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Music News

June 7, 2011

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

Sonos to Estonia, Free Preview in Sunnyvale

While the San Francisco Symphony is winding up its tour of Europe, the Sonos Handbell Ensemble is preparing to leave for the Estonian capital of Tallinn to participate in the June 25-29 Bell Arts International Festival there.

The invitation is a rare honor: Only three such ensembles in the world are invited to represent areas where there’s significant activity in the handbell medium: England, Japan, and North America. In addition to performing in three concerts at the festival, Sonos will also teach classes, demonstrating their performing style to festival participants from Central and Eastern Europe.

For their main concert at the Niguliste Museum in Tallinn, Sonos takes five original groundbreaking American works for handbells, including RAPsody in View, created by the ensemble and choreographed by Laura Ellis. Starting on an empty stage, the players set up the space for the concert, bringing in tables, covers, bells — all to a percussive rhythm pattern, which then segues into the cadence of the Bach Toccata in G, connecting rap to Baroque.

Two other works are by Sonos Artistic Director James Meredith. After intermission Sonos returns to an empty stage, seated on the floor around a solo cellist (Jukka-Pekka Vainio) for Smirti. Meredith says that this response to the destruction of the World Trade Towers in 2001 is "an elegy to those lost and a call to a deeper memory of all human beings where we are all connected to each another."

Meredith's 2002 Sonics is a dodecaphonic (12-tone) and minimalistic work (two overlapping hexatonic scales a half step apart). "It was inspired by a question often asked of the players: 'Who does your choreography?' That is a somewhat puzzling to us, since most of the pieces have no specific movement designed for them; they are just the normal motions associated with the playing of different-size bells. That is, the movement comes from the written notes."

Meredith set out to write a piece that reversed that process. He designed some movements in space and then wrote the music to reflect those patterns. He also invented several new techniques in the process. Two players are seated on the floor, each around an array of bass bells played with mallets. The remaining 10 players stand in a variety of formations and moving patterns as the piece unfolds, coming to a concluding climax as vigorous and fast-paced as the rhythmic cadence of the concert's opening number.

The preview concert is at the Sunnyvale Presbyterian Church, on Sunday, June 12, at 8 p.m.

Forging the Ring

With a week to go before the first Rheingold of San Francisco Opera's three cycles of The Ring of the Nibelung, few tickets remain, notwithstanding some high prices (and low economic expectations). For example, as Kirsten Lee found out, the June 19 Götterdämmerung had only a single box seat left, for $385. Late last night, the number went up to 2.

The Opera's Robin Freeman did some checking with the box office, and reported on Monday afternoon:

Out of approximately 12,600 seats available for each four-opera cycle, there were 190 tickets left for Cycle 1; 300 for Cycle 2; and 500 for Cycle 3. By the time you read this, those numbers will drop significantly. But note:

- Availability is different for each opera. The order of popularity is Die Walküre, Götterdämmerung, Das Rheingold, and Siegfried, so if the first two are completely sold out, there may still be a few stray tickets for the others.

- Always, without exception, there are tickets turned back before each performance by those unable to attend; check with the box office by phone (415-864-3330) or online.

- For those sturdy of legs and adventurous by nature, $10 standing-room tickets — going on sale at 10 a.m., and must be purchased in person (two per buyer maximum) — can get you in. Remember that the best sound in the house is in the top, second-balcony standing room space.

From the impressive, 102-page Ring program, which is still free, unlike similar publications just about anywhere else outside the U.S., come these true confessions by Jay Hunter Morris, who sings the title character in Siegfried, to the question "When did you experience your first Ring?”:

At a Jenufa rehearsal in 2004 in Dallas, Francesca Zambello prophesied that I'd sing Siegfried one day. I told her to wipe the crazy off her face. The only thing I knew about the Ring I learned from Bugs Bunny.

Speight Jenkins in Seattle opined that my voice was indeed well suited for Wagner, and he engaged me to cover Siegfried in 2009. When the day came to start learning and preparing the role, I cried like a baby, and I drove my poor wife crazy for months.

I wanted out and wrote a letter withdrawing from the whole mess, but I never sent it because we had a newborn baby, and I needed the job. Once fully committed, I fell in love. And now I'm hooked, I'm in, and I can't wait to go to work every day.

Arts and Economy: the Upside

Too often, when attention is paid to the cost of the arts, the debate is over the wisdom of supporting symphony, opera, theater, and the like. The other side of that issue, how communities profit from the performing arts, is neglected.

Here are some current facts to bolster the neglected argument: Edinburgh's festivals (the International, Fringe, and 10 others) are worth $426 million annually, creating thousands of jobs. The report, commissioned by the Festivals Forum with backing from the Edinburgh City Council, Creative Scotland, and other agencies, was hailed as vital ammunition in calls for public funding and private sponsorship.

