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Music News

December 8, 2009

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

$14 Million Bailout From L.A. Opera From County

The Los Angeles Opera asked for and received a $14 million emergency loan from Los Angeles County on Tuesday to allow it to stay afloat and keep paying its expenses through the middle of next year, reports The Los Angeles Times.

The county Board of Supervisors approved the request by a vote of four to one, with the dissenting vote coming from Mike Antonovich, who last July tried to short-circuit the opera’s upcoming Ring Festival on the grounds that it glorified an anti-Semitic composer, Richard Wagner, who had influenced Adolf Hitler. The festival is anchored by the Opera's $32-million Ring cycle, the performance of Wagner's four-opera Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Stephen Rountree, chief executive of the Music Center and chief operating officer for L.A. Opera, appealed to the board for the loan, which will come from a pool of county bond money.

The loan “is needed now, literally next week,” Rountree told supervisors.

Above and Beyond 'Jingle Bells'

In last week's Music News, a dozen singers named their favorite holiday music; here are some more. If you want to participate in this first annual survey, please send information (and JPG) to [email protected] — we should be good for one more go-around. 

Cheryl North, Music journalist

Coventry Carol is a carol from the 1500s; in its a capella choral setting, transports me into an almost altered state of being. I feel as though time melted away and I am linked into something universal and profound. 

D. Warner North, Professor of Engineering

I love Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus, a true little jewel. For a long work, I have never forgotten the exhilarating experience of singing in the chorus for the Bach St. Matthew Passion, as an undergraduate, with the Yale and Smith College Glee Clubs. I share my wife Cheryl's affection for the Coventry Carol and for the Randall Thompson Alleluia.

Jensen Hsiao, 13, Ragazzi Boys Chorus (since age 9)

I like Silent Night because it is graceful and calm. I also like its unusual pace, which makes it especially beautiful.

Jeff Dunn, Music writer

I follow in the sentiments of Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb, which praises God's creations — especially "For the flowers are great blessings" (in California winters), and "For I will consider my cat Jeoffrey," for reasons you're welcome to guess at. 

Susan Crosman, Jazz pianist and teacher

My favorite Christmas song to play and listen to is Christmas Time is Here by Vince Guaraldi (the "Snoopy" cartoon music composer.) It has an easy slow waltz feel, and gorgeous chord changes. Plus, it has one of my favorite lines: "Oh, that we could always see such spirit through the year."

David Perry, PR consultant

Once in Royal David's City is a favorite from my days as a boy soprano with All Saints Choir in Richmond, Virginia. Every Christmas season, All Saints would send their best boy soprano to sing at various Christmas Eve services around town. I was that rare singer: a boy soprano whose voice didn't change for two seasons. I'll never forget a Christmas Eve looking down at my proud mother as I sang the opening for several services in my hometown. It is a memory emblazoned on my soul, and one which that song still calls to mind.

Nicole Wong, Hoopdance instructor (and Ph.D. candidate in educational psychology)

All Through the Night was the first song in the book of carols that my twin sister and I sang when we were little. Every year, Michelle and I would sit together in the living room and sing our way from All Through the Night to We Wish You a Merry Christmas. There were no fewer than 40 songs in the book, and we sang every verse of every song. I'm sure my parents wished that they had never purchased that book!

Of Birds, Bells, and Angels: Messiaen for Children

The remarkable pianist Marino Formenti played Messiaen's massive, two-hour-long Vingt Regards sur l'Enfant-Jésus (20 contemplations of the infant Jesus) on Saturday night in Berkeley, and then on Sunday afternoon, he went to Herbst Theatre to give a sampler of the work to a family audience, including some very young children.

Formenti started with recorded sounds and projected pictures of birds, bells, and then of angels ("angry ones, with trombones"), demonstrating on the piano how Messiaen imitated and embellished the sounds in Vingt Regards. He played a quiz with the pictures of birds, the highlight of which was the identification of a lark (" a penguin!") by a young one.

He went on to play four full pieces from the work, including the final "Regard de l'Eglise d'amour" (The image of the church of love). He impressed once again with his effortless virtuoso, strength, dexterity flowing through his arms and hands — complex, powerful music just materializing as if by magic. Throughout all, the children, some as young as 4, were strangely, unexpectedly quiet.

Formenti rewarded them for exemplary behavior by walking around the audience, answering questions from the children. When did he start playing the piano? At age 8. How long has he been playing? More than 30 years. How many days a week does he practice? Seven. Does he have a piano at home? Yes.

