Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Flying Tenor

Says a cast change announcement from the Met:
AJ Glueckert will make his Met debut as Erik in Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer and will sing the role in the first four performances of the opera at the Met this season on April 25, 29matinee, May 4, and 8. The American tenor replaces the originally announced Jay Hunter Morris, who has withdrawn from his scheduled performances for personal reasons.

This is also Mr. Glueckert’s role debut as Erik, a role he will reprise at Oper Frankfurt later this season. As a member of the ensemble at Oper Frankfurt, he has sung the Prince in Dvořák’s Rusalka and Lyonel in Flotow’s Martha. Additionally, he has sung with other opera companies including  Don José in Bizet’s Carmen at Pittsburgh Opera, Steersman inDer Fliegende Holländer and the Preacher in the world premiere of Mark Adamo's The Gospel of Mary Magdalene at San Francisco Opera, Bacchus in Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxosat Opera Theatre of St. Louis, and the Crown Prince in Kevin Puts’s Silent Night at Minnesota Opera and Opera Philadelphia. Later this season, he will sing Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos at the Glyndebourne Festival.

Der Fliegende Holländer will be conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin and also star Michael Volle as Holländer, Amber Wagner as Senta, Dolora Zajick as Mary, Ben Bliss as Steersman, and Franz-Josef Selig as Daland. The May 12 performance casting of Erik will be announced at a later date. For further information, including casting by date, please visit 
Hoping all is well with Jay Hunter Morris, a fine singer of whom I am fond; he was a memorably beautiful young Siegfried in the 2011 SF Ring, both vocally and physically.

Congrats to AJ Glueckert, who was an Adler Fellow and is also a terrific singer.

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Work in Downtown SF? Want to Sing in a Chorus?

Then have I got a group for you!

The SF Tech Chorale is currently under construction. This group will meet at 345 Spear St., in Google's offices there. Read all about it, right here, and then sign up.

Sunday, April 09, 2017

McGrath on Fleming

Almost ten years ago, Charles McGrath had an article in the NY Times about Anna Netrebko that irritated me so much that I think I stopped reading somewhere on the first page, after he stated or implied that before the modern era, no opera singers could act. Okay, maybe Callas? But otherwise, acting was an art discovered only by recent singers.

Now he's got a big gushy piece about Renée Fleming. I have to note that alone of the three pieces that were published this week about her, his more or less says that her upcoming Met appearances as the Marschallin will be her last stage appearances. Well, that's been the rumor for the last year or two, plus the other articles say she will continue to appear in recital. And if you look at her own schedule, you'll see that they are her only stage appearances there. Otherwise, it's concerts, galas, and recitals as far as the eye can see.

There's an awful lot to disagree with in the Fleming article: her departure is only a watershed if you think she sells out every ticket in the house (I am not convinced) or if you think she is an extremely important singer. Well, look at the repertory she has sung, which has been central lyric roles, very little of it unusual. She has sung little new or contemporary music. She hasn't had the huge and varied repertory that some singers have. There's a photo of her singing "Ain't it a pretty night" from Susannah - did she ever appear in the complete opera? The answer is yes, she did, in a single run at the Met. Her other appearances in 20th c. opera were Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles, Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire, and Susa's The Dangerous LiaisonsI'm willing to bet not, especially since the article states outright that in the 90s she and her management team made a decision for her to limit her repertory. [This paragraph updated to include full information about Fleming's appearances in comparatively recently operas.]

Netrebko and Kaufmann sell out the house, no doubt, especially Kaufmann (though we will probably never see him in the US again).

I'm pretty sure that it was Fleming's own publicists who managed to tag her as "the people's diva," and who managed to get her on the Super Bowl and lots of TV shows. That's they're job, after all.

McGrath mentions Fleming's "early talent" in jazz. This was certainly a road not taken; I have personally never thought Fleming had much of a feel for swinging rhythm and can't quite imagine her relaxing enough to really let down her hair in jazz. And by not much of a feel, I mean, not much in the way of rubato in her opera singing.

Then there's this appallingly ignorant statement, in the list of her roles:
...the title role in Dvorak’s “Rusalka” (an opera that was practically unheard-of until Ms. Fleming brought it back into the repertory)...
First thing is, Rusalka has never been out of the repertory in Czech-speaking areas. Second thing, it has never been in, or brought back into, the repertory (that is, a piece that is regularly performed) in the US. (Take a look at the opera's recent and forthcoming performance history at Operabase.) Thus, McGrath's phrasing is simply bizarre.

Fleming sang around 20 performances of it at the Met and another half-dozen or so at SF. The SF performances were around 20 years ago, too; the Met 20 were scattered over 2 or 3 runs or the opera over the years. I do not know which other companies she sang it with, but not enough to drag it into the repertory, let alone "back into" the repertory, where it never was: the first Met performances were with Gabriela Benackova, in 1993, and at SF with Fleming. SF hasn't revived it and doesn't own a production.

But the big problem here is that McGrath is giving her credit for something she doesn't have any real responsibility for. She could have been an advocate for Czech opera in the US, but she hasn't been.

I think McGrath might be confused here:
Ms. Fleming doesn’t have much interest in becoming a figure like Adelina Patti, the hugely popular 19th- and early-20th-century opera star who went around, like Cher, giving farewell concerts for 20 years after she “retired.”
I'm really pretty sure that he's thinking of Nellie Melba.

Saturday, April 08, 2017

WDCH. Then and Now

WDCH, March, 2017
Rather late in the day, which is why two of the huge steel plates look gold and several look black. 

I took many photos of Walt Disney Concert Hall in the fall of 2007, using a now-obsolete Canon point & shoot. I now have a Canon dSLR, the EOS Rebel Ti5, and on a recent visit I took many more photos.

The 2007 photos are here; the 2017 photos are here. They are pretty different! It remains the most photogenic building I have ever seen, not to mention one of the greatest concert halls in the world.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Bonus Photo

Oakland, March 2017

I see that once more, I cleverly posted the same Friday photo twice. Here is a make-up photo.

Did All That Dancing Do This to Her?

