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Music News

August 17, 2010

Stay up to date with weekly classical music news from the Bay Area, across the US & around the World.

Leading-Edge Opera in a Bleeding-Purse World?

While the San Francisco Opera is struggling, along with all U.S. companies, things go swimmingly in some European opera houses, recession or not.

Surely, both the city and the state here have too many fiscal woes to bother with opera, except for the fact that both governments are freeloading on opera tourism.

Thousands of SFO's last fall season attendance of 118,000 came from other states or countries, a combination of local ticket-buyers and major cultural tourism bringing in millions of dollars in hotel-restaurant-transportation revenue and taxes.

For the upcoming Wagner Ring, the tourist factor will be significantly greater, if the 1999 Ring attendance of 38 percent from outside the region is any indication. And yet, how is the company supported in exchange? With next to nothing.

And so, even with General Director David Gockley's unique record (in the U.S.) of presenting new works every season for a third of a century in Houston, and his persistent determination to continue leading the way, the 2010-2011 SFO season has no new works, one relatively rarely performed work (Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac), coproductions of Aida, Werther, Madama Butterfly, The Makropulos Affair, and the 1982 SFO production of The Marriage of Figaro.

Two of the coproductions are SFO-generated, Werther is in partnership with the Chicago Lyric Opera, Makropulos with Helsinki — and those two cities share ownership, and the right to use the productions in their cities. Gockley has initiated and managed scores of such partnerships during his Houston decades.

The San Francisco total: six operas in the fall, and the four Ring operas next summer.

Compare that with a state-supported opera company's next season, even if the country in question has a California-size budget deficit. In Budapest, which is only 2 1/2 times the size of San Francisco, the Hungarian State Opera alone offers three world premieres, seven new productions, as well as 28 operas and 20 ballets. The three new works are all Hungarian: István Márta's Amazing Cellphone World, Gyula Fekete's Excelsior!, and the László Dés/Marianna Venekei ballet, A Streetcar Named Desire (known as such, rather than "A vágy villamosa" in Magyar vernacular).

Other new productions include the teenage Mozart's Ascanio in Alba, and — on the bicentennial of the birth of "national composer" Ferenc Erkel — of Bánk bán in an "interpretation" by Césare Lievi. Considering the musically undeserved, but historically well-established central role of the work in Hungary, if this is a re-interpretation, that's a bold, if possibly foolish, venture.

New productions of old classics include those of Boito's Mefistofele, Verdi's Macbeth, Wagner's The Flying Dutchman and Lohengrin — the last two as part of the city's 2011 Wagner Days celebration. A new ballet production is that of Frederick Ashton's La Fille mal gardée.

If you want to see a spectacular comparison, consider the Südthüringisches Staatstheater of Meiningen, a Thuringian city with a meager 21,000 population, whose opera presentations — in addition to theater, ballet, chamber music, etc. — include Wagner's Rienzi, Rossini's Mose in Egitto, Lortzing's Der Wildschütz, Verdi's I Due Foscari, Zeller's Der Vogelhaendler, a Zarzuela and more ...

Comments an opera-loving visitor to San Francisco, who prefers to remain anonymous:

Those old European cities well know how much they depend culture tourism, and obviously San Francisco doesn't have the same understanding. City leaders don't appreciate the fact that the Opera is similar to the cable cars, Fisherman's Wharf, and the like.

A city is a giant machine designed to extract money from people, and clearly San Francisco should be putting more money into the opera — or something else besides salaries, benefits, and retirement funds for civil servants. To an outsider, it seems the city is charging enough for parking and parking tickets to sponsor 100 operas!

Cleveland Opera Shuts Down

Having raised almost $1 million to complete the 2010 season (with Bizet's The Pearl Fishers, Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci, and Poulenc's La Voix humaine in November) and operating without much of its paid staff since June, Cleveland Opera has canceled its next season.

Artistic Director Dean Williamson, who conducts all performances, agreed to the suspension in 2011 of the second year of his two-year contract.