In answer to an "adult question," Formenti talked about his work with a youth orchestra in South Africa, something created along the example of Jose Antonio Abreu's El Sistema in Venezuela, which has trained half a million classical musicians from among underprivileged and at-risk youths.

Formenti's next — and last — appearance in this San Francisco Performances series will be on Dec. 11, at St. Mark's Lutheran Church in San Francisco. The program: The U.S. premiere of Bernhard Lang's Monadologie V — 7 Last Words of Hasan and Haydn's The Seven Last Words of Our Saviour on the Cross.

Many-Splendored Ottoman Music

"Turkish music" is not just Turkish. It's also Armenian, Greek, Jewish, Balkan, Arabic, and more. You can learn all about it and hear some rich examples at an Asian Art Museum lecture-demonstration of "Ottoman Classical Secular and Religious Music" at 1 p.m., Dec. 19. The event is free with museum admission.

Participants include Necati Çelik [ne-ja-ti che-lik], principal ud player with the Turkish Ministry of Culture. An expert on the sacred music of the Sufi tradition, Necati was born and educated in Konya, the home of the Mevlevi order of Sufis — popularly known in the West as "whirling dervishes." His first instrument was the baglama, a Turkish folk instrument (also known as saz). He started playing the ud at the age of 16. Since 1973 he has played ud for the annual Mevlevi rituals.

Yavuz Akalin [yavooz akaluhn], playing ney, was born in Kutahya, Turkey. Regarded as the best ney player of his generation, he is also an outstanding kanunist.

Timuçin Çevikoglu [ti-mu-chin je-vi-koh-loo], bendir and vocals, has worked for several universities including as instructor and chairman of the Turkish music department. 

An Easy Opera Quiz

The San Francisco Opera would like to know which recent productions are of interest to the DVD-buying public. Since the arrival of General Director David Gockley and his Koret-Taube Media Suite high-definition video production facility, operas have been filmed, but the actual publication of DVDs is both costly and risky — hence this prior market research.

There are just four options in the online survey, as easy an "opera quiz" as you will ever find.

Among GRAMMY Nominations

  • Mahler: Symphony No. 8; Adagio From Symphony No. 10 for Best Classical Album, Best Choral Performance, and Best Engineered Classical Album — Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor, with Laura Claycomb, Anthony Dean Griffey, Katarina Karneus, Quinn Kelsey, James Morris, Yvonne Naef, Elza van den Heever, and Erin Wall; San Francisco Symphony; Pacific Boychoir, San Francisco Girls Chorus, and San Francisco Symphony Chorus
  • Pianist Yuja Wang, 22, in the Best Instrumental Soloist Performance (without Orchestra) category for her debut recording Sonatas and Etudes
  • Classical Album: Bernstein: Mass, Marin Alsop, conductor, with Asher Edward Wulfman; Baltimore Symphony Orchestra; Morgan State University Choir and Peabody Children's Chorus

Jeanrenaud, Kronos Reunite

Cellist Joan Jeanrenaud, former member of the Kronos Quartet from 1978 through 1999, has long struck out on her own (while fighting multiple sclerosis), but now she will temporarily reunite with the quartet.

The Grammy-nominated avant-garde cellist and the Kronos Quartet will give the concert in Hertz Hall at UC Berkeley on December 13. The highlight of the event will be the premiere of a quintet composed by Vladimir Martynov for this event.

Jeanrenaud's new animated music video, 33 1/3, is a preview track from her upcoming album, which is a follow-up to her 2008 Strange Toys.

Says her producer, PC Muñoz:

Joan's work is very polyrhythmic. Pairing her pieces with electronic and acoustic beats is a way of further exploring the polyrhythm already inherent in her compositions. In my opinion, it also further illuminates Joan's great ability to embrace and utilize tools and approaches that aren't very typical for artists in her genre. 33 1/3 is a perfect first-taste of the direction in which Joan is heading on this new record.
From Jeanrenaud:
We had a lot of fun working with the beats on a couple of the Strange Toys tracks, and we thought we'd just dive completely in this time. It's been an interesting process; the beats and crafting pieces in almost poplike form. We've actually been calling it my "pop" record — well, as pop as I can get, anyway.
The animated video for 33 1/3 was directed by 19-year-old Joe Maslov and "features Joan as superhero, fighting corporate control of music and doing her best to bring good music to the people."

