said, more or less:
The questions are whether it works better as theater of the mind than theater on the stage; whether I caught a weaker performance than the ones that got raves in NYC and at the Barbican;  whether there is a pacing or staging problem in this production that smothers the catharsis in the piece; whether it's more effective done with the masks and Noh-like movement style.
I think Britten runs hot and cold. Some of his music absolutely kills me - Les Illuminations, the Serenade, Turn of the Screw, Peter Grimes, some of his chamber and orchestral music - and some of it really does leave me totally cold. I have seen two different productions of Billy Budd and at the end of both evenings I was mostly enraged by the libretto. I recognize that the score has a lot of great music, but I just can't connect with the plot and what happens in it at all.
I also got nowhere with Grimes when SFO did it in the late 20th century (although obviously others loved it, reading reviews from back then), but the SFS production in June was fantastic, one of the greatest things I've ever seen, with a shattering performance by Stuart Skelton as Grimes. Now I know what Grimes is about.
I want to say that I am perfectly fine with directors staging Curlew River conventionally, rather than following the strict instructions in the score. See Google Image Search for lots of photos of productions of Curlew River, many of them so evocative I want to be magically transported to the performances in question.

My review omits something significant; there was a fleeting moment this morning when I meant to add it, but....the singers' diction was pretty good at the start, then deteriorated badly after about fifteen or twenty minutes. I missed a lot of what was sung, and there were no supertitles. This was undoubtedly a major barrier for anyone in the hall who didn't know Curlew River already.

I also neglected to mention where that moment of catharsis is, the one that should be the big dramatic moment in Curlew River: it's when the ghost of the dead boy appears and sings along with the chorus, and the Madwoman, calmed, becomes a Mother. This is the miracle, and it's the moment that the work is moving toward.

I expect there will be more; John Marcher and I sat together, for one, and I know Patrick Vaz attended as well.

Also a Little Embarrassing

But not blind.

Licia Albanese's ability to put one over about her age has continued after her death. In the company's annual round-up of family members we've lost, San Francisco Opera's pocket obituary for the great soprano gives her birth year as 1913. Only if she lied on her naturalization papers!

Saturday, November 15, 2014

It's Mildly Embarrassing....

  • ....when the photo caption in a preview mentions a performer who isn't in the photo.
  • ....when a leading artist's name is spelled differently on consecutive pages of a glossy item mailed to subscribers.

Friday, November 14, 2014

(Another) Met Boheme Cast Change!

Roman Vargas, who is currently singing Rodolfo at the Met, has taken ill, so, actually, it's not Brandon Jovanovich subbing in; he's currently appearing in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which opened the other day to raves.

This time, it's Bryan Hymel, who will fly in from Chicago to sing the tenor lead in tonight's performance! He's rehearsing Percy in Anna Bolena at LOC.

(I see that the conductor is Riccardo Frizza. Well, I liked him fine in Lucrezia Borgia and I Capuleti, but he was gruesome in last week's Tosca. I hope he is better in Boheme.)

Sunday, November 09, 2014


Taken out of two libraries today:
  • Curlew River, Britten, SF Public Library
  • Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings, Britten (Oakland Public Library)
  • Quintet for piano and strings, op. 34, Brahms (Oakland Public Library)
Reports coming up on Saturday's Rubin Institute panel and also on Tosca, which I wound up seeing, rather unexpectedly.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Joshua Kosman Tells You What It's Like

To be a music critic, that is.


This week I am listening to Curlew River (English Opera Group/Britten, Pears, Shirley-Quirk, etc. natch) in preparation for seeing and reviewing it in a week; I am also reading the Noh play Sumidagawa, on which the Britten is based. Also revisiting a couple of the monuments of 19th c. chamber music. The Vogt, Faust, Tetzlaff, Eberle, Weinmeister performance of the Brahms piano quintet is very, very good.