The company's educational programs will continue at least through the end of the 2011 academic year, and the chorus plans future concerts, but without the Opera Cleveland Orchestra, whose contract expires at the end of this year.

The shutdown is not final. Cleveland community leaders are expected to recommend how the company, probably with a new name, should produce opera, attract new subscribers, and establish financial security.

Where Are They Now?

James Gaffigan

Looking through the list of the Dresden Staatskapelle conductors for the next season, you will find Rudolf Barschai (still active, as he is turning 86 next month), Daniel Harding (who will conduct the orchestra in San Francisco on Oct. 24), Vladimir Jurowski, Charles Mackerras (who had many future engagements scheduled before his death three weeks ago), Esa-Pekka Salonen, and others.

Then there are two locally familiar faces. One, no surprise, is Herbert Blomstedt, SFS conductor emeritus — and chief conductor of the Staatskapelle for a decade, ending in 1985. The other name is what makes news: It's James Gaffigan, former SFS associate conductor (the only one with that title in the orchestra's recent history), and still only 30 years old. He will make his debut with the Staatskappelle in January. According to program notes:

James Gaffigan is one of the most promising of the latest generation of conductors. At the beginning of 2010 he was appointed principal conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra as well as principal guest conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.

His recent guest appearances include concerts with the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and the Tonhalle Orchestra of Zurich.

Alexandra Ivanoff

Alexandra Ivanoff — veteran San Francisco singer, SFO Chorus member, pianist, piano teacher, music PR maven, and journalist — has been living in Istanbul, writing about music and the arts for several publications there.

She is a regular in the English edition of Zaman ("Time"), a major, high-circulation daily newspaper in Turkey. Ever multitasking, Ivanoff also designs Ottoman-style clothing.

Ailyn Pérez

Former Merola Program participant Ailyn Pérez joined Merola/Adler veteran John Relyea last week in a last-minute rescue of the Ravinia Festival production of The Marriage of Figaro. They sang the roles of the Countess and Figaro, when the originally cast Rebecca Evans and Ildebrando D'Arcangelo withdrew.

In the Ravinia program, Relyea's San Francisco affiliations are mentioned prominently, but Pérez' bio — similarly to many other Merolinis, alas — has no reference to her S.F. experience, which includes a much praised lead performance in the 2005 The Rake's Progress, and a title role SFO mainstage Traviata two years ago.

Pérez also made her debut in the Vienna State Opera earlier this year in the role of Violetta; joined her husband, tenor Stephen Costello, as Mimì and Rodolfo in La bohème in Cincinnati; sang Léïla in The Pearl Fishers in Santiago; and Pamina in The Magic Flute in Berlin.

She also had engagements with Staatsoper Hamburg (La traviata), San Diego Opera (Roméo et Juliette), Teatro alla Scala (Simon Boccanegra), and elsewhere.

M-A PAC: Envy of the Region

The Menlo-Atherton Performing Arts Center, discovered and hailed here last week, is a terrific addition not only to [email protected] venues, but to the musical life of the Bay Area as well. The hall is a beauty, with terrific acoustics (Paul Scarbrough of Akustiks) and featuring one of finest pianos I have ever heard. It seats 500. [The piano reference was to a Hamburg Steinway; turns out, [email protected] also has an American Steinway, which happens to be artistic director Wu Han's favorite — but not mine.]

Hodgetts+Fung Architecture and Design has created an unusual, truly functional, aesthetically pleasing, and instantly comfortable hall. The raked audience space provides fine sight lines. There is great imagination in the effective simplicity of stage lighting from the ceiling projecting shadows of the grid hiding them to the wall behind the stage.

Because the hall is part of the M-A High School, getting information about it had been like pulling teeth (going back a whole year), and no decent shot of the interior was available because, understandably, the photographer for the renting [email protected] focused on the performers, not the facility. Also, it's not easy to shoot a half-lit interior.

Michael Strickland to the rescue, and now you can get an idea of what the place looks like.

