Friday, October 29, 2021

Friday Photo

Stained glass Michelin Man, aka Bibendum
Former Michelin Building, Chelsea, now a restaurant
London, November, 2019


Monday, October 25, 2021

Sunday, October 24, 2021

Sartorial Report, San Francisco Symphony Edition

Davies Symphony Hall
Photo by Lisa Hirsch

An issue that has come up fairly regularly over the last 20 years in discussions of western classical music's accessibility is what orchestral musicians wear on stage during performances. For many many years, the standard was black tails and white tie for men, long black for women, with some orchestras putting restrictions on what exactly "long black" means. (I understand from a FB post by violinist Holly Mulcahy that there are often restrictions about high heels, lace, length of long black (NO ANKLES), whether your forearms show, etc. "Nothing fashionable that you might want to wear" was part of what she said.) This uniformity of dress is intended primarily to focus attention on the music rather than on the musicians themselves. Conductors have always had somewhat more flexibility in dress (Nehru collars, for example) and soloists even more, although female soloists generally have had much more latitude than male soloists. See, for example, photos of Leila Josefowicz playing the violin in concert.

This style sets a particular standard of formality, which is potentially intimidating to people who aren't well-off, don't wear tails or tuxedos, are put off by the degree of formality, and so on. For a lot of people, this style of dress is also heavily coded white, notwithstanding traditions of very formal dress in some Black communities. The style also leads potential audience members to wonder whether they will be welcome if they dress informally. (The answer here is a resounding YES just about anywhere in the United States.)

This season, both San Francisco Symphony and the Philadelphia Orchestra have decided to go with a less formal style. At SFS, the men are wearing black jackets and black button-down shirts, tie optional; black shoes with black socks. The women are wearing long black, which can include a long dress; long skirt with black top; slacks with black blouse or shirt. I have seen heels of varying heights, varying degrees of low-cut-ness of blouses, varying degrees of forearm showing, lace at the neckline or wrist or forearm. 

I'm fine with this, to be honest; I'd be fine with practically anything on stage short of shorts and bathing suits. It'd be interesting to see what an orchestra would look like and how the audience would respond if everybody dressed like Josefowicz, but I'm certainly not holding my breath. I would be....surprised...if concertmaster Alexander Barantschik turned up in the male equivalent of Josefowicz's dresses, for example. That would be some distance from his artistic personality.

In any event, there were also some individual style changes since the pandemic.
  • Esa-Pekka Salonen has a short, stubbly beard. From where I'm sitting, I needed my binoculars to be sure of this.
  • Principal clarinetist Carey Bell's shoulder-length hair and goatee are back.
  • Principal bassonist Stephen Paulson now has wavy, shoulder-length, white hair and I keep wondering why associate concertmaster Nadya Tichman is sitting with the bassoons. (For pre-pandemic images of Paulson, look here.)

Belated Friday Photo

Visiting dog, our cat
July, 2021

Saturday, October 23, 2021

Dessner / Schubert / Beethoven at San Francisco Symphony

"Eternal Notes" for Dia de los Muertos
by Fernando Escartiz
Seen at Davies Hall on Friday, October 22, 2021.

This week, SFS presented the U.S. (and obviously local) premiere of Bryce Dessner's new violin concerto. Dessner is one of Esa-Pekka Salonen's collaborative partners, and so is the Finnish violinist Pekka Kuusisto, who played the solo part.

Holy cow! If this is the kind of thing that we can look forward to from the collaborative partners, wow wow and more wow. The piece itself is grand; it incorporates stylistic nods to vernacular fiddle music and to the western classical concerto tradition (three connected movements with a dramatic cadenza); it's very very colorful, to the point that I could not figure out how certain sonorities were produced; the solo part is wildly demanding.

Kuusisto, who looks like a highly animated owl on stage, played this thing flawlessly, as far as I could tell. He is a wonderful player! (And here I want to nod to Claire Chase, also a collaborative partner, who played Kaija Saariaho's flute concerto Aile du Songe splendidly last week. Would be something to see these two great musicians together.)

Joshua Kosman has a longer description of the violin concerto in his review, where said this about the Schubert 5th that occupied the second half of the program:
After intermission, though, Salonen and the orchestra offered a weirdly genteel and bloodless account of Schubert’s Fifth Symphony, all lace doilies and tiresome good manners. After the eruptive fervor of Dessner’s concerto, this landed as a limply ineffectual conclusion.
There are a bunch of things going on here. One is that the Schubert was on this program at all. It was not a particularly good choice to accompany the exciting, flamboyant, and colorful Dessner, to start with. 

