Thursday, December 31, 2020

Goodbye, 2020, and Good Riddance

College Avenue, Oakland
April 12, 2020
Photo taken from the middle of the street with no risk to the photographer (me).

Well, it certainly has been a dumpster fire of a year, one that I'm very happy to say good-bye to.

On the positive side:

  • My partner and I had work, a roof over our heads, a cat who tolerates us, and each other.
  • We didn't get COVID-19, owing to some combination of luck and caution.
  • We still like each other, after approximately 9 months of being stuck in the house together.
  • We are going full speed ahead on a long-overdue remodel of our kitchen, which is falling apart (literally).
  • I had a shockingly productive year at work, after a week of getting used to being home.
  • I read 77 books. I am way behind in Wagnerism, but okay. It's not light reading.
  • Joe Biden and Kamala Harris take office in just under three weeks. I will be able to stop worrying that I will wake up to find that the President of the United States nuked [country name] in a fit of pique.
Looking at my calendar, I attended three concerts before everything shut down: Left Coast Chamber Ensemble, in a lovely program that included a new piece by Kurt Rohde and Messiaen's Quartet for the End of Time and both of Esa-Pekka Salonen's programs at SFS. One of the highlights was hearing his Violin Concerto again; they were both wonderful.

The last "normal" things I did before the shutdown were:
  • Attend the American Judo & Jujitsu Federation's annual convention (March 6-8); amazingly, it seems nobody spread the coronavirus at this, despite hundreds of people in close contact all weekend.
  • Teach safe rolling & falling on March 8, the last in a ten-week series of classes
  • Teach the one student who came to regular class that week, on Thursday, March 12
  • Get my hair cut and colored (fun colors, not cover-the-gray coloring)
On the negative side:
  • Hundreds of thousands of Americans are dead from COVID-19.
  • Even minimally competent leadership would have greatly reduced that.
    • Donald Trump would have been a hero if he'd modeled wearing masks and staying home. People on the left would have believed the science and worn masks. People on the right would have believed Trump and worn masks.
    • He would have been re-elected. 
  • Utter economic disaster for far too many Americans, owing to mismanagement, terrible unemployment insurance, the GOP Senate and Mitch McConnell's unwillingness to provide adequate relief.
  • Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died and McConnell rammed through her replacement in record time just weeks before the election.
  • No concerts, no theatre, no opera since very early March.
  • Musical institutions of all sizes are under enormous economic pressure. They won't all survive.
  • Some are doing terrible things to their performing and theatrical staff. Yes, I'm looking at you, Metropolitan Opera.
  • Most musical performers have lost a year of work and might not perform in person again until late in 2021.
  • In institutions where management isn't trying to break unions, a lot of performers are looking at reduced pay for years to come.
It didn't have to be this way. We have giant amounts of money floating around; the government can print money quite freely; paying everyone who couldn't work safely to stay home, paying everyone who lost their job, enrolling everyone who lost a job into the ACA automatically at no charge, ongoing rent and mortgage relief for those who couldn't pay - if only the GOP and far too many Americans don't believe in taking care of other Americans. So much suffering could have been avoided, had we the political will and decency to do so.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Music Journalism Insider

Thanks to a Twitter thread by the redoubtable Steve Smith, whose Substack you should read, I recently learned about the existence of the Substack called Music Journalism Insider,  run by Todd L. Burns. This is of obvious interest to anyone writing about music.

I subscribed immediately; some day I will have time to be more than a very, very part-time music journalist, and I expect to get some useful insights from Music Journalism Insider.

Museum Mondays

Drawn Stone, by Andy Goldsworthy
Site-specific work for the DeYoung Museum of Art
San Francisco, CA, 2006


Sunday, December 20, 2020

Bang on a Can Streaming Marathon

Received from Bang on a Can:

Bang on a Can will stream performances from all four 2020 Bang on a Can Online Marathons - “A Marathon of Marathons” for on-demand viewing from December 24, 2020 - January 1, 2021 at Each online Marathon in 2020 (May 3, June 14, August 16, and October 18) featured performances from musicians' homes around the country and across the world -  a total of 95 performances including 31 world premieres of new commissions and over 130 composers and performers. All Marathon performers and composers participating live have been compensated by Bang on a Can. In all, Bang on a Can signed more than 150 paychecks to working artists to create and play the music on these marathons. The online collection also includes dozens of artist conversations with Bang on a Can Co-Founders and Artistic Directors Michael Gordon, David Lang, and Julia Wolfe, who interviewed many of the composers throughout the 24 hours of Marathon concert streams. 