Goings-On at the Rubin Institute Panels and Talks

Over at LiveJournal, frequent commenter Kalimac has been writing up the public events of the Rubin Institute for [Classical] Music Criticism. The postings that are up are here:
Big thanks to Alex Ross for the shout-out, which has now been reported directly to me by two friends, in addition to Kalimac's mention. From the time stamp, I think one of them sent email about three seconds after Alex finished talking. I wish I could have been there, and also at Tommasini's talk, but after missing more or less seven weeks of work while on sick and family leave, there was just no way I'd be attending events at 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. in San Francisco. I do plan to come to tomorrow's firing, "Master Class in Classical Music Criticism."

I think for every critic who wanders into music criticism from another field, there is at least one with a music degree. In high school, I thought I would grow up to be a full-time critic. Robert Commanday was a flutist and chorus director before he became a music writer. Joshua Kosman has undergraduate and graduate degrees in music. Anthony Tommasini was a pianist and piano teacher, and I believe so was Bernard Holland before him. Alex Ross may not have majored in music, but it's clear that he took music classes in college. It is important to have technical knowledge of music if you're going to write about it, but you don't have to be a music major to acquire that knowledge.

As far as Gil French's question goes, okay, maybe they're not training writers for jobs that don't exist. There is still a shortage of outlets that pay, not to mention paying well, for classical music criticism and journalism. I am a very, very part-time writer, and I have never made more than $3,000/year for my music writing. I told Andy Doe earlier this year that I thought that with some effort I could probably make $25,000 - $30,000/year working half- to full-time. That would be fine as additional income after I stop working full time, but I am a technical writer and get paid more than that.

I am not sure what to say just now about Anthony Tommasini's keynote other than to mention that if you heard a loud noise last night, it was me banging my head against the wall as I read Kalimac's write-up.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

A Tweet I'm Really Rather Proud Of.

Thursday Miscellany

San Francisco Opera has appointed Daniel Knapp as director of production, a job where he'll be in charge of a budget of $22 million that is used for stage operations, production stage management, technical administration, scene construction, costume shop and wig and make-up services for all War Memorial Opera House stage productions, as well as concerts, recitals and special events. Read the press release here....Daniel Wolf has a great posting up about Alan Hovhaness, putting him in context as a sometimes-experimental composer working outside the New York/East Coast mainstream in a variety of styles. Be sure to click the link to the composer's Symphony for Metal Orchestra...Alex Ross had an article in The New Yorker last month discussing the trouble with Beethoven and several books about the composer....Care of Long Beach Opera, which is performing his Therese Raquin soon, meet composer Tobias Picker at the Colburn School of Music in LA, on Sunday, November 16, 2014, from 1:00pm to 3:00pm, in Thayer Hall. Colburn is across the street, more or less, from Walt Disney Concert Hall....Locally, Cal Bach has a December program called A German Christmas, which they perform on December 5-7 in San Francisco, Palo Alto, and Berkeley...Magnificat performs Cavalli's Venetian Mass December 19-21 in Palo Alto, Berkeley, and San Francisco....On Sunday, November 23, Chora Nova performs Bruckner & Brahms at First Congregational in Berkeley.

Part of the Answer, At Least

Here's Alex Ross talking to Gabe Meline at KQED about classical music criticism, the job, in connection with the Rubin Institute.

And a Twitter exchange with Anne Midgette:

(That should be Joshua Rifkin, of course.)

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

International Orange Chorale

The excellent chorus IOC has exciting concerts planned for December; the web site is a little sparse on details, but here's what I know:

They're performing works written by and for IOCSF, including works by Caroline Shaw (Pulitzer Prize winner), Elizabeth Kimble, and a world premiere performance of music from composer Nico Muhly.

