Friday, April 29, 2022

There's Runnicles.

Sir Donald Runnicles
Photo by Simon Pauly
Courtesy of San Francisco Opera

A couple of performances to be found on line, conducted by Sir Donald Runnicles, former music director of San Francisco Opera, currently music director of the Deutsch Oper Berlin:
  • Die Walküre, Act I, video, from DOB. Herheim's new production, with Brandon Jovanovich, Elisabeth Teige, Tobias Kehrer
  • Elektra, audio, from Lyric Opera of Chicago. Nina Stemme, Elza van den Heever, Michaela Martens, Iain Paterson, Robert Brubaker.

Friday Photo

Photo of roofs at rooftop level with the pointed top of t he Swiss Re tower (The Gherkin, 30 St Mary Axe), London, in the background

Lurking Gherkin
aka 30 St. Mary Axe, London
May, 2014


Monday, April 25, 2022

Gustavo Dudamel at SFS

Well, that was disappointing, and in some ways also dismaying: the widely-praised music director of a major symphony orchestra, who is also the incoming music director of a major opera company, going rather badly wrong with both Mozart and Mahler. As Joshua Kosman says, everything he did must have been a deliberate choice of some kind; to my ear, on some level Dudamel really doesn't have an organic feel for what Mahler requires. Not that Mozart is easy to conduct; quite the contrary!

Something that neither of us mentioned: he conducted both works from memory. That's...extremely impressive, given the length and complexity of the Mahler.

I had not heard Dudamel live before; the conductors I've heard at the LA Phil in the past were John Adams (conducting Nixon in China), Susanna Mälkki, Pierre Boulez, and, of course, Esa-Pekka Salonen. If you've heard Dudamel on a regular basis, please leave comments about repertory that you've liked him in.

Previously, as in twelve years ago, with thanks to Michael Strickland for pointing me to his blog post:

File under "some things never change."

Museum Mondays

Grassy moat with striped tents, wall of the Tower of London, two of the Tower guards in black uniforms trimmed with red.

Tower of London Moat
May, 2014


Thursday, April 21, 2022

Radu Lupu

The Romanian-born pianist Radu Lupu died earlier this week at 76, on the same day as pianist Nicholas Angelich and Harrison Birtwistle. Lupu retired in 2019, and from the obituaries, I assume the cause was ongoing ill health.

His death has brought forth quite a few admiring memorials; see, for example, David Allen's NY Times obit ("Radu Lupu, a pianist of rare refinement whose ruminative, enigmatic performances and recordings wove spells over his listeners, induced awe among his colleagues and confirmed him as one of the finest musicians ever to have graced his instrument,") and Alex Ross's economium ("For me, Lupu was the supreme living practitioner of his instrument, a musician and artist of the highest order").

My experience of the pianist was rather different. I saw him twice, and while I can agree with ruminative and enigmatic as reasonable descriptions of what I heard, the overall effect was not one of weaving a spell. It was more like putting me to sleep. I remember being extremely puzzled by Lupu's rendition of a Mozart piano concerto at San Francisco Symphony; here's Joshua Kosman's review, in which his judgment was much like mine.

A few years later, I caught a Cincinnati Symphony at Carnegie Hall, a program on which Lupu played Bartók's third piano concerto, which would seem to be the most congenial to his style. Reader, Bartók should never bore you, but this did. Hell, Mozart certainly shouldn't bore you. (Also on the Cincinnati program was the marvelous Lutoslawski Concerto for Orchestra.) Here's Allan Kozinn's NY Times review. Related, because of Lupu's handling of Janáček and Bartók on a solo recital, Allan Ulrich's review.

I own that I should check out Lupu's Schubert, available on record, and perhaps another composer or two, but I can't say that I love the late Brahms that has gotten lots of links this week. Let's just say that I prefer more muscular and propulsive playing.....for just about every composer.

Monday, April 18, 2022

Harrison Birtwistle

Blurry photo of a stage with a group of people taking bows, including baritone Roderick Williams, composer Harrison Birtwistle, and conductor Baldur Brönnimann.

