Friday, November 17, 2017

Girls of the Golden West: Go See It!

If you read this blog, you know that next week San Francisco Opera will present the premiere run of performances of Girls of the Golden West, by John Adams, libretto by Peter Sellars, directed by Peter Sellars.

I have not seen it, I have heard only the short orchestra bit "Lola Montez Does the Spider Dance," I have seen the same public photos everyone else has, but I'm telling you, get a ticket and see this. It's not often that a great composer like Adams writes an opera, and lots of composers - I'm looking at you, Ludwig van - don't have the theatrical flair you need to write successful operas. So Adams is sitting in a particular sweet spot in musical history, along with, say, Mozart, Berg, Britten, Shostakovich, and a few others I could name who excelled in orchestra music, chamber music, and operas.

So get a ticket. I haven't read the libretto yet, haven't seen the staging, haven't heard a note of the music. There's likely to be some terrific music, even if, at the end of the night, you are scratching your head about one or another aspect of the opera.

Here are a couple of previews, by Georgia Rowe and Michael Cooper:

Friday Photo

Sunny assists me in studying for the world premiere of Girls of the Golden West
October, 2017

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Anxiety Dreams

Historically, I don't have a lot of nightmares or anxiety dreams, and the ones I have tend to be of the crumbling-teeth variety. The other day, though....

I woke up from a dream in which I had somehow been appointed to conduct the world premiere of Girls of the Golden West. And it was two weeks until the date, and nobody had provided me with the score.

I have basic conducting skills, it's true, but they are very basic and  they have deteriorated since grad school, when I was an assistant conductor of one of the choruses at Stony Brook and led sectional rehearsals of the Missa Solemnis. I led a rehearsal of a very tiny chorus doing comparatively uncomplicated music earlier this year, with no personal rehearsal of the pieces we worked on, and I could wing it fairly well. But there is no way I could conduct a John Adams opera without lengthy study. NO WAY, you hear me?

Realistically speaking, if Grant Gershon is not, for some reason, able to conduct, the most likely substitute is JCA himself. There can't be many people who know the score well enough to step in and conduct GGW.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Reading Russell Platt? If Not, You Should Be.

The New Yorker is lucky enough t have two first-class classical music writers on board. I'm sure you know Alex Ross's work, and his books, and I hope you're also reading writer, editor, and composer Russell Platt, whose short articles appear on line, but not in the printed New Yorker. If not, you can start here, and I'm sure you will like what you read.

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Compare & Contrast 33: Gardiner in NY

John Eliot Gardiner and the Monteverdi Choir spent six months touring with the three surviving Monteverdi operas. They hit New York the other day; Justin Davidson and Anthony Tommasini were there, and wrote the following sharply different reviews; Alex Ross is less enthused than Tommasini, but still very complimentary to the performers, with none of Justin's snark and a lot of penetrating commentary about Monteverdi's greatness:
Long ago, A.C. Douglas was incredulous that I'd rank L'incoronazione di Poppea with Le Nozze di Figaro, but after seeing four productions, I'll stick with that assessment. It is among the very greatest of operas.

Updated on Saturday, Nov. 11, to add Alex Ross's review and my closing comment, then bumped to the top of the blog again.

Friday, November 10, 2017

WMOHAW Syndrome

That would be: War Memorial Opera House Acoustical Weirdness Syndrome. Everybody seems to suffer from it from time to time.

For example, here's a bit from my account of the Elektra prima, back in September of this year:

Okay, so my reservations are largely nonmusical. But I made a mistake: I swapped my Dress Circle seat for Orchestra M, nearly dead center, which is the perfect location for hearing the orchestra, but voices tend to be more recessed there than when you're up above them. And, goddamn it, the voice most affected by this was Christine Goerke's, presumably because of its placement, dark color, and the tessitura of the title role, which lies more in the low and middle ranges.
The other singers came over well, and I am kicking myself for relocating to the orchestra rather than Grand Tier....or staying in my subscription seat. So I feel that I can't make a fully-informed comment on her performance, and, well, this is a frustration. I've heard her live multiple times and I know perfectly well that she's got a very large and well-projected voice, and I also know about the vagaries of the acoustics of the War Memorial Opera House.
No reviewer complained of problems hearing Goerke. It was, no doubt, my seat.

