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Music News: June 24, 2014

June 17, 2014

Into Which Woods?

June 24, 2014

Meryl Streep as the Witch in the film, before transformation (disregard implied spoiler)One of Stephen Sondheim's most interesting and popular musicals, Into the Woods, a dark and thought-provoking variation on Grimm Brothers fairy tales, premiered in 1986 at the Old Globe in San Diego. It later transferred the following year to Broadway, where it became a success unusual for Sondheim during the bleak years of Andrew Lloyd Webber's reign.

In the Bay Area, we'll have two very different productions of it coming up. First in order and promise is San Francisco Playhouse's revival, June 28-Sept. 6 (previews beginning tonight), more about which below.

The other is an already controversial and somewhat Disney film version, set for release on Christmas Day. Directed by Rob Marshall, it stars Meryl Streep, Chris Pine, Anna Kendrick, and Emily Blunt. Who could have a quarrel with that? Sondheim for starters, daring to take on the Disney Empire.

The Playhouse's Witch (Safiya Fredericks), Baker, (Keith Pinto) and Cinderella (Monique Hafen) Pre-production photo by Lauren EnglishIn the current issue of The New Yorker, Sondheim is quoted saying that the relationship between the Wolf and Red Riding Hood is returned to its asexual fairytale format and — the unkindest cut of all — Cinderella's Prince does not have an affair with the Baker's Wife. Therefore, the version kills (or modifies) the show's most complex and memorable songs, "Any Moment" and "Moments in the Woods" with lyrics such as:

Let us meet the moment unblushed.
Life is often so unpleasant,
You must know that, as a peasant.
Best to take a moment present
As a present, for the moment.

Here's an excerpt from The New Yorker article:

“Disney said, we don’t want Rapunzel to die, so we replotted it," Sondheim said. "I won’t tell you what happens, but we wrote a new song to cover it.”

[A teacher told Sondheim] she always tells her kids to be daring and original, but she has to put on bowdlerized versions of musicals, and she said she felt like a hypocrite.

“Can you let them read the original and then discuss why, say, Rapunzel is not allowed to die in the adulterated version?” Sondheim asked.

“We do that, but they just get angry. They feel censored — they don’t feel trusted.”

“And they’re right,” Sondheim said. “But you have to explain to them that censorship is part of our puritanical ethics, and it’s something that they’re going to have to deal with. There has to be a point at which you don’t compromise anymore, but that may mean that you won’t get anyone to sell your painting or perform your musical. You have to deal with reality.”

Cinderella’s Stepmother (Bekka Fink) taunts Cinderella (Monique Hafen), with stepsisters Lucinda (Lily Drexler) and Florinda (Michelle Drexler) enjoying poor Cindy's abuse Photo by Jessica PalopoliNo such problems back at the Playhouse, where the unadulterated Into the Woods is being offered, complete and not made to conform to San Francisco's puritanical ethics.

Still, Director Susi Damilano is diverting from the original by introducing a Time-Traveling Boy, "a silent role, the baby [of the play] as the older boy, the idea being to make this the story of how he came to be," says Damilano.

The cast includes Louis Parnell as the Narrator, Safiya Fredericks as the Witch, El Beh (Baker’s Wife), Keith Pinto (Baker), Tim Homsley (Jack), Joan Mankin (Jack’s Mom), Monique Hafen (Cinderella), Becka Fink (Cinderella’s Stepmom), identical twins Lily and Michelle Drexler (Cinderella’s Stepsisters), Noelani Neal (Rapunzel), Corinne Proctor (Red), Ryan McCrary and Jeffrey Adams (Princes/Wolves), and John Paul Gonzales (Steward).

"Wolves?" Sondheim had only one — so, is Playhouse Disneyfying? The July 8 Music News will have the answer. Dave Dobrusky leads a seven-piece orchestra, Kimberly Richards is choreographer.

A final note about Streep, who has transformed herself into Margaret Thatcher, Anna Wintour, Julia Child, the Witch, and so on. Her next starring role will be as Maria Callas. Really. More about that later.

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

Ethiopian-Amharic Reggae from Israel

June 24, 2014

Zvuloon Dub SystemZvuloon Dub System's concert in San Francisco on June 25  is an opportunity to call attention to a memorable, little-known film, Live and Become. Both the musicians and the film have to do with an amazing chapter of desperate migration.

