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Music News

August 24, 2010

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

S.F. Symphony Season — in Their Words

Reversing, just this once, the customary arrangement of musicians performing and writers writing, Music News offered San Francisco Symphony Executive Director Brent Assink and Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas this forum to speak about the orchestra's upcoming season, the 99th.


Some might view the 99th as a time of collective breath-holding, a type of placeholder while we get ready for the big centennial. But we decided several years ago that the SFS would actually approach this period as a trajectory, one which propels us into our second century with ever increasing attentiveness to artistic growth and to our contribution of the vibrancy of this community.

This season continues to expand the boundaries of orchestral repertoire, showcases the talents of our orchestra and chorus, emphasizes artists and composers important to our time, and shares our music with the world.

I'm very excited by the presence of so many orchestra members as soloists this season: Russ de Luna, Mark Inouye, Carey Bell, and Stephen Paulson all in our first three weeks. They will perform in Copland's Quiet City, Debussy's Premiere Rapsodie for Clarinet, Villa-Lobos' Ciranda das sete notas — these are all very unusual pieces and pieces that I really love.

Principal viola Jonathan Vinocour is featured in Morton Feldman's intricate Rothko Chapel and [Concertmaster] Sasha Barantschik is playing the Mendelssohn Concerto, which was premiered on the violin he plays with us in Davies Hall [the 1742 "David" Guarnerius del Gesu]. This really showcases the high level of musicianship we have in the orchestra.

We also celebrate Ragnar Bohlin's wonderful work with the Symphony Chorus in tackling two of the major works of the choral repertoire, the Mozart Requiem and Beethoven's Missa Solemnis. I'm also looking forward to an all-Richard Strauss program with Elza van den Heever, a glorious artist that all of San Francisco has fallen in love with over the past few years.

"Project San Francisco" residencies are always a highlight of our season: two weeks of John Adams' music, a double-barrel of two of our commissions of his music, and of course my good friend Yuja Wang will be back, this time as resident artist. It’s been so wonderful to follow Yuja's incredible growth in the last few years. She and I have been working on all sorts of new and interesting pieces lately, and we’re very much looking forward to performing Béla Bartók's Second Piano Concerto next spring.

After 15 seasons with this orchestra, I’m so glad to see so many of our long term projects come to fruition. The Mahler Recording Project continues next spring PBS will air the final programs of Keeping Score, and we'll be traveling to Europe where we've been asked to present four Mahler symphonies to European audiences as they celebrate this composer during his centenary. It’s all very exciting stuff.

Sondheim Classic at 42nd Street Moon

San Francisco's small, brave, pioneering 42nd Street Moon is in the business of preserving gems of "forgotten Broadway," but they will open the fall season with a well-known work, the early and hilarious Steven Sondheim musical, A Funny Thing Happened on The Way to Forum.

The production — about troublesome Romans and their uppity slaves — has a gender-bending casting with comic actress Megan Cavanagh playing the lead role of the excessively male wily slave, Pseudolus. On Broadway, after first Zero Mostel, then Phil Silvers, and much later Nathan Lane in the role, Whoopi Goldberg broke the mold as Pseudolus, as well.

Forum will run in the Eureka Theatre, Oct. 6-24. Company Director Greg MacKellan is staging it, the music director is Dave Dobrusky, who is also the one-piano "orchestra."

Michael Rhone plays Pseudolus' fellow slave Hysterium; Hero, Pseudolus' master, is Luke Chapman; the role of Phila, Hero's beloved, is taken by Meghan Ihle. Bob Greene, who returns to the Moon stage 10 years after his appearances in Do Re Mi and Fiorello!, is cast as Hero's father, Senex, with Chris Macomber as his overbearing wife, Domina. Rudy Guerrero and Rob Hatzenbeller play the roles of Lycus (a dealer in courtesans) and Miles Glorosus (his warrior client) respectively.