San Francisco badly needs a facility of this size and excellence, for chamber music and small-scale orchestral and opera performances. Herbst Theatre is too big, with a stage that's too small; the Legion's Florence Gould has a postage stamp for "stage" (and a city administration unfriendly to nonprofits); Fort Mason's Cowell has marginal acoustics, and so on. Yerba Buena is just about the only venue that fits the bill, and the performance-space needs of this busy city far exceed that.

[email protected]'s closing Prelude concert was delightful: violinist Hye-Jin Kim was brilliant and pianist David Fung's accompaniment (rather than equal partnering) good enough in the Janáček Sonata for Violin and Piano. It is a complex, difficult masterpiece, with one of the strangest and stunning final bars in all music.

The Dvořák String Sextet in A Major received a uniformly excellent performance, led by violinists Timothy Braun and Michelle Ross, with violists Molly Carr and Mario Gotoh, cellists Alice Yoo, and Gabriel Cabezas.

Music's Fairy Godmother Champions S.F. Academy Orchestra

Samira Baroody, one of the region's kindest and most effective mentors of young musicians — in the august company of Frederica von Stade, the San Domenico School's Faith France, James Meredith of Sonos, and others — is taking on yet another project as managing director of the San Francisco Academy Orchestra.

Lebanese-born Baroody has been a San Francisco resident for many years, and she had a vital role in launching Pocket Opera from the Old Spaghetti Factory, leading Midsummer Mozart out of crises (twice), and heading the S.F. Boys Chorus since 1989.

After a couple of years being out of circulation, as she is taking up the cause of the Academy Orchestra, Baroody minces no words about the importance of the organization:

Andrei Gorbatenko, bass player, is the founder and music director of the orchestra. I like to refer to him as "the 21st century Koussevitzky." Some of the young players are members of the S.F. Symphony, some are the best freelance musicians in the Bay Area. Oct. 10 is the opening of their 10th anniversary season, celebrated in the orchestra's usual venue, the Calvary Presbyterian Church.
The program at the anniversary concert will be Mozart's Adagio and Fugue, Elgar's Introduction and Allegro, and Piazzolla's Four Seasons in Buenos Aires. Gorbatenko conducts, while Axel Strauss is the violin soloist.

Marking the Recession With Memories of the Great Depression

California Symphony's 2010-2011 season will squeeze into just four concerts two world premieres and a 75th anniversary tribute to the Works Progress Administration's Federal Music Project.

The Walnut Creek orchestra's 24th season will introduce works by UC Berkeley music professor Cindy Cox and the soon-to-be-announced Young American Composer-in-Residence. The season opens on Oct. 3, with Copland's Federal Music Project-financed Quiet City and the less-known orchestral version of John Henry, Ernst Bacon's Remembering Ansel Adams, and Beethoven's Symphony No. 7.

Bedford Gallery, located in the Lesher Center for the Arts that's also home to the orchestra, will have an exhibit on The American Scene: New Deal Art, 1935-1943 during the Symphony season. Gallery and orchestra are both recognizing the great influence that the WPA's Composers' Forum-Laboratory and Federal Music Project had on the development of American music in just five years, 1935-1940.

The Music Project employed 15,000 musicians for some 225,000 performances, while the Composers' Forum-Laboratory spawned 6,000 new works. Now that was a federal bailout worthy of the name.

Bacon, who died in Orinda in 1990, served as the supervisor of the WPA project in San Francisco and conducted its orchestra from 1935 to 1937. Bacon and Ansel Adams shared a lifelong friendship, which included a mutual passion for the environment as well as music. (Adams was a fine pianist, not only a great photographer.)

The program will feature three orchestral musicians as soloists: flutist Monica Daniel-Barker, a prizewinner at top competitions in Italy and Japan; award-winning clarinetist Jerome Simas, who can be heard on two Michael Tilson Thomas recordings and frequently performs with motion picture studio orchestras at Skywalker Ranch; and violist Marcel Gemperli, a Harvard graduate who continued his musical studies in Germany and Switzerland as a Henry Russell Shaw Fellow.