In 1980s the black Falashas in Ethiopia were recognized as Jews, Israel welcoming them (sort of) after they escaped by walking through the desert. After 5,000 died during migration, the Israeli military's Operation Solomon rescued 21,000 from Sudan. Today, there are about 100,000 Falashas living in Israel, most fighting persistent discrimination.

The lead singer of Zvuloon Dub — named for one of the 12 tribes of Israel — is Gili Yalo, who made his escape from Ethiopia with his family at age 4. The eight-piece band combines Ethiopian, Jamaican, and Israeli cultures, singing in reggae in English and Amharic.

“It’s a natural mix,” says drummer Asaf Smilan. “We started out in 2006, playing roots reggae, all very ‘70s. I’d also loved that old Ethiopian music since I first heard it, about 10 or 15 years ago, but I didn’t have any Ethiopian friends to discover more about it. Then Gili Yalo joined as the singer in 2009, and everything changed." They have perfected the mix of the reggae offbeat with horns and chord changes from Ethiopia.

The Ethiopian-Jamaican historic connection had its most famous moment in 1966, when a 100,000 Rastafarians greeted Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie at Kingston Airport as the Messiah. The very name Rastafari is taken from Ras Tafari, the title (Ras) and first name (Tafari Makonnen) of Haile Selassie I before his coronation. The group's current tour of North America will be followed by appearance at Reggae Sumfest in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

Legend has it, the group says, that Menelik, the son of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, traveled from Ethiopia to meet his father:

When Menelik returned home, he took something holy with him — the Ark of the Covenant, containing the tablets handed to Moses by God. Some believe it’s still carefully hidden in Ethiopia, which took as its national symbol the Lion of Judah, the same one that watches over the Jews. The same lion that guards Jamaica’s Rastas. Those three lions come together in the music of Zvuloon Dub System, and together they make the sweetest roar.

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

If It's Summer Can Fall Be Far Behind?

June 24, 2014

<em>Les Troyens</em>'s Trojan Horse in London Photo by Bill Cooper/Royal OperaAlas, time keeps disappearing, but among the good things it will bring are Susannah, Partenope, something about the Druids, and much else. At the summer end of the 2014-2015 season comes the long-long-awaited Berlioz Les Troyens.

Yes, as soon as next week, single tickets will be available to San Francisco Opera's next season, whose fall portion includes company premiers of Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah and Handel’s Partenope; the world premiere of the Marco Tutino-Fabio Ceresa La Ciociara; a new production of Puccini's La bohème; as well as company revivals of warhorses extraordinaire such as Rossini’s La Cenerentola, Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro and Puccini’s Tosca.

In the more immediate future, while the company's summer season continues, La traviata will be telecast on AT&T Park's 103-foot high-definition screen for free on July 5. The performance begins at 8 p.m., but (free) reserved seating at the Club Level must be occupied by 7:30 p.m.

To get a barcoded confirmation page that serves as ticket for up to four to reserved seating, log in to the SFO simulcast webpage, use TRAVFAF for offer code. If you're not a tourist, there is no need for a reminder to dress warmly or to point out that this may be the only place in the world where opera and garlic fries meet.

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

Sir András' Next Project

June 24, 2014

András SchiffTucked at the end of the announcement about András Schiff being knighted by Queen Elizabeth II is this paragraph of interest to San Francisco audiences:

Beginning in February 2015, Schiff's next project in the United States will be the final sonatas of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert presented in the cities of New York, Washington DC, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Vancouver, and Ann Arbor.

So the new Knight Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire departs from his recent brilliant work in the service of J.S. Bach. Here's the extravagan BBC commentary on Schiff's knighthood:

He has been hailed as the greatest musician Hungary has produced since the composers Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kodály. Alongside his brilliance as a pianist, he has a reputation as one of the great musical thinkers. His lectures on Beethoven's 32 piano sonatas remain a central tenet of music broadcasting."

