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Music News

May 11, 2010

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

Dudamel: Small Injury, Big Performance

Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic gave the first concert of their national tour at Davies Hall Monday night. Symptoms of the conductor's potentially damaging injury last week were nowhere in evidence. Another program is scheduled for tonight.

It was on Thursday evening in the Walt Disney Concert Hall that Dudamel reluctantly yielded to his doctor's "strongest recommendation" and allowed Assistant Conductor Lionel Bringuier to lead the concert's second half.

The problem occurred, during the Dvořák Cello Concerto (with Alisa Weilerstein), when Dudamel heard a loud pop in his neck, "losing sensation in parts of his body during the final movement." Although this might have meant a disabled list-qualifying pinched nerve, it must have been just a pulled muscle because Dudamel was conducting again the next day.

The Philharmonic's youth culture is definitely in favor of athletic performances and fast recovery — Dudamel is 28 years old, Bringuier is 23.

This, the orchestra's first coast-to-coast tour of the U.S. in a decade, and the first with Dudamel, continues on from San Francisco to Phoenix (May 12), Chicago (May 14), Nashville (May 15), Washington D.C. (May 17), Philadelphia (May 19), Newark (May 21), and New York City (May 20 and 22).

The program on Monday included John Adams' City Noir and Mahler's First Symphony — the two works first performed for the internationally telecast inaugural gala for Dudamel in Walt Disney Concert Hall last fall. City Noir was commissioned specifically for the event.

Adams is currently creative chair of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and it's just a happy coincidence that the Berkeley resident/SFS veteran's work is featured before a "hometown audience" at the beginning of the tour. Today, as part of the DG Concerts series, Deutsche Grammophon is releasing the live premiere recording of City Noir on iTunes.

First S.F. Performance of an L.A. Rhapsody

The San Francisco premiere of John Adams' City Noir, with Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic, was a musical delight, one of the most powerful and accessible contemporary works heard in Davies Hall's 30-year history.

The Philharmonic-commissioned work — a 34-minute piece for a huge orchestra — is called the "final panel in a triptych" of Adams' orchestral compositions with California as the theme. The other two are the SFS-commissioned 1991 El Dorado and The Dharma at Big Sur violin concerto commissioned for the Walt Disney Concert Hall inaugural in 2003.

Opening with a super-dense texture and breakneck tempos, and closing with spasmodic rhythms that out-Stravinsky the master himself, City Noir is thoroughly clear and pleasant, with incomplete, dreamlike melodies, nary a sign of minimalist fillers, and it is constantly attention-commanding.

An exciting soundtrack to a movie of the listener's choice or creation, the work was inspired by historian Kevin Starr's Embattled Dreams volume of California history, described by Adams as "the tenor and milieu of the late 1940s and early 1950s as it was expressed in the sensational journalism of the era and in the dark, eerie chiaroscuro of Hollywood films."

Except for a ragged opening minute (the orchestra was not quite ready for him), Dudamel did a wonderful job with the difficult, demanding piece, admirably supported by the orchestra. The brass section was especially impressive (while strings played their hearts out), and brilliant solos were in abundance, especially by Timothy McAllister (saxophone), Donald Green (trumpet), James Miller (trombone), and Carrie Dennis (viola).

Our Burden of Musical Debris

On Terry Gross' Fresh Air and elsewhere, there is much discussion these days of Randy Frost and Gail Steketee's study, Stuff: Compulsive Hoarding and the Meaning of Things.

I don't propose to get into the logistical and psychological minutiae of hoarding, which haunts so many of — yes, us — but here's a musical aspect of this often borderline obsessive compulsive behavior:

Those of us (in big numbers, according to recent studies) who can't let go of books, minidiscs, VCR tapes, LPs, music cassettes, floppies, CDs, DVDs, and so on, are now facing a problem more complex than just fighting the wish to hang onto things.

Not long ago, it was physically and logistically possible to donate classical LPs to public libraries. It hurt to let go of some unique treasures, but it could be — and was — done. (I wonder what ever happened to them, now that libraries no longer carry records; see next item for a possible solution to LP disposition.)

Here's the question: what to do with music and film recorded on various media, especially homemade tapes and cassettes? No one will take them, and dumping huge quantities of these indestructible items in the garbage seems worse than just wrong.

A typical response to my plaintive quest:

Great problem, I still have all my LPs in the basement stored in boxes I cannot lift anymore, and my turntable has been out of order for years. I should organize my CDs, I used to catalog them but I gave up the process a few years ago.
Actually, CDs and DVDs may be better disposed of by donation than my thousand homemade music cassettes, including decades of Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, most of it indexed. There is just no way ...