Patricia Racette has withdrawn from upcoming Met performances of Alfano´s Cyrano de Bergerac owing to an abdominal hernia. Jennifer Rowley will sing all of the performances. Toi toi toi to Jennifer Rowley and best wishes to Patricia Racette in recovering from the hernia! (This might require surgery....)

Oakland Friday Photo

Persimmon Leaves
November, 2016

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Christian Reif at Berkeley Symphony

Received today, not a surprise:
BERKELEY, CA (March 23, 2017) – Guest conductor Christian Reif will lead Berkeley Symphony in Shostakovich's evening-long, epic Symphony No. 13, “Babi Yar,” on Thursday, May 4 at 8 pm at Zellerbach Hall. The Orchestra is joined for the Berkeley Symphony’s season finale performance by bass Denis Sedov and a men’s chorus comprised of alumni of the UC Berkeley Chamber Chorus, the Pacific Boychoir Academy, and members of the St. John of San Francisco Russian Orthodox Chorale, led by chorusmaster Marika Kuzma. Reif is stepping in for Berkeley Symphony Music Director Joana Carneiro, who recently gave birth to triplets.
Tickets for the Berkeley Symphony concert on May 4 start at $15 and are available at www.berkeleysymphony.org or by phone at (510) 841-2800, ext. 1.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Met National Council Audition Results

A couple of these young singers' names should be familiar!
This year’s winners are Samantha Hankey, 24, mezzo-soprano (Eastern Region: Marshfield, MA); Kirsten MacKinnon, 26, soprano (Middle Atlantic Region: Vancouver, BC, Canada); Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, 23, countertenor (Eastern Region: Brooklyn, NY); Richard Smagur, 26, tenor (Central Region: Clarkesville, GA); Kyle van Schoonhoven, 28, tenor (Central Region: Lockport, NY); and Vanessa Vasquez, 26, soprano (Middle Atlantic Region: Scottsdale, AZ).
Kyle van Schoonhoven is a first-year Adler Fellow;  Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen was in last year's Merola program. Congratulations to all of these talented singers!

Stop, Already!

Found in my in-box, and this is just a sample:

  • Her program, the complete Goldberg Variations by J.S. Bach, is one of the most beloved works in the piano repertoire (SF Performances)
  • Best known for the beloved children’s novels A Series of Unfortunate Events he wrote as Lemony Snicket – and which he has recently adapted into an acclaimed series for Netflix – Daniel Handler brings his relentlessly mischievous style to a new play for adults. (Berkeley Rep) 
  • Violinists Itzhak Perlman, Cho -Liang Lin, concertmaster of Philadelphia Orchestra David Kim and Midori have put together special video greetings to celebrate the centennial of their beloved teacher - Dorothy Delay.  (Dorothy Delay tribute)
  • Members and alumni of the Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program will also perform a variety of beloved arias, duets and ensembles. (LA Opera)
  • The Princeton Symphony Orchestra (PSO) is a cultural centerpiece of the Princeton community and one of New Jersey’s finest music organizations, a position established through performances of beloved masterworks, innovative music by living composers, and an extensive network of educational programs offered to area students free of charge. (PSO)
  • For the first time, this original jackets edition brings together all of the recital albums this beloved American mezzo-soprano recorded for Columbia Masterworks from 1974 to 1998.  (ArkivMusic)
  • The Bay Area’s beloved former SF Symphony violist Geraldine Walther, now violist of the world-renowned Takács String Quartet, will join forces with superb pianist David Korevaar to perform the Chopin Sonata for viola and piano, Schumann’sMarchenbilder and David Carlson's True Divided Light, commissioned for NVCM.  (Noe Valley Chamber Music)
  • The beloved biblical story of Noah's ark set to music,
    featuring nearly 500 performers of all ages 
    at the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on May 6 (LAO - again)
  • Beloved Virtuoso Kyung Wha CHUNG Returns to Carnegie Hall,
    Tackling the Highest Peak:
    The Complete Solo Sonatas & Partitas of J.S. BACH in a Single Evening (Kathryn King Media)
  • First are the beloved outdoor Symphony for the Cities concerts from July 3 to 9. (Minnesota Orchestra)
  • Don’t miss Sonya Yoncheva as one of opera’s most beloved heroines, the tragic courtesan Violetta, opposite tenor Michael Fabiano as her lover, Alfredo. (Metropolitan Opera)
  • The Aram Khachaturian International Competition has aimed at identifying talented young musicians since 2003 when it launched as part of the centennial celebrations for the beloved Armenian composer. 
  • The composer, a true Romantic, became desolate and enraged, hatching a plan to return to France and murder his former beloved, her new suitor, and her mother, then kill himself. (Boston Symphony Orchestra - describing Hector Berlioz)
We need a few more adjectives.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Unpaid Labor

Email received from a theater company:
Subject line: Come sing with us!
[omitted: a couple of notes about their upcoming season] What makes this jaw-dropping piece particularly special is that the playwright asks us to to welcome a completely different choir for each performance!!! What an amazing challenge and opportunity! In this spirit of community, we are reaching out to you - our loyal supporters - for recommendations and thoughts.
Here are the main points we have been sharing with the choirs:
  • The shows are Wed-Sat nights and Sun matinees from May 2nd to June 1st.
  • Each performance will feature a chorus of volunteer 12-20 singers. If your choir is larger, it might be featured in more than one performance.
  • The choir will sing about 20 minutes of music featuring simple harmonies. Our music director believes it will take 4-5 hours to learn. The score is available upon request. There will also be one 2 hour rehearsal onstage before your performance led by our music director. Sheet music and accompaniment will be provided for the performance.
  • We will be promoting your choir on our website, lobby, and emails. Each singer will also be given a 1/2 off ticket price code to pass on to friends and family.
If you or someone you know is in a choir, we hope you might consider joining the dozens we already have booked on this special project. We really think it will be a memorable experience for everyone involved. If you are interested in joining us, would like to see the music, or have any additional questions please email me at [email address omitted]
My reply:
My first thought is this: does [theater company] pay its actors?
I am confident that the answer is yes.
You are here asking for 12-20 singers per performance, and it looks as though there are 20-25 performances. So you're asking for something between 240 to 500 singers to put in 4 to 5 hours each to learn the music, or approximately 960 to 2500 aggregate hours, depending on how fast the singers learn and how many singers there are.
Then they've got to attend a rehearsal and appear in the show, more hours. For this, you are offering a discount code, in hopes of selling tickets to people who want to see their friend or relative perform.
Would you ask actors to put in this much unpaid labor? If not, perhaps you should be hiring a professional chorus for this show. If it's too much money for you to do that, it's the wrong show for [theater company] to perform.
I have not yet renewed my subscription or made my donation for this year. This makes me rethink whether I should continue to support [theater company]. 