Adams' El Niño at the Edinburgh Festival

John Adams' El Niño was well received at the Edinburgh Festival, as exemplified in a Financial Times review by Andrew Clark:

When El Niño premiered in Paris 10 years ago, it was mugged by a Peter Sellars staging that turned Adams' contemporary take on the Nativity into a political tract. Friday's allowed the music to speak, revealing the fluent combination of ecstatic choruses, crescendo-like solos and quiet lyrical interludes, expressed in an idiom stressing simplicity and piety on the surface, yet hinting at sensuousness, suffering, and complexity beneath.

The three countertenors' narrative came across strongly, as did the serene finale with the National Youth Choir of Scotland. The rest needed cleaner rhythmic definition. The BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra and Edinburgh Festival Chorus struggled with James Conlon's beat, and the two female soloists, Jessica Rivera and Kelley O'Connor, sounded pretty, but uncharismatic. Willard White, in the Joseph/Herod role, supplied gravitas — and a first-night audience thrilled to a contemporary masterwork.

Hamilton Retires From Diablo Symphony

Joyce Johnson Hamilton, who has led the Diablo Symphony for 30 years, is retiring at the end of the orchestra's 2010-2011 season.

As the Contra Costa County orchestra will mark its 50th anniversary in 2013, "this is the perfect time for the orchestra to transition to new artistic leadership and another enthusiastic, younger conductor to carry on our organization's wonderful tradition," Hamilton said in announcing her retirement.

She will conduct her final concert on May 15 at the Symphony’s home base, the Lesher Center for the Arts in Walnut Creek. Hamilton said she will remain active in early music performances and devote more time to teaching, composing, and arranging. She is an accomplished trumpet player and specialist in Renaissance and Baroque brass instruments.

According to the League of American Orchestras, Hamilton is one of only 41 women out of more than 1,000 member symphonies in the U.S. to hold the title of both conductor and music director.

Board of Directors President Pat Campbell called Hamilton "a major and guiding force in elevating the orchestra to high artistic levels and establishing it as a respected and valued musical organization in the region." A committee of musicians has been formed to find a successor.

In addition to her career with the Diablo Symphony, Hamilton serves on the faculty at Stanford University. She has been assistant conductor of the Oakland Symphony, San Jose State University Symphony Orchestra, the Seoul Philharmonic in Korea, the Nebraska Chamber, and the Napa Symphony, among many others.

Czech Nonet Debut at Morrison Artists Series

Ronald Caltabiano, new artistic director of the Morrison Artists Series at San Francisco State, has announced the free-concert series' 55th season, opening with the debut here of the Czech Nonet, on Oct. 10.

One of the oldest chamber ensembles in the world, the Czech Nonet was founded in 1924 by students of the Prague Conservatory, according to instrumental requirements of Louis Spohr's Nonet — violin, viola, violoncello, contrabass, and wind quintet. They will perform the Martinu Nonet (written for the ensemble in 1959), Daniel Asia's Nonet, the Wagner Siegfried Idyll, and Isa Krejci's Divertimento.

Others featured at the 3 p.m. Sunday concerts: Peabody Trio (Nov. 7), Alexander String Quartet (Dec. 3), Israeli Chamber Project (Feb. 11), S.F. Contemporary Music Players (March 6), and the Juilliard String Quartet (April 3).

Caltabiano is a composer, a music professor, and associate dean of the College of Creative Arts. He gives a lecture one hour before each concert.

Convergence of Jewish, Black, and Hispanic Music

The little-known history of music shared by the Jewish, African American, and Hispanic communities will be featured in several ways here in the coming days.

The Idelsohn Society for Musical Preservation is a small, but prominent, organization of people from the music industry and academia "who passionately believe Jewish history is best told by the music we have loved and lost."

Idelsohn's work will be seen here in an exhibit, in a special concert, and on CD release:

- The "Black Sabbath: The Secret Musical History of Black-Jewish Relations" exhibit opens at the Contemporary Jewish Museum on Thursday

- On Monday, there is a "Mazeltov, Mis Amigos" concert at Yoshi's Jazz Club, at 8 p.m. (Mazeltov means congratulations or good luck in Yiddish.)

- On Sept. 14, release is scheduled of the Black Sabbath CD.  The Contemporary's exhibit explores black-Jewish musical encounter in 20th-century America. Examples of Johnny Mathis singing Kol Nidre, Cab Calloway speaking Yiddish, Aretha Franklin doing a '60s take on Swanee, Lena Horne repertory inclusions, and the Temptations singing from Fiddler on the Roof lead to a larger picture of black artists treating Jewish music as a resource.