The second program, on Jan. 23, is called The Suite Sounds of the California Symphony, presenting suites by Bizet, Copland, Rodrigo, Sondheim, Bernstein, Puccini, and — heaven forfend! — Andrew Lloyd Webber.

March 6 will have the Cox premiere, Chaminade's Flute Concertino (Daniel-Barker), Max Bruch's Concerto for Clarinet and Viola (Simas, Gemperli), and Dvořák's Symphony No. 7.

The May 1 concert, New Beginnings, offers the yet-to-be-announced world premiere, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 with 16-year-old Rieko Tsuchida, and Shostakovitch’s Symphony No. 5.

Requiem for Fossil Fuels

We just report news here, without fear or favor, often without recommendation, at times just for the hell of it.

In that spirit, here's something that's part of the 01SJ Biennial, Sept, 16–19. "It" is a pending "intersection of four virtuosic human voices and the fossil-fueled din of helicopters, jets, traffic, busses, horns, train wheels, and sirens erupting in a composition that pours gasoline on Dante's Inferno."

This is Requiem for Fossil Fuels, from "O+A," aka Bruce Odland and Sam Auinger. Human participants, to blend their voices with the aforementioned noises, are soprano Martha Cluver, mezzo Hai-Ting Chin, tenor John Young, and bass Joshua South.

Also participating: an eight-channel "Orchestra of Cities" in a "unique setting of the Requiem Mass offered to a world struggling to reconcile its utter dependence on fossil fuels with the coming end of oil, coal, and peat." (The end of peat is news to me.)

Portions of the Latin Mass are interspersed with such episodes as:

Tuning installation by O+A at the World Financial Center. This location, facing New York Harbor with its huge glass and steel courtyard, fragments and amplifies passing aircraft. Three tubes in the key of C, G, and D transform this chaos, along with the sounds of waves, water, and air.
You can see and hear the portions of the work, including the Benedictus on YouTube. The performance is scheduled on Sept. 18, in St. Joseph's Cathedral Basilica in San José. Performances are also given Oct. 19 and 20 at New York City's Judson Memorial Church.

A Musical United Nations Stands Up for the Uyghurs

In less than six degrees of separation, a Kronos Quartet partner and the cause of Uyghurs meet this week in Osnabrück's Morgenland Festival.

Through Aug. 22, the German city in Lower Saxony, west of Hannover, is the venue for a cultural confluence of the West, Middle East, and Central Asia. The slogan for the festival is "Culture knows no limits."

With the participation of Azerbaijan's best-known musician, the singer Alim Qasimov, who has performed with the Kronos and Yo-Yo Ma; Iranian kamancheh player Ruzbeh Asadian; Rosario "La Tremendita," Salvador Gutiérrez, and Sergio Martínez from Spain; Moslem Rahal and Firas Hassan from Syria; bands from Hamburg, Damascus, and others, the festival focuses on the cultural activities of the Uyghur people, a Turkic ethnic group living in the autonomous region of Xinjiang, in China.

No political statements are made, but the news is inescapable about Beijing's ongoing repression of the Uyghurs, who struggle to maintain their cultural heritage, even while being accused of "terrorism."

The Uyghur homeland borders on Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan in the West, Mongolia in the Northeast, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Tibet in the South and Southwest, and China in the East. The region stretches over 1.8 million square kilometers, about one-sixth of the full territory of China, including Tibet and Inner Mongolia.

The music of this Muslim minority in the Northwest of China is based, as in the Arab, Persian, and other Central Asian musical traditions, on the maqamat. These are musical modal structures that are most easily compared, in Western music, with modes or, in jazz, scales. The festival's program will offer various events, ranging from traditional Uyghur music to dance workshops and exhibitions and even rock concerts in which the contrast between native traditions and Western influences releases new kinds of energy.

The significance of the festival's venue is in Osnabrück's history. It was the Treaty of Osnabrück that brought an end to the Thirty Years' War, so the very name of the city has been emblematic of the desire for understanding and tolerance.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].