The stream is free, but the organization encourages audience members to buy a ticket to help support the composers and performers whose work went into this enormous presentation.

New Award for Librettists

Mark Campbell, who has had a very successful career writing opera librettos, has established an award with Opera America, to be awarded annually to an American librettist who demonstrates exceptional talent and the potential to make a substantial contribution to the opera literature. There's a $7,000 check with the award; read more about it, including the schedule for applying, at the Opera America web site.

Good News from Florida

Opera Orlando, a small company in Florida, managed to stage the first full, indoor operatic production in the US since March. Considering what the last couple of weeks have been like in the public health section (horrible beyond words), this is quite a feat. I had actually meant to post about this before the performances, which were on Thursday, 12/17, and last night.

You can read and watch a video about how they did it, with appropriate social distancing on and off stage, at the Opera Orlando web site.

And, if you'd like to see Die Feldermaus: The Revenge of the Bat, they'll be streaming the production from 7 p.m. on New Year's Eve, December 31 to Friday, January 15th at midnight (presumably Eastern time).

Friday, December 18, 2020

Robin Sutherland

Terrible news from San Francisco Symphony: Robin Sutherland, retired longtime Principal Keyboard, died this morning following a short illness. Seiji Ozawa created the position for him, and he held that title for some 46 years, before retiring in 2018. He was a terrific player and seemed like a lovely person the couple of times I chatted with him. Deepest condolences to his husband Carlos Ortega, other friends and family, and everyone at SFS.

I heard Robin in lots and lots of performances over the years, and...what can I say. I thought he'd have a long and musical retirement and I was looking forward to hearing him in chamber music and in appearances with other organizations. He was on leave for a time a few years ago (I think) for medical reasons, and perhaps he had a reoccurrence of whatever ailed him then. I'm just sorry that he's gone.

You can read more about Robin Sutherland and his career, and the thoughts and memories of his friends and colleagues, at the SFS press room. Joshua Kosman has an informative obit at the Chron.

Friday Photo


Oahu, Hawaii, 2012

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Dear Kaiser: Come ON.

Received today, email from Kaiser Permanente, from which I have gotten my health care for about 30 years now, and which generally I like very much: a pointer to an article on the Kaiser web site about Scandinavian-style well-being.

5 Scandinavian secrets to a happier, healthier life

Scandinavian winters are dark, cold, and long. Depending on the city, a typical day could have little to no sunshine, freezing temperatures, and lots of snow. Some people might see those conditions as a recipe for seasonal depression. But despite their harsh winters, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Iceland have topped the World Happiness Report — which surveys 156 countries by asking their citizens how happy they are — for several years in a row.

So, what is it that makes Scandinavian people so content? The answer may lie in their approach to life — which contains several feel-good philosophies that promote an overall sense of well-being. Let’s take a look.

The article then lists gokotta (waking up early in the morning to go outside and listen to the birds sing.), hygge (coziness), fika paus (coffee break, but it's a ritual coffee break), friluftsliv (spending time in nature), and lagom (balance).

Now, I have no objection to anyone incorporating nature, coziness, coffee breaks, or balance in their lives. But the reason Scandinavians (and Finns, who will be happy to tell you that they are not Scandinavian) are among the happiest and most content people in the world has more to do with what they have done to create a decent society that provides for its people:

  1. High taxes
  2. Universal health care
  3. High-quality public schools
  4. High-quality, low-cost university education
  5. Universal child care
  6. Lengthy parental leave
  7. Laws that enforce gender equality
  8. Etc.
Sure, happiness is a state of mind, but there's no substitute for having a roof over your head, an income, enough to eat, and health care. We can be as cozy as we want in the United States, but until we actually have a government that levies higher taxes and spends that money on people - rather than the overgrown and enormous military we have - we're not going to have the kind of society that Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Finland have.

Monday, December 14, 2020

Unsurprising Update from SFO

Not exactly a press release, but a note to the press:

Due to the ongoing pandemic, San Francisco Opera is re-envisioning our upcoming 2021 schedule. The originally announced 2021 Spring Season running April 25–May 16 at the War Memorial Opera House—Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (Il Barbiere di Siviglia), Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg, and concerts featuring sopranos Lianna Haroutounian and Iréne Theorin—will not take place as planned.

Please stay tuned—on Tuesday, February 16, we’ll be announcing a newly imagined lineup of events and experiences, whether in new digital programs/content or reimagined live performances, as public health mandates allow. Complete details about the new programming, as well as information for current ticketholders on how spring tickets can be transferred, will be shared on February 16.  

Please also note: We currently anticipate announcing the 2021–22 Season in late spring of 2021 and will keep you posted.