Sir Andrew Cubie, of the Festivals Forum, says: "The results are astounding. The festivals are treasured locally and celebrated locally. Collectively, they bring enormous economic benefit to the city and the country, but the founding principle was not to fill planes and hotels, but to provide a platform for the flowering of the human spirit." Words to live by as you look around in San Francisco during June and see what the Ring festival alone does to the economy.

Oh, the other 10 festivals in Edinburgh? Art, Film, Books, Jazz & Blues, Tattoo, Mela ("celebration of cultural diversity"), Science, Hogmany (their New Year's Eve), Imaginate (children's theater), and Storytelling.

A contrast (one of many, alas): Kansas last week became the country's first — and so far only — state without an arts agency. Republican Gov. Sam Brownback privatized arts funding, meaning he erased all state support, leaving the Kansas Arts Commission with no budget, no staff, and no offices. The commission was founded in 1966, a year after Congress established the National Endowment for the Arts.

Arrivals & Departures: Costa, Bailis, Luisotti, Gaffigan

* Michael Costa has been appointed general manager of the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, effective immediately. Costa, whose most recent position was director of finance and administration, will supervise artistic administration, finance, operations, marketing, public relations, and education programs, and will report to Executive Director Peter Pastreich.

* San Francisco Opera Music Director Nicola Luisotti, whose career began as a rehearsal pianist at Milan's La Scala, is now making his debut there, leading nine performances of Verdi's Attila, June 20–July 14. Luisotti will also conduct the opera in the San Francisco fall season. In Milan, the title role is shared by Orlin Anastassov and Michele Pertusi; Ezio is sung by San Francisco favorite (of late) Marco Vratogna, alternating with the great veteran Leo Nucci.

* ODC Theater Director Rob Bailis is leaving the job at the end of the next season, having headed the theater since 2003. ODC Artistic Director Brenda Way says of him: "As an artist himself, he has been a serious proponent of creative exploration and growth, the originating mission for ODC Theater." Company Associate Director Christy Bolingbroke will serve as interim director.

* Former San Francisco Symphony Associate Conductor James Gaffigan is making his Spoleto USA debut, leading the Festival Concert in works by Richard Strauss, Debussy, and Prokofiev, and making no comment about the speculation that he may be a candidate to succeed Emmanuel Villaume as the festival's director of opera and orchestra. St. Lawrence String Quartet cofounder Geoff Nuttall is director for chamber music.

Bernal Heights Music News, Chapter 1

The Bernal Hill Players are presenting a free concert of new chamber music by local composers about San Francisco neighborhoods.

The event, at 8 p.m., June 18, in the Community Music Center, features premieres of commissioned pieces by Peter Josheff and Katrina Wreede at the concert titled "San Francisco: In and About the City.” Also on the program: recent works by Chus Alonso, Beth Custer, Loren Jones, and Erik Pearson, who have written pieces about Bernal Heights, the Mission District, Ocean Beach, Fort Funston, Sutro Tower, China Basin, and the Financial District.

This concert is free, as part of the San Francisco Community Music Center's Shenson Concert Series. The commission of Peter Josheff's Sutro Tower in the Fog was funded by San Francisco Friends of Chamber Music's Musical Grant Program.

The commission of Episodes in China Basin by Katrina Wreede, With the Birds Above Fort Funston by Erik Pearson, and Suite de los Barrios by Chus Alonso were made possible through Subito, the quick-advancement program of the San Francisco Bay Area Chapter of the American Composer's Forum.

Bernal Heights Music News, Chapter 2

San Francisco resident and San Francisco Symphony patron Elvis Johnson knows S.F. Symphony bass player Larry Epstein from his neighborhood bar, Skips in Bernal Heights, where the two play jam sessions, with Johnson on drums.

When Johnson heard about the SFS tour to Europe, he cashed in his Continental Airline frequent flier miles, flew to Vienna, attended the Mahler concert there, shared a few minutes with Epstein, and flew back to San Francisco the next day.

Says San Francisco Symphony Public Relations Director Oliver Theil: "That may win him ‘Patron of the Year’ in my book."


S.F. Ballet Showcase Shines Again

Unlike a revolution that "devours its children," San Francisco Ballet nourishes, supports, and showcases its young, perhaps more spectacularly than any other arts organization.

The company's large and famous Ballet School, headed by Lola de Avila, produces an annual Student Showcase, which serves multiple purposes: a graduation exercise, the opportunity for youngsters to be seen and for their parent to see how far they have come, and, for balletomanes, a chance to spot stars of the future.

Three performances last week in the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts followed the usual, endearing Showcase routine, beginning with a phalanx of tiny Level 2 children, roughly between ages 6 and 8. Older students followed in brief, always charming demonstrations. Dressed in different colors, groups representing various levels added up to some 100 dancers.