Borda Return Media Round-Up

For reference. Am I missing anything? (Yes, so I have updated the post.)

Awaiting the Correction.

An opera company I won't name just made an entertaining error in the email announcing their 2017-18 season. And I can tell you exactly what happened, too.

The email announces four operas. One of them is by a composer who is also represented in this year's repertory. The header area of the announcement names Opera A, which will be done next year. The body of the email, with details about each of next year's operas, lists Opera B...which is in the 2016-17 season.

I'm pretty sure that they used last year's season announcement as a template and somehow didn't update all of the text in the body of the email. The composer name was the same, the costumes might be interchangeable (depending). The link in the header goes to the 2017-18 season, the link in the body goes to 2016-17.

The moral of the story is that your mailing list management program contains a feature that allows you to send drafts to yourself and anyone else you think should proofread outgoing email before you send it to the thousands of email addresses on your mailing list. You should use this feature liberally.

I obviously don't know exactly what happened; maybe someone inadvertently skipped that step or maybe someone thought they were sending the email to 10 people rather than the whole mailing list. But I spotted the error about 2 minutes into reading the email, and probably a few other recipients did too.

I Did Not See This One Coming.

Last week, I published an extremely gloomy post about the current state of the New York Philharmonic, after learning that their chief executive, artistic administrator, and senior vice president for capital campaigns and the endowment were all leaving the orchestra, just as Alan Gilbert leaves, with a year before Jaap van Zweden arrives, and with a renovation down the road that will completely disrupt the orchestra for a couple of years.

Honestly, I thought that the orchestra had a good chance to wind up in bankruptcy court within ten years, considering that they've been running deficits since the 2001-2 season.

But yesterday morning, Michael Cooper of the NY Times managed to scoop the press departments of both the NY Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic by publishing some astounding news ahead of the orchestras' press releases: Deborah Borda, who has been chief executive at the LA Phil for 15 years, is returning to the NY Philharmonic.

As far as I can tell from what I'm reading and hearing, nobody saw this one coming. If you'd asked me who could possibly run the NYPO successfully, i would have said, in no particular order, 1) Brent Assink, who is leaving the San Francisco Opera...and who turned down the NY job last time it was open 2) David Gockley, who has retired from the San Francisco Opera but who probably isn't interested in this job, and 3) Deborah Borda, but she is not going to leave LA.

So much for that thinking.

Over at the Washington Post, Anne Midgette, after picking herself up off the floor, speculates on why Borda would take on this particular challenge:
Why would Borda want to return to a job she already had? Speculation is already running rampant. Her last stint at the New York Philharmonic was a mixed experience. She was the first woman to run a major American orchestra when she took over in 1991, but she had a contentious relationship with Kurt Masur, the music director for her entire tenure. Does this return offer her a chance to realize her vision for the orchestra in the company of a new music director?
Or did she want to live in the same city as her longtime partner, Coralie Toevs, the chief development officer of the Metropolitan Opera? Or did the board just offer her a boatload of money?
The answer is likely some combination of all three, but perhaps outweighed by the thrill of a challenge. The New York Philharmonic, for all of its longtime foibles, is widely seen as one of the pinnacles of the orchestra world, the peak of a career. And it’s in such dire straits right now that only a real visionary can help fix it. No one doubts that Borda could be the person to turn it around; still, it would certainly be a major coup for her were she to pull it off.
I think Anne is absolutely right: the thrill of the challenge has to be a huge factor in the decision. The Philharmonic post is a difficult one, between the musicians' reputation, the apparent lack of direction of the orchestra over a long period, the years of financial problems, and the huge task of raising money for the renovation. If Borda can pull off the renovation and stabilize the orchestra's finances, she'll go down in history as a hero, the savior of the country's oldest orchestra.

The other reasons are significant as well. After 15 years of racking up frequent flyer miles, who wouldn't want to be in the same city as her beloved?

As for the boatloads of money, Deborah Borda is already the highest-paid orchestra executive in the country. When the Phil's 990s start to come out for the second Borda era, we'll see just what the pricetag was. But the point is, if she does what she's setting out to do, she'll deserve every penny.

My last thought on this is speculative: the NY Philharmonic's repertory has been far more adventurous and interesting under Alan Gilbert than under his last several predecessors. You'd need to go back to Boulez to find the last conductor who took a serious interest in forward-looking programming. There has been some concern about Jaap van Zweden's interest in new and recent music. But under Deborah Borda, the LA Phil's programming has been the most interest and adventurous of any orchestra in the country, and it just gets better and better every year. We can at least hope that she'll hire a progressive replacement for Edward Yim and continue this in NYC.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Anna Caterina Antonacci in San Francisco: Media Roundup

Anna Caterina Antonacci in La Voix humaine at SF Opera Lab.
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Anna Caterina Antonacci, the legendary Italian singer, is in town giving just three performances of a recital that includes songs by Berlioz, Debussy, and Poulenc, with the second half devoted entirely to Poulenc's La Voix humaine.

I say you should see it! She's excellent in the songs and superb in La Voix humaine. And here are links to what the critics have to say.

  • Joshua Kosman, Chron, is on a tear, following his forceful piece last week, Classical Music: So white and male. This week, he has plenty of praise for Antonacci and nothing good to say about La Voix humaine, calling it a "jangly bit of lurid misogyny." More below about this.
  • Georgia Rowe, Mercury News. We're on the same page.
  • Opera Tattler; lots of praise for Antonacci. Okay, I yield to her expertise on the gowns, but I did like the almost-Berkeley-therapist outfit for the songs.
  • Lisa Hirsch, SFCV. I should have been more effusive about Sulzen, who played gorgeously.
Bonus media from the past:
  • Ako Imamura, Bachtrack, writing in 2015 about the NYC performance of a program similar to this.
  • Zachary Wolfe, NY Times, writing in 2015 about the NYC performance of the same program as Imamura. Note the photo; presumably Antonacci travels with the phone.
So about La Voix humaine. I liked the work well enough. It is technically well-put-together, a tour-de-force for the singer, with an extremely dramatic piano part, by Poulenc himself rather than a straight reduction from the orchestral score. The program didn't credit a director, and what Antonacci did with it was infinitely detailed, from her physical movements to the color of her voice to the way she shaped each phrase.

