Monday, December 27, 2021

Museum Mondays

Designed by Edward William Godwin, around 1876
Art Institute of Chicago
March, 2019


Saturday, December 25, 2021

Anthony Tommasini Steps Down

I was not planning to comment on a matter of note over at the NY Times, which is that Anthony Tommasini is stepping down as chief classical music critic and also retiring from the paper at the end of this year. I've said plenty about him and his opinions over the years, and I've just tagged every post that mentions him with "Tommasini." Just click that for more than you might want to read of my opinions of his opinions.

However, an interview at NPR and what I take to be his valedictory column at the Times really do need some kind of public comment. On Twitter, composer Judd Greenstein had a few things to say about the Times column, and I agree with everything he says. A number of other folks chimed in and by and large I agree with them.

I will further note that I find Tommasini's uncritical commentary on conservatories appalling. Conservatories are bastions of The Canon; they are there to school young musicians in "the core repertory"; they preserve a focus on technical ability; they are lineage-driven; they are very white and European in focus; they also train many many more musicians than there are jobs for. They're extremely problematic and conservative institutions, and yet for so many they're the only way into the classical music field as a performer.

About the NPR interview: first, you need to know that Tommasini published a book a few years ago called The Indispensable Composers. It's a brick-sized book discussing the lives and music of composers that Tommasini considers, well, indispensable. I will say that I haven't read it, because I prefer to read more specialist-oriented material about composers and music. This is most assuredly a work for general readers, for people who are just starting out with "classical music" or who are casual symphony attendees. I am not the audience.

Some years ago, Tommasini had a Times article that tried to poll people about the "greatest composers," and he imposed limitations I thought were a particular type of pandering and also bad choices from the chief classical critic of such a widely-read paper: he really did not want to consider any composers born before J.S. Bach and G. F. Handel, that is, 1685. For the book, he did let Monteverdi creep in, but he left out, well, an awful lot of important composers and their music. You can see the table of contents for the book here. (If you're guessing that it's all dead white European guys, well, you're right. And it's a very predictable group. Is Robert Schumann really more indispensable than Janacek? Is Puccini? How can you even decide?)

Anyway, here's what jumped out at me in the print version of the NPR interview. The interviewer and Tommasini are discussing his book:

Q: But then why not put two or three more modern composers?

A: In this crucial opening chapter, I said that the thing I love about contemporary music is that for a moment you hear this new piece and you don't think about where it's going to fit in the pantheon. You're just excited. Will literary historians look back and say, "What was the big deal about John Irving? We don't get it. Why were his books so popular?" But they're good reads and people love them, and he's a good writer. But, is he in the pantheon? So I'm eliminating composers of the last 50 or 70 years. We're just too close to them. And that's another book. And I'd like to write a book on the music of the last hundred years.

I cannot tell you just how bad I think this is. It's nice that he's going to get another book out of this, but what you're reading is the chief classical music critic of the NY Times refusing to take a critical stance on composers active since the end of the World War II.  This is a truly appalling act of critical timidity: our job as critics is to say what we think and why, not make excuses about why we can't render judgment.

Let me put it one way: Can you imagine a critic in 1920 being unwilling to make claims for the greatness of Johannes Brahms, who died in 1897 and had been active as a composer in the 50 to 70 years before 1920? Fortunately, the anonymous author of Brahms's obituary in the Times didn't hesitate to go out on a limb and say that he'd be taking his place among the titans of music.

And I'll put it another way, by listing some of the composers Tommasini isn't willing to place in our, or his, pantheon: Shostakovich, Britten, Cage, Boulez, Carter, Messiaen, Ligeti, Stockhausen, Kurtag, Dutilleux, Glass, Reich, Adams, Saariaho, Harrison, Walker, Berio, Feldman, Crumb, Rautavaara, Penderecki, and more.

He must have opinions about these composers. It's a real failure of critical nerve when the chief classical music critic of the Times thinks he's too close to the composers of the last 50 to 70 years to express those opinions in public.

