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Music News

August 18, 2009

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

Symphony Programming: Putting It Together

In my imagination, Michael Tilson Thomas' To Do List includes giving great performances, building the orchestra and bringing in new audiences, while holding on to mature "core" patrons with satisfying programs, finding and introducing new works and performing neglected ones, nurturing local composers ... all the while dealing with fiscal constraints and maintaining fiscal viability.

As for the balancing act between featuring well-known and the rarely performed, there are many strongly expressed opinions, none more prominent locally than that of Robert Commanday. The Classical Voice founding father and scourge of music directors everywhere has been on MTT's case for most of his 14 years here with the San Francisco Symphony.

While usually reviewing MTT's conducting positively, Commanday's criticism (as it was, perhaps more justified, against past music directors) has been over lack of more adventurous programming. Press conference after press conference, Commanday would demand why SFS is not offering more contemporary and — especially — more locally written works.  

So, this summer, while MTT was rounding the globe with guest-conducting assignments, from Asia to Europe to — this week — Tanglewood, where he was a student four decades ago, I posed the following question to him by e-mail:

You blew into town like a fresh breeze, doing wonders for "American music." I will forever treasure the "American Mavericks" festival. Now, it's years later, the economy poses severe constraints on programming, and most of your "new and unusual" programs take place in Miami, with your New World Symphony. [A unique "training orchestra," which doesn't depend on ticket income the way SFS does.]

Given this background, I am asking what (if anything) you can and will do to bring about new vigor to exciting programming.

This is the response:

'Expanding Horizons'

These have been years of expanding horizons for the Symphony. Recording the Mahler cycle and creating Keeping Score has allowed the orchestra to reach many more people on television, radio, the web and educational platforms than ever before. I can’t tell you how many people everywhere I travel speak to me of their delight in one or another of these projects.

We are always seeking to make our programming vigorous, whether commissioning new works or doing festivals featuring the less frequently played works of recognized masters such as Alban Berg and Franz Schubert. If pieces are old or new, it is my belief that audiences are consistently being introduced to pieces — even ones they thought they already knew.

And, as I’m entering my fifteenth season with the San Francisco Symphony, I still feel that level of excitement between orchestra and our audience that I felt when I first started with the SFS. For in these years together, we have developed a very nuanced and personal approach to making music. And that’s true for music both familiar to our audiences as well as new music.

Plans for the Immediate Future

Here are a few areas we’re exploring in the immediate future. We are making a strong effort to expand the boundaries of orchestral repertoire, both with new music and an increased emphasis on less frequently performed music. The season features commissions by John Adams, Peter Lieberson, Osvaldo Golijov and Victor Kissine. We’ll be performing over 20 works for the very first time with the orchestra.

I’m personally looking forward to conducting a new commissioned work by Kissine, the first performances of maverick composer Charles Ives’ Concord Symphony, orchestrated by the equally maverick Henry Brant, Litolff’s Scherzo from Concerto Symphonique No. 4, the first SFS performances of Threni by Igor Stravinsky and Giacinto Scelsi's Hymnos.

Project SF

We’re also bringing new and varied programming to our audiences through our new Project San Francisco series, with artists and composers important to the SFS coming to perform in an in depth musical setting. Last season brought Sofia Gubaidulina and her extraordinary Violin Concerto. Next season George Benjamin, a friend of the SFS from the "Wet Ink" days, returns to bring two weeks of adventurous music making. Project SF artist Yo-Yo Ma, who is no stranger to our audiences, will be featured in a range of programs including the world premiere of a co-commission by Peter Lieberson. The Project SF residency is a way to both expand the repertoire and deepen the connections with significant composers and performing artists of our time.

Living in the Online World

Through residencies, guest artist projects, Keeping Score, our journey programs and doing work in the online world, the focus on musical context adds to the richness of our musical community. I certainly am feeling many more levels of expression in all of the music I am studying and performing and look forward to reaffirming with my colleagues the brilliant and emotionally generous playing for which the orchestra has become known. It is these qualities, in all the repertoire we play, that will be at the very center of everything the orchestra is doing as we approach our centennial year [in 2012].

I look forward to seeing you in the hall this September.

Next week: comments from the loyal opposition, still yearning for more support of composers from around here.

Audio Mother Lode to UC Bancroft Library

Already a grand repository of audio programs (see below), UC Berkeley's Bancroft Library made a huge acquisition on Monday. City Arts and Lectures Executive Director Sydney Goldstein donated all 1,300 digital audio programs from the series' 28 years to the library.