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

Met Contract Blues, as L'Affaire Klinghoffer Rages On

June 24, 2014

The Met Orchestra with Fabio Luisi Photo by Cory WeaverIn the week since the Metropolitan Opera's announcement of canceling planned HD casts of John Adams' The Death of Klinghoffer, the intense controversy has peaked instead of subsiding. Social media and such lists as Opera-L deal with nothing else, against a few words of praise for the Met's action, there is an international outburst of denounciations.

Music critics and editorials at the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and elsewhere have decried the cancelation. In the San Francisco Chronicle, Joshua Kosman said Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb "laid down a new marker for institutional cowardice" when he gave in to the demands to cancel the planned live HD broadcast in November.

Adams expressed regret over the decision:

My opera accords great dignity to the memory of Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer, and it roundly condemns his brutal murder. It acknowledges the dreams and the grievances of not only the Israeli but also the Palestinian people, and in no form condones or promotes violence, terrorism or anti-Semitism. [Cancelation of the simulcast] is a deeply regrettable decision and goes far beyond issues of "artistic freedom," and ends in promoting the same kind of intolerance that the opera’s detractors claim to be preventing.

There is not much to add beyond repetitions of the arguments, so it's a kind of relief to have Thomas Zand call attention to the fate of the ship that was the setting for the opera and its real-life story.

The Achille LauroThe MS Achille Lauro was a cruise ship based in Naples, Italy. Built between 1939 and 1947 as MS Willem Ruys, a passenger liner for the Rotterdamsche Lloyd, it was hijacked by members of the Palestine Liberation Front in 1985. In 1994, the ship caught fire and sank in the Indian Ocean off Somalia.

The Met, of course, is also in the headlines because of the contract negotiations with the Musicians Union, recrimination and threats flying all around. On Monday, the New York Times weighed in editorially:

Both sides are threatening to shut the Met just as rehearsals for a new season start. Instead, both sides should compromise on real cuts. For the unions, this means accepting changes in benefits and work rules. Management will have to cut salaries and expenses just as rigorously.

The Met cannot continue on its present course. The opera’s annual budget was $327 million last year, about $200 million of which goes for payments and benefits to union employees. Those employees, who often work long hours, include some of the most talented people in their professions. Their pay reflects that expertise, with average earnings for the chorus and orchestra running about $200,000 a year. Mr. Gelb estimates that full-time chorus members earn $200,000 in salary and $100,000 in benefits, including nine weeks off with full pay. For the average full-time orchestra member, it’s $200,000 in pay and $85,000 in benefits, including 16 weeks off with pay.

Orchestra musicians of the Met, represented by Local 802, American Federation of Musicians, responded that they too are deeply concerned about the future of the company, but took issue with the Times editorial, contradicting Gelb's claim of 16 weeks' vacation and average salary. Musicians say their guaranteed time off is "equivalent to that of their peer orchestras (10 weeks), and is in part due to the recognition that they are at the disposal of the Met to perform six days a week during the season." On salaries, the union claim is that Gelb's figures have not been substantiated. The statement continues:

Given that last year the Met reported a $2.8 million dollar deficit, why does Gelb claim he needs $30 million in cuts (16%) to performers who are already being paid less than musicians in several other U.S. orchestras, in some cases in absolute dollars or, when calculating the cost-of-living to compensation ratio, less than their counterparts at most peer orchestras?

Also, importantly, research conducted by the orchestra indicates that the various cuts that Gelb has proposed actually constitute a reduction in compensation much greater than 16%, but in fact would constitute a 25-37% reduction in compensation.

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

Munich Tell's to Fly on Saturday

June 24, 2014

The Pappano-Finley recording is one of the bestRossini's finest — and all-too-rarely performed — dramatic opera, William Tell will be streamed live and free from the Bavarian State Opera beginning at 10 a.m. Saturday on Staatsoper.TV.

Michael Volle sings the title role (one of the best fathers in all opera, just a bit late for Fathers Day), sure to rescue his young son. Yet another Latvian soprano from a small country with a big vocal culture, Marina Rebeka is Mathilde; her lover, Arnold, is Merola veteran Bryan Hymel, singing the role for the first time. (Hymel will reprise his heroic role as Aeneas in Les Troyens, acclaimed in the Royal Opera, in the War Memorial next June.) Bass Günther Groissböck is Gesler, the bad guy.