I can't exactly say I was moved by it, though if you'd asked me before I saw Joshua's piece I would have just said that it has a particular quality of detachment, of putting the character Elle under a microscope. I might have said this is typically French or typical of Poulenc. But maybe it really was because the character isn't well fleshed out; we see only one particular side of her personality and we see when, very likely, she is at her worst, desperate and suicidal. Certainly Joshua's analysis isn't wrong, but I believe that the musical and dramatic value of La Voix humaine, and what a great singer like Antonacci can do with it, make it worth performing.

International Women's Day, 2017

Joshua Kosman celebrated the occasion a day early, with an article in the San Francisco Chronicle about the nearly-complete failure of American orchestras to notice that all good composers aren't white, male, and mostly dead.

My only disagreement with the article is that I don't consider SoundBox to be the equivalent of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's Green Umbrella series. SoundBox is an obvious attempt to create an experience that's far removed from what goes on 100 feet away on the main stage of Davies: the low lights, the nightclub-like atmosphere, the couch-and-bar-stool seating, the drinks, the difficulty of getting tickets, the permission to use your camera, the excerpting of larger works, the appeal to a new audience. I've been to a couple of Green Umbrella concerts; they're held in the main auditorium of WDCH, listed on the regular concert schedule, and work just like SFS's regular chamber music programs.

That's a small point. Here's Joshua's conclusion, which boils down to "if you are only programming music by dead white men, you're missing a lot of great music:"
There are women all over the world writing music of great individuality, vividness and intensity that would not only excite listeners but remind young people that yes, women can be composers too. There are countless black and Asian and Latino composers who deserve better than to be consigned to silence, or to the dubious spotlight of the ethnic-celebration concert.
If the Los Angeles Philharmonic can find these creative figures, other organizations can too. All that’s lacking, presumably, is the will — and the consciousness, lacking for far too long, that this needs to be a priority.
And if increasing the ethnic and gender diversity of the repertoire means bringing it that much closer to the music of our own time — well, we’ll consider that an ancillary benefit.
So what can we all do about the hegemony of (mostly dead) white men? Well, for one thing, let your local orchestras and concert presenters know that you would like to hear more music not written by dead white men. Send 'em letters. Tell them that you will contribute more or buy more tickets when they start programming music (or more music) by women and non-white composers. Keep track of how local organizations are doing and take public note of their repertory: use Twitter, Facebook, and your blog / LiveJournal / Instagram /whatever account to hold these groups responsible for their programming.

Here's the situation locally:
  • As Joshua notes, SFS's 2017-18 season has one (1) work on it not by a white man, in the form of Kaija Saariaho's Lanterna Magica. He did not note that it is on Susanna Mälkki's program. She happens to be the only woman conducting next year at SFS; she is also Finnish; we can guess that she asked for this piece. Past years haven't been much better, with anywhere from 0 to maybe 2 works composed by women and hardly any by nonwhite men.
  • San Francisco Opera has not yet performed an opera composed by a woman on its main stage. Some years ago, they staged Rachel Portman's The Little Prince at Zellerbach. They did try to commission a work from Jennifer Higdon, an honored and excellent composer; for complicated reasons, SFO and Higdon were ultimately unable to come to an agreement and the commission was withdrawn. Santa Fe Opera commissioned Cold Mountain from her and wound up with a Grammy-winning recording and an apparent hit. I've been wondering whether Saariaho's first opera, L'Amour de Loin, might not turn up here. Matthew Shilvock saw it in NYC and was evidently impressed, based on his Twitter feed. The work is comparatively inexpensive to stage, with only three singers and the chorus. It can also be done easily with a unit set, further reducing costs. This opera would be a good start, anyway.
  • The Oakland Symphony has gone out of its way over the last decade to showcase works by composers who aren't dead white men. They've had Persian composers, African American composers, Mexican composers and others. Support them! Buy tickets!
  • West Edge Opera performed Laura Kaminsky's As One in 2015 and will stage Libby Larsen's Frankenstein this coming summer.
  • Over at Magnificat, director Warren Stewart has been programming music by female composers of the Renaissance and Middle Ages for, well, forever. Support them! Buy tickets! (Well, if they are performing these days - they have not given a concert in a year.)
  • Small, nimble, new music groups are generally doing better than the big organizations, in part because if you're performing new music, it's just about impossible to ignore female composers.

Saturday, March 11, 2017


I'll be updating this regularly as orchestras announce their seasons.

New York Philharmonic

41 composers represented. All white, all European or American.

Men: 40 Women: 1 Dead: 35 Alive: 6

Thanks to Brian Lauritzen for counting the NYPO.

Los Angeles Philharmonic

81 composers represented

50 dead, 31 living!
41 men, 9 women
1 African American, 1 Asian, several Latin American

Count by me. It's an extraordinary season in every way.

Chicago Symphony Orchestra

50 composers represented. 46 dead, 4 living 48 men, 2 women 49 white, 1 African American

Count by me.

Philadelphia Orchestra

54 composers

Men: 53
Women: 1

Dead: 43
Living: 11

White: 51
POC: 3

Works by living composers: 14
Women conducting: 1 (MGT)

San Francisco Symphony

50 composers

Men: 49
Women: 1 (Saariaho)

Dead: 43
Living: 7

White: 50
POC: 0

Works by living composers:  7
Largest number of works by a single composer: Bernstein with 9, not counting WSS film with live orchestra
Women conducting: 1 (Mälkki, who conducts the program with the Saariaho)

Count by me.

Wednesday, March 08, 2017

That Was Fast.