At Yoshi's, Arturo O'Farrill of the Afro Cuban Sextet leads a recreation of the 1961 album of "Yiddish Favorites in Latin Tempo" in its entirety.

Besides a host of diverse musicians — such as Larry "El Judeo Maravilliso" Harlow, Wil-Dog of Ozomatli, Jeremiah Lockwood of The Sway Machinery, Tijuana alt-rock singer Ceci Bastida, and others — the event also promises the first joint performance by two of the Burton Sisters in 55 years.

At the Contemporary, there will be several exhibit-related events, such as Idelsohn Society Cofounders David Katznelson and USC Professor Josh Kun participating in a talk about what they term "one of the richest and least understood cultural conversations of the post-war years." This curator talk is scheduled for 6 p.m., on Dec. 7.

Museum Director Connie Wolf says the show is a unique exhibit: "We've created an engaging and fun nightclub environment where visitors can experience a particular moment in musical history — a time when African-Americans and Jews came together to explore, share, borrow, and create new musical understandings of their cultures."

A significant P.S. about Yoshi's/S.F.: Minimalist apostle Terry Riley is featured Aug. 26, on the first night of a three-night series called "John Zorn: Bay Area Connection", showcasing Bay Area inspirations and interplay. On Aug. 27, Zorn will appear with Rob Burger, Trevor Dunn, and the Aleph Trio; on Aug. 28, it's Zorn with the Rova Sax Quartet at 8 p.m. and Cobra at 10 p.m.

Cobra includes Fred Frith and Trey Spruance (guitar), William Winant (percussion), Rob Burger (piano), Mike Patton Vox, Chris Brown, David Rosenboom (electronics), Joan Jeanrenaud (cello), and others.

In Memoriam: Philip Eisenberg

Although Philip Eisenberg was seen in his wheelchair in recent years at operas and concerts in San Francisco and elsewhere almost every night, his life's work as an opera prompter kept him well out of sight. Upon hearing of his death last week, the only photo I could find of him was from a 1978 San Francisco Opera Tosca rehearsal (his first name misspelled).

And yet, the man in the prompter's box traveled around the world. Music publicist Helen Kamioner recalls that Eisenberg served the San Francisco Opera for over 40 years, along with the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Dallas Opera, Salzburg Festival (with Jean Pierre Ponnelle, Herbert von Karajan, and Karl Böhm), and the Santa Fe Opera.

It was in Santa Fe last week that Eisenberg died at age 74. He had been in ill health for a long while. His name appears in 302 San Francisco Opera programs, from a 1960 Aida to the 2000 Nabucco.

Musicologist Michael Kaye, who worked with Eisenberg at the Met, offers these recollections to Classical Voice:

Those of you who never heard about Philip may be surprised that you have experienced the results of his abilities in the prompter's box at his beloved San Francisco Opera, the Met, Houston, Miami, Salzburg, and Boston.

From the late 1950s to the turn of the century, all of the greatest singers worked with him at one time or another, and in San Francisco he held the title of Special Assistant to Artists. While he was still studying at Peabody, his career was launched in his native Baltimore by Rosa Ponselle.

Once you had a coaching session with Philip you knew you were in the hands of a master, and in the moment of truth during performances everyone onstage knew he was there to support them, living, breathing, and singing every note with them, adding a unique measure of security to the live event. Conductors knew they had an extra set of hands when Philip was in the box. You see his name on the videos of the Ponnelle-Levine Figaro and Clemenza di Tito videos.

You would have heard his name on hundreds and hundreds of broadcasts. You saw him play the piano onstage in Mahagonny at the Met premiere, and he always enjoyed performing at the keyboard onstage in Andrea Chenier as Maestro Farinelli. But I think he was happiest in life when he was prompting or attending live performances.

Like Monsieur Taupe, the prompter in Strauss' Capriccio, Philip rarely felt appreciated even though he was. But then, opera does not reciprocate the love and devotion from people like Philip. It's a brutal business and ultimately the powers that be badly mistreated him.