Antú Romero Nunes is making his house début at the Bayerische Staatsoper, staging Tell, which is also the curtainraiser for the 2014 Munich Opera Festival. Israel-born conductor Dan Ettinger will be the musical director.

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

Opolais Debut on Met Broadcast

June 24, 2014

Kristine Opolais and Andris NelsonsUnlike with Klinghoffer and labor negotiations (above), the Met has come away looking good when it took a risk presenting Latvian soprano Kristine Opolais in a unique, stunning double-debut in the title role of Madama Butterfly and as Mimi in La bohème. Fortunately, the La bohème performance in which she appeared, replacing the ailing Anita Hartig, was scheduled to be filmed for PBS Great Performances, and so you can watch this history-making event.

Scheduled nationally at 9 p.m. on June 27, the telecast will be shown in San Francisco at 7 p.m. June 30 on KQED-LIFE, ch. 10. The ancient Franco Zeffirelli production of the most-performed opera in Met history is also starring Italian tenor Vittorio Grigolo as Rodolfo, Susanna Phillips sings the flirtatious Musetta, and Massimo Cavalletti is the painter Marcello; led by Italian conductor Stefano Ranzani. Also featured in the cast are Patrick Carfizzi as Schaunard, Merola program alumnus Oren Gradus as Colline, and Donald Maxwell as Benoît/Alcindoro.

Opolais has sung Mimi with the Vienna State Opera, Berlin State Opera, and Latvian National Opera and will sing the role at the Met next season. She made an acclaimed Met debut last year as Magda in Puccini's La Rondine. She is the wife of conductor Andris Nelsons, music director designate of the Boston Symphony.

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

Toland Competition Winners

June 24, 2014

Toland Tier I contestants: Kathryn Leemhuis (2nd place), David Blalock, Lara Lynn Cottrill, James Toland, Nicole Greenidge (1st), Jason Duika, Abigail Levis (3rd), Ryan Bradford Soprano Nicole Greenidge took the top prize at the inaugural James Toland Vocal Arts Competition last weekend. Selected from among 125 applicants from across the country and Canada. Fourteen finalists participated in the final rounds of the competition, which was split into two levels based on ability and vocal experience.

Greenidge was awarded the grand prize, which included a $5,000 cash award in addition to the opportunity to perform as a guest artist with the Oakland East Bay Symphony under Michael Morgan, who presented the award. Greenidge sang “Depuis le jour” from Louise by Charpentier, as well as “Dove Sono” from Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro at Holy Names University. A native of Portland, OR, she has performed with regional companies throughout the Northwest and is a featured soloist in the Grammy-nominated choral group Conspirare.

Other winners of the Tier I competition were mezzo-sopranos Abigail Levis, who placed third, and Kathryn Leemhuis, who placed second and also won the Tier I Audience Favorite award.

Mezzo-soprano Chelsea Lyons took the top award in the Tier II finals, also receiving the Tier II Audience Favorite award. The other Tier II prizes were awarded to mezzo-soprano Hannah Ludwig, who placed second, and tenor Alexander Taite, who placed third.

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

How Opera Helped Edson Become Soccer's Greatest Star: Pelé

June 24, 2014

PeléOne of Mark Schubin's recent gems, made timely by what's happening in Brazil:

The year was 1958. The International Federation of Association Football (FIFA, based on its name in French) had scheduled its quadrennial World Cup for Sweden. Naturally, the national television broadcaster, Sveriges Radio Television (SVT), wanted to cover the matches live for the European Broadcasting Union’s Eurovision network. But there seemed to be a problem.

Although Eurovision, itself, wasn’t created until 1954, the first test transmissions of television in Sweden didn’t occur until after Eurovision’s first network transmission. Actual broadcasting (from what was then called Radiotjänst Television) didn’t begin until 1956, daily broadcasts didn’t begin until 1957, and regular news broadcasts not until September 2 of 1958, months after the FIFA World Cup was over.

So Eurovision was appropriately concerned about the ability of SVT properly to cover the athletic contest, which would occur in different locations around the country. They needed a demonstration of SVT’s live remote capability. SVT provided one. They broadcast live on Eurovision Gluck’s opera Orfeo ed Euridice from the tiny Drottningholms Slottsteater outside of Stockholm. The 18th-century opera house had no broadcast facilities, no television lighting, no air conditioning, and could go up in flames if treated improperly.