Monday, December 20, 2021

Museum Mondays

Ad Astra
Oil painting by Akseli Gallen-Kallela
Art Institute of Chicago, 2019


Monday, December 13, 2021

Museum Mondays

Detail of an arca (Roman strongbox)
Palace of the Legion of Honor, SF
Last Dinner at Pompeii
August, 2021


Saturday, December 11, 2021

If You're a Fan of Christmas Albums....

I am, and I also love lute music. So a Christmas album with everything performed on lute and viol - what's not to love? Who knew that the "Carol of the Bells" could play counterpoint to "God rest ye merry, gentlemen" - and also to the 15th c. hit "L'homme armé"? 


It's a lovely recording! More details:

New York, NY – Viola da gambist Carolyn Surrick and lutenist Ronn McFarlane have released a new holiday album, A Star in the East, featuring reimagined traditional Christmas favorites alongside new works by both McFarlane and Surrick. Surrick is well-known for her fifteen recordings with the group she founded in 1998, Ensemble Galilei. McFarlane, nominated for a Grammy in 2009, is the founder of Ayreheart and a founding member of the Baltimore Consort. In November 2020, the duo released their well-received first album together, Fermi’s Paradox, created and recorded during the Covid-19 pandemic when both performers’ usually busy concert schedules were cancelled. On that album and this new recording, Surrick and McFarlane weave a tapestry of music ranging from 15th Century Europe to 21st Century America, seamlessly held together by the timelessness of their instruments and their extraordinary musicianship.

Surrick and McFarlane have released a new video for Carol of the Bells which is available now, and will release videos for A Star in the East (written by McFarlane, premiering December 10) and Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (premiering December 17) on McFarlane's YouTube Channel. The duo will also perform music from the album in two album release concerts at The Barn House in Annapolis, MD on December 10 and 11 as well as in Baltimore, MD on December 12. For more information, see: 

For A Star in the East, Surrick and McFarlane have assembled a program that honors and celebrates everything that Christmas can be, and the unexpected ways that it has been transformed. The album includes Ronn McFarlane’s A Star in the East, along with his Early Christmas Morning and Grinch on the Run; Carolyn Surrick’s Mizzie Mine; Bach’s Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light; Barber’s Sure on this Shining Night; and classics such as Carol of the BellsHave Yourself a Merry Little ChristmasGood King WenceslasO Come, O Come EmmanuelGreensleeves, and many more.

You can buy this album from various sellers.

Thursday, December 09, 2021

Belated Museum Mondays

Last Dinner at Pompeii
Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco
August, 2021
This should have run on December 6, 2021.


Belated Friday Photo


Signage, San Francisco
December, 2021
This should have been published on December 3, 2021.

Belated Museum Mondays

Men eviscerating a calf or fawn
Last Dinner at Pompeii
Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco
August, 2021
This should have run on November 29, 2021.


Tuesday, December 07, 2021

John Keene to San Francisco Opera

War Memorial Opera House
Photo by Lisa Hirsch

San Francisco Opera announced today that John Keene, currently of Seattle Opera, will be the company's next Chorus Director, following Ian Robertson, who is retiring at the end of this year. Here's the top of the press release:

SAN FRANCISCO, CA (December 7, 2021) — San Francisco Opera today announced the appointment of John Keene as Chorus Director, effective January 2022. Keene succeeds Ian Robertson who will retire at the end of this year following a distinguished 35-year tenure.


Keene will be responsible for the preparation and artistic standard of the acclaimed San Francisco Opera Chorus, working closely with Caroline H. Hume Music Director Eun Sun Kim, guest conductors and music staff to achieve the Company’s artistic goals. His appointment comes after a search process led by Tad and Dianne Taube General Director Matthew Shilvock, Artistic Managing Director Gregory Henkel and Eun Sun Kim, which included rehearsal sessions with the Opera Chorus. 