Note the starting times:

Saturday, Dec 13, 7:30pm
 All Souls' Episcopal Parish
 2220 Cedar St, Berkeley, CA 94709

 Sunday, Dec 14, 6:00pm
 St. Mark's Lutheran Church
 1111 O'Farrell St, San Francisco, CA 94109

 (Admission to both concerts is free, with voluntary donation requested.)


The people of the US apparently think that Republicans can handle the economy better than Democrats, and yet:
  • U.S. unemployment rate, October, 2009: 10.0%
  • U.S. unemployment rate, September, 2014: 5.9%
  • Federal deficit, fiscal year 2009: $1.414 trillion
  • Federal deficit, fiscal year 2014: $483 billion
Unemployment numbers from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014


Economist Paul Krugman has occasionally cast a skeptical eye on, Freakonomics, and other sites that attempt to draw large conclusions from smallish data sets. In most cases, the writers of these articles aren't experts in the field they are trying to analyze.

And what do you know, at the Washington Post's WonkBlog, we've got a guy making exactly that mistake. Based on just one of composer Suby Raman's excellent graphs, Christopher Ingraham has reached the conclusion that Opera is Dead, in One Graph.

For crying out loud. It is no secret that the Met is not in any way, shape, or form a hotbed of new music performance. The operatic behemoth has commissioned a tiny number of new operas in the last 25 years and picks up works by living composers only rarely, usually if your name happens to be John Adams or Philip Glass.

Raman's graph would look a lot different if the data set were Houston Grand Opera or even San Francisco Opera, both of which have commissioned a notable number of new works in the last 35 years (and not just under David Gockley, either, at SFO).

It's also not exactly a secret that an awful lot of new and recent operas are first performed, or revived, at the local or college or conservatory level, where smaller-budget organizations with loyal followings can take more chances than the Met or another big-budget US company. And European houses, many of which have government support, are also in a better position to produce new work.

Christopher Ingraham shouldn't be basing broad conclusions about an art form on one graph, but I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that he doesn't follow the business of opera very carefully, and very likely not at all.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Making It Legal

 Photo linked from SF Chronicle; photographer uncredited.

After 38 years together, Michael Tilson Thomas and Joshua Robison have gotten married! Adorably, they have known each since junior high school.

Congratulations, you two, and I'm glad to have lived to see the day when this would be possible.

Reviewing the Hagen Quartet

My review is up at SFCV.

Several friends of mine are very big on the Hagen; a couple have specifically praised Clemens Hagen, the cellist. I liked his playing, and that of violist Veronika Hagen and second violinist Rainer Schmidt, a great deal, but the quartet's overall interpretive profile is...or was on this occasion....not very interesting.

They don't seem to appear often in the US, and those past reviews that I could find are decidedly mixed, although, once again, Joshua Kosman tells you exactly what he thinks.
  • Joshua Kosman, CD review in the Chron
  • James Oestreich was impressed with their Beethoven in the Times
  • Tim Page wasn't thrilled, also in the Times ("..little sense of vortext" in a program that included K.387) 
There are more, older CD reviews at the Times.

More Dominos in the Met Boheme

You might remember this posting, about Sonya Yoncheva: she took on some Traviata performances, owing to the withdrawal of Marina Poplavskaya from the role of Violetta, and in doing so, surrendered some performances in which she was to sing Musetta in La Boheme.

Deep breath; there's more:
  • Anna Netrebko has withdrawn from the title role in a run of Manon Lescaut at the Bayerische Staatsoper.
  • The Met has released Kristine Opolais from her December appearances as Mimi in Boheme so that she can sing Manon Lescaut in Munich. Opolais will sing Mimi at the Met on January 15, 19, and 24, 2015, however.
  • Sonya Yoncheva will sing her first staged Mimi performances in Boheme, taking over the role from Opolais on November 14, 20, 24, 28, December 1 and  5, 2014.

And Why We Write Daily Reviews

My previous posting doesn't get into the specific reasons for writing performance reviews, but they exist and they are important to musical life:
  • To keep the audience informed about what's going on
  • To create a historical record of who was doing what when and how well they did it
Commentary is a basic part of cultural life, as it is of political and scientific life.