In New York, at the Met, it was not unusual for Rysanek, Caballe, Crespin, Price (Leontyne and Margaret), Domingo, Stratas, Von Stade, Horne, Jones, or Nilsson to acknowledge Philip during their solo curtain calls, sometimes even taking his hand or giving him some of their flowers tossed by adoring fans.

Once in Washington, at the concert performance of Ägyptische Helena, Philip was asked to sit in the front row to provide some discreet visual cues to the singers. He did that at Carnegie Hall as well.

When Maria Callas was making her USA recital tour, Callas wanted a prompter. She was very nervous about those occasions and Philip was asked to prompt the recital, in which the pianist played some concert pieces between the arias. Maria had her lyrics printed on large index cards too. When it came time for her to bow after the first aria, in doing so she bent down low to the prompter's box, miming blowing a kiss to the audience and gesturing with both arms outstretched while she said to Philip "Forte! Più forte ti dico! ([Say the words] loudly! Louder I tell you!").

Pity there is no video of the times Philip played for great singers at the Fol de Rol in San Francisco. A nice way to remember Philip is at the keyboard; I had hoped that the videos of him playing excerpts from Il Trovatore with Shirley Verrett and Placido Domingo would still be on YouTube, but they are no longer to be found there.

Here are a couple of rare videos of Philip accompanying Opera in the Park, in 1980, although — typically — you hardly see him: in Merry Widow (with Brendel, Domingo, and Verrett), and La forza del destino with Domingo and Brendel. Introducing the singers is Kurt Herbert Adler, who treated Philip like a son during the best of the Adler years at SFO.

Rest in peace, dear Philip.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at


There's a local angle to the performance of El Niño: Paul Flight, director of California Bach Society, Chora Nova, and Schola Cantorum San Francisco, was one of the three countertenors.

A lovely piece. I knew Philip well, and was often embarrassed when he would attend talks I gave or concerts I conducted. He would invariably plump himself down in the very first row and stare, amiably, throughout. He did this for years.

He once invited me to share the prompter's box at SF Opera, a curious encounter in many ways. We were doing 'Pelleas' and one of the singers was several times all mixed up. Philip sang this person back in, every time, the audience (and evidently the conductor as well) utterly unaware of what was going wrong, and how he was providing the real direction and rescue.

The singer reciprocated, as did so many others, by taking the flowers downstage to Philip in his Box of Anonymity. The singer was extremely gracious, and aware. Philip was Philip.

From Mark Overton, in San Diego. He has served in major arts administrator positions in Washington, DC, Chicago, and later as general manager of Spoleto USA:

"Thank you for the obituary of Philip Eisenberg. He came to work at Lyric Opera of Chicago in the early 1970s. As Production Stage Manager (Bill Mason, for some years now the company's general manager, was one of my stage managerial colleagues at the time), I worked with Philip almost every day, and admired him tremendously - even when he was, as he often could be, infuriating in his airy (but never malicious) dismissal of other folks' needs when they didn't square with his own.

"He was a brilliant musician, and joined that small pantheon of great prompters who had come to Chicago regularly since the mid-1950s, chief among them the incomparable Luigi Morosini.

"Philip wielded a fiery personality, so it was inevitable that - in close contact every day with Lyric's legendarily incendiary founder Carol Fox, as well as Ardis Krainik, herself a woman not to be casually crossed and who would eventually become the company's savior when she assumed the general manager's post in the early 80s - minor conflagrations would break out. Sometimes it was over lesser things (like Philip's cavalier use of the company's telephones to run up hundreds of dollars in long distance charges), sometimes it was over major musical matters.

"One thing was for certain, however. Life was certainly never dull with Philip around. In fact, it was charged - no surprise - with operatic tension.

"Philip's long-time colleague Herbert Scholder (mainstay of the press department during much of Mr. Adler's reign) wrote from Santa Fe to tell me of Philip's death, and I was sorry to hear that bad health had limited, if not stifled, his activities in recent years. But if ever anyone was an ambulatory example of G.B. Shaw's Life Force, Philip was, and opera will be a little poorer now that he is not in the world to rage at it."