Keene, who is currently Head of Music Staff and Chorus Master at Seattle Opera, will work remotely starting in January before relocating to the Bay Area to begin rehearsals for the Company’s summer season productions of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Bright Sheng and David Henry Hwang’s Dream of the Red Chamber and a Verdi concert led by Eun Sun Kim. He will also begin preparing the Opera Chorus for the Company’s upcoming 2022-23 Centennial Season.

The balance of the press release includes many accolades from those who've worked with him. You can read it here.


Shawna Lucey to Opera San José

Congratulations to Shawna Lucey, who has just been named General Director and CEO of Opera San José! Here's the email I received from the company:

After conducting an extensive national search, we could not be more delighted in welcoming Shawna Lucey to launch our next chapter at Opera San José. 
When we began this process five months ago, we knew we were looking for a charismatic leader whose passion and vision would help us continue to grow and expand upon the incredible work and programs OSJ has to offer. Shawna more than fits the bill — her experience directing productions at America’s leading opera houses, her passion for infusing new resonance into classics, and her crystalline view of vibrant contemporary works will be enormous assets, propelling our company into a thrilling future.

Shawna will assume the role of General Director and CEO in January 2022 and we look forward to giving her a heartfelt welcome to San Jose! 

The company's previous director, Khori Dastoor, was appointed GM of Houston Grand Opera.


Friday, December 03, 2021

Stephen Sondheim

Georges Seurat
A Sunday on La Grande Jatte

Stephen Sondheim, the greatest composer/lyricist in American musical theater in my lifetime, and surely several lifetimes, died last week at age 91. The NY Times interviewed him a few days before, and other than a limping around on a sprained ankle, he seemed fine to the reporter. He went to Thanksgiving dinner at the home of friends, and died unexpected, early the next morning. He was not known to be in ill health. It's as good a way to go as any, save that he was working on a show and presumably we won't get to see that. If any of the songs are finished, whether we hear them will depend on his musical/literary executor and the terms of his will.

I learned one thing about him that I didn't know: he answered fan mail, whether you were a theater pro or a 12-year-old, and he was kind and respectful to everyone. He thanked people for sending him DVDs of their local production of one of his shows, he encouraged aspiring singers, songwriters, and playwrights, he was enthusiastic, he was appreciative of people's compliments.

I never sent him fan mail and I never met him, but I did love those shows of his that I have seen, and I can reasonably expect to love a bunch of the shows I barely know and haven't yet seen. I really cannot believe that I have missed two local productions of Sunday in the Park with George.

If you know my sense of humor, you can imagine how much I love Sweeney Todd and Assassins. The latter is a show that seems have come into its own, and rightfully so, many years after its creation. If you're in, near, or heading for NYC, you can see a production of it right now, in fact. Here's "A Little Priest" from Sweeney:

Many years ago, I played flute in the orchestra of a regional theater production of A Little Night Music, which has a wonderful score all around, beyond Sondheim's single greatest hit. Much of it is in some kind of triple or compound meter, a sly trick pulling the score together. Here's "A Weekend in the Country," which comes at the end of the first act. It is very funny even if you don't know all of the backstory, of which there's a lot, and of course it has Sondheim's amazing lyrics and a fabulous musical drive:

I have some qualms about the plot of Night Music, which revolves around a middle-aged man with a young adult son whose second marriage, after being widowed, is to an 18-year-old. There's a lot more plot than that and things work out reasonably well for all involved. It's a real shame that the film isn't that good and (sigh) the role of Desiree Armfeldt went to Elizabeth Taylor rather than Glynis Johns, who created the character. Oh, well.

He had a great life in the theater and a long life. If you're considering his accomplishments, keep in mind that while he had a lousy family life (his mother sounds like a real monster), his family seems to have been comfortably off, and he spent a lot of time with the Hammersteins, yes, those Hammersteins. That would provide some advantages to a budding lyricist/composer, advantages that most don't have. Knowing that, it's good to know about his kindness toward others and that he was a decent man.