It makes sense only because the orchestra has played a ton of music new to them, or rarely performed by them, in the last few weeks. The works new to SFS included the Dessner, Unsuk Chin's Graffiti, and Hannah Kendall's Tuxedo: Vasco ‘de’ Gama. The orchestra last played Messiaen's Oiseaux Exotiques in 2010. I have not checked out the works that appeared on opening weekend.

So they have spent a lot of time rehearsing this stuff, and there's only so much rehearsal time in a week. It's not a big surprise that a comparatively short, uncomplicated, and familiar work was programmed in there someplace -- although, of course, SFS has played Beethoven's 7th innumerable times and did a great job with it two weeks ago. And maybe there are other easy-to-rehearse works that would have gone better with the Dessner (I would enjoy hearing your candidates!).

I thought last night's Schubert okay, if not great. I found Salonen's interpretive choices mostly defensible. The scherzo was distinctly dull; it should have been faster and more mysterious. The whole work would have sounded better with a larger orchestra and gutsier conducting and playing, for sure. Maybe it was better than Thursday. But I'm pretty sure that in this case, the context contributed a lot to how Joshua reacted to it (and it could have been a lot worse on Thursday).

(Oh, yeah, the Beethoven was the third (thanks, Mike!) second Leonore overture, which opened the program. Best thing about it was the 10 second solo by Mark Inouye (I presume), from somewhere waaaaay up in the hall.)

Friday, October 22, 2021

Welcome News from the New York Philharmonic, MTT Edition

Michael Tilson Thomas
Photo by Brandon Patoc, courtesy of San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas will conduct his scheduled programs at the NY Philharmonic in early November. From their press release:




GIL SHAHAM To Perform BERG Violin Concerto


Program Also To Include

CRAWFORD SEEGER Andante for Strings

BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 3, Eroica


Alice Tully Hall, November 4, 5, and 7



Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas leads the New York Philharmonic in works by Crawford Seeger, Berg, and Beethoven, November 4, 5, and 7, 2021, at Alice Tully Hall. These performances mark Tilson Thomas’s first conducting appearances since undergoing brain surgery in July 2021. Tilson Thomas, who served as Music Director of the Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts from 1973 to 1977, last conducted the Orchestra in 2011. He said:

“Through these past difficult months, my love and appreciation of music has remained undiminished. The thought of sharing it with New York audiences gives me great joy.”

Tilson Thomas is joined in these concerts by frequent collaborator Gil Shaham, who performs as soloist in Berg’s Violin Concerto. In 1989 Tilson Thomas conducted Shaham’s breakthrough performances with the London Symphony Orchestra, in which the violinist replaced Itzhak Perlman. The two have bonded over and explored many works together throughout the years, including Berg’s Violin Concerto, which Tilson Thomas strongly encouraged the young Shaham to integrate into his repertoire. Their latest collaboration, a recording of this concerto with the San Francisco Symphony, was released by the SFS Media label in February 2021.

Again, best wishes to MTT for successful treatment and the best possible outcome.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Openings at San Francisco Symphony

Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall
Photo by Lisa Hirsch

You might recall that San Francisco Symphony had an unusual number of retirements last season and this, for reasons that surely include existing plans, the pandemic, and - who knows? - a new music director coming in. In addition, principal cellist Michael Grebanier died at 82 after a period of ill health. (See the links below for my previous comments on this.)

If you want to follow along with the audition process, the organization's audition page is public and always contains interesting information; I once tipped off a couple of people about a not-yet-announced retirement because I spotted a planned audition. The page is here. As you can see, the preliminary and semi-final rounds of the principal flute and principal cello auditions have been held, with the final rounds coming soon. 

Watch for guest artists in those chairs, because typically the final candidates get a week of playing with the orchestra to see how they work with Salonen, members of their section, the concertmaster, etc. And how they sound with the orchestra. (Noting that there have been guests in the first flute chair at the last two concerts - I believe different flutists - but I do not know whether they are regular guests or auditioning. Ya gotta have flutes in the flute section, after all. But I did not see anyone unfamiliar playing first cello, because Peter Wyrick and Amos Yang are both fully able to fill that seat.)



Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Media Round-up: Fidelio, San Francisco Opera

Soloman Howard as Don Fernando, James Creswell as Rocco, Anne-Marie MacIntosh as Marzelline, Elza van den Heever as Leonore, Russell Thomas as Florestan in Beethoven's "Fidelio."

Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera 

I was pretty darned happy with this production, which was so so much better in every way than the poor showing the company made back in 2005. 

Tuesday, October 19, 2021

Coming Up at San Francisco Opera

War Memorial Opera House
Photo by Lisa Hirsch, 2015

Joshua Kosman chatted with San Francisco Opera music director Eun Sun Kim the other week, and she revealed some future plans for the company:

Part of the problem, she says, is that there are only eight productions each season — and she is eager to conduct everything. For the time being, though, Kim has settled on a plan to conduct one Verdi and one Wagner opera each season, as well as cultivating the contemporary repertoire.

“The reason I picked Verdi among the Italian repertoire — not Puccini, but Verdi; I love every composer — is because Verdi is something I can build my relationship with the orchestra with,” she explained.

“The same thing with Wagner. I want to go through ‘Tristan,’ through the early operas, and through ‘Parsifal,’ so that when we get to ‘The Ring’ Cycle in five or six years I can do it with my orchestra, where even if I don’t say anything, they understand what I want.”

So: currently, they're planning to continue with eight productions annually. Boo, hiss: I had hoped that one of the goals of the centennial season fundraising would be a return to nine- or ten-opera seasons. Isn't there a big donor who'd like to be associated with this?

But it's good to know that there's some Wagner in the future. In addition to the Ring, done in 2011 and 2018, here's what we've had in this century:

  • Die Fliegende Holländer, 2004-05 and 2013-14
  • Die Meistersinger, 2001-02 and 2015-16
  • Parsifal, 1999-2000
  • Lohengrin, 2012-13
  • Tristan und Isolde, 2006-07
  • Tannhaüser, 2007-08
That's a little thin on the ground, except in the context of the shrinking number of productions each season. Certainly the change of music directors in 2009 had something to do with this; of the above, former MD Nicola Luisotti conducted only Lohengin. Mark Elder conducted the second Meistersinger and Patrick Summers conducted the second Dutchman. Donald Runnicles conducted the rest, including the two bring-ups of the Ring.

It's interesting that there's a plan for another Ring in five or six years. I am contemplating the current ages of the available singers for certain roles in the work and betting that some of those who sang in 2018 won't be returning. I'll guess that the Zambello production will get another outing, because it's a lot cheaper to use an existing production than go through creating a new one.

As for the Verdi, if I had my druthers, we'd get I Vespri Siciliani / Les vêpres siciliennes, the only middle or late Verdi opera that I have never seen. Beyond that, maybe one of the early rarities; I would love to see a staged Il Corsaro, which does come with colonialist / Orientalist problems, it's true. Maybe a convincing Otello?

Monday, October 18, 2021

Museum Mondays

Half-sized replica of a statue of Asklepios
Palace of the Legion of Honor
August, 2021


Saturday, October 16, 2021

Salonen's Beethoven 7

Davies Symphony Hall
Photo by Lisa Hirsch

Last week, I tweeted that Esa-Pekka Salonen's Beethoven 7th Symphony was the best I'd ever heard, and also that I'd blog about the two reasons for this. I guess there might be more than two reasons, now that I think of it. Here they are:

1. Judicious tempo choices. That last movement can be completely exhausting when it's taken at a manic pace, which I've heard at least once. But each of Salonen's tempo choices made sense for that movement and in relation to the tempos of the other movements.

2. Dynamics within phrases. This was particularly apparent in how Salonen shaped the second movement. I took a look at the score, and there were a ton of small dynamic inflections in the performance that aren't in, but might be implied by, the score.

3. A concept of the structure of each movement that made sense at some deep level. I know that this is very very handwavy, but without hearing the performance again, preferably a couple of times and maybe with a score open, I can't get very much more specific about this. I will say that somehow every phrase made sense within the structure of each movement; there was something organic about his conception of the piece and each movement as a whole. I'm reminded of how Herbert Blomstedt took the Schubert Great C Major and made me love it. That's an hour-long piece that other conductors turn into a 90-minute piece, but Blomstedt turned it into a half-hour piece. Time: it's relative!

I should also note that there were some moments during this piece when from my seat in Row S the orchestra sounded too darned loud. I'm not sure why this was. Are my ears more sensitive after lockdown? Is Salonen still taking the measure of the hall and its weirdnesses? Did anyone else notice this?

[Context: the 7th is...oh, my next-to-least-fav of the symphonies.]