One of These Things is Not Like the Others

Well, maybe two.

From a press release about a new $100,000 prize to be awarded by the Warner Music Group to "a classical musician aged 18 to 35 who demonstrates exceptional talent and promise, regardless of any label affiliation." 

The press release goes on to say:
In its inaugural year, the prize will be presented in association with Carnegie Hall, with the nominees drawn from those young singers and instrumentalists presented by the venue in significant solo roles during the 2014-15 concert season, who meet specific eligibility criteria.
The young artists under consideration, and the dates of their Carnegie Hall performances, are: sopranos Sarah Shafer (Feb 22) and Jennifer Zetlan (Dec 4); mezzo-sopranos Jamie Barton (Feb 17), Rachel Calloway (Dec 4), Cecelia Hall (Jan 17), Alisa Kolosova (Feb 1), and Peabody Southwell (Dec 4); bass-baritones Aubrey Allicock (Dec 4) and Evan Hughes (March 8); tenor Dominic Armstrong (Dec 4); violinists Augustin Hadelich (Dec 28) and Itamar Zorman (Nov 5 & March 26); cellist Brook Speltz (March 26); double bassist Roman Patkoló (Nov 11); harpist Sivan Magen (Oct 21); and pianist Behzod Abduraimov (Jan 27 & Feb 18).
You can read more about the prize at the prize's web site.

Anyone want to take a guess as to which young musicians are not like the others?

Why We Write About the Arts

So I'm getting some comments and quotations, and (I think) not just from the Pelleastrian and his other pseudonyms, claiming that criticism is worthless, and criticizing or writing about or analyzing music is worthless. (Or something like that.) All you have to do is listen to it!

First, I'll repeat what I asked earlier: if you believe that, why are you reading this blog? Why are you bothering to comment on my words about music or criticism?

Second, I'll ask everyone to consider the anti-intellectualism that's inherent in these claims, where analyzing and thinking about a work of art, whether an opera or a painting or a poem, are dismissed as unimportant.

I am not in any way trying to downplay the experience of seeing an opera, listening to a string quartet, or finding yourself in the same room as, say, the Portinari Triptych. But if these works of art don't inspire some curiosity or interest in learning more about them, you have missed something important in the experience. I mean, there are good reasons that there are libraries full of musical analysis and history, art history, and literary criticism. Yes, reading that stuff does enhance my experience of the works themselves, and the experience of millions of other people. If that's not true of you, fine; don't read about or discuss your favorite works of art. But don't denigrate the enterprise of intellectual attempts to understand these works, either.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Tell Us What You Think, Joshua!

Joshua Kosman has a few thoughts on music criticism, George Bernard Shaw, and Virgil Thomson, the latter of whose music criticism is collected in a new Library of American volume, edited by Tim Page.

It's the kind of review that makes me want to re-read some Shaw and dip my toe, at least, into the Thomson collection.

Note to Readers

I won't publish any comments from "Dan Sowern" and his other pseudonyms anywhere on this blog going forward.

Note to "Dan:" If you think commentary on music is worthless, why are you reading my blog? and Zerbinetta's, and Mark Berry's, and opera-l?

What Problem is the Rubin Institute Trying to Solve?

In a comment to my previous, informational, posting about the Rubin Institute, someone has asked what exactly the Rubin Institute is preparing people for. That is the question, isn't it? And it's one I was planning to get to. 