Credit for handling large groups of children entering and exiting the stage without a hitch belongs to the volunteer group BRAVO and parents of students. Would that some professional stagehands around the city did a job like this.

After the "cute"-and-"awww!" demonstrations came the business part of the evening as the oldest students performed ballets choreographed for them. Some of the dancers, such as Wan Ting Zhao in Company Director Helgi Tomasson's Beads of Memory, showed what Trainees, or Level 8 students, can accomplish.

The Trainee Program is a kind of graduate school, for students chosen from the school's most advanced level. Ranging in age from 16 to 19, these advanced students can become apprentices with the company, and later a few lucky ones are hired into the corps de ballet or released to find positions with other companies. Fully half the company received at least some of their training at the S.F. Ballet School, and there are scores of dancers around the world who are its graduates. The last year was exceptional in accepting three young dancers in apprentice positions and three given full corps de ballet contracts outright.

Other 2011 Showcase pieces were 2009 graduate Myles Thatcher's Timepiece (with Jessica Cohen, Lacey Escabar, Ellen Rose Hummel, Shion Yuasa, Sean Bennet, Francisco Mungamba, Alexander Reneff-Olson, Henry Sidford, and Trygve Cumpson — who also partnered Zhao in the Tomasson work), plus the premiere of Parrish Maynard's Promenade, featuring Elizabeth Powell and Henry Sidford, among others.

The Tomasson stamp is clearly on these new generations of dancers, with emphasis on technique and form, but showing restrained communication with the audience. A smile or two wouldn't hurt, especially from young artists at their first, presumably happy, opportunity to strut their stuff.

'Assassins' Come to Life at the Eureka

Stephen Sondheim's 1990 Assassins is a uniquely bizarre musical about plots against presidents, beginning with John Wilkes Booth. It highlights the dark side of the American dream for fame and success, and does so with black humor some may find hard to take. For those brave enough to produce the play, it is a huge challenge.

Reminiscent of distant days of San Francisco burgeoning with small, adventurous, and excellent theater companies, the 10-year-old Ray of Light Theater is offering a brilliant production of Assassins in the Eureka Theater.

This extraordinary community-theater company, which last scored with Jerry Springer the Opera, has marshaled a cast of Broadway quality. Even more, Ray of Light is offering a bouquet of individual performances bursting out in a true, selfless ensemble presentation. Kudos to company Artistic Director Shane Ray, stage director Jason Hoover, and music director David Möschler.

Besides John Weidman's book — with a finale of the assassins' hosts coercing Lee Harvey Oswald to kill President Kennedy — and Sondheim's usual clever lyrics that are difficult to laugh with in the play's context, the music is very different from other Sondheim works.

Other than his stillborn Bounce, Assassins has Sondheim's least-inventive music. Some of it has much in common with Pacific Overtures (another cooperation with Weidman) and the patter-songs of Into the Woods. The rest, musically, is a mélange of Americana, clever, but not A Little Night Music or Sweeney Todd.

And yet, with an inspiring production such as this, a minor Sondheim is still superior to major presentations of singing cats or of roller-skating trains. Unlike most conventional, popular musicals, Assassins engages the brain and emotions and has some lasting substance.

At the center of the cast is the wonderful trio of Steven Hess' towering Proprietor, Derrick Silva's powerful Booth, and Michael Scott Wells' mocking, revelatory Balladeer (who morphs into a main character in the end).

One by one, killers and would-be assassins march by, revealing their private pains and demons, even while being funny and entertaining. Gregory Sottolano is Charles Guiteau, who killed James Garfield. Joel Roster is Leon Czolgosz, assassin of William McKinley, and enamored of the anarchist Emma Goldman (Anna Smith).

A pair of scary-funny, bungling, psychotic women attempting to kill Gerald Ford, Sara Jane Moore and Squeaky Fromme, are brought to life by Lisa-Marie Newton and Eliza Leoni. Danny Cozart plays another would-be assassin, Samuel Byck, who had planned to crash a plane into Richard Nixon's White House.

Alex Rodriguez is Giuseppe Zangara, whose bullets missed FDR; Charles Woodson-Parker plays the woebegone John Hinckley Jr. who shot Ronald Reagan for the love of Jodie Foster.

Möschler conducts a band of seven from the piano; they and all the singers are amplified in the tiny theater, not in excess, but still occasionally interfering with diction, which is so important in a Sondheim musical. Wouldn't it be a pioneering adventure, worthy of Ray of Light, to get away from the half-century-long bane of amplification in venues that don't need it?

Bollywood, Gilbert & Sullivan Mingle in San José

Little did W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan realize in 1877 that The Sorcerer would appear in 2011 in San José as a Bollywood spectacular.

