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Music News

June 28, 2011

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From Double Bass to the Podium in Double Time

The first time I conducted the LSO [London Symphony Orchestra], it was for a rehearsal, and I had about two minutes to decide whether or not I wanted to step in. The walk to the podium felt not unlike the "March to the Scaffold" in Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique.

However, my colleagues in the orchestra were hugely supportive, and once they had put down their mobile phone cameras (a player conducting the orchestra is quite a sight), they just got on with playing the Shostakovich Fourth Symphony. I do remember cueing the late great trumpeter Maurice Murphy, and then trying not to smile at the astonishing noise that came back at me. I was hooked.

Michael Francis, who conducts San Francisco Symphony summer concerts, has unusual distinctions among maestros: As a double bass player, his career so far has consisted of a series of sudden substitutions.

He is also young, but that's less unusual these days, with Alexander Prior, 18, assisting at the Seattle Symphony; Lionel Bringuier, 25, who last year backed up Los Angeles Philharmonic's Gustavo Dudamel, who had made his own professional debut at 24.

In Francis' case — born in 1976 — young age is combined with an instrument unusual for a conductor, and his run of luck as a pinch-hitter.

When he was still a bass player with the London Symphony, Francis frequently stepped in for Valery Gergiev when the Russian was late for rehearsals or missed concerts entirely. It was in 2006, at age 29 and in his third year with the orchestra, that Francis first emerged from the bass section at the suggestion of his fellow musicians, to conduct a rehearsal.

The next year, with only 12 hours’ notice, he replaced Gergiev at a concert. Barely a month later, John Adams canceled an appearance with the LSO, and the go-to conductor was the bass player again, this time given a notice of just two hours.

Francis went international with a rescue mission this February, not only replacing Alondra de la Parra at the last minute with the Oregon Symphony but also performing the originally scheduled program without a change. A month later, Francis flew to Portland again, this time to replace Günther Herbig.

In Stuttgart, he came to the rescue of the Radio Symphony Orchestra, replacing André Previn for four concerts with Anne-Sophie Mutter.

Typically, Francis' San Francisco debut last November, conducting the premiere of Rufus Wainwright's Five Shakespeare Sonnets, came as an emergency replacement for Jeffrey Kahane.

A substitute no longer, Francis has now landed a big job as chief conductor in Norrköping, Sweden. Past principal conductors there included San Francisco Symphony Music Director Emeritus Herbert Blomstedt and Cleveland Orchestra Music Director Franz Welser-Möst. Francis also made his debut with the New York Philharmonic. He says of his All About Eve career:

It is true that I have had my fair share of "step-ins." Maybe my relative comfort in these situations is because in England we are all trained to learn music very fast — poor government subsidies and a lack of rehearsal time has bred generations of quick sight-readers.

However, for San Francisco, I had the relative luxury of a couple of weeks' notice. Despite my history of "pinch-hitting," I must admit I do enjoy the extra time that I tend to get for bookings nowadays. Of course, with my new position in Norrköping, I even have the pleasure of planning my own programs.

In Davies Symphony Hall, Francis will show his versatility, with a repertoire ranging from Gershwin (July 7) and Beethoven (July 9) to Mozart (July 17) and Tchaikovsky (July 21), and eventually to Max Steiner's score to the film Casablanca, screened with a live orchestra (July 22).

On July 10, Francis will conduct the orchestra at Sharon Meadow in Golden Gate Park, in a free concert featuring Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, and the Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2, with Valentina Lisitsa as the soloist.

Another free concert is due in Stern Grove on July 24, where the soloist will be Sara Davis Buechner performing Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 5 ("Emperor").

There are numerous other ("not-quite-symphonic") concerts in the summer series — such as Pink Martini (June 30; July 1, 2) — and SFS has just announced an additional event on July 29. James Lipton of Bravo's Inside the Actor's Studio will host an evening of music from popular and classic movies, on July 29. Lipton will speak about the films the music is drawn from as well as the role it plays in movies, and will share personal anecdotes and experiences about his work with various film directors, actors, and composers whose works are on the program. (No video at this concert.)

Meet, Hear Merolini of 2011

In the Merola Program's class of 2011, meeting the public for the first time last week, a young singer from Marshall, Texas, showed an attitude — if not the type of voice — befitting naive, bold, heroic Siegfried or Parsifal.

Lyric tenor Scott Quinn told Merola supporters in the War Memorial's Green Room about his favorite sports teams.

It's the Cowboys, he said, disregarding the presence of numerous audience members who still remember the late, great 49ers, and then went full out with his praise for the Texas Rangers, George Bush's favorite team, vanquished so satisfactorily by the San Francisco (not the Rhinegold) Giants during the last World Series. Which, incidentally, was won by the Giants, if you haven't heard the news.

All this from a tenor, who favors the roles of Tamino, Nemorino, and Frederic (Pirates of Penzance) — all nice guys. Participants at the introductory event started Quinn's extra-Merola training in more politic PR, and he promised to take the matter under consideration, but saying under his breath: "O-DAY-odayodayODAY."