Kennedy Center Honors

Grace Bumbry, 72, among those honored at the Kennedy Center's annual event on Sunday, broke many barriers still existing in the 1960s for African-American opera singers, even after Marian Anderson's triumphs.

Only 25, Bumbry was invited to perform in a 1961 production of Wagner's Tannhäuser, the first black opera singer to appear in Bayreuth. Against the initial protests by many conservative operagoers, Bumbry received applause for 30 minutes, drawing 42 curtain calls.

Bumbry made her Royal Opera House, Covent Garden debut in 1963; her La Scala debut in 1964; and her Metropolitan Opera debut as Princess Eboli in Verdi's Don Carlo in 1965. In 1964, Bumbry appeared for the first time as a soprano, singing Verdi's Lady Macbeth in her debut at the Vienna State Opera.

In 1966 she appeared as Carmen opposite Jon Vickers's Don José in two different lauded productions, one with conductor Herbert von Karajan in Salzburg and the other for Bumbry's debut with the San Francisco Opera. Her last performance here was in 1987 as Abigaille in Nabucco.

Other honorees are Dave Brubeck, Robert De Niro, Mel Brooks, and Bruce Springsteen. According to an AP report, Brubeck's appearance, on his birthday at the White House reception for the honorees, had special meaning for the president:

Nearly 40 years ago, a Kenyan father was visiting his son in Hawaii and took him to his first jazz concert. The boy was Barack Obama and the performer was jazz great Dave Brubeck.

"I've been a jazz fan ever since," the president said Sunday, crediting the pianist and composer with bringing jazz into the mainstream and transforming it with new rhythms. "The world that he opened up for a 10-year-old boy was spectacular."

The awards are "the nation's highest honors for those who have defined American culture through the arts." It's part of a living memorial to President John F. Kennedy. The show will air nationwide Dec. 29 on CBS.

Jon Stewart opened the tribute to Springsteen, recounting his theory on how The Boss came to be.

"I'm not a music critic, nor historian, nor archivist," Stewart said. "But I am from New Jersey. And so I can tell you what I believe ... I believe that Bob Dylan and James Brown had a baby." As the story goes, Stewart said Dylan and Brown abandoned the child on the New Jersey Turnpike, and the child was raised by "a pack of feral vaudevillians. That child is Bruce Springsteen." 

Nobels With Argerich

The Nobel Prize Concert in the Stockholm Concert Hall, on Dec. 8, will feature Martha Argerich as the soloist in Ravel's Piano Concerto in G Major. Yuri Temirkanov leads the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra.

The Nobel Prize Concert is held to honor the year's Nobel Laureates, who attend with their respective parties. Also present are members of the Swedish Royal Family and guests of the Nobel Foundation.

Video of the concert is available on Medici.TV.

Glass' Anti-Operatic Kepler

Getting rid of the operatic in the opera, making the lively abstract and dry, says Zachary Woolfe in his New York Observer review of Philip Glass' Kepler, which premiered at BAM last month:
... Kepler has more in common with the more extreme abstraction of Einstein on the Beach. Completely absent from the opera are even passing mentions of any of the events that might have seemed invaluable to an operatic treatment of Kepler’s life: two early, life-changing sightings, of a comet in 1577 and an eclipse of the moon three years later; either of his two marriages; his friendship with the eccentric astronomer—and perfect operatic character—Tycho Brahe; his mother’s trial for witchcraft; and his revolutionary work in the field of science fiction (intelligent giant lizards on the moon!).

Instead, there are two acts, each containing three loosely defined scenes. The scenes aren’t “dramatic,” per se; instead, enigmatic excerpts from Kepler’s writings, both scientific and personal, are sung by combinations of a chorus; a baritone (costumed ickily in an Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat knockoff in patchwork leather) playing Kepler; and six singers who perform both solo and together (and who may or may not represent facets of Kepler’s thought processes). These "scenes" are interspersed with settings of poems by Andreas Gryphius, the 17th-century German poet and dramatist whose major subject was the suffering caused by the Thirty Years War. 

Netrebko Tales of Hoffman Coming to a Theater Near You

Anna Netrebko sings in Offenbach's The Tales of Hoffman, telecast live from the Metropolitan Opera at 10 a.m. (PST), Saturday, Dec. 19, to more than 1,000 movie theaters around the world.

In and around San Francisco, participating theaters include Cinearts Empire 3, Century 9, Daly City 20, and Century Theatres at Tanforan. For information, see


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