Back in London, it was the pair's first Savoy opera, the first full-blown collaboration using all that would follow: comic duets, patter-songs, contrapuntal double chorus, a tenor and soprano love duet, a soprano showpiece, and so on.

The tale of forlorn village maidens, magic potions, and "air charged with amatory numbers" has everything but a setting in India, even though the country was a British Crown Colony back then. San José's Lyric Theater to the rescue: Collaborating with members of the large contingent from the subcontinent, it's offering the Bollywood version in the Montgomery Theater, June 18-26. Although the setting shifts to Victorian India, the story and the music remain the same.

Choreographer Ishika Seth from Mona Khan Dance Company joins stage director David Euresti and music director Aaron Schultz heading the production. "One of the biggest challenges for our cast is dancing in a Bollywood style while singing Victorian light opera, but I think that the expressive nature of the Indian dance adds an interesting dimension," says Euresti, a man apparently given to understatement.

Local News from Berlin

Berlin, where former San Francisco Opera Music Director Donald Runnicles (and current leader of the band for the SFO’s Ring) is the music director of one opera company (Deutsche Oper Berlin), the administrative director of another, the venerable Staatsoper Unter den Linden, is Ronald H. Adler. He is the son of the late Kurt Herbert Adler, who ran the San Francisco Opera for 28 years (general director 1953–1981, after serving as chorus director beginning in 1943).

Before Berlin, Adler had an important role at the Bavarian State Opera in Munich (where yet another San Franciscan, Kent Nagano, is music director through next year, going out with a production of Wagner's Ring —which you must have heard of lately).

Three years ago, when the Staatsoper had a leadership crisis and was faced with a temporary move to another building, Adler became both "intendant" (the top position) and opera director, which is second only to the intendant, for two years, and now, with the arrival of Jürgen Flimm, Adler remains director.

That's about to change, as Adler is retiring, after a lifetime in the opera, to be succeeded by Ivan van Kalmthout. Although born in Chicago, Adler spent his childhood around the War Memorial and attended both San Francisco State College and UC Berkeley.

Meanwhile, the Staatsoper is in temporary residence in the 1,000-seat Schiller Theater, while the historic (1,400-seat) Lindenoper is being rebuilt from the ground up — an even more radical operation than the War Memorial went through after the last big quake, finding performance spaces anywhere it could.

What was to be a three-year project in Berlin has run into engineering problems, and its return to home may not be possible until 2014 or later. Unlike the 20th-century Schillertheater, Lindenoper is historical and special. Starting as the Königliche Hofoper, commissioned by Frederick II in 1741, it was called the "Enchanted Castle."

It was destroyed by fire in 1843. The rebuilt house was completely renovated in 1928, then was bombed in 1945 — and has stood pretty much untouched since its last resurrection more than six decades ago. Whatever the cost and the time required, the current construction was unavoidable.


I read with great sadness of the privatization of the Kansas Arts Commission, the first of the State Arts Agencies to be abolished. I was Executive Director of that Commission from 1971-73. At that time we established a large number of community arts councils that served as developers of a wide variety of performing and visual arts events in rural Kansas. It was a time of promise and fulfillment in making the arts a vital part of rural America. Since then, unfortunately, the National Endowment for the Arts, established in 1965 to bring the arts to all Americans, has become a lightning rod for conservatives who consistently try to abolish it. Without the NEA, there would have been no Poets in the Schools, no Dance Touring Program, and a multitude of other programs that have made the arts the economic and social part of America's cultural landscape.

I would like to comment on your statement "Fully half the company received at least some of their training at the S.F. Ballet School..." If you were to survey those dancers, you would find that all or nearly all only came to SFB school shortly before being hired into the company. In other words, they were trained at other schools where they received better training. You can also notice, that none of the current numerous principals received any training from the school, and hardly any are even American. As a school that is connected to a major company, it really isn't concerned with actually teaching its students. They know that they can attract more talented and better trained dancers from elsewhere when they are ready to be hired into the company for the corps. The school is really more concerned with packing as many students as possible into their studios for maximum profit. The class sizes are especially huge in the lower levels(30 to as much as 50 on some days), when it is actually most important to establish good foundation in technique through extensive individual attention to detail. And while everyone knows that real performing experience consisting of learning actual repertoire and choreography is a very important part of professional training at every stage, students at SFB School only start to receive this at level 7. The first 6 levels only get class exercises on stage at the showcase. Some students get stage time in the company's productions, but these mostly involve standing around or running around on stage. This isn't an adequate substitute for actual performance experience where the students are the main attraction of the show. Unless the school changes the way it operates, it will continue to need to accept better students from other schools who outshine and displace their own students every year.