There's also a longer and more emotive version to subscribers, over Matthew Shilvock's signature and using many of his signature phrases. :) 


Museum Mondays


The Cloisters, NYC
February, 2010

Friday, December 11, 2020

Bonus Friday Photo

Musée d'Orsay, Paris
October, 2018
Because it's his birthday.

Friday Photo


College Avenue, Rockridge, Oakland, CA
Pandemic photos: looking south and north
April, 2020 

Monday, December 07, 2020

San Francisco Performances: I'm Scratching My Head

SFP cancels several performance and reschedules March?


THURSDAY, FEBRUARY 25, 2021, 7:30pm 
Herbst Theatre
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 10, 2021, 7:30pm 
Herbst Theatre
FRIDAY, APRIL 23, 2021, 7:30pm
Herbst Theatre
SATURDAY, MAY 1, 2021, 7:30pm 
Herbst Theatre
NEW DATE: WEDNESDAY, MARCH 17, 2021, 7:30pm 
Herbst Theatre
(Originally scheduled Thursday, March18, 2021)

These changes are all because of health and safety requirements around COVID-19. I don't understand why March 18 isn't okay but March 17 is. 

San Francisco Opera 100: A Different Angle

War Memorial Opera House Interior
December, 2019
Photo by Lisa Hirsch

Another way to think about the centennial season is: who would conduct? Several conductors must be in the pit for something:
  • Music Director Eun Sun Kim
  • Former Music Director Nicola Luisotti, who would get the Verdi (or Puccini, if, say, there's a revival of Il Trittico)
  • Former Music Director Sir Donald Runnicles, who would get Something Big and probably German
  • Principal Guest Conductor Patrick Summers
That leaves a few open spots. Herewith some nudges possibilities.
  • Presumably coming in for Innocence but would be great to have on the roster in general: Susanna Mälkki; might be busy if she succeeds Philippe Jordan in Paris
  • Lives locally, proven excellence in conducting opera, might have some free time these days: Michael Tilson Thomas
  • Lives locally, proven excellence in conducting opera, might be too busy: Nicole Paiement
  • Lives locally (or will by then), proven excellence in conducting opera, will be working nearby: Esa-Pekka Salonen
  • Eminence grise: Sir Andrew Davis
  • Eminence grise with some SFO history: Christoph von Dohnanyi, a great conductor, but now 91 and has cancelled some US appearances
  • Lives a short flight away, proven excellence in conducting opera, who knows whether his organization will survive the pandemic: James Conlon
  • Proven excellence in conducting opera, hasn't been to SF for anything (I think): Franz Welser-Most
  • Has some history with SFO, proven excellence in conducting opera, but probably too hot to handle politically: Christian Thielemann
  • Could be on stage or in the pit: Nathalie Stutzmann
  • Could be on stage or in the pit: Barbara Hannigan (reminding me that it's a long time since SFO performed either of Alban Berg's operas, and also that I would love to see Berenice again)


Museum Mondays

Musée des Arts Décoratifs, Paris
H. Husson, 1909
October, 2018


Sunday, December 06, 2020

San Francisco Opera 100: Speculation

War Memorial Opera. House
Photo by Lisa Hirsch

It's been a few years since I speculated on what the 100th season of the San Francisco Opera might look like. We're rapidly approaching the date; since the company's first performances were in the 1923-24 season, the 2022-23 season will be number 100.

The current season, which would have been the 98th, will be at best incomplete; it's just barely possible that SFO will be able to perform the planned spring operas and concerts in June, by which time some number of us will have been vaccinated. But it's also possible that the company will go the conservative route and have no performances this season (or in 2021).

Will next season, that is, 2021-22, be announced as the 98th season or 99th? Who knows! I guess we will know in approximately six weeks, if the pattern of the last few years holds. I can guarantee that there won't be an in-person press event; maybe we'll get a press release only, or, now that SFO has had a lot of practice with Zoom events, maybe there will be a live online announcement.