Here's Joshua Kosman, who was sitting for Manon in the reviewer section in audience left, probably around row H-N:
That sense was not always easy to come by in the face of an on-again, off-again role debut by soprano Ellie Dehn as Manon, a performance that alternated almost minute by minute between splendid, pointedly vulnerable vocalism and recessive vagueness. Also not helpful were the visually barren, dramatically off-point production of director Vincent Boussard and set designer Vincent Lemaire, and the brusquely athletic musical direction of conductor Patrick Fournillier.
[paragraph praising Fabiano]
Dehn, meanwhile — a singer who has done excellent work here in not-quite-starring roles — flickered on and off unpredictably. Through much of Act 1 she sang so inaudibly that one might have thought she was “marking,” husbanding her vocal resources as singers do during rehearsals. 
For Manon, I was in my usual subscription seat, which is more or less dead center in the Dress Circle. I'm under the overhang, but just a bit. I heard every note Dehn sang. She was always perfectly audible, at every dynamic level.

Then there was Les Troyens. Both Greg Freed and I had issues hearing Anna Caterina Antonacci in the first performance, but up to a point, she came over perfectly well - Steven Winn, sitting three rows ahead of me, found her quite audible.

The fact is, the War Memorial Opera House has some dead spots, some live spots, some places with echoes. If you are too close to one of the walls in the orchestra section, yes, you hear the orchestra, especially, bouncing off the walls. I never comment on the balances in the works I review, because I know I'm not getting the best possible sound from the reviewer section.

Generally, the sound and balances are best from the center and above the floor, though the Orchestra section can be fabulous; the orchestra itself almost always sounds splendid from orchestra center, around row M to R. But Joshua's review of Manon and mine of Elektra certainly show the vagaries of the house.

Friday Photo

Yuppie beverages as far as the eye can see at Woodland Market near my office.
San Francisco, September, 2017
Kombucha in bottles to nitro cold brew in cans, via ginger-tumeric almond milk.
Nicely bottled, all very expensive. 
Compare with 79 cents for a half-pint of old-fashioned chocolate milk.

Monday, November 06, 2017

Post-Script: Manon and Don Carlo

Earlier today, the latest "Backstage with Matthew" email from San Francisco Opera dropped into my in-box. If you're not familiar with these, you should be: they are behind-the-scenes glimpses of life at an opera house, written by Matthew Shilvock, general director of SFO. (And, yes, I've heard him speak and seen enough of his tweets and chatted with him enough to be quite sure that he writes them himself....or it's someone who is extraordinarily good at channeling another person's style.)

Anyway, this edition, which will eventually appear on the company's blog, is all about the wig department, which raises a question: why on earth is Michael Fabiano going wigless these days?  This seems pretty darned ahistorical for the settings of both Manon and Don Carlo:

Michael Fabiano as Des Grieux in Manon
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Michael Fabiano as Don Carlo; Marius Kwiecien as the Marquis of Posa
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

With those deep-set eyes of his, it just makes no sense; what he needs is a wig and make-up that brings out his eyes and gives his face and head more definition.

Manon, San Francisco Opera

Ellie Dehn (Manon)
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

There was a long period of time - probably around ten years - when I thought I didn't like Massenet. Then I heard Esclarmonde, his almost-Wagnerian magic opera, and also Werther, and thought that maybe the problem was that I didn't like Manon, the first Massenet opera I'd seen.

More recently, I listened to Pierre Monteux's Manon recording, with a Francophone cast except for Victoria de los Angeles, and realized that what I didn't like was the deadly conducting of Julius Rudel in SF Opera's 1998 revival of the opera. I checked Joshua Kosman's review recently, and it confirms my recollection (even at the time, I knew it wasn't good).

Saturday night, at the opening of SFO's new Manon, I mentioned Rudel to a couple of friends with long memories, and they both rolled their eyes and agreed with me. Too bad: Manon should have been a great part for Ruth Ann Swenson, and that night, it wasn't.

But times have changed, and a few changes of general director down the road, we've got a new Manon. David Gockley commissioned this production, which is a co-production with the Lithuanian National Opera and the Israel Opera and directed by Vincent Boussard. It is an improvement over 1998 in nearly every way, swapping a period production for a slightly racy cross-period design and costumes. (Cross-period to the point of dressing Reneé Rapier in a purple pants suit, no shirt, and matching purple bra.) The production was designed by Vincent Lemaire and lit, very beautifully, by Gary Marder. More about all of this later.

Ellie Dehn (Manon)
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Best of all, the production has two terrific singers in the leads, and properly bubbling, frothy conducting from Patrick Fournillier, heard here previously in Cyrano de Bergerac and Tales of Hoffman. The orchestra sounded fabulous throughout, and Fournillier certainly knows the style needed to put over Manon in any believable way. (The plot, it is full of holes and character behavior that is not exactly strongly motivated. Tell us again why you've gotten religion and become an abbé after Manon apparently dumps you? and tell us why she didn't tell you about the planned kidnapping?)