The Met season announcement was on February 17, 2017. Yesterday, just two weeks later, came the first cast change announcement, and it is a doozy. Let's take a look at the first two paragraphs of the press release.
Vittorio Grigolo will sing the role of Cavaradossi for the first time in his career in next season’s much-anticipated new production of Puccini’s Tosca, opening on New Year’s Eve. Grigolo replaces the originally announced Jonas Kaufmann, after the Met learned earlier this week that Mr. Kaufmann was not able to meet his commitments for the rehearsal and performance schedule.
"Our disappointment in losing Jonas was quickly reversed at the prospect of Vittorio singing Cavaradossi," said Met General Manager Peter Gelb. "This season, Vittorio has proven himself to be one of opera's most thrilling performers."
The invaluable Michael  Cooper had an article about this in the Times in which Kaufmann is quoted saying that he is reconsidering his  commitments for "personal and professional reasons," and in which there is also a hint that maybe JK would be available for some performances later in the run.

My translation of this? JK tried to get out of some of his appearances and the Met fired his ass. From Gelb's comments  in the  Times article, it seems that  he quite rightly was concerned that something like this might happen, and he consequently had Grigolo in reserve.

It takes some guts to fire one of the world's most in-demand tenors, one of the few singers who can easily sell out the entire huge Met. I think this was well played by the Met.

And also, I deeply admire the author of the two quietly scorching paragraphs I quote above.

(The balance of the press release tells us about Vittorio Grigolo's  recent appearances at the Met and tells us he's wonderful. Good. :)

UPDATED 3/8/2017: A follow-up article on the situation, again from Michael Cooper.

Tuesday, March 07, 2017

Whither the NY Philharmonic?

In the welter of bad news in late January, I missed a piece of bad news about the NY Philharmonic: After only five years in the job, Matthew VanBesien, the organization's president, is leaving for a position at the University Musical Society at the University of Michigan. The Society is the UMich equivalent of Cal Performances.

He is not going to be easy to replace. It was difficult enough filling Zarin Mehta's shoes five years ago; it is well known that the orchestra approached a number of people before VanBesien signed on. At this point, with a huge amount of money to be raised, a renovation to manage, and facing two years with a homeless orchestra, it will be even more difficult to find someone with the requisite experience (and stomach).

He is not the only important administrator to be leaving the NYPO. Also departing are Edward Yim, the vice president for artistic planning, and Lisa Mantone, the senior vice president who works on capital campaigns and the endowment.

Yim has been a supporter of and collaborator in the orchestra's programming, which I think everyone knows has become much more interesting and adventurous under Gilbert. Yim will become the president of the American Composers Orchestra.

Mantone is a critical person in raising the money needed for the orchestra's long-awaited (and desperately needed) renovation of Philharmonic Avery Fisher Geffen Hall.

And of course Alan Gilbert departs at the end of this season, with a gap year before music director designate Jaap van Zweden comes on board full time.

You have to wonder about all of this and what's under it. It's not entirely clear what happened with Gilbert, whether he is leaving under his own power or whether the board failed to renew his contract. Was VanBesien on the losing end of a power struggle of some kind? Is Yim leaving for a better opportunity, because he is less interested in working with van Zweden than he was with Gilbert, or because the board doesn't have long-term support for the kind of programing we've seen for the last few years? (Or some combination of these possibilities.)

Without someone in Mantone's position, the orchestra will have one more obstacle in raising the estimated $400 million still needed for the renovation, following David Geffen's $100 million.

And as if the news isn't bad enough, Lincoln Center is currently awaiting its new president, Deborah Spar, who joins later this month. So the orchestra will have three important vacancies and Lincoln Center will have a new person, albeit one with New York City-area fundraising.

The board has this to say about the turnover:
Members of both the Lincoln Center and Philharmonic boards said that the timing of Mr. VanBesien’s departure was fortunate because it would allow a new team of leaders at both organizations to move forward together, with Mr. VanBesien’s successor joining Ms. Spar at Lincoln Center and Mr. van Zweden at the Philharmonic.
What spinmeister in PR came up with that nonsense? There is no way that having so many new people coming on board at once is a good thing. In fact, that little paragraph reminds me of the board-level floundering that eventually destroyed the original NYCO.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Selling Tickets

The LA Philharmonic owes me: I sold six tickets to their Nixon in China in addition to the one I bought myself.

Three were purchased by a friend who saw my  new Twitter account, @NixonInChina87, which is dedicated to random tweets from the libretto. She discovered the LA performances and an hour later (or something), had train tickets to travel to LA, tickets to today's second (and last! why only two?!) performance, and plane tickets back to SF.

I went to lunch yesterday with a bunch of friends and by the end of the meal three of them had tickets.

Okay, I don't really think the LAPO owes me. (I owe THEM for putting on this wonderful piece.) But it does point to the value of audience members as evangelists, for an art form,  for an organization, for a particular work, or for a particular performance. It's one reason I advocate for all performing arts orgs to have "bring a friend" and "first one's free" programs. A good review from a knowledgeable stranger can be less valuable than an enthusiastic and trusted friend.

Friday, March 03, 2017

Guest Post: Mike A. in Europe

Mike A., who comments here regularly, sends a report on four operas he saw in Europe: Francesconi's Quartett at the Liceu, Rossini's Semiramide in Munich, Handel's Arminio in Karlsruhe (2017 International Handel Festival, Karlsruhe) and Prokofiev's The Fiery Angel, back in Munich. It's a great bunch of operas with excellent casts and conductors (Susanna Mälkki for Quartett!). Hope you enjoy this long report as much as I did. 
And note that the Semiramide is available on line if you want to follow along.


Introduction/Opera Selection

Planning for opera trips was never an easy task for me. I used a lot of Operabase database, while considering my taste in operas, flight plans and the opera schedules. I like to watch the operas back to back, without any breaks in between, as I don’t have many leave days.

The first opera that I wanted to see for this trip was Arminio in Karlsruhe, as I’m a big fan of George Petrou and his Armonia Atenea. Once I decided on that, then I found out about Semiramide in Munich and its amazing cast, so that was my second choice. Reading reviews about The Fiery Angel (also in Munich) got me excited, and I found out that I could schedule those three back to back. Other operas I was interested in were Quartett and Vivaldi’s Teuzzone, both at Liceu Barcelona, and also Prince Igor in Amsterdam (same production as the Met’s that I missed). Eventually, I decided on Quartett the day before. (Continues after the cut.)