In any event, here's what I now hope for / suspect:

  • Make it a ten-opera season, not the eight operas we have had for the last few years.
  • A commission: well, it seems reasonable to think that Kaija Saariaho's Innocence, which was to have premiered at Aix-en-Provence this past summer, might be on the centennial schedule.
  • Something big, maybe something big that a recently-knighted former music director would be the ideal conductor for. It's now more than 30 years since SFO's last bring-up of Die Frau ohne Schatten, which is beyond a doubt in the wheelhouse of Sir Donald Runnicles. SFO also presented the US premiere of the opera.
  • Something else big: it's been more than 20 years since the last Parsifal, which, ahem, Sir Donald would also be most excellent in. Or maybe this could go to new music director Eun Sun Kim.
  • The greatest opera SFO has never performed: with Les Troyens out of the way, I'll nominate From the House of the Dead. General Director Matthew Shilvock has been eyeing Moses und Aron. The advantage of From the House of the Dead is that SFO has a longer tradition of performing Janacek than the Met; we've had two runs of The Makropulos Case since 2010, so I can't suggest that one.
  • Another work that SFO is associated with: Dialogues of the Carmelites, whose first US performances were here in 1957, 20 years before the Met finally got to it. The New Prioress, Madame Lidoine, was sung by Leontyne Price, who was also in the cast, again as Madame Lidoine, in the 1982-83 season, the last time SFO performed the opera. I say, bring it back!
  • Revival of a recent popular work: Les Troyens. Yes, it's expensive to produce, but it sold out.
  • Something really weird that they'll never do again: this is the Birtwistle slot. 
  • Something Baroque
  • Something by Verdi. Il Corsaro? Les Vepres Siciliennes?
  • Something by Rossini that they've never done before (Il viaggio a Rheims?) or William Tell
  • Well, that's ten. Maybe go for twelve?
Above and beyond this, I'd love an announcement about major donations to the endowment, further commissions, and innovations sparked by what has happened to the current season.

Friday, December 04, 2020

Currentzis / Fragments

Email this morning alerted me to the existence of a new project by conductor/provacateur Teodor Currentzis, called Fragments, which will consist of videos of opera scenes. The first video is the first roughly 20 minutes of Act III of La Traviata.

The Prelude is about as good as it gets, dark, flexible, sorrowful. The video, shot in moody black and white, is similarly dark, shot in fields and ruins. (The phrase "ruin porn" did cross my mind; ruins as a metaphor for Violetta's tuberculosis, which in itself is a metaphor for suffering, fallen, women.)

I made it past the letter reading, "Teneste la promessa," and then gave up, because the soprano isn't so much reading as whispering. The solo violin in the scene is lots louder than she is. It's as if the audience doesn't really need to hear what she's upset about.

It's true that this is a video, not a recording, not a live performance, not a video of a live performance. It's very much a studio production. Does it matter how far the performers deviate from what would work in live performance? In the opera house, you can't get away with whispering; you need to be heard out there. Should I be more tolerant of the total artifice of the Fragments video? I'm really not sure.

For your listening and viewing:

Santa Fe Opera Winter Concert


 Old San Ysidro Church in Corrales, New Mexico.
Production still by Bryan Kaufman.

Courtesy of Santa Fe Opera

Santa Fe Opera presents a winter concert this Sunday, December 6, 2020. Here's the press release:

Santa Fe, NM — The Santa Fe Opera will present Songs of the Season on Sunday, December 6 at 3:00 pm MT. A digital adaptation of the company’s annual winter tour across the Southwest region, the online concert features former apprentice singers Joshua Dennis (tenor) and Briana Elyse Hunter (mezzo-soprano), Santa Fe Opera Head of Music Staff Robert Tweten (piano) and the Young Voices of the Santa Fe Opera. The presentation was filmed on location at historic churches across northern New Mexico including Las Placitas Presbyterian Church, Old San Ysidro Church and the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, as well as at the Santa Fe Opera.

Songs of the Season showcases audience favorites, including Puccini’s “Nessun dorma” and Irving Berlin’s “Count Your Blessings (Instead of Sheep),” alongside newer works by American composers Morten Lauridsen, Undine Smith Moore and Stephen Paulus. Also included on the program are special arrangements of holiday standards “The Christmas Song” and “O Holy Night,” as well as personal renditions of “Joy” by Ricky Ian Gordon and Harold Arlen’s “I Never Has Seen Snow.” Director of Community Engagement Andrea Fellows Fineberg says, “Now more than ever we are committed to celebrating the magic of the winter season, to providing talented artists with performing opportunities and to bringing music to our communities across New Mexico and beyond. I am grateful to our venue partners, artists and staff for their safe, diligent and creative work to realize this special project. This concert is a gift that we are all overjoyed to give.”

Free to watch, Songs of the Season premieres across the opera’s websiteFacebookInstagram and YouTube pages on Sunday, December 6 at 3:00 pm MT. The presentation is suitable for all ages and will remain available for on-demand viewing throughout the month of December. Families, opera fans and newcomers alike are encouraged to tune in and celebrate. All activities are completed in accordance with current New Mexico health and safety guidelines.