  • Tim Page, Washington Post
  • Bruce Weber, NY Times (This obit was updated on 12/2/21 to state that the cause of death was "cardiovascular disease," which I take to mean "heart attack.")
  • Tom Sutcliffe, The Guardian
  • Many more tributes and obits can be found with a web search. On Twitter, dozens of people posted photos of letters they'd received from him, and they are a delight to read.

Ticket Fees, Again

Davies Symphony Hall
Photo by Lisa Hirsch

Unbelievable: I am a subscriber to San Francisco Symphony (full orchestral sub for 2021-22). I donated during the cancelled pandemic season and this season. I called to swap my ticket to tonight's program for tomorrow....and was told that there would be a $12 fee to swap over the phone for my $40 subscription ticket. That's...more than 25%. I mentioned this and the patron services rep dropped the fee.

SFS, STOP DOING THIS. We can't all stroll to Davies for a free exchange at the box office. STOP PENALIZING TICKET BUYERS FOR WANTING OR NEEDING SOME FLEXIBILITY. The three minutes the exchange took - I looked for a desirable seat before I called - does not cost you $12. Remember that people with chronic illness or who are being treated for a serious acute illness could be among the most affected.

SFS's ticket exchanges policies are buried on an FAQ page, rather than posted on a separate page called, for example, "Ticket Purchase and Exchange Policies," which would be more helpful. Here are the (outrageous) policies:

Exchange Fees: 
  • Exchanges are free for subscribers who exchange in person or by mail.
  • Subscribers - $12 for each phone or fax exchange 
  • Non-subscribers - $20 for each exchange
  • Exchange requests for a higher-priced performance or section will be charged the difference.
  • Exchange requests for a lower-priced performance or section will be considered a donation or can be applied to additional ticket purchases in the same transaction. 
  • All other exchanges of discounted tickets require upgrading to a full-price ticket and paying the difference in price.

This is a great, great way, to DISCOURAGE exchanges, which might be the purpose! It's crap customer service, regardless. Unless you're going on a planned business trip or vacation, exchanging by mail is impractical. Exchanging in person is impractical unless you live or work close enough to Davies that it's convenient. (I don't; even taking Muni from my workplace would cost an hour in time plus two Muni fares, versus three minutes on the phone.)

By the way, I was not amused with the patron services rep telling me they'd had this policy for at least 15 years. SO WHAT? That doesn't make it a good policy.

Thursday, December 02, 2021

Alvin Lucier

The composer died this week at 91. He was a student at Brandeis long before me; nonetheless, we both studied with Arthur Berger and Harold Shapero - theory for me, composition for him.


Claire Chase Resumes Performances of the Density 2036 Project

Received from the amazing flutist / SFS collaborative partner Claire Chase:

I cant quite believe it, but after nearly two years of cancellations and postponements I am finally gearing up to play my first live solo show in New York! I would be so delighted if you could join me for this passage.


The eighth annual installation of the Density 2036 project is underway at The Kitchen, with world premieres of new works for flute and electronics by Ann Cleare, Wang Lu, and Matana Roberts. Each piece will be paired with a gorgeous new video work by Ailbhe Ní Bhriain, Polly Apfelbaum, and Matana Roberts. Ill play a tiny reprise from last yearDensity by Liza Lim at the opening of the program, and close with the old 1936 warhorse herself.


Im honored to be joined onstage by some superstar collaborators: my longtime partner-in-crime Levy Lorenzo, Wizard of All Things Sound; the percussion magician Susie IbarraSenem Pirler, an intermedia sound artist of astonishing range and sensitivity; and Nate Wooley,  the protean trumpet virtuoso. 


My dear and brilliant friend Ara Guzelimian will host the pre-concert talk with the composers before the opening night show. And I am grateful to be working with the literal dream-team of collaborators behind the scenes: Nick Houfek, production and lighting designer; Monica Duncan, projection designer; and Kelly Levy, stage manager extraordinaire.


Well do three performances: Thursday, Dec 9 at 8pm; Friday, Dec 10 at 8pm; Saturday, Dec 11 at 2pm. The Kitchen is selling tickets at 50% capacity to be COVID-safe, so theyll go fast. Herethe link.