Oakland Friday Photo

Succulents, Laurel District
February, 2017

Wednesday, March 01, 2017


San Francisco Symphony is announcing its 2017-18 season on Monday, and after gazing deeply into my own navel, I have two predictions:
  • Bernstein. Because it's his centenary, and because he was a mentor to MTT. I don't know which Bernstein, but it could be one of his symphonies, it could be a show they haven't done yet, it could be the Mass, which has made quite the comeback in the last few years. (I honestly think that this is the easiest predication in the known universe.)
  • Totentanz. Because we've had Adès' Chamber Symphony, Polaris, and Concentric Paths, the composer's violin concerto. Somebody at SFS is a fan, and Totentanz is making the rounds to great acclaim.
And if the Bernstein Mass and Totentanz aren't performed locally next season, why, the great orchestra to the south has performances of both.

If I were programming next season and it included a lot of Bernstein, I'd try to put him in context by programming music by his contemporaries in the Boston/Brandeis school: Irving Fine, and my teachers Arthur Berger and Harold Shapero. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Los Angeles Philharmonic, 2017-18

Walt Disney Concert Hall, October 2007
Photo by Lisa Hirsch

OMG, the LA Phil's 2017-18 season!!!

A friend in LA very kindly passed along some information to me about five minutes after the season went live around midnight, and OMG I wish I could work from LA for the year. It is the most amazing thing I have ever seen.

Here's a very brief rundown, and note that the repertory must include the Green Umbrella New Music concerts. That's okay; all of this is happening under the aegis of an American orchestra. Nearly every other orchestra whose programming I've seen pales in comparison to this. (As previously noted, I'm very impressed by the adventurous programming of the Princeton Symphony Orchestra, nearly all of whose concerts involve the new or unusual.)

There are 81 (EIGHTY-ONE) composers on the season. Of these, 31 are alive. That's right, the LA Phil and its associated programs have a season on which more than one-third of the composers are alive. Not only that, a significant further number composed entirely or primarily in the 20th c. These include Varese, R. Strauss, Eastman, Schoenberg, Stravinsky, Sibelius, Zimmerman, Weinberg, Vaughan Williams, Bernstein, Bacewicz, Berg, Debussy, Holst, Martirano, Messiaen, and Shostakovich. (Eastman is JULIUS EASTMAN!!)

They're performing music by nine (9) women, 8 of whom are alive (see Bacewicz, whose music i don't know at all). There's one Asian woman (Chen Yi), one deceased African American man (Eastman), and a number of Mexican and other Latin American composers (one Brazilian man, one Cuban-American woman). There is a festival of music by living Mexican composers, looks like. There are also several living Italians, not all male. There are several works by Esa-Pekka Salonen. There are 23 commissions, 22 world premieres, 6 US premieres, and 2 west coast premieres.

Four women are conducting during the season: Mirga Grazinyte-Tyla, Susanna Malkki, Emmanuelle Haim and  Xian Zhang, all of whom have multiple concerts assigned.

I must note that there's no lack of 18th and 19th c. classics. There's Brahms, Mozart, and Beethoven. There's Bach. There's a nice heap of Schumann, including Das Paradies und die Peri and some symphonies. The 18th c. composers are nicely chosen and include Galuppi and Charpentier.

It is an astonishing season. See you at WDCH.

Monday, February 27, 2017

Keilberth Ring at Berkshire Record Outlet

Joseph Keilberth's 1955 Bayreuth Ring, aka the real first stereo Ring, is on sale at the Berkshire Record Outlet for under $100.

This set boasts a terrific cast and remarkable sound. Astrid Varnay is Brünnhilde, Hans Hotter is Wotan, Ramon Vinay, Gre Brouwenstijn, Wolfgang Windgassen, Gustav Neidlinger, and others make it a vocal feast. That's about as good as it gets.

Click this link to see the first page of results at BRO. Right now, this set is at or near the top.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Opera Philadelphia Drops Jaws

I mean that in a good way.

Opera Philadelphia has announced their 2017-18 season, and it is astonishing:

  • The Magic Flute
  • Elizabeth Cree, Kevin Puts, libretto by Mark Campbell. World premiere.
  • We Shall Not Be Moved, Daniel Bernard Roumain, libretto by Marc Bamuthi Joseph. Bill T. Jones directs & choreographs. World premiere.
  • War Stories, Philadelphia premiere,
    • Il combatitmento di Tancredi e Clorinda, Monteverg
    • I Have No Stories to Tell You, Lembit Beecher, libretto by Hannah Moscovitch
  • The Wake World, music & libretto by David Hertzberg. World premiere.
  • Written on Skin, George Benjamin
  • Carmen
Three, count 'em, three world premieres, plus Written on Skin and a Philly premiere. Wow.

Six-Point White Type on Burgundy

Pro tip: if you want people to read the print on that CD by an interesting artist, do not do the following:

  • Print the interior type in approximately 6 or 7 point white type on a burgundy background
  • Print the middle cover, oh, 9 point spidery handwritten black on a mutli-colored background
  • Print the back-cover track listing in approximately 6 or 7 point white type on a background of several shades pink
I am going to send a polite email to the label requesting the text in black on white, 10 point, and pointing them to some accessibility guidelines.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Look What Came in the Mail!

I hadn't taken volume 2c, the critical notes, out of the plastic wrap when I took the photo. Now I have to spend some time clearing space for the score in my bookcases.

The advantage of having the physical score, rather than trying to read a PDF of a deeply flawed 19th c. edition, is that, well, there it is. And on the very first page there's a line of music I had not really noticed in the PDF: the top line isn't the piccolo, it's for "doubles flute antiques," which are supposed to be on stage on the grave of Achilles. Apparently what Berlioz expected was that the oboes would play this, as can be heard on every recording of the work.

Les Troyens in Frankfurt

Care of composer Daniel Wolf, here's a link to a video feature, with performance footage and some yakking, about the Frankfurt Opera's current production of Les Troyens. It's redundant if I say I wish I could see it, because as you all know, I wish I could see any pretty much complete production of the opera. (I will pass on the badly-cut Dusapin "performing edition." I mean, I can imagine the damage done by hacking out more than an hour of the score.)