The opera remote broadcast was a success, so Eurovision gave the okay for SVT to cover the FIFA World Cup for them. In the final game, a 17-year-old player called Pelé scored two goals, winning the match for Brazil and leading even his opponent, Swedish player Sigge Parling, to say, “When Pelé scored the fifth goal in that final, I have to be honest and say I felt like applauding.” Then, overcome with emotion, Pelé fainted. All of it was captured live on television, thanks to opera.

Pelé’s birthname was Edson Arantes do Nascimento, named after the American inventor Thomas Edison, whose work on the invention of motion pictures was intended specifically for opera and who predicted in 1891 that he would be able to show opera on color television at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. But that’s another story.

More Schubin specials: opera and baseball, and from the history of opera libretti.

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

From Berkeley to Braunschweig for Karenina

June 24, 2014

Nadja Stefanoff as Anna Karenina Photos by Volker BeinhornEd Gordon, a Berkeley writer, travels the world to report on sports statistics, and seeking out rare opera performances wherever he goes, but rarely writing about this hobby or rather passion of his. I managed to coax him into this account of Anna Karenina last month, a production he caught between Jo  nny Spielt Auf in Weimar and Braunfels' Der Traum Ein Leben in Bonn, among "six operas in six nights":

For those frustrated with repeatedly unfulfilled expectations from mostly mediocre (or less) new operas these days, a better quest might be to seek out older operas which, for one reason or another, did not survive the test of time.

I stumbled onto an adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina by the mostly forgotten Hungarian composer Jenö Hubay. The reason for its exhumation was ostensibly the centennial of its composition in 1914, although World War I prevented its premiere until 1923. [Opera San José presented David Carlson's Anna Karenina in 2010.]

The composer was born in Pest in 1858 as Eugen Huber, but he later preferred a more Hungarian-sounding name and elected to make the change by which he became well-known during his career. Hubay studied violin during his early years under his father, a conductor and professor at the National Conservatory in Budapest, and at age 15 he began three years of study in Berlin with Joseph Joachim.


Matthias Stier as Lewin and Moran Abouloff as KittyThe problem Hubay faced in setting Tolstoy’s 1,000-page work lay in its length. His librettists succeeded in distilling appropriate parts of the novel’s plot involving Anna and her suitor Count Vronsky, casting most of the rest aside. Other characters who play a significant role in Tolstoy’s work —  Prince Oblonsky and his wife Dolly, Nikolay Levin and his future wife Kitty, plus Count Aleksey Karenin, Anna’s husband — are reduced almost to ciphers to focus mainly on Anna. The result is a compact stage work with two hours of music in four scenes.

Musically, the opera is completely tonal, with lush orchestration and harmonies that are reminiscent of Strauss and Korngold. Musically and dramatically, the opera held the sold-out audience’s attention well. Performed mostly in the German translation by Hans Liebstöckl published in 1922 by Universal alongside the Hungarian text, the opera was cast entirely from the Braunschweig theater’s ensemble.

In the title role, German soprano Nadja Stefanoff was totally convincing in her portrayal, the angst of her imagined infidelity of Vronsky soaring dramatically in the final scene which ended in Anna’s suicide. American tenor Arthur Shen (whose biography includes a prior connection with UC Berkeley) coped reasonably well with the often high tessitura of Count Vronsky. Many of the other roles were taken by singers who had performed the previous evening in Vivaldi’s Farnace.

The stage presentation had the usual Regietheater trappings of faux-sexual action, and I spotted numerous mobile phones among the spectators in the scene at the horse race track. But other than that, it was quite a conservative concept for a German theater in these times.

Braunschweig presents excerpts from the production, and YouTube has a duet from the opera. Gordon reports that Braunschweig's next season includes such adventurous selections as Meyerbeer's Le Prophete, Werner Egk's Peer Gynt, Piazzola's Maria de Buenos Aires, and Bernard Herrmann's Wuthering Heights (which I saw long ago in Portland, now being performed increasingly here and in Europe nowadays).

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

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