Friday Photo

Cimitiere de Passy, Paris
February, 2019


Thursday, December 03, 2020

Palm Beach Symphony 47th Season

 I've got an optimistic announcement from the Palm Beach Symphony about their anticipated "triumphant return to performing." They will have a televised holiday program, followed by this:

The four Masterworks Series concerts are currently scheduled to be performed at the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts in accordance with health and safety guidelines following CDC recommendations and guidance from local and state officials. At this time, it is anticipated that the first Masterwork concert in January will be livestreamed without an audience in the hall. The Symphony hopes to perform the remainder of the season as a mix of livestream and select seating. 

The press release has the level of boosterism you would expect about the orchestra and its music director/conductor Gerard Schwarz. Weirdly, despite the programming, the press release omits what I would consider his most important activity as a conductor: his ongoing commitment to performing and recording the works of American composers.

Here's the season, in any event:

Holiday Concert 

Broadcast dates and times to be announced 

CBS 12 News 


Guest Artist: 

Valentina Paolucci, violin 



Tchaikovsky: Overture from Nutcracker Suite No. 1, Op. 71A 

Franz Xaver Gruber (arr. by Schwarz): Silent Night (Palm Beach Symphony Premiere

Tchaikovsky: March from Nutcracker Suite No. 1, Op. 71A 

Pachelbel: Canon in D Major (Palm Beach Symphony Premiere

Tchaikovsky: Trepak (Russian Dance) from Nutcracker Suite No. 1, Op. 71A 

Traditional (arr. by Schwarz): Variations on Greensleeves (Palm Beach Symphony Premiere

Tchaikovsky: Mirlitons from Nutcracker Suite No. 1, Op. 71A 

John Henry Hopkins, Jr. (arr. by Schwarz): We Three Kings of Orient Are (Palm Beach Symphony Premiere

J.S. Bach: Sleepers Awake from Cantata No. 140 (Palm Beach Symphony Premiere

Tchaikovsky: Waltz of the Flowers from Nutcracker Suite No. 1, Op. 71A  

Anderson: Sleigh Ride (Palm Beach Symphony Premiere

Masterworks Series #1 

Sunday, January 24, 2021 at 3:00 p.m.
Livestreamed from the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts  


Guest Artist:
Pinchas Zukerman, violin 



Beethoven: Violin Concerto in D Major, Op. 61 

Beethoven: Coriolan Overture, Op. 62  

Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 

Masterworks Series #2 

Sunday, March 21, 2021 at 3:00 p.m. 

Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd, West Palm Beach, FL 

and Livestreamed  


Guest Artist:
Vladimir Feltsman, piano 



Mozart: Piano Concerto No. 27 in B-flat Major, K. 595 

Diamond: Rounds for String Orchestra (Palm Beach Symphony Premiere) 

Walker:  Lyric for Strings (Palm Beach Symphony Premiere) 

Stravinsky: Pulcinella Suite (Palm Beach Symphony Premiere) 


Masterworks Series #3 

Monday, April 19, 2021 at 7:30 p.m. 

Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd, West Palm Beach, FL 

and Livestreamed  


Guest Artist: 

Julian Schwarz, cello 



Saint-Saëns: Cello Concerto No. 1, in A Minor, Op. 33  (Palm Beach Symphony Premiere) 

Dvořák: Silent Woods, B. 182  (Palm Beach Symphony Premiere) 

Still: Darker America  (Palm Beach Symphony Premiere) 

Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 1 in C minor, Op. 11 (Palm Beach Symphony Premiere) 

Masterworks Series #4 

Saturday, May 22 at 7:30 p.m. 

Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, 701 Okeechobee Blvd, West Palm Beach, FL 

and Livestreamed 


Guest Artist: 

Alexander Toradze, piano  



Ravel: Piano Concerto in G Major (Palm Beach Symphony Premiere) 

Ravel: Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) Suite (Palm Beach Symphony Premiere) 

Brahms: Serenade No. 1 in D Major, Op. 11 


Additional Concert 

Wednesday, February 3, 2021 at 7:30 p.m.
The Society of the Four Arts, 100 Four Arts Plaza, Palm Beach, FL 

Invitation Only 


Guest Artist: 

Olga Kern, piano 


Shostakovich: Piano Concerto No. 1 in C minor, Op. 35 (Palm Beach Symphony Premiere)
Strauss (arr. Gerard Schwarz): Sextet from Capriccio 
(Palm Beach Symphony Premiere)
Irving Fine: Serious Song; A Lament for String Orchestra (Palm Beach Symphony Premiere) 

Dvořák: Serenade for Strings in E Major, Op. 22 (Palm Beach Symphony Premiere) 

That's some nice programming: William Grant Still, Irving Fine, David Diamond, and George Walker, some less-known works by more famous composers.

Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Loving Beethoven

The latest in The NY Times's series of "Five Minutes That Will Make You Fall in Love with [something]" arrived today, and it's dedicated to the obvious big boy of the year, Ludwig van Beethoven. As I remarked the other day on social media, I love most of his music; I just don't need him taking up 10% or more of concert time year after year after year. 

Also, if you want a fully-rounded view of his music, you need to take a look at the works without opus numbers: the large-scale (read: important) works have opus numbers, but there's a long list of pieces that didn't receive one; in fact, it's longer than the works with opus numbers. They are separately catalogued and include dance music for various combinations of instruments, miscellaneous pieces for combinations like mandolin and harpsichord, songs, folk song settings, random piano music, etc. You can see the list here.

Okay, having said that, the choices in the Times article were mildly surprising to me, or, anyway, aren't what I would have picked or would have pointed to in some of the works picked. In the inevitable Fifth Symphony, my favorite moments are the entire, gloriously beautiful, second movement, and the transitions from the scherzo to the last movement and back. Is there anything better than the ghost of the scherzo haunting the last movement?

But if I were picking a whole symphony to represent him - okay, okay, it's impossible, I know - I'd probably pick 1, 2, 4, or 8, which include emphatic demonstrations of Beethoven's sometimes-bumptious musical humor. I can't remember which of those was on an Oakland Symphony program that I reviewed years ago, but I was sitting there chortling to myself while every else in the audience was very serious. There's humor in the big symphonies as well; here I wave at the last movement of the Third. You should be giggling a little at the big serious opening and the slightly silly tune that follows, on which he will make variations.

While we're talking about transitions, the second movement of the Fifth Piano Concerto is very beautiful, and, again, the transition to the last movement is fabulous. And in the Fourth Symphony, you've got the enormous energy from the opening to the main body of the first movement. (Here's Carlos Kleiber and the Royal Concertgebouw in the Fourth Symphony, for example. He takes the first movement repeat, as well he should.)

I'm glad that someone pointed to the second (last) movement of Op. 111, the last of Beethoven's piano sonatas. It is touching, surprising, profound. Glenn Gould, though? I will listen, but of the many recorded performances I've heard, the most emotionally powerful, for both movements, is Stephen Kovacevich's, in his complete recording of the 32 sonatas.

If I were picking a bunch of the piano sonatas, I'd include the wonderful trio of Op. 31; Les Adieux; and all of the late sonatas (Op. 101, 106, 109, 110, 111), which are all special in their own ways. Pianists to consider: Peter Serkin's traversal of the late sonatas on a not-very-good fortepiano is musically spectacular; Kovacevich is profound, the French pianist Eric Heidsieck restrained and elegant. But there are tons of good to great performances of these!

For the string quartets, the Harp, Op. 74, and the first Rasumovsky, Op. 59, No. 1.

For operas, nothing. Fidelio has some great moments and some substantial dramatic problems.

Saturday, November 28, 2020

Tommasini on Pianos

Well, not exactly: Anthony Tommasini has an article in the Times called "Why Do Pianists Know So Little About Pianos?"  The URL for the article might be somewhat revealing:

Of course, it's not just about piano tuning; it's about the variability of pianos and the mechanical complexity of the instrument. I would have amplified this:

Not only can violinists, clarinetists, harpists or flutists tune their instruments, and even bend pitches in performance, they also, by and large, know much more about how their instruments work.

If I were writing this article, I would explain how you tune different instruments. On violins (and other orchestral bowed string instruments), you turn the tuning pegs that that are at one end of the instrument, at the top of the neck. On wind instruments, including the flute, you can generally make small adjustments to how the head joint connects to the main body of the instrument, that is, you can pull it out a bit to lengthen the instrument and make a downward adjustment to the pitch. Harpists tighten or loosen the strings by turning a key in the tuning pins that run across the top of the instruments.

Tommasini says this, of instruments used at Carnegie Hall:

(These instruments, by the way, only last about five or six years, and in some cases 10; today’s pianists aren’t hitting the same keys Rubinstein touched.)

And....I'm curious about this one. My bet is that these pianos are taken out of service, reconditioned, and sold. Pianos generally last decades; a friend of mine owns a piano from the 1930s, if I'm remembering this correctly, and another from the 1960s. I read an article some years ago about Stephen Kovacevich buying a new piano, again, one from the 1930s. He is a pro and probably practices four hours a day. But he hasn't replaced that piano every five or six years.


Back at my apartment, the technician finally dropped by, tuned my piano and made mechanical tweaks to a few of the keys. Afterward it felt and sounded vastly better. I have no idea what was involved.