It's such fun every year to meet talented young artists — coming to San Francisco for the 54th season of training, and watch them grow, returning "to the world" with the potential of such Merola veterans as Ruth Ann Swenson, Dolora Zajick, Mark Delavan, Deborah Voigt, Susan Graham, Patricia Racette, Laura Claycomb, Joyce DiDonato, Anna Netrebko, and scores of others.

There are 20 singers, four apprentice coaches, and one apprentice stage director this year, representing six countries, chosen from 800 candidates. Even before hearing them perform (see below), they are a lively, varied bunch.

San Francisco's own Adam Lau, a bass, studied marine biology until starting to sing, which "felt so right." Apprentice coach Ana Maria Otamendi switched careers from geophysical engineering. Iowan Renée Rapier — deceptively slender — is into cooking, eating, and "good wine."

Baritone John Maynard, from Orinda, is a composer, and writes libretti; he started his musical career with heavy metal. Tenor Cooper Nolan, from Florida, was an accounting major who found opera "more interesting." Peixin Chen, from Inner Mongolia, is a bass with a speaking voice that could clear forests. Baritone Mark Diamond, from Georgia, played professional Ultimate Frisbee. And so on. There will be some great biographical notes when their names appear in programs of Covent Garden, La Scala ... and San Francisco Opera.

Although the Merola training is already in high gear, public performances won't begin until July 22, when the curtain goes up at 7:30 p.m. on the Schwabacher Summer Concert in Herbst Theatre. A free, open-air performance of the concert follows in Yerba Buena Gardens, at 2 p.m., Sunday, July 24. Merola alumnus Robert Wood will conduct members of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra for these concerts. On the program: excerpts from operas by Verdi, Bellini, Donizetti, and Tchaikovsky.

The staged opera this summer is Rossini's The Barber of Seville, at 8 p.m. on Aug. 4 and 5; 2 p.m. on Aug. 6 and 7, with alternate casts, in Herbst.

The program's Grand Finale, followed by a reception, begins at 7:30 p.m., Aug. 20, in the War Memorial Opera House.

Sail Into Season No. 59 on H.M.S. Pinafore

The peripatetic, venerable Lamplighters begin their 59th season of worshiping Gilbert & Sullivan with H.M.S. Pinafore running July 22 through Aug. 21 in Walnut Creek, Yountville, San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center, Mountain View, and Livermore. "Wand'ring minstrels” they are indeed.

Pay attention to Little Buttercup ...

"I've treacle and toffee, I've tea and I've coffee,
" Soft tommy and succulent chops;
" I've chickens and conies, and pretty polonies,
"And excellent peppermint drops."

... as she advertises her wares to the men on the quarterdeck of H.M.S. Pinafore, where the sailors, led by the boatswain, "are discovered cleaning brasswork, splicing rope, etc." As you are not likely to be excessively familiar with 19th-century English patois, be advised that soft tommy is white bread, and polony is Bologna or baloney. Yumm.

January will bring another nautical adventure, The Gondoliers. Special programs coming include a Pirates of Penzance Sing-Along, March 11 and 18.

Encores for Domingo Rigoletto

Plácido Domingo singing the (baritone) title role of Verdi's Rigoletto in a Mantua production (the town in Italy in which the opera is set) created a big stir, and film of the performance will now be screened again in San Francisco's Balboa Theater, at 7:30 p.m., June 29, and at 10 a.m. on July 2 and 3.

Zubin Mehta conducts, and the cast includes Julia Novikova (as Gilda), Vittori Grigolo (the Duke), Ruggero Raimondi (Sparafucile), and Nino Surguladze (Maddalena).

The season's Metropolitan Opera HD telecasts are also being repeated at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesdays: Verdi's Simon Boccanegra (June 29), Donizetti's La Fille du régiment (July 13), Puccini's Tosca (July 20), and Verdi's Don Carlo (July 27). For theater and ticket information, see the Met Web site.

Arts: Generating Jobs Frivolously

The former half-term governor of Alaska, whose state receives twice the national average for domestic spending — $20,351.13 per resident — is not opposing that kind of federal expenditure.

However, Sarah Palin has just called, again, for elimination of contributions to "NPR, National Endowment for the Arts, National Endowment for the Humanities, all those kind of frivolous things that government shouldn't be in the business of funding with tax dollars — those should all be on the chopping block."

As the The Los Angeles Times pointed out in reporting the story, those "frivolous things" — the nonprofit arts and culture industry — actually support 5.7 million jobs and generate $166.2 billion in annual economic activity, and "the NEA is one linchpin in that sizable economy."

The figures come from the Americans for the Arts, a 50-year-old nonpartisan, nonprofit organization.

Calling the Dragon

In Act 2, Scene 2 of Wagner's Siegfried (on view in the War Memorial Opera House in the third cycle of the Ring of the Nibelung this Friday), this pivotal action transpires:

"Throwing the reed aside, Siegfried blows a lusty call upon his hunting horn. The huge Dragon, Fafner, rears up from his lair in the cave, and yawns loudly; upon which Siegfried turns and, catching sight of Fafner, laughs aloud in astonishment."