The lecture/interview series — featuring some of the most distinguished figures in music, literature, arts, and science — will be available in three months to visitors and online to the UC Berkeley community, but in the future, the archives will be open to all on the Internet. City Arts and Lectures will continue to donate future programs to Bancroft Library, building the archives indefinitely.

Some of the programs Goldstein mentioned in her presentation:

Terry Gross hosting Rosemary Clooney in conversation and song, Doris Lessing candidly talking about her work, I.F. Stone with fellow investigative reporter Jessica Mitford, Yo-Yo Ma with cello in conversation with Orville Schell, and Günter Grass in a rare American appearance with Scott Simon.

Audiences pack Herbst Theatre for more than 50 events each year, and the events are then broadcast on some 170 public radio stations across the nation. The donation of such massive audio archives, preserved in digital form, is the first gift of its kind. With support from William and Margaret Hearst, City Arts and Lectures worked with San Francisco-based Digital Revolution to transfer hundreds of old tapes and dated forms into this lasting format.

The programs include appearances by actors Alan Alda, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Steve Martin, Gilda Radner, Lily Tomlin, Gene Wilder, and Robin Williams; directors Spike Lee and George Lucas; authors Dave Eggers, Stephen King, Norman Mailer, Frank McCourt, Toni Morrison, Salman Rushdie, Wallace Stegner, Calvin Trillin, Alice Walker, and David Foster Wallace; poets Billy Collins, Robert Hass, and Allen Ginsberg; photographer Annie Leibovitz; artist Wayne Thiebaud; singers Rosemary Clooney, Linda Ronstadt, and Aimee Mann; composer Stephen Sondheim; journalists Malcolm Gladwell, Terry Gross, Studs Terkel, and Mike Wallace; Supreme Court Justices Sandra Day O’Connor and Stephen Breyer; former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, among many others.

In the coming months, guests will include actress Isabella Rossellini, journalist and novelist George Packer, and writers Jonathan Lethem, Joyce Carol Oates, and Barbara Kingsolver.

The library is home to the world's finest collection of primary sources on the history of California and the American West, and one of the largest and most heavily used libraries of manuscripts, rare books, and unique materials in the United States. The library houses the University Archives, the Mark Twain Papers and Project, rare books and manuscripts, the Regional Oral History Office, paintings, millions of photographs, the Center for Tebtunis Papyri, original sketches of the atomic bomb, four hand-powered printing presses, and wide-ranging literary collections.

As Music News has noted in the past, Bancroft's Regional Oral History Office offers a unique storehouse of original sources about music. When we celebrated Madi Bacon's life, music historian Caroline Crawford called attention to the ROHO collection, including one about Bacon.

Crawford's oral histories include Jean-Louis LeRoux, James Schwabacher, Joaquin Nin-Culmell, Kurt Herbert Adler, Sándor Salgó, Ruth Felt, and Donald Pippin, among many others.

One of the major multi-interviewee projects is Artists and Staff of the San Francisco Opera, including profiles of scores of artists. In process are histories of the late Ali Akbar Khan, and of the Kronos Quartet.

Singing Against Foreclosure

Against a handful of highly priced opera singers, the vast majority of artists are just trying to make a living, like you and me — and it often becomes a struggle, especially for the young and more notably during economic upheavals. For every canceled opera production, there are scores of people losing income.

What's unusual about tenor Emmanuel di Villarosa is that he has gone public with his fight against foreclosure of his family home, putting it all on the line.

Instead of just asking for contributions, Villarosa is attempting to sell CDs of arias he recorded.

Seattle Ring Broadcasts

Up there yonder in the Pacific Northwest, you can listen to KING FM-98.1; if you're anywhere else, it's KING.org. For program information, see the Seattle Opera Web site.

Das Rheingold is in the past (last Saturday), but the other three operas are coming the next three Saturdays, Die Walküre (Aug. 22) and Siegfried (Aug. 29) begin at 7 p.m. PDT, Götterdämmerung (Sept. 5) at 6. (See a recent SFCV review by Robert Commanday.)

Speaking of the Seattle Ring, here is the top of a report from a true Wagner fan, Jean Scarr, who has spent "a busy week with lectures, symposium, social events and great opera. Not much sleep, but worth every moment ..."

If you want to see a production that Wagner could have visualized, get a ticket for the remaining two cycles in Seattle (Aug. 17-30). I have seen many Ring productions, but this one tops the list for scenic beauty and character development.

Stephen Wadsworth, the stage director, has achieved what few directors can, a believable and dramatic satisfying relationship among all those on stage, whether they are singing at the moment or reacting to what others are doing. These characters are real, alive, and human. All the emotions are there: love, hate, jealousy, envy, fear, fury, revenge, loyalty, indecision, hope.