It's not too late to learn some details about piano maintenance, of course. Long ago, I took a weekend-long flute repair class from James Phelan, who is now an important flutemaker in Boston, the US's unofficial flute capital. At the end of the class, I could disassemble a flute, reassemble it, and make some simple repairs. 

Still, when my instruments needed repairs, back they went to the factory, or, if I was at my parents' home in NJ, to the flute technician there who worked on everyone's flutes (I wish I could remember his name...Herbert something, and he was a few towns away). I think the story is pretty much the same for other instrumentalists, especially professional string players whose instruments can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars: they go to the repair pros.

Thursday, November 26, 2020

And While We're At It

 Fuck the Supreme Court's 5-4 decision to define religious freedom as permitting large gatherings during a pandemic; that is, it's fine that your right to freely practice your religion might spread a disease that can kill you or severely damage your health.

There are literally centuries of history of the government taking action to protect people during epidemics and pandemics. It's nothing new and people haven't been getting away with these garbage arguments about religious freedom.

I'd say that there is something wrong with clergy who think it's more important to have large gatherings than to protect their congregations from COVID-19. If there's a god, or if there are gods, I doubt that he, she, or they want their followers to die from the act of worship. If you think that your god only hears your prayers if you say them in a room with many people.....I must ask, why do you think that your god lacks concern for your personal health and wellbeing?

Damn You, Peter Gelb

Lincoln Center Fountain
Photo by Lisa Hirsch

You might have heard the sentiment in the title from me before. This time, the reason for the table-pounding and eye-rolling is pretty simple: the Met, which furloughed about a thousand people in March, including the orchestra and chorus, and hasn't paid them since, is now looking for substantial pay cuts from those employees, in exchange for paying them "up to $1,500 a week."

In other words, they're trying to break the unions.

And today the organization had the goddamn nerve to send this:

In this most unusual of holiday seasons, we are reminded of the importance of family, togetherness, and the arts, all of which have been so terribly disrupted this year. 

As a special Thanksgiving greeting, we would like to share with you the below video featuring students from across the country, assembled virtually by the Met’s education department and given a chance to sing together at a time when in-person choirs have been made impossible. The musical selection comes from Beethoven’s Fidelio, which would have been part of the 2020–21 season, and the performance celebrates the power of music to create a sense of community and resilience in the face of adversity, while looking forward to the day when we can all be reunited.

Happy Thanksgiving from all of us at the Met. We wish you and your families the very best. 

Best wishes from all of except, maybe, from the people we haven't bothered to pay since March. Just to remind you: it's not the responsibility of the chorus, orchestra, stagehands, ushers, dressers, custodians, makeup artists, and other employees on the theatrical side to keep the Met on a good financial footing. They're not responsible for budgeting, fundraising, or the administration of those funds. They aren't the people responsible for the Met's poor ticket sales, immense budget, and failure to build a sufficient endowment, and they're not the people who should be punished for the failures of the people who do have the responsibility to raise money, spend it wisely, and sell tickets.

Administrative Note

Something I posted on Twitter the other day:

For the record, I am not moving my blog to Substack; I am not starting a newsletter on any platform; I am not going to charge you to read anything I write. (Note: this doesn't apply to, say, a magazine that you need to buy to read an article or review of mine.)

As I noted later, if you're going to charge people to read your newsletter,  in my view, you are committing to writing good-quality newsletters on some kind of regular basis. Maybe it's weekly, maybe twice a month, maybe, if you're wildly prolific, daily. (I am acquainted with a now-former columnist who wrote 800 words five days a week for his column for more than 30 years. It's possible to do this, but it's very, very difficult.) I had a couple of years when I wrote a post more or less daily, which was a lot easier to do when I took a dedicated shuttle to work and had a table and wifi available. In theory, I could do such a thing now, what with WFH, but I haven't been. Maybe next year?

But getting back to the point, no, I'm not going to charge for the blog. I have been very, very lucky and I have a job I like that I can do from home and that pays me well.

That said, there are multiple way to read this blog:

  • Right here, by visiting the URL
  • Using a feed reader, such as Google Reader, The Old Reader, Feedly, etc. (Me? Bitter? Yes.)
  • In your email, by asking you to add your email address to the list of addresses that are automatically emailed each post as it's published. Why Blogger doesn't have this as a user-facing feature, I don't know, but as you might have noticed, there was very little development done on Blogger for a long time, which seems to have changed in the last 18 months. Just let me know in comments or by emailing me (lhirsch at Gmail dot com).

