Wednesday, September 30, 2020

"A Little Off Most of Our Radars"

The post title is how I heard a KDFC announcer describe Pulitzer Prize winner Caroline Shaw. I mean, it's amazing that one of Shaw's works made the "Classical Top 100" garbage contest that KDFC does every year, but is that ever a tell. They've played enough Shaw that the piece they were playing got the votes to be in 54th place; they have the reach to get Shaw or any other composer "on the radar" of their listeners, and yet they make this bogus claim.

Thursday, September 24, 2020

Effects of the Met HD Broadcasts

 Over on Twitter, someone has stated that the Met HD broadcasts hurt other opera companies. The person - who is anonymous - knows this because they "do some work with classical music people" who know. I suggested that the Twitterer ask those people to write about this, and the person say, no, not going to do that. I then noted that if someone put the figures together and got them to a journalist, well, there's a story there.

I'm seriously curious about this. I can imagine the Met broadcasts boosting ticket sales by getting people interested in opera, and those people buy their first tickets to their local, smaller opera company. I can imagine people choosing to go to the broadcasts over live opera because the tickets are cheap, the seats are comfortable, the picture is big, and you can nibble on popcorn during the show. I should also note that there aren't that many companies doing opera on the Met's scale, with lavish sets, big orchestra, and internationally known singers, conductors, and directors.

Locally, the broadcasts aren't cutting into ticket sales by my personal local company, West Edge Opera, which sells out by putting on theatrically innovative, musically strong, performances of opera that is more on the fringes of the repertory than what the Big Company in Town does. They mostly cede core repertory to San Francisco Opera and put on complementary works, in other words, although the WEO Boheme was fantastic, possibly the funniest and most poignant production of that evergreen opera that I've ever seen. 

Challenge to the reader: if you know anything solid about the effects of the Met HD broadcasts - that is, if you can show that an opera company was either harmed or helped by them - and you're willing to talk about this and be quoted, let me know. Or let your local music or arts writer know, or even the folks at the NY Times. We're all ears.

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

The Shape of Things to Come: Met Cancels Balance of 2020-21 Season

Lincoln Center Fountain at night; a circular fountain with many small upward jets of water

Lincoln Center Plaza Fountain
Photo by Lisa Hirsch

Well, this doesn't look good: the Met just canceled what was left of the 2020-21 season, which is to say, everything from December 31 to whenever in the May the season was planned to end. Presumably, this leaves the chorus, orchestra, stagehands, costumers, makeup artists, set builders, and administrative staff already on furlough without income through at least then.

Here's Peter Gelb blathering:
“The future of the Met relies upon it being artistically as powerful as ever, if not more so,” Mr. Gelb said in an interview. “The artistic experiences have to be better than ever before to attract audiences back. Where we need to cut back is costs.”

Spend less money, improve the artistic experience? Good luck with that. I mean, it could happen, but probably not at the Met. Here's more:

Mr. Gelb said that the Met would offer to begin paying its work force again during this dark period if the unions agreed to leaner multiyear contracts. The disclosure earlier this week that James Levine, the company’s former music director, had received a $3.5 million settlement after the Met fired him in 2018, citing sexual misconduct, could complicate negotiations.

You don't say.

The article does include some information on the 2021-22 season, which has been announced in full. More on that later.

Monday, September 21, 2020

Museum Mondays

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


Friday, September 18, 2020

The 2016 Presidential Election

 I expect that I probably don't need to tell you how many times in the last 20 years, and last 4 years, I've contemplated the awfulness of democracy in the United States. We elect the president through an antiquated system that throws far too much power to less populous states. The number of people in Congress was limited back in the early 20th century, so that the number of electors in no way reflects the current population distribution. (There's an article about the Electoral College at, if you want more details.)

Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000 by about a half-million votes. Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016 by nearly three million votes. She lost the Electoral College owing to fewer than 80,000 votes for Trump in three states, of which at least one had serious voter suppression issues. I want to also mention that the Republicans in the Senate collectively received ~24M fewer votes than their Democratic opponents. None of this is democratic.