Volunteer organizations in some cities offer recycling for discs, not in an effort to share the music or film on them, just to keep the polycarbonate plastic with aluminum layer finish out of landfills. I used GreenCitizen in the past, just hoping they will stay in "business."

Please use  the comments field on the bottom of this column to make some constructive suggestions both for saving recordings and, at least, for their ecologically acceptable disposition.

Hoarding With a Purpose

On the flip side of fighting the debris, described in the previous item, people are dedicated to saving LPs (and 78 RPMs, and even ancient music cylinders), convinced that transfer to other media robs the world of sound often superior to the digital version.

A leading light in the struggle to preserve original recording is Glenn Howard, of the American Musical Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit organization that accepts tax-deductible donations of CD, LP, 45, and 78 collections of any size and genre to add to its 750,000 albums.

If you ask Howard why bother with the enormously costly and complicated preservation of "old media," he will have a story for you:

When I first met Frank Zappa (after seeing the Mothers of Invention at the Fillmore in 1966), I asked him, "What the hell do you listen to?" We talked for about 20 minutes, mostly about Edgard Varèse and his boyhood experiences with the 1950 LP he called "EMS 401," and how it had warped his little teenage doo-wop brain.

I ran right out and bought the Robert Craft Columbia LP, which was still in print, and a year or two later, I had a similar record store experience to Frank's when I ran across a copy of EMS 401 at Moe's in Berkeley. In the years that have passed I've only seen one other copy, which was in Z-condition, but I bought it anyway.

The impact of this one "worst-selling" record on the post-"freak out" history of rock music cannot be overestimated. In fact, it has been undoubtedly the least-heard and the most influential of all the recordings that have altered the history of rock music.

Zappa autographed the back cover when I saw him conduct Varese and Webern in San Francisco, Feb. 9, 1983. I am still looking for a tape of this concert.

And, just yesterday, The New York Times chimed in with a story titled "In Mobile Age, Sound Quality Takes Step Back" —
In many ways, the quality of what people hear — how well the playback reflects the original sound — has taken a step back. To many expert ears, compressed music files produce a crackly, tinnier and thinner sound than music on CDs and certainly on vinyl. And to compete with other songs, tracks are engineered to be much louder as well.

In one way, the music business has been the victim of its own technological success: the ease of loading songs onto a computer or an iPod has meant that a generation of fans has happily traded fidelity for portability and convenience. This is the obstacle the industry faces in any effort to create higher-quality — and more expensive — ways of listening.

Groundbreaking for Stanford Concert Hall

Construction begins today on Stanford University's Bing Concert Hall, an 844-seat facility to be completed in the summer of 2012, with the inaugural concert scheduled in January 2013.

The 112,000-square-foot hall will stand at the east end of Museum Way, near Stanford Stadium, and across from the Cantor Arts Center on Palm Drive, the university's tree-lined gateway to the campus.

The $112 million hall, named in honor of major supporters Helen and Peter Bing, will feature a vineyard-style configuration with terraced sections wrapping around the stage. It is designed for a wide range of music performances, from small chamber ensembles to full-sized orchestras.

Design is by Polshek Partnership Architects (whose clients include Carnegie Hall), while the chief acoustician is Nagata Acoustics' Yasuhisa Toyota, whose work includes the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and Russia's Mariinsky Concert Hall in St. Petersburg.

The hall is designed to be intimate: the audience will be physically close to the performers; they also will be almost on the same level with them, given the low elevation of the stage. Concertgoers will be facing each other, rather than a proscenium stage.

Because the hall is designed from the inside out, acoustics are the top priority: "From the very beginning, it was incredibly clear that we were to make the acoustics the absolute best we could make them, says Richard Olcott, design partner at Polshek.

According to Toyota, the building created a particular acoustical challenge, because of the range of performances and ensemble sizes to be accommodated — from small chamber concerts to symphony performances with full choruses of 150 singers.

Given that the concert hall is relatively small (Davies Symphony Hall is more than three times the size), Toyota said the designers had to consider a sound that might be "too big for the space."

A crucial accommodation is the 47-foot-high ceiling — almost as high as the ceiling in a big concert hall — that will make the structure taller than most buildings on campus (the overall building height outside is 65 feet). According to Olcott, the ceiling design is "the ideal height to create a longer reverberation, a richer, fuller sound."