The scenic beauty of the Pacific Northwest prevails throughout. Only the Gibichung sets are less than satisfying. The ending works and pretty much follows Wagner's directions, but on the last chord, the pristine forest scene reappears, sending the message that perhaps the next time around things will be different.

For another, more critical view, see Fred Hauptman's report in Crosscut.com.

Back to top

Mike Richter Returns

Back in February, we reported the heart attack and hospitalization of Mike Richter, creator of the Opera Encyclopedia, owner of the first — and still best — comprehensive Web site about opera.

Because of his severe heart disease, Richter was unable to attend live performances for the past quarter century. Ironically and poignantly, the man who has invested enormous amounts of time, effort, and money, through a half decade, in creating CD-ROMs preserving great music that otherwise would have been lost, did not have a chance to witness live opera himself.

It took half a year after the multiple bypass operation, but Mike has now sufficiently recovered to attend the Ravinia Rigoletto on Sunday, and even post a brief review of it:

I had a chance to hear the first half of Rigoletto last night. (Had I been up to it, I could have heard it all.)

The big event was Hvorostovsky's Rigoletto. Of course, with the mikes one cannot tell size of voice but it had the right response for the big moments; the quiet ones tended to poor projection. Since they were also underplayed, I'd say he has a lot to do to mature in the role.

Gilda was Eglise Gutierrez, a lyric with adequate technique, beautiful tone and little enunciation of the text. The tenor, Stefano Secco, was dry and as dull as possible for one with the notes. Both men had moments wandering off the score, but not seriously.

One potential winner was Morris Robinson as Sparafucile. A most attractive instrument with true profondo tone.

Web Masters, Read the Small Print!

Got some heated reaction to last week's Music News item about looking for, and not finding, information about the Fall portion — repeat: the Fall portion — of the next season.

Captain Renault in Casablanca was only "Shocked ... shocked!," but a Highly Placed Source with the ABS wrote of being "horrified" being included in the list thusly: "American Bach Soloists (Messiah only?) ..."

In fact, Messiah is the only program scheduled for the rest of 2009, but this could serve as a fine opportunity to point to the well-documented ABS programs, in 2010. As with Captain Renault, this too could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship. And, impossible to resist, from Casablanca:

Sweetnessheart, what watch?

Ten watch.

Such much?

AH! 'Differentiates and Joins Human Beings'

I cannot improve on this, and wouldn't think of trying to:

AH! opera no-opera is a language/theatrical/musical soundswordsoundsworld experience for an interactive audience of Creative Engagers. AH! opera no-opera integrates sound and word, such that music and libretto are not separate, not different from one another (not one and another at all), born from the origins of both music and language, illuminating their power to both differentiate and join human beings.

Inspired by the nonsectarian spirit of a Buddhist Diamond Sutra, composer-performer David Rosenboom and poet-writer Martine Bellen developed an interactive opera generator in the shape of a Mandala (Wheel of Life) with 13 interlinking, hyperlinking stories, and their movable parts and pathways.

In its present cycle of rebirth, AH! opera no-opera is being performed at REDCAT in Los Angeles on Sept. 16, 17, and 18, with staging by director Travis Preston, scenic design by Christopher Barreca, and a host of other contributing artists, brought to you with the generous support of the Transatlantic Arts Consortium and the Evelyn Sharp Foundation as part of A Counterpoint of Tolerance project.

Ten composer/performers from around the world have been brought together to investigate—through musical collaboration—human conditions in the new era of globalization. AH! is the blooming implications of that peaceful illumination.

The collaborating composer-performers are Iván Caramés Bohigas (Spain), Michael-Thomas Foumai (US-Hawaii), Alex Kotch (US-North Carolina), Claudio Maldonado (Argentina-Patagonia), Vedran Mehinovic (Bosnia), Natalie Oram (UK), Doo Jin Park (Korea), Jerónimo (Jxel) Rachenberg (Mexico), Diana Syrse Valdés Rosado (Mexico), and Xiaolang Zhou (China).

But here's something else to consider beyond the purple haze of the announcement: UC Santa Cruz music professor Fred Lieberman is sticking up for the project:
This is a case where I have to ignore the New-Age-y verbiage and go with my longterm knowledge of David Rosenboom, one of the half-dozen most interesting living composers, and because of his long-term deanship at CalArts, one of the least known. He's spent most of his energy teaching and facilitating the works of others, so it's increasingly rare to have a major work from him.

In the meantime, take my word for it, if Rosenboom's imprimatur and music are featured, AH! will have some wonderful moments. And nowadays, I'm thankful for a few wonderful moments, no matter how flakey the PR ...

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