Consider what the last few years have been like:

  • Mitch McConnell holding a vacant Supreme Court seat open in hopes of a Republican victory.
  • Two new conservative justices appointed; Merrick Garland never even getting a vote.
  • Rollbacks of environmental protections.
  • Russian attacks on the 2016 and 2020 elections.
  • The widespread replacement of career civil servants with cronies.
  • An astounding degree of corruption.
  • The Attorney General acting as the president's lawyer, not our lawyer.
  • 200,000 Americans dead of the coronavirus.
  • Attacks on LGTBIQA+ protections and people.
And now Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who should have retired during the Obama Administration, is gone, and there is a good chance that we'll have yet another conservative justice on the Supreme Court. 

This isn't the will of the people, and, again, don't ever tell me the parties are the same. And don't ever tell me that the tyranny of the minority is a good thing.

Friday Photo


Former Masonic Temple; Former Marciano Foundation Museum
Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA
June, 2019

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

The 2000 Presidential Election

I think a lot about the 2000 presidential election in the US, about Al Gore and how the world would be different today if it hadn't been for the Palm Beach County, FL, butterfly ballot, which meant that thousands of people accidentally voted for right-wing ideologue Pat Buchanan instead of VP Al Gore;  Ralph Nader, who got more than 93,000 votes in Florida; and the halted recount of ballots in Florida (damn you, SCOTUS). 

  • John Roberts and Samuel Alito wouldn't be on the Supreme Court today (or they would have had to wait for the next Republican president).
  • Gore just might have listened to the intelligence reports that said Osama bin Laden was planning an attack on the US, and maybe to the FBI reports about people taking lessons in how to fly jets.
  • If 9/11 had happened, Gore would have gone after bin Laden rather than cooking up lies to justify the disastrous Iraq War, which cost hundreds of thousands of lives, billions of dollars, and what stability there was in the region.
  • We would almost certainly have had real action on global warming.
Contemplate the above when people tell you the Democrats and the Republicans are the same. Contemplate the willingness of the Republican Party to hold up a SCOTUS nominee. Contemplate the GOP's eagerness to restrict the rights of your fellow citizens to vote. Contemplate their happiness in denying economic relief to your fellow citizens and their unwillingness to support the public health measures that could greatly limit the pandemic (as we approach 200,000 acknowledged dead). Contemplate their willingness to stand by as career civil servants are replaced by Trump's incompetent and criminal cronies.

The parties aren't identical. Don't believe anyone who tells you they are.

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Update on the War Memorial Opera House Seat Replacement Project


Opera house interior
Photo by Lisa Hirsch
December, 2019

Email received from a very excited Matthew Shilvock brings good news: the War Memorial Opera House seat replacement project, which was originally to have been done in May-August, 2021, but was postponed, is going to be pulled in and done this year through January, instead. I called this one in May:
So I'd be on the phone to find out whether the seats (and maybe new carpeting?) could be delivered early. I'd be trying to figure out whether September to December, 2020, could be dedicated to replacing seats, with live performances starting up in January....and running through next summer, to allow SFO and SFB to perform as much of their seasons as possible.

It's a good move. I had wondered whether this would be logistically possible, given the number of seats involved and the number of people who would be working in the opera house. Hooray for the suppliers and the construction crew! 

Update with links (9/16/2020):

Monday, September 14, 2020

Museum Mondays

Funerary Bust, c. 175-200
Palmyra, Syria
Victoria & Albert Museum, London
November, 2019


Sunday, September 13, 2020

Don't Be This Small Non-Profit 2

 Probably you won't remember the unbelievable hassles I had trying to renew my membership in a small nonprofit organization a couple of years back. I'm here to say, you still don't want to be this organization.

Back in late June, I received email from this org about Black Lives Matter that was similar to what I'd received from other organizations. SNP, as I called them then and will call them now, pledged to increase diversity, etc., etc. 

I sent a 1200 word letter analyzing the current membership on certain axes and asking a bunch of questions about just how they planned to go about doing this. Ten days later, I got a thank-you-for-writing email that promised a longer response "soon."

It's now been nine weeks and no longer response has been forthcoming. I don't particularly need my membership in this organization, so....perhaps I won't renew.

But there's yet another reason for you, dear reader, to figure out how not to be this small nonprofit organization. They have a web page of Black Lives Matter resources on which there are lists of books, organizations, films, podcasts, and other web resources....and mostly the lists don't include LINKS to those resources.

Folks, it is 2020 and no organization should have to get feedback about providing links on the web. No competent organization, anyway. I'm sending them one very concrete suggestion about diversifying membership, but it includes stuff like dedicated URLs. I hope their webmaster knows what they're doing, although that page with no links, which is as useful as a printed page on the web, isn't encouraging.