Claire Booth (Hanna), Roderick Williams (Alan), Harrison Birtwistle (composer), Baldur Brönnimann (conductor), Omar Ebrahim  (Caleb Raven)
Curtain calls for Yan Tan Tethera
Barbican Hall, London, May, 2014
Birtwistle at 80

Well, damn. Harrison Birtwistle died this morning, age 87, and another giant passes from the music scene.

His music isn't performed often in the United States. To give you an idea, the NY Philharmonic performed six of his works in six seasons between 1974-75 and 2007-08; the BSO performed 14 works between 1970-71 and 2017-18. A number of those were at Tanglewood. The only music director of those orchestras to have conducted a Birtwistle work was (bet you can guess) Pierre Boulez. Christoph von Dohnanyi led Birtwistle works at both orchestras.

I've managed to see three of his operas and an assortment of his chamber works, but it's mostly been on visits to London. The Eco Ensemble performed Secret Theatre a few years back and that's it for local performances that I've seen. 

In 2014, there was a festival in honor of his 80th birthday, where I saw Earth Dances (LSO), the operas Gawain and Yan Tan Tethera, both semi-staged, and Oliver Knussen conducting the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group in chamber music (link is to Mark Berry's review). In my last trip before the pandemic, I caught the ENO's Orpheus series, which included The Mask of Orpheus (link is to my review of the series).

Several years ago, I asked one of Birtwistle's publishers about U.S. performances of his operas, and they had never rented any of his opera scores for an American performance. Birtwistle was one of today's great opera composers, and I am sure that Gawain, Yan Tan Tethera, and The Minotaur could all be successfully produced here. I'm surprised that more choruses haven't taken up his Moth Requiem, a lament for vanishing species; it is extremely beautiful, scored for a women's chorus, harp, and flute. Yan Tan Tethera is an ideal Birtwistle gateway work; it is a charming story involving the right way to count sheep and an encounter with the devil. There's also a chorus of sheep! Gawain is a most serious and powerful work, based on the medieval poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.

Birtwistle was a member of the so-called Manchester school, which also included the late Peter Maxwell Davies and Alexander Goehr, still living at 90 - a varied group! His music is complex, uncompromising, often outrageously loud, and well worth getting to know.

I spotted him across a courtyard on the Festspielhaus grounds during Götterdämmerung at the 2015 Bayreuth Festival, and at the next interval, I was able to get his autograph. Time to find that notebook and finally get it framed.

RIP Sir Harrison Birtwistle, one of the greats.

Obituaries and other useful links:


Museum Mondays

Architectural frieze
Villa Stuck, Munich
August, 2015


Friday, April 15, 2022

Monday, April 11, 2022

Museum Mondays

Interior of a railroad mail car
Museum of Science & Industry
Chicago, IL
November, 2016


Sunday, April 10, 2022

Met HD: Don Carlos

The other week, I went to the encore of the Met Opera HD broadcast of Don Carlos, which was heroically sung and acted on one of the ugliest and most awful sets that I have ever seen. San Francisco Opera has had a mediocre production of the opera for about the last quarter century, but I'll tell you, I longed for it throughout the evening. I'm now having second thoughts about visiting Chicago for Lyric Opera's bring-up in September, because they are using the same damn production.  Chicago is using an older McVicar with sets by Richard Jones, whew. (My 2016 review includes some representative photos of the SFO production, and so does my blog post.)

I have questions for David McVicar! Was he inspired by his own production of Les Troyens, which makes effective use (mostly) of a unit set? See the (not very good) photo in Janos Gereben's 2015 review.

Or maybe he was inspired by the Hall of Faces in the House of Black and White in season 5 of HBO's Game of Thrones?

Regardless, it's amazing to me that no one said to him "This is too ugly to put on our stage! Are you out of your mind???"