As you can see from the press release, the Rubin Institute exists to train college students to be classical music critics: 
The first program of its kind focusing on music and music criticism, the Rubin Institutebrings together before the public national music journalists, renowned musicians, and aspiring young writers, combining the wisdom and insight of today's highly esteemed critics, the artistry and daring of acclaimed musicians, and the energy and promise of tomorrow's music journalists. The biennial institute comprises a week-long series of public events including a keynote address, performances, lectures by critics, critical reviews, and discussion panels. 
Featuring public concerts by acclaimed musicians from the opera, chamber, and orchestral stages, the performances are reviewed by a select group of student writers (Rubin InstituteFellows). Their work is critiqued in private workshops and public sessions by a panel of highly esteemed national music critics and journalists. Leading up to the Institute, the twenty student writers will work with a preparatory team at each of their nominating universities.
Says David Stull, the president of the SFCM:
This program dramatically enhances the discourse and awareness of classical music and will provide an extraordinary opportunity to aspiring music critics to engage with the great musical artists and writers of our time. I am deeply grateful to Stephen Rubinfor his vision and continued support of this program."
So I have to admit, this left me scratching my head. To start with, I see the value of spending a few days getting feedback from a bunch of top-notch writers, but even intensive tutoring isn't going to give you the knowledge and skills you need to be a good classical music reviewer:
  • Technical knowledge of music itself 
  • Knowledge of the history of performance, performers, and repertory
  • Knowledge of musical styles (the ability to tell a Russian sound from an Italian sound, for example)
  • A discerning ear
  • Good taste
  • The ability to write well
At least in theory, these are the skills and knowledge you get by studying music over a long period of time, in classes, in music lessons on your instruments of choice, by listening to a whole lot of music, in person and on record, and by getting a lot of feedback on your writing skills. Honestly, it takes years to develop some of these skills; music majors generally get several years of classes in ear-training and music theory & analysis. A discerning ear, the ability to tell a good performance from a bad one - well, a lot goes into that.

The 20 Rubin Fellows should have a decent grounding in most of the above skills; they are all music students at UC Berkeley, Oberlin, SFCM, Stanford, or Yale.

Now, you might think, from reading the press releases, that there's a shortage of good classical music reviewers and critics. This is simply not the case, as you can tell from reading those big city papers that still have classic critics on staff, or from reading San Francisco Classical Voice, Classical Voice North America, or Chicago Classical Review. Or from reading some of the hundreds of blogs that cover the classical scene

No, the real crisis, the real problem for classical music criticism today, is that there just aren't very many outlets that will pay you to write about classical music. Newspapers have been consolidating and closing left and right over the last 20 years. Most newspapers don't have even one full-time classical music critic on staff. In the state of California, 50 million people are served by four full-time newspaper critics (Joshua Kosman, Chron; Richard Scheinin, Mercury News; Tim Mangan, OC/LA Register; and Mark Swed, LA Times), with part-timers such as me and the other SFCV writers making up the difference by covering, with varying degrees of interest and skill, the hundreds of performances that take place in this state.

So I am both sympathetic to the aims of the Rubin Institute and exasperated by the particular problem it's solving. We have plenty of critics and potential critics. What we really need is more ways to make a living writing about music. 

A few notes that I can't squeeze into the above:

  • The Rubin Institute doesn't seem to take into account liner notes and program notes. Program notes are closely related to criticism, but give the writer more space and the opportunity to write about music rather than a particular performance, which is, after all, just one performance
  • Over at Renewable Music, Daniel Wolf makes some brilliant and important points about accidental critics and the problems with overcredentialing criticism.
  • Kalimac also discusses the Rubin Institute.

Publicity Comes in All Shapes and Colors

From the Washington Post comes news that pianist Dejan Lazic  has asked that the paper remove a concert review written by critic Anne Midgette back in 2010. His request is based on the European Union's Right to Be Forgotten ruling.

Oy vey. There are some misunderstanding here.

First of all, the Right to Be Forgotten ruling applies to search engines. A person can ask Google (at least) to remove links to particular items on the web from the search results served in Europe. The ruling does not in any way require the source of the item to remove that item from the web.  In other words, if I run a search on Dejan Lazic's name from my home in California, I am likely to see the link in my search results; the Washington Post is not obliged to remove the item from its web site. And also, Mr. Lazic has misdirected his request. It should go to Google, not the WaPo. If Google removed a link to an item at a German newspaper under the ruling, that link wouldn't be served in Europe, but it would be served  in the US, and the newspaper could retain the item itself on its web site.