Friday, September 11, 2020

Monday, September 07, 2020

Museum Mondays


St. Margaret and the Dragon, c. 1530-40
Victoria & Albert Museum
London, November, 2019

Close-up of the dragon

Sunday, September 06, 2020

Sound Expertise

 My big accomplishment for the weekend - it is like a blast furnace here in Oakland, CA - has been a partial catch-up on musicologist Will Robin's new-ish podcast, Sound Expertise. He has so far hosted a varied roster of experts in many fields:

So far, I've heard Alex Ross discussing his forthcoming book, Wagnerism, which will be published on September 15; Micaela Baranello on the development of Silver Age Viennese operetta; and Jesse Rodin on Josquin and the music of the long 15th century. I started with these three because I am somewhat acquainted with each. I could honestly listen to them all for hours, and Jesse Rodin's interview reminded me strongly of an alternate timeline for my life, the one where I wound up a scholar of Renaissance music.

On to the other podcasts!

(The links above are all live, but the interview with George Lewis is on the podcast's home page, so it will eventually move to a more specific URL.)

Friday, September 04, 2020

Janos Gereben: SF Opera "Family" Feels Bereft

Found on Twitter the other day

Guest post by journalist Janos Gereben on what's going on at San Francisco Opera right now with regard to the Opera Orchestra and Chorus. The $44 million reduction in budget from $72.5 million is strange, considering that the only remaining performances for the season are the concerts by Lianna Haroutounian and Irene Theorin, Der Zwerg, and The Barber of Seville. If Matthew Shilvock is truly trying to get the orchestra (and chorus? which has been shrinking in size over the last few years) to accept an 80% pay cut....that's very bad. Between income collected for the season, donations, and the endowment, it should be possible to pay the musicians more, a lot more, than 20% of their salaries. Herewith Janos:

SF Opera "Family" Feels Bereft

by Janos Gereben

San Francisco Opera continues to deal with the impact of COVID-19 closures, and the picture is clouded by lack of information and delays in decisions. 

Now, already in the sixth month of the pandemic, SF Opera is among the few large music organizations in the world without measures taken and announced about ongoing compensation for the orchestra and chorus. 

Back in June, when the fall season was canceled, I asked SFO General  Director Matthew Shilvock about the lack of specifics in the announcement about salaries, contracts, and staff cutbacks, and his response was “All that is being discussed in conversations that begin now.” He did not offer a timeframe for when that information will become available, and there was a reasonable assumption that months later progress would be made. 

(It was also in June that SF Symphony announced season cancelation and, at the same time, reached agreement with orchestra musicians, SFS Chorus singers, and stagehands in a "shared sacrifice" program for salary reductions averaging 25%, granting full continuation of healthcare and insurance benefits.)

Instead of news of a settlement at the Opera, I received a message from a donor recently: "Mr. Shilvock appears to be playing hardball with the orchestra musicians, demanding steep and long-term salary cuts. I support both West Edge and SF Opera, and I can’t help but notice that West Edge, with meager assets, managed to pay everyone 2/3rd of their committed salaries, while SF Opera, with 1/4 BILLION in assets, is squeezing the musicians -  negotiations are ongoing but I hear Mr. Shilvock wants to pay only 20%!"

Musicians confirmed that they are still waiting to find out about a plan for compensation, one of them saying "It seems they are not negotiating in good faith. We all thought we were a family. There are no plans."

There have been flashpoints elsewhere between artists and management trying to deal with the pandemic, most notably at the Metropolitan Opera and Kennedy Center with its artistic affiliate of the National Symphony Orchestra, both initially seeking to furlough without compensation (the Center doing this immediately after receiving a $25 million emergency grant), but in short order settlements have been reached. SF Opera seems to be one of the few outliers in dealing promptly with urgent need.

The donor's reference to SF Opera assets is correct, even somewhat understated: Total assets at the end of fiscal year 2019 were $273 million, according to a previous statement by SF Opera Chief Financial Officer Michael Simpson, with total operating expenses of $78.6 million, and operating deficit of  $650,000.

(Merola Opera Program's separate finances show $31 million in total assets, according to the most recent available fiscal statement, Merola had $5.2 million in revenue, $3.3 in expenses last year.) 