There are some production photos as well. I'm confused by a photo captioned Hylas, Hecuba, and Cassandre; perhaps that should read Helenus, a short tenor role appearing only in the Troy scenes.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Guest Blogging

Going to a concert I can't get to? Or an opera in the northeast or Europe?

Let me know if you'd like to write a review of it, to be published here. I might do some editing, so please be prepared for that.

Let me know by email, lhirsch@gmail.com, if you'd like to give this a try. I can't promise press tickets, just some glory.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

A Concert I'd Attend

Unfortunately, it's a little far from me, but the Princeton Symphony Orchestra has a great program coming up. What's not to like about this? An excellent soloist and two off-the-beaten-track works.

Sunday, March 19, 2017 – 4 pm; Pre-Concert Talk – 3 pm; Richardson Auditorium

Christopher Lyndon-Gee, conductor
Philippe Graffin, violin

Edward ELGAR                                       Violin Concerto in B Minor, Op. 61
Carl NIELSEN                                            Symphony No. 4, Op. 29 “The Inextinguishable”

Tickets: $82, $65, $52, $33, and $25 (student)

Programs, artists, dates, and times are subject to change.

Monday, February 20, 2017

A Few Notes on "Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix"

Lucas Cranach the Elder, Samson and Delilah

The other week, I ran across an article on Corymbus, via a tweet from the author, Emma Kavanaugh. It's called "Rethinking Sexual Agency in 'Mon coeur s'ouvre a ta voix'" and it's an analysis of Dalila's power and sexuality in the context of 19th century opera and signifiers of exoticism. This is, of course, one of the showstopper arias from Samson et Dalila, the only one of Camille Saint-Saens's dozen operas that is still performed in the US.

The article is largely on target, but I also think that Kavanaugh misses one or two significant points. In addition, one point she's trying to make is simply not supported by the musical evidence.

Here are some useful links, if you'd like to follow along:
  • Text of the aria, Wikipedia, with translations
  • Full score of the opera, IMSLP
  • Lots of mezzos and a few sopranos taking a shot at the aria. I listened to Horne in 1983, at the Met Gala, because that rich, chocolaty tone of hers works very well in this one. I tried to find a recording by a late 19th/early 20th c. French contralto with no success. I'll note that it's interesting to listen to the Italian Ebe Stignani right after Horne. She's singing in Italian, and her timbre is so bright (and admittedly it is a gorgeous sound) that she doesn't sound quite right to me.
In fact, here's Horne:

First off, we are going to take a step or two back and note that Dalila is a mezzo-soprano. This is significant, perhaps twice over. Nineteenth century French opera has some notable mezzo prima donnas, whereas in Italian opera, mezzos are usually the other woman, the witch, the mother. French opera gives us Cassandre, Didon, Dalila, Charlotte, and others. Take a minute to think of Wagner's mezzos, and, well, they're a rather mixed lot.

There's enough association between sex and mezzos, and between the exotic and mezzos, that I think somebody must have written a dissertation about this. Consider Azucena and Ulrica, Verdi's mezzo witches. They are exotic: a gypsy, to use the older term, and a black woman. Consider Princess Eboli, who is in love with Don Carlo while carrying on with his father, and who gets the most exotic, most Spanish, aria in the opera. (Keep the Veil Song in mind, because I'll be getting back to it later.) Berlioz being Berlioz, Didon doesn't have the earthiness of Verdi's mezzos, or of Dalila, but gosh, she is rather obviously having sex with Enée in the Royal Hunt & Storm and again in "Nuit d'ivresse." (There's some exoticism in Troyens but it comes in the Act IV ballet music rather than in the vocal parts.)

And (ahem) how could I forget Carmen, historically sung by both mezzos and sopranos, but sporting gypsy exoticism, the use of Spanish musical styles, and a very free sexuality?

Continuing on the theme of exoticism, if you've listened to the Saint-Saens aria, does the opening sound familiar? That's right: it's awfully similar to what the high strings are doing at the opening of Act 3 of Verdi's Aida, another opera steeped in exoticism. I see that the French premiere of the opera didn't take place until 1876, five years after its world premiere, and Samson's premiere was in 1877. Well, hmm, there are such things in scores, and it seems possible that S-S could have seen the score of Aida. In any event, I do not think this is an accident.

Now, about Dalila's sexuality and how she uses it. Maybe she's just trying to seduce Samson in order to symbolically castrate him....but if you listen to this aria and read the text of it, well, I'd say that she might just have the hots for him. Look at that text: yeah, it might be her heart opening to him, but consider how he might "fill her with ecstasy." That...is all pretty blatant, in my reading.

Kavanaugh discusses the chromaticism and increasing complexity of the orchestral accompaniment as signifiers of exoticism, which is in itself something of a stand-in for sexuality. I agree with that, but I believe she goes too far is her discussion of "wordless vocalisation." She offers as evidence the following phrase, which I've copied directly from her article:

I confirmed on Twitter that yes, she's talking about the "Ah!" in the above example.

I do not buy this as "a wordless vocalisation" (or vocalise, the word she uses earlier). To start with, we're talking about three beats, three-quarters of a four-beat measure in an aria that's about 75 bars long and has lots of words. As a wordless vocalization, it's not much.

The "Ah!" has a couple of functions. It's an intensifier, a sort of a sigh, which is not surprising when she's singing about being filled up with ecstasy. Practically speaking, it is possible the librettist or S-S himself put it in to make the French phrase more singable. Try to fit the words to the phrasing without the "Ah!" and you'll see what I mean.

Lastly, it's the first bar of a two-bar melodic sequence...and it's a sequence that occurs in a number of places in the aria proper and in the duet that follows. Here's another musical example, from the full score:

Note Dalila in the third through sixth measures, where she's singing an elongated version of what's in her aria (unless tempo changes have made the measures sound at the same apparent speed as in the first example), complete with the leap of a 7th, etc. This is now in duet with Samson, who has a sort of inversion of some of what she's singing.