(Disclaimer: I Am Not A Lawyer, and furthermore, while I work for Google, nothing I say is other than my own opinion. I do not represent Google or its views, and what I know about the EU ruling comes from reading the NY Times and other public news sources.)

Second, Anne's review is what I would call mixed, and some of what she says is very positive indeed, the kind of thing that makes me want to hear what Mr. Lazic can do:
The very first notes of Chopin's Andante Spianato and Grande Polonaise Brillante at the start of the program signaled that he can do anything he wants at the keyboard, detailing chords with a jeweler's precision, then laying little curls of notes atop a cushion of sound like diamonds nestled on velvet. Again and again, throughout the afternoon, he showed what a range of colors he could get out of the instrument, switching from hard-edged percussiveness to creamy legato, crackling chords to a single thread of sound. The sheer technical ability was, at first, a delight.
Substitute an ellipsis for "at first" and you have a publicist's dream. It is obvious that this young man can really play the piano, with flair and technique to burn.

Third, and this gets us to a matter I've expounded before, it's usually not a good idea for a performer to read his or her reviews. That's what your manager, publicist, partner, and teacher (if you have one) are for. As I've noted, performers almost always know what has gone wrong in a performance, and know their own strengths or weaknesses. (If not, maybe performing is not the right career for you.) Performers have to be willing to get up there and show the courage of their convictions without worrying what Anne (or me!) will say the next day. They can't and shouldn't be shifting their approach in response to what any particular reviewer thinks on a given day. In other words, reviews can become a distraction, but they need not be.

Fourth, Mr. Lazic needs to have a talk with his publicist. He has been appearing in public for long enough that he must have one; if not, he needs to hire one right away. Talking to the press can be helpful to your career, but sometimes it's just not. Complaining to the Times about how the Met was treating her couldn't have been good for Ruth Ann Swenson's career, for example. Asking the Washington Post to remove a review from your web site just gets you the kind of publicity you might not want. That is, I'd never heard of Dejan Lazic until a day or two ago. Now I have, but think if all I knew was that very positive paragraph Anne wrote in 2010!

Putting it bluntly, if you're a professional musician, part of your publicist's job is to help you deal effectively with the press, by coaching you about what to do and what not to do.

Lastly, Mr. Lazic has misunderstood the nature of reviews, and I wish Caitlin Dewey had explained this in her blog posting: a review is an opinion piece. Yes, parts of it are factual, including:
  • Who played, and where
  • What was on the program
  • Whether a string player or singer is in tune (individual listeners have varying degrees of sensitivity to this, but pitch is a fact, not an opinion)
But the most interesting part of a review, and the real reason to read a review, is the writer's opinion of a performance. Was it effective? Was it exciting or dull? Did it work? Was it an eccentric performance (think Ugorski's Beethoven piano sonata op. 111, as recorded) or a "central," uneccentric performance? Do you want to hear these performers again? Does the repertory suit the singer's style? 

These are things that are debatable, which is why, in a perfect world, we'd have multiple reviews of any particular performance. Reviewers' tastes and interests and training vary; they have different areas of strength and weakness. 

In the end, it doesn't make much sense to ask for a review to be taken down. If you're a touring pro, you probably play from 50 to 150 performances annually, depending on your fame, age, repertory, endurance, etc. A single performance is just one day out of your career; a particular review is unlikely to make or break you. It's just one person's opinion, after all.

UPDATE: I've clarified how the EU ruling works. And I'm reminded that I meant to mention the Streisand effect, in which nobody is paying attention to something you want ignored....until you call their attention to it through legal action. Then everybody pays attention.