That "lusty call," of about two minutes, is the longest instrumental solo in the Ring, and probably seems like a lifetime to the horn player in the orchestra, whose difficult, exposed task cannot have the slightest error.

ARThound editor Geneva Anderson tracked down the hero in the pit (he actually plays the solo backstage, to be physically closer to the singer), and found Kevin Rivard, 28, coprincipal of the Opera Orchestra and principal of the S.F. Ballet Orchestra, and the youngest member of both brass sections.

Anderson asked Rivard about the instrument he uses:

There's only one horn that I play: It's a factory Conn 8D horn ... the instrument that is known for the American horn sound, that big, broad, full, dark, beautiful sound that you hear in all of the movies. It's the horn that most closely matches the sound that I hear in my head for the ideal horn sound.

This horn belonged to Julie Landsman, my Juilliard teacher and longtime principal horn at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. She always raved about how spectacular this horn is, so when she retired, I talked her into selling it to me.

Horns are very big in the Ring's many leitmotifs:
I am pretty sure the horn section plays all or most of the scenes and leitmotifs. The Valhalla motif, which is heard for the first time in Das Rheingold, is handled by the Wagner tuba section. The “Spear” motif is handled by the horn section. Siegfried's long and short calls are played a cappella by a solo French horn.

The big thing about the motifs we play is the variation in their complexity. There's such a great span of time between when Wagner composed Das Rheingold and then began Götterdämmerung that it's completely different music and you can see and hear it. The orchestral score of Siegfried is so dense and interesting and what I love in particular is that you could [just] listen to the opera, and know exactly what's going on. It's so cleverly written with the leitmotifs and altering them slightly that you know what's going on even before the characters themselves know.

What does it take to keep building the call for two minutes, ending on the exposed high C? Rivard explains:
The instrument requires an incredible amount of endurance in the lips. You are requiring just the center of your lips to create all of this sound that's coming through the instrument, and the endurance of having to play a solo in that register for that long is a huge factor in its difficulty.

In addition, the register in which this call is written is the extreme upper register of the horn, and the partials for the notes are very close together, with a half step of each other. If my lips are inaccurate by the smallest degree, it's not a matter of being slightly out of tune; it means the note is missed, completely missed. When a horn player misses a note, it sounds like a dying goat. Everyone knows and no one forgets.

Read the entire interview in ARThound.

Another Götterdämmerung?

Won't spoil the story by disclosing the outcome, but the end of our world is a lively possibility in The Big One, David Littlejohn's new novel about a really big quake striking the Bay Area in the near future — during both a San Francisco Opera performance of Don Giovanni ... and the World Series, just as when the Loma Prieta quake hit in 1989.

Art critic and retired UC Berkeley professor Littlejohn has cast the doomsday opera very carefully, with real singers, and turned the production over to fictitious Eurotrash director Gunther, who stages a pre-rape striptease by the Don, and has Leporello's catalogue aria accompanied by a laptop PowerPoint porno show. Although the setting is the future, the opera production seems to hark back to the recent past.

At the ballgame, the Giants beat St. Louis just before the quake, so "San Francisco has something to be proud of," says the author.

Littlejohn was born in San Francisco, a descendant of 1850 Gold Rush pioneers. He taught English and journalism at UC Berkeley for 35 years. He has written 15 books, more than 400 articles, and over 200 TV broadcasts; he is Bay Area cultural correspondent for The Wall Street Journal.

Our Maestro Without a Scarf

The new issue of Opera News features San Francisco Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti on the cover, and with a substantial story. He is quoted about his attitude to appearances:
Many years ago, a maestro — an old man who has since passed away — said to me in a very grand way, "Sir, you are a maestro and a man of great talent, but if you make an entrance at the opera house without a scarf, you will never have a successful career."

He wanted to make it clear that the gesture of wearing a scarf would have vocalized the antiquated attitude of a "grande maestro." But this shallowness — this act, which is only about ego — is something I've always refused.

I'm a person of valor and honor. If one has to affect a particular personality — especially if someone has to modify their own personality to try to be something that they're not — I initially thought to myself that maybe it would be better not to choose this career if it had to be that way.

So I listened to him but decided to not take his advice, and I continued to behave in a way that made me comfortable, regardless of other people's perceptions.

I truly believe in being true to yourself wherever you go. Whether it's in Tokyo [where Luisotti is principal guest conductor of the Tokyo Symphony] or San Francisco or New York or Milan, I always behave in the same way.

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


Even if you do not wear a scarf, you MUST wear your coat like a cape, over your shoulders but without putting your arms into the sleeves. Or, better yet, wear a cape. Homburg, cigarette holder, and turtleneck are optional but can be useful depending on the circumstances. Obeisant trailing flunky / factotum is also a recommended accessory. (Some maestri are surrounded by them.)