Friday, October 15, 2021

San Francisco Opera: Livestreams and the Return of OperaVision

Interior of the War Memorial Opera House
December, 2019

Back in May, 2019, a letter from Matthew Shilvock, general director of San Francisco Opera, to some subscribers included this:

Knowing that you are a subscriber who attends OperaVision-supported performances in the Balcony of the Opera House, it is with great sadness that I share, while we will have OperaVision this June, we will cease this service going forward.

The equipment was past its useful life and would be very expensive to replace, therefore, etc.

So imagine my surprise when I opened an email from SFO the other day and noticed this:

Please note the following performances of Fidelio will have OperaVision in the Balcony: October 14, 17, and 20.

I couldn't recall a press release about this, so I made inquiries, and Jeff McMillan of the company's communications department told me this:

As we announced in May 2019 when San Francisco Opera had to curtail OperaVision, the Media Suite was in need of critical capital upgrades that we were not in a position to make at the time.

During the pandemic, the Company received a generous gift from Dianne and Tad Taube, long-time champions of San Francisco Opera’s innovative work. That gift allowed for the replacement of much of the internal workings of our Media Suite, bringing it up to a contemporary level of operation, and ensuring the stability needed to provide such offerings as the Livestreams. With the advent of Livestreams, we have the chance to bring OperaVision back for select performances. 

This is good news all around. OperaVision sells tickets; there are folks who buy their balcony seats specifically for OperaVision dates. I myself was initially skeptical, but the direction of the OperaVision streaming has ranged from good to superb; the 2017 Elektra was especially great. And the investment in the Media Suite has made livestreams of SFO's productions possible. If you want to see the Fidelio livestream, there's information here. Note that they are really and truly live, taking place during the live performance. They can't be streamed after the fact, only in real time.

Big thanks to Dianne and Tad Taube for making this possible.


Friday Photo

Photo of the front page of The NY Times, May 24, 2020, with headline "U.S. Deaths Near 100,000, An Incalculable Loss"

Front Page of The NY Times
May 24, 2020
It didn't have to be this way, and now, 18 months later, we're at 700,000 deaths. 
At this point, 95% or more of deaths are among the unvaccinated.

Monday, October 11, 2021

Museum Mondays

Roman strongbox (arca)
Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco
August, 2021


Wednesday, October 06, 2021

Visa Issues

Big sigh over visa issues at the NY Phil....

Alessio Bax To Make His New York Philharmonic Debut Replacing 
Leif Ove Andsnes in Works by Clara and Robert Schumann
October 14–16, 2021, at the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center

Pianist Alessio Bax
Photo credit: Marco Borggreve


Pianist Alessio Bax will replace Leif Ove Andsnes, who is unable to enter the United States due to visa issues. Bax will make his debut with the New York Philharmonic in these performances led by Music Director Jaap van Zweden, October 14–16, 2021. The program — featuring Clara Schumann’s Romance in A minor for solo piano, Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto, and Brahms’s Serenade No. 2 — is unchanged. 

and at the Boston Symphony:


 [Christina and Michelle Naughton]With great disappointment, Dutch pianists Lucas and Arthur Jussen have had to withdraw from their BSO performances, October 7, 8, 9, and 12, at Symphony Hall, due to unprecedented delays in the issuing of their travel visas

The program will remain the same with the Philadelphia-based Naughton sisters, Christina and Michelle, making their BSO debuts performing Mozart’s Concerto in E-flat for Two Pianos, K.365. The opening two works on the program are Strauss’s Love Scene from Feuersnot and Death and Transfiguration.

Tuesday, October 05, 2021

Rolling My Eyes, part 285

Found in The NY Times:

On Monday, for the first time in its 138-year history and as it returned from an 18-month closure, the Metropolitan Opera presented a work by a Black composer: Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.” By opening the season with this work, the Met filled a gaping hole in its repertory at a time when the performing arts are rightfully being challenged to become more diverse. 

Here are all of the operas that the Metropolitan Opera has performed that weren't written by white men:

  • Der Wald, Ethel Smyth (2 performances)
  • L'Amour de Loin, Kaija Saariaho (8 performances)
  • The First Emperor, Tan Dun (12 performances)
  • Fire Shut Up in My Bones, by Terence Blanchard (7 performances)
That's 29 performances, total, of four operas. For contrast, looking at the Met's repertory report, La Boheme has gotten a total of 1344 performances, Aida 1175, and, scrolling way down past dozens of works, La Damnation de Faust and Der Freischütz have each gotten 30.

Staging Fire Shut Up in My Bones isn't filling a gaping hole. It is going to take years to do much about those gaping holes.

Museum Mondays (Belated Edition)

Last Supper at Pompeii
Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco
August, 2021