Both Ellie Dehn, as Manon, and Michael Fabiano, as the Chevalier Des Grieux, were making their debuts in those roles, and neither disappointed. Dehn sounded absolutely gorgeous, with beautiful tone, spin, projection, truly impressive dynamic control, and pretty good French. She was also dramatically convincing as the pleasuring-loving Manon, just out to have a good time until her last-act demise.

Michael Fabiano (Des Grieux)
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

I'm a Fabiano fan, but initially I was a bit concerned. At his Act I entrance, his voice sounded darker and thicker than in his last local appearance, as Don Carlo in the June, 2016, production of the eponymous opera. It opened up during the first part of the opera, and by the end I wasn't worried at all, although I will note that for some soft high notes, he used what sounded like a slightly croony voix-mixte. His sound and his French are really too Italian for this particular opera; the vowels were open and coming from the back of his head when they should have been forward and pointed. The sound itself was beautiful, and big. Dramatically, he seems more comfortable on stage than he used to - and he was much better directed than in Don Carlo, where he and Ana María Martínez were left adrift on the stage. He was certainly the picture of youthful ardor, and, eventually, tortured denial.

James Creswell (Comte Des Grieux)
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

The smaller roles, and there are many, were mostly very well cast. James Creswell was a magnificent Comte Des Grieux, singing with plush tone and the very picture of chilly hauteur. I wanted to introduce him to Giorgio Germont; they'd make such a cute pair of nasty fathers, using essentially the same arguments to create chaos in their sons' lives. Creswell was in both Tales of Hoffmann and Mary Magdalene, but didn't make this kind of impression. More, please; such a beautiful voice.

Robert Brubaker was amusing as Guillot de Morfontaine (and his French is superb). I was not thrilled by David Pershall as Lescaut; next to Creswell and the other male singers, he sounded vocally unfocussed, though his acting was fine. 

See what "cross-period" means?
Hotel Transylvania scene

Robert Brubaker as Guillot de Morfontaine, dancer Rachel Little, Renée Rapier as Rosette, Monica Dewey as Pousette, and Laura Krumm as Javotte
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

The staging was something to see, making good use of a wall-like unit set that was used for a variety of entrances, including floating Manon in after she wanders around on its parapet. The stage was covered with a mirrored surface, which was a feature of several Mansouri-era productions. Somehow, this worked much better than those (Don Carlo, La Favorite, and others), because of the prevailing brightly colored costumes and saturated lighting. The combination of the mirrored floor and bright lighting sometimes bounced so much light into the house as the raise the light level in the audience significantly; I found myself wondering whether the lights in the chandelier were on.

The wall, topped by Parisian landmarks; 
Michael Fabiano (Des Grieux) and Ellie Dehn (Manon)
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

The staging worked, for the most part, though it certainly had a few oddities, including Manon's descent from the wall:

Wall, plus Ellie Dehn (Manon); Cours-la-Reine scene
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Later in the scene, a cone of webbing descends from the flies and surrounds Manon, who runs out of it to go find Des Grieux at St. Sulpice. I have no idea what this was about. The floating balloons and packages are cute, though.

Wall, plus Ellie Dehn (Manon), plus cage o' webbing; Cours-la-Reine scene
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

See the color changes in that scene? Really, this was all very beautiful look at, and extremely effective. You hardly notice that there are hardly any props on stage. Here's Michael Fabiano in the St. Sulpice scene; note the steely gray of the wall:

Wall, plus Michael Fabiano (Des Grieux)
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Not visible in any of the press photos: suspended Jesus looming over the stage at the top of the wall, with a completely black backdrop. That was a striking touch!

Here the lovers are reunited later in the scene:

Michael Fabiano (Des Grieux) and Ellie Dehn (Manon)
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

Mercifully, the press photos don't include the most ridiculous stage business I've seen in a while, falling into Department of Unintended Hilarity: the point where Fabiano rips open his cassock to show his great passion for Manon. The entire audience burst into laughter, which, I gotta say, really did break the mood. I have predicted that this will disappear before the end of the run.

The press photos also don't include the bit shortly after the photo above where Dehn and Fabiano re-enact the end of Act I of Die Walküre by rolling around on the floor together, which I suppose falls under Department of Sacrilege rather than Department of Inappropriate Sibling Love.

Ellie Dehn (Manon); Hotel Transylvania
Photo Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera

You can't quite tell from the photo above, but between the cut of her dress and the way her hair is piled on top of her head, I'm absolutely certain that Dehn's look in this scene invoked a famous portrait of a notorious woman. She looked fabulous in the dress, too.