After last year's drastic personnel cuts, expected to yield $6 million in savings, SF Opera had a pre-pandemic budget of $72.5 million (down from $78.6 million with expectation of the $6 million savings). But as of August, according to Shilvock at a Zoom Town Hall meeting, the operating budget has been revised to $44 million - an unprecedented change reflecting a unique situation. Significantly, there is no reference to the cost of ongoing compensation in any of these reports. 


It was before the pandemic that the Administration considered use of endowment funds, the last fiscal report stating:


"In the event that an unplanned use of cash is required, the Association has unrestricted Board designated endowment funds available in the amount of $15,660,174 at July 31, 2019. 

"During the year ended July 31, 2019, the Association transferred $6 million from long-term investment to operating cash to offset an accumulated cash deficit. "

How any of this is in play after five months of uncertainty, nobody knows in what musicians once considered a "family."


Friday Photo

Mosaic, Michelin Building
London, November, 2019


Wednesday, September 02, 2020

40th Anniversary Celebration?!


Davies Symphony Hall, SF
Photo by me

Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall is turning 40, and San Francisco Symphony sent out an email celebrating it, which, honestly, has my head on the table. I'm really not sure whether to laugh or cry.

Davies is....not a great hall. There've been one or two renovations trying to fix its acoustical problems; get a big orchestra on stage, which happens a lot, and the sound gets pretty congested. There's no restaurant and the refreshments aren't too varied. It sits on a half-story plinth, meaning that at street level, it presents an unfriendly blank face to the world. This photo shows the problem:

Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall
Uncredited photo received in patron email from SFS

The ticketing area is small and crowded and has an amazingly low ceiling; it has always felt rather mean to me. The staircase to the main lobby is too damn small; there are two sets of elevators and they don't feel like enough

The email floats the local joke about Lake Louise, the basement-level parking lot used by the musicians, music director, and various administrative folks, as follows:
The sunken parking lot on Franklin Street was originally planned to be a recital hall. The space is now affectionately known by Symphony musicians and staff as “Lake Louise” due to its propensity for flooding. 
This is not good publicity. The question you want answered is: why was the recital hall never built? I assume it's got something to do with money; once the hall was built, funds didn't exist or couldn't be raised for a recital hall, or it was decided that Herbst Theater, which is on the other side of the Opera House, was sufficient. I'll note that San Francisco Performances uses Herbst, St. Mark's Lutheran, and occasionally, I think, SF Jazz, so maybe, just maybe, there is sufficient demand for a recital hall in addition to Herbst.

I've also gotta note that our incoming music director used to conduct home concerts at one of the world's great concert halls, acoustically and architecturally, a hall that was built during his tenure as music director of the LA Phil. Please, Mr. Salonen, can you get a Gehry/Toyota concert hall built here?

Walt Disney Concert Hall
Los Angeles, CA
Photo by me

Previously: Real Estate Matters, or, A Tale of Two Concert Halls

Met Streaming This Week

Lincoln Center Fountain
Photo by me

 It's 20th c. week at the Metropolitan Opera. It's not too late for you to see these HD broadcasts free (apologies for missing Monday's Elektra, which I saw live and which was terrific):

Tuesday, September 1: Peter Grimes (Britten); Anthony Dean Griffey in a shattering performance of the title role; Patricia Racette in beautiful voice as Ellen Orford; Anthony Michaels-Moore as Balstrode. (Michaels-Moore is excellent here, which made me want to revisit what seemed not-great appearances in SF in Italian roles). Donald Runnicles conducts.

Wednesday, September 2: Nixon in China (Adams); James Maddalena, who created the title role; Russell Braun; Katherine Kim; Robert Brubaker; Janis Kelly; Richard Paul Fink. JCA conducts. Production by Peter Sellars recreating the 1987 original.

Thursday, September 3: Lulu (Berg);  Marlis Petersen, Susan Graham, Daniel Brenna, Paul Groves, Johan Reuter, and Franz Grundheber, conducted by Lothar Koenigs. 

Friday, September 4 & Saturday, September 5: Porgy & Bess (The Gershwins); Angel Blue, Golda Schultz, Latonia Moore, Denyce Graves, Frederick Ballentine, Eric Owens, Alfred Walker, and Donovan Singletary, conducted by David Robertson. 

Sunday, September 6: The Tempest (Adès):  Audrey Luna, Isabel Leonard, Iestyn Davies, Alek Shrader, Alan Oke, William Burden, Toby Spence, and Simon Keenlyside, conducted by Thomas Adès.