You want an exotic vocalization, I've got one for you, and here we bring in "Nell giardin del bello," the Veil Song, which I suggested you keep in mind a few paragraphs back. Here's the great Fiorenza Cossotto - it's just the first verse, but that should be enough to make my point.

Listen to what she is doing starting around 1:50 or 1:55. Now there is a wordless vocalise, indicating exoticism: in this case, it's fake-Moorish style, entirely appropriate for an opera set in renaissance Spain not all that long after the Jews and Muslims were thrown out of the country. Compare with Dalila's three beats above, and that's why I'm a skeptic.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Pay Attention.

A few weeks ago, Steve Smith sent a link out into the world on Twitter, and included his opinion that it showed some strong arts reporting from the Village Voice, after a period of, well, neglecting arts coverage by laying off most or all of their arts staff. Steve is a great writer and a smart guy, so I clicked the link and read the article.

Just this once, I gotta say: Steve was wrong.

Tara Isabella Burton wrote the article in question, and if you haven't seen her name in the NY classical music press much, it might be because she is currently a graduate student at Oxford, working on a doctorate in theology and fin de siècle French literature. She has published a number of articles on religion, culture, and place, according to her web site. Her portfolio has no music reviews listed except for the one Steve touted....and maybe it should stay that way.

Her article has the title "Strong Heroines Dominate the Met Opera This Season." Now, probably she didn't write the title, but she should have objected to it. For one thing, her article concerns three operas, Kaija Saariaho's L'Amour de Loin, Leos Janacek's Jenufa, and Richard Strauss's Salome.

Those three represent about one quarter of the Met's fall season, when the company also performed Tristan und IsoldeDon GiovanniL'Italiana in AlgeriLa BohemeGuillaume TellAidaNabucco, and The Magic Flute. Burton doesn't make much of a case for the "strong heroines," and I'd certainly like to see her explain why she picked out those three operas as particularly representing strong women. Isolde is no weakling, and neither is Donna Anna, for example.

My guess is that Jenufa, L'Amour de Loin, and Salome are the three operas she was able to see on a trip to NYC. Or maybe they had a special significance to her theological interests; Salome is, more or less, based on a Biblical story; the Saariaho addresses the relationship of Clémence, Countess of Tripoli, with God; Janacek's Kostelnicka is the widow of a deacon.

But there's a much, much more serious issue in the article than my quibbling above: one can reasonably ask where she was and what she was paying attention to during Act 2 of Jenufa, because she gets two major plot points completely wrong.

If you haven't seen the opera and you're not familiar with the plot, here's a nice big SPOILER WARNING for the rest of this blog post.

First, there's this rookie mistake:
... October and November saw the quiet, dark, and hauntingly realistic Jenufa, Czech composer Leoš Janá?ek's's 1904 portrait of the relationship between a young woman (Oksana Dyka), her mother-in-law (Karita Mattila), and their shared act of well-meaning infanticide. A verismo opera, it turns its focus away from mythic figures and toward the lives of average people.
No, actually, the Kostelnicka is not Jenufa's mother-in-law. Jenufa is unmarried at the beginning of the opera, and the Kostelnicka is her stepmother, Jenufa's father's second wife. Now, I haven't seen the Met's program, and maybe there's no family tree, which I consider to be absolutely essential for understanding who is who, how they are related, and why they are in the particular positions they're in at the start of the opera. But here's the Met's synopsis for the fall production, which makes the relationships perfectly clear.

Here's the even more serious howler; note that the Kostelnicka is now correctly identified as Jenufa's stepmother:*
Although Jenufa's circumstances are, in part, dictated by the men around her (after all, her accidental pregnancy serves as the driver for the plot), the crux of the opera lies in Jenufa's and her stepmother's choices and desires — for a fresh start, for a new life, for freedom. They kill Jenufa's unwanted bastard child because they seek to determine their own lives. Both survive to see the curtain fall, a feat for any female opera protagonist, gaining the possibility of at least bittersweet endings.
Well, no. That's not what happens at all. The Kostelnicka drugs Jenufa, then later picks up the baby, scurries into the night, and throws the child into a stream.

It's possible to miss the line or two where the drugging takes place, but if you are watching the stage, it is not possible to miss the fact that Jenufa is sound asleep when the baby is taken. And I'm confident that the production is clear on this point, because I have seen it in both LA and SF. I have some beefs with it, but lack of clarity isn't one of them.

These plot points are crucial for the overall moral arc of the opera. When the truth emerges about who killed the baby, Jenufa forgives the Kostelnicka, in one of the great moments of maturity and insight in all opera.

So the question arises: was Tara Isabella Burton asleep or in the bar for Act 2? And why did she not bother to read the synopsis of an opera that she was going to write about but evidently had not seen before? **

Update: I've sharpened the above a bit and added the paragraph starting "These plot points are crucial." I'd like to also address a comparatively minor issue in Burton's article: she refers to Jenufa as a verismo opera. I winced when I saw this. I understand why she arrived at this description, given that it's possible to look at the opera in the most lurid possible way: young woman is pregnant by a scoundrel who won't marry her, baby is murdered.

At least one of the critics who saw the US premiere in 1925 made the same mistake. Because the opera was sung in a German translation, because virtually no one in the US had any familiarity with Janacek's musical idiom, because a good synopsis might not have been available, I can forgive that error of a critic writing more than ninety years ago. But to make it now is to miss the moral complexities of the work. The Kostelnicka is motivated not only by love for Jenufa, as hard as that love is, but by her experience of being married to Jenufa's father, who was a wastrel in the same ways that Steva, father of Jenufa's baby, is a wastrel. Laca, Steva's half-brother, truly loves Jenufa, and takes extreme, abusive, and debatable measures to keep her from marrying Steva. Jenufa herself grows emotionally over the course of the opera, and, depending on the production, sees the potential bleakness of her eventual marriage to Laca, because they have come together not in joy, but in sorrow.

Compare the above with the superficially similar Cavalleria Rusticana, and you'll see why it does tis great opera a disservice to label it verismo.

Links to 1925 reviews of Jenufa, quoted on this blog:

* Bad copy-editing here, that this inconsistency slipped by.

** Look, you don't forget the plot of this one after the first time you see it.  You just don't.