Coming to San Francisco Symphony?

Esa-Pekka Salonen

Photo by Minna Hartinen, courtesy of San Francisco Symphony

When your music director is also a prominent composer, you keep an eye on his guest conducting engagements because he's been known to conduct his own music and works by other interesting prominent composers. I've been scouring Esa-Pekka Salonen's conducting schedule, and I found him conducting, at other orchestras, various works that I'd love to hear in San Francisco. Here's a little list of what he'll be conducting in the near future that isn't on this year's SFS schedule:
  • Salonen: Clarinet Concertino (World Premiere, Yle Commission)
  • Salonen: Fog (US premiere of orchestral version)
  • Muhly: Shrink (concerto for violin and strings); Pekka Kuusisto, violin, co-curator
  • Bjarnarson: Piano Concerto (world premiere, LA Phil commission)
  • Salonen: Karawane
  • Shaw: Entr’acte
  • Salonen: Gemini
  • Hillborg: Peacock Tales. Millennium version for saxophone and orchestra
We have an extraordinary principal clarinetist at SFS and I think that half of his solo appearances have been the Mozart clarinet concerto (the others were a Debussy work and the fabulous Nielsen concerto). So we can hope that Salonen's Concertino comes around on a future schedule.

Pekka Kuusisto is one of the Collaborative Partners, so, perhaps the Muhly is on its way as well. As might be any of these works! Think of this post as a parallel to my page on San Francisco Opera future seasons.


Personnel Changes at San Francisco Symphony


Davies Symphony Hall

Wow; a couple more big changes coming to San Francisco Symphony, with principal harpist Douglas Rioth and associate concertmaster Nadya Tichman stepping down, differently, from their respective posts. Here's the press release:


Principal Harp Douglas Rioth retires at end of 2021 calendar year

Associate Concertmaster Nadya Tichman continues her tenure with the San Francisco Symphony as revolving member of the 1st Violin section beginning in 2022–23 season

SAN FRANCISCO, CA—The San Francisco Symphony announces two upcoming changes to its orchestra roster. After forty years as Principal Harp of the San Francisco Symphony, Douglas Rioth will retire effective December 31, 2021. After thirty-one seasons as Associate Concertmaster, Nadya Tichman has decided to continue her tenure with San Francisco Symphony as a revolving member of the 1st Violin section beginning with the 2022–23 season.
Douglas Rioth joined the San Francisco Symphony as Principal Harp in 1981. Born in Missouri, he studied with Alice Chalifoux and Elisa Smith Dickon, attended the Interlochen Arts Academy and Cleveland Institute of Music, and studied at the Berkshire Music Center. Previously principal harp of the Indianapolis Symphony, Rioth was also a regular participant in the Salzedo Summer Harp Colony. Harp instructor at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, he also serves on the coaching team for the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. Learn more about Douglas Rioth.
Nadya Tichman, Associate Concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony, occupying the San Francisco Symphony Foundation Chair, joined the Orchestra in 1980. She served as acting Concertmaster from 1998 to 2001. Born in New York, she studied at the Juilliard School and the Curtis Institute of Music. Tichman has played Chamber Music at the Grand Teton and Olympic Music Festivals and with the Gualala Arts Festival and Music in the Vineyards. A champion of contemporary music, she has had pieces dedicated to her by composers Peter Schickele, Jim Lahti, and Allen Shearer. Tichman has appeared as soloist with the San Francisco Symphony on many occasions. Learn more about Nadya Tichman.
I don't really remember a time when these two weren't in their respective jobs and I have greatly enjoyed, admired, and respected their playing. I certainly understand deciding that it is time to stop, for many reasons, or to say that you'd like less responsibility. And it's part of the natural evolution of an orchestra for there to be personnel changes.

So, thanks to Rioth and Tichman for their many many contributions to SFS over the years, and best wishes for the future.