Monday, November 23, 2020

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Season Announcement Season

Well, it's around six weeks to January, meaning that season announcement season is almost upon us. Santa Fe Opera, which usually announces its year+1 season during maybe May or June of year got the word about 2021 out in October this year. Generally a couple of smaller organizations announce toward the end of the calendar year, with Seattle Opera and San Francisco Opera coming sometime in January for the year-year+1 season.

I'm certainly curious about whether the announcements will be at the usual times, what they will look like, and how much hedging there will be. If I were San Francisco Opera, I'd hold that announcement as long as I could, based on existing contracts with singers and arrangements with other companies, say, to rent sets belonging to other organizations. I'd also hedge like crazy about contingencies, such as the availability of vaccines, medical advice. Nobody knows now and few will know in late January, 2021, how many doses will be available, how many people will be vaccinated by the second weekend of September, and what audience members might be required to prove about their vaccination status. 

These are tough times to be the general director or chief executive of a musical organization, There's a lot of tension between the need to sell tickets (or raise money by other means) and the desire not to kill performers, stagehands, and the audience. 

The Song of the Lark

The Song of the Lark
Jules Adolphe Breton
Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago

I've meant to read Willa Cather's The Song of the Lark for a number of years. For one thing, I'm a fan of the genre: novels about divas, whether real or fictional. In the former category, you'll find Marcia Davenport's Of Lena Geyer, which seems to be built around the lives of the author's mother, soprano Alma Gluck, Olive Fremstad, and Geraldine Farrar. (If you don't believe me about the latter, I believe that Geyer has...a relationship....with a famous conductor. Okay, that could be any number of singers, but Farrar's affair with Arturo Toscanini is notorious.) In the latter category, we have Robertson Davies's wonderful A Mixture of Frailties and James McCourt's magnificent Mawrdew Czgowchwz, which is about fandom as well as about the singer in question. Yes, I do have to look up the spelling every time I write about it, and yes, actually, she's fictional, but also loosely based on a singer whose initials she shared, and some of the characters are real divas in disguise.

I did finally read The Song of the Lark a couple of months ago, as an accompaniment to Wagnerism, and, well, there were a few surprises.

The novel is centered around Thea Kronborg, a child of Swedish immigrants, who grows up in Colorado about an hour from Denver. She is musically talented and her parents make sure she has piano lessons, from a faded German musician who has drinking and other problems. She doesn't have much in the way of friends among her peers, though there are rivalries; she does have a large family and a loving, perceptive mother. (Her mother was one of my favorite characters in the book.)  Her closest friends are adults, including Ray Kennedy, an older railway man who adores her, and Dr. Howard Archie, unhappily married and 20 years or more her senior. Eventually, she moves to Chicago to study with a far better piano teacher, who discovers that she has a voice. Singing lessons, and eventually a career, ensue.

This is a famous book by a well-known author, and it's partially based on the life of Olive Fremstad, a famed soprano active at the Met from 1903 to 1914. Cather was a music critic at one time in her life, sharp and perceptive in her observations, and gets all of the musical and operatic details right. (This is rarer than you might think.) However, as a novel, it's very much a mixed bag. Thea's relationships with others and herself are done well and there are lovely observations about life in the high desert.

But the book is also deeply flawed. Cather builds her plot to a particular possibility, concealing certain facts from Thea but not you, then yanks the rug out from under you and jumps 10 years into the future, leaving all details about what happened with the possibility unexplored and unexplained. I would definitely have liked to read about the discussion that took place between two of the characters. I don't know why Cather makes this huge jump in time; did she feel unable to adequately present what happened? 

We see Thea and two important male characters in NYC in that ten-years-later period, briefly. Then there's an epilogue, and some things have happened, but they are also unexplained, although certain events are implied. This wasn't Cather's first novel, and this must have been deliberate, but oh boy, I am so curious about why she made some of these choices. They leave the book with enormous plot holes and rob the it of some character development. I was left scratching my head.

In addition, none of the discussions of the book that I've seen mention the casual racism, toward Black people, Native Americans, Mexicans, and Jewish people, as far as I can tell even in Alex Ross's Wagnerism. There is some stereotyping of Swedish and German people as well. I was shocked when I read the racist passages and I'm shocked that nobody mentions this.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Friday Photo

Old-style Routemaster bus
Taken in the general vicinity of St. Paul's Cathedral
London, May, 2014

New-style Routemaster bus
30 Cannon St., London
May, 2014


Monday, November 16, 2020

Museum Mondays

From the exhibit The Birth of Gothic Sculpture
Perhaps an annunciation?
Musée National du Moyen Age
Paris, October, 2018

From their stances and relationship, this could be an annunciation.