The final scene was beautifully staged, with the stage almost completely darkened and Dehn and Fabiano lit primarily from the side, focussing your attention tightly on them. There's a press photo of that scene, but you can't see much of the stage, alas.

All in all, I'd call this a very successful outing; it's good enough that I'm thinking of going back for more.

Wednesday, November 01, 2017

Speculation, Round 1

So, San Francisco Opera and San Francisco Symphony are both looking for music directors. MTT will step down at the end of the 2019-20 season; Nicola Luisotti's last performance as music director of SFO was last month, but Matthew Shilvock has said that the search could take as long as two or three years, that is, out to 2019 or 2020.

So let's just assume for now that the two organizations' timelines are similar, although who knows who will handle various music director responsibilities absent an actual music director at SFO.

Now, a few years back, in 2010, Janos Gereben and I went through the exercise of speculating about who could possibly take MTT's place. The results are here.

Re-reading the article, the first thing I'm struck by is that several of our candidates have died or are otherwise unavailable: Claudio Abbado, Kurt Masur, Lorin Maazel are all gone; James Levine's health doesn't allow him to take a music directorship at this point.

Several of the younger conductors are still possible, notably Gaffigan and Bringuier. We can, I suppose, daydream about Esa-Pekka Salonen, who is living in LA again, but this seems beyond unlikely, although if they could get him....

But I think there are so many talented conductors out there that SFS is in an enviable position. The orchestra is in good financial shape and has a history of good management; the orchestra is playing at a very high level indeed. Music director of SFS is an attractive job; the kind of job that people with pretty good jobs would consider leaving to take. And there I'm thinking of conductors at good, not quite great, orchestras; Manfred Honeck and Pittsburgh, for example. Or Kryzstof Urbanski. But I don't think SFS could lure Osmo Vanska from Minnesota; he has made them a terrific orchestra and he is married to Erin Keefe, the concertmaster. That's a significant two-body problem right there.

Let's take a look at what's open and who is out there:

  • San Francisco Symphony! when MTT leaves at the end of 2019-20
  • BBC Philharmonic when Juanjo Mena leaves at the end of 2017-18
  • BBC National Orchestra of Wales when Thomas Søndergård leaves for his new job
  • Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich when Lionel Bringuier leaves at the end of 2017-18
  • Sarasota Orchestra after Anu Tali  leaves at the end of 2018-2019
  • Royal Opera, when Antonio Pappano leaves in 2020
  • Opera de Paris, when Philippe Jordan leaves in 2020
  • Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which Leonard Slatkin leaves at the close of the 2017-18 season.
  • Dallas Symphony Orchestra (when Jaap van Zweden takes up his new post at the NYPO). Rumor heard that James Gaffigan is under consideration for this post.
  • Milwaukee Symphony
  • Shanghai Symphony Orchestra
  • San Diego Symphony
  • Dresden Philharmonic: 2019 departure for Michael Sanderling
  • MDR Leipzig Radio Symphony: 2018 departure for Kristian Jarvi
  • Scottish Chamber Orchestra: 2018 departure for Robin Ticciati
  • Orchestre National de Lyon: open now, with Leonard Slatkin's departure
  • Singapore Symphony: 2019 departure for Lan Shui
  • Vienna RSO: 2018 departure for Cornelius Meister
  • Toronto SO: 2018 departure for Peter Oundjian
  • Winnipeg SO: 2018 departure for Alexander Mickelthwate
  • Hamburg Symphony, following death of Sir Jeffrey Tate
  • Washington National Opera, departure of Philippe Auguin at conclusion of 2017-18 
  • San Francisco Opera, departure of Nicola Luisotti at conclusion of 2017-18
  • Opera North: open now, with Aleksandr Markovic's departure
  • Bavarian State Opera: with Kirill Petrenko going to Berlin and KP's Munich contract through 2021, it's sort of implied that he'll give up Munich
  • Opera Theatre of Saint Louis: 2017 is Stephen Lord's final season as MD
  • Sydney Symphony Orchestra: David Robertson will be leaving the SSO at the end of 2019. So he really will be without an orchestral home as of 1/1/2020.
  • Montreal Symphony Orchestra: Kent Nagano is leaving the OSM after 2019-2020. 

My take: the most prestigious openings coming up, in no particular order, are SFS, Royal Opera, Opera de Paris, Bavarian State Opera (Bayerische Staatsoper), San Francisco Opera. Not sure where Dallas, the Opera National de Lyon, and Montreal fall in here.