The acoustics determined the shape of the hall's exterior, which echoes the vineyard configuration with a distinctive, fez-shaped design. "It's very much about expressing the shape of that room — we wanted to express its roundness. We didn't want to put it in a box," says Olcott. "There was definite interest on our part for a pure and simple expression, and not tarting it up."

SFS Chorus Auditions

San Francisco Symphony Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin is holding auditions for Chorus’ 2010-11 season. Both volunteer and professional positions are available; the auditions are open to everyone. Call (415) 503-5207 for information and to participate.

At the auditions, May 14 through May 26, at Davies Symphony Hall, volunteer singers will perform one classical song of their choice, as well as two selections by Bohlin. Professional singers will perform two classical songs of their choice from memory, as well as two selecttions by Bohlin. The 20-minute auditions will be judged by Bohlin and Peter Grunberg, musical assistant to the Symphony's music director.

During the next season, SFS Chorus will perform in 27 concerts, including works for acapella chorus, Bach's Mass in B minor, Beethoven's Missa solemnis, Adams' El Niño, Mahler's Symphony No. 2, and Handel's Messiah.


Puccini Plug for Wells Fargo

When audiences hear one of the characters in Puccini's 1910 opera La Fanciulla del West hailed as a "Wells Fargo agent" this summer, they shouldn't suspect the San Francisco Opera of adding the job description to pander to its season sponsor. The "plug" was made by Puccini, his librettists, and San Francisco-born David Belasco, playwright of the original work.

"This may be one of the earliest examples of product placement," says SFO General Director David Gockley. "It shows how intrinsically linked Wells Fargo is to San Francisco's Gold Rush history."

In the opera, the character of Ashby, the agent, is hunting for an outlaw called Dick Johnson a.k.a. Ramerrez. However, as Charles Riggs notes on the Wells Fargo History Weblog, the title of Wells Fargo Agent is slightly incorrect. Agents handled financial services. It was Special Agents who tracked bandits and they worked a generation later than the Gold Rush.

Ashby proves a gregarious representative of the company. In Act 1, he toasts Minnie and the crowd in the saloon with a hearty "Gli omaggi di Wells Fargo!" ("Best wishes from Wells Fargo!"). In the play, in which Wells Fargo is mentioned dozens of time, the response to the toast is:

"Thank you," returned the Girl; and then while she shook the prairie oyster: "You see we live high-shouldered here."
The Wells Fargo link in the opera is Belasco's and Puccini's, but the following application is Gockley's: "We are offering Wells Fargo customers a 20 percent discount on tickets for select performances. Details of this offer can be found on Wells Fargo ATM screens throughout the city from May 19 to June 21."

There will be eight performances of the new SFO production June 9 through July 2.

San Francisco Performances' Season No. 31

San Francisco Performances President Ruth Felt has announced the organization's 2010-2011 season, complete with "a new visual identity: a new logo and tagline, 'Bringing Great Artists Center Stage'." She listed some of season's highlights:

We are delighted to welcome back Yo-Yo Ma, who returns to our series to bring the multicultural Silk Road Project to San Francisco for the first time. Our close association with Philip Glass continues with his new violin concerto The American Four Seasons, performed by violinist/leader Robert McDuffie with the Venice Baroque Orchestra, and a revival of Lucinda Childs' Dance, an iconic 1979 work featuring the original score by Philip Glass.

The Dance Series highlights American choreographer-led companies, most notably SFP regular Paul Taylor Dance Company. The exquisite butoh troupe Sankai Juku returns, performing the Bay Area premiere of Hibiki: Resonance From Far Away in a co-presentation with Yerba Buena Center for the Arts.

On the piano series, Till Fellner makes his San Francisco debut with a program that includes a new work by 18-year-old composer/pianist prodigy Kit Armstrong. And for the first time, SFP presents a piano-four-hands recital, with Arnaldo Cohen and Mihaela Ursuleasa sharing the keyboard.

The vocal series presents sopranos Measha Brueggergosman and Kate Royal; and an Americana program with tenor Anthony Dean Griffey, pianist Warren Jones, and fiddler Paul Brown, performing the West Coast premiere of Kenneth Frazelle’s Songs in the Rear View Mirror. Merola and Adler alumna Elza van den Heever bows on the Young Masters Series. Frederica von Stade and composer-pianist Jake Heggie will perform at the Family Matinee Series.

Season tickets are available now, and single tickets will go on sale in August. For complete information, see the SFP Web site.

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