Conversely, his direction of the singers was mostly very good: character movement on stage made sense and their interactions were well-motivated. Best of all might have been Matthew Polenzani's Carlos, who disintegrated slowly over the course of the opera, with Etienne Dupuis's Rodrigue close behind. No doubt that Dupuis was the most magnetic person on stage; he is a tremendous singer, handsome, and a great actor. The relationship between Carlos and Rodrigue was intense, intimate, very much the driver of much of the action in the opera.*

Oh, and both sang fabulously. Back in 2009, Polenzani gave one of the most beautiful displays of tenor singing that I've ever heard, in SFO's last bring-up of The Abduction from the Seraglio. His most recent appearance, as Carmen's Don José, did not work so well, but this! My gosh, vocally Don Carlos fits him like a glove, despite the length and difficulty. He said during one of the intermission interviews that it doesn't tire him the way some roles do, and he demonstrated that through a long, long evening. Dupuis has a beautifully expressive voice and a nice trill, and did I mention that he's got that special something? I mean. If you want to see more of him, come to SF in June for our upcoming Don Giovanni, the third in Michael Kavanagh's Mozart-Da Ponte series.

There is nominally a romance in the opera, between the title character and Elisabeth de Valois, who becomes his stepmother instead of his wife about 10 minutes into the opera, after they have met and fallen in love. But the central relationships are really between Carlos and Posa, between Carlos and his father, Philippe II, and between Posa and Philippe. Also between everyone and the church. Also there's Princess Eboli, who is A) a good friend of Elisabeth 2) in love with Carlos 3) having an adulterous affair with Philippe (which you find out about 

somewhere in...uh, I think it's Act IV of this monster, which is five hours long with intermissions).

This production, like so many others, dropped the scene where Elisabeth and Eboli exchange veils. Honestly, why? That scene is critical for three reasons. It establishes their friendship, which you need to know to understand Elisabeth's hurt feelings when she discovers Eboli's betrayals; it's related to Eboli's Veil Song, and it sets up the catastrophic misunderstanding in the later garden scene.

As for the women, I like Sonya Yoncheva, though McVicar didn't give her much to do dramatically; she mostly sang very beautifully. I wondered how well Eboli suited Jamie Barton; both arias seemed slower than usual, and at least for the Veil Song, I thought it was to accommodate the speed with which she could sing the ornaments. McVicar's direction of both had odd moments. Eboli practically sneered at one point; Elisabeth swung her hips in what seemed a modern manner. Folks, these are 16th c. Spanish nobles. Treat them like that on stage.

The remaining men didn't fare as well as one might want. I didn't particularly like Eric Owens as Philippe. He was okay, not great. Ditto John Relyea's Grand Inquisitor; there was a lot of posturing and movement, but...Andrea Silvestrelli was more restrained and scarier in SF. (Okay, I admit that I will be lucky to see another Philippe in Rene Pape's class.)

Then there were McVicar decisions that I found bizarre: I mean, no auto-da-fe is complete without an acrobat made up like Heath Ledger's Joker, right? McVicar likes to throw in acrobatics where the libretto doesn't call for them, like the acrobats during "Gloire à Didon" in Les Troyens. Then there's the very end of the opera, where what usually happens is that Philippe comes to take Carlos in for...torture? questioning? and his father mysteriously appears and spirits Carlos away. That isn't what happens here, and I think I will pass on describing it other than to say, well, that's certainly an interesting fantasy.

Lastly, the orchestra sounded dandy under Patrick Furrer's leadership; YN-S was out sick.

I note that Alex Ross, seeing the opera earlier in its run, found Polenzani wooden, and I also note that good direction can tell quite a different story in the HD broadcast from what you see live. Case in point: Karita Mattila dominated the stage in the 2016 SFO Jenufa, but the balance among the principal singers was much more even in the eventual stream of the opera in the summer of 2021, because the camera didn't focus on her. Live, well, you could not take your eyes off her.

Wednesday, April 06, 2022

News from the Other BSO

The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra has a new president and CEO: Mark Hanson, who resigned from the CEO position at San Francisco Symphony last July. His resignation remains a mystery: it was sudden, without prior indications of issues, and with a brief and rather cool note from the orchestra. He left after only four years with the orchestra and with an apparent record of success: he hired Esa-Pekka Salonen, maintained labor peace with the musicians, and kept the orchestra running during the first year-plus of the pandemic.

There's been a fair amount of past mismanagement at Baltimore and they are searching for a new music director because Marin Alsop has concluded her tenure there.

Tuesday, April 05, 2022

Museum Mondays

Assumption of the Virgin Mary?
Plaster cast of medieval sculpture
Cité de l'architecture et du patrimoine
Paris, France
February, 2019