Conductors looking for jobs (that is, as of the near future, or now, they do not have a posting):
  • Lionel Bringuier
  • Juanjo Mena
  • Antonio Pappano
  • Ludovic Morlot
  • Sian Edwards
  • Jun Markl
  • Ingo Metzmacher
  • Bramwell Tovey
  • Jac van Steen
  • Mark Wigglesworth
  • Simone Young 
  • David Robertson
  • Peter Oundjian as of the end of 2017-18
  • Philippe Auguin
  • Kwame Ryan
  • Ilan Volkov
  • Aleksandr Markovic
  • Lothat Koenigs
  • Henrik Nanasi
  • Kent Nagano
  • Leonard Slatkin (73 and done with being an MD)
Who knows whether any of the above might work for SFS? Most of them don't have a track record of guest conducting at SFS; I think that only Robertson does, although Metzmacher has been through a couple of times, and maybe Tovey has as well.

The closed positions follow; a conductor who has been in a new job for not-that-long probably won't leave it very quickly.
  • Clarinetist Martin Frøst becomes chief conductor of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra in 2019 when Thomas Dausgaard leaves for Seattle.
  • Thomas Zehetmair is going to the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra in 2019
  • Matthias Bamert is going to the Sapporo Symphony in 2018 
  • Lorenzo Viotti was named music director of the Gulbenkian Orchestra, as of 2018
  • Joana Mallwitz appointed GMD in Nuremberg, effective 2018
  • Philippe Jordan to the Vienna Staatsoper / VPO (Dominique Meyer not planning to appoint a WSO MD; his contract expires in 2020.)
  • Semyon! Bychkov! fills the vacancy at the Czech Philharmonic, following the death of Jiří Bělohlávek
  • Dennis Russell Davies becomes music director of the Brno Philharmonic, which had been open since 2015, as of the 2018-19 season.
  • Nicola Luisotti becoming an assistant music director at the Teatro Real, Madrid, 2018.
  • Seattle Symphony, where Thomas Dausgaard will succeed Ludovic Morlot; announced early October, 2016
  • Vancouver Symphony; Otto Tausk comes on in 2018
  • Orchestra Nationale de France; Emmanuel Krivine takes the post in 2017.
  • NDR Elbphilharmonie: Alan Gilbert becomes MD (or chief conductor) in the 2019-20 season.
  • St. Louis Symphony Orchestra; Stéphane Denève to succeed David Robertson
  • Hong Kong Philharmonic; Jaap van Zweden's contract extended through summer of 2022
  • City of Birmingham SO; Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla appointed 2/4/2016, succeeding Andris Nelsons
  • New York Philharmonic; Jaap Van Zweden appointed, 1/27/16, succeeding Alan Gilbert
  • National Symphony Orchestra; Gianandrea Noseda appointed, 1/4/2016, succeeding Christoph Eschenbach.
  • Leipzig Gewandhaus: Andris Nelsons appointed, 9/9/2015
  • LSO: Simon Rattle appointed, 3/2/2015
  • Orchestra de Paris: Daniel Harding, 6/11/2015
  • Berlin Philharmonic: Kirill Petrenko appointed, 6/22/2015
  • BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; Thomas Dausgaard succeeds Donald Runnicles in September, 2016
I think the first thing to consider is who has been a successful and impressive guest conductor over a period of time with SFS. Here, the names that come to mind, immediately, are Osmo Vanska (not likely to leave Minnesota), Susanna Mälkki (chief conductor of the Helsinki Philharmonic, principal guest conductor of the LAPO, has good relationships with many major orgs), Krysztof Urbanski, Vassily Petrenko (has been in a few times, I think), David Robertson (has been an excellent guest conductor for at least 12 or 15 years).  Is it remotely possible that Donald Runnicles might want to return to the Bay Area? Would James Conlon take SFS? He's a great conductor who has not had a music director job at one of the top US orchestras. Who else?

Okay, updated to include: Pablo Heras-Casado, who has given some terrific concerts with SFS.

There are a few people we haven't had here yet, among whom the first name in my mind is the prodigiously talented Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla, aka MGT. I hope she'll be a guest at SFS some time, but she is just a couple of years into a prestigious appointment at the CBSO. I was mightily impressed with Ludovic Morlot when he conducted the BSO in SF during the centenary year, and they do seem to love him in Seattle.

Lastly, a friend saw a comment elsewhere that I consider about as ludicrous as it gets: that only Gustavo Dudamel would do. 

That is just silly. Not only are there plenty of equally good or better conductors around, but Dudamel has one of the best jobs in the world: the LA Phil is on an unusually sound financial footing owing to Hollywood Bowl income; it has had excellent management for decades; the orchestra is excellent and improving; they play the most diverse and interesting repertory around, and they perform in the greatest concert hall in the country. How on earth would SFS be an improvement for him?