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Music News: May 7, 2013

May 7, 2013

R.I.P. Fred Lieberman

May 7, 2013

Fred LiebermanFredrick Lieberman — a musicologist whose interest and expertise ranged from classical Asian music to Broadway, Lou Harrison, John Adams, and the Grateful Dead — died Saturday of a heart attack in his Santa Cruz home. He was in his early 70s.

The UC Santa Cruz music professor and former music department chair (1988-1992), ethnomusicologist, author, and a friend of many years, Lieberman was also a SFCV contributor, writing about John Cage and other subjects.

Lieberman's original expertise was in Asian music: After beginning his education at the Eastman School of Music, he received ethnomusicological degrees from the University of Hawaii and UCLA, then taught at Brown University and the University of Washington before coming to UCSC.

But, beyond ethnomusicology, Lieberman's range of his interest and work was exceptional in academia where specialization is often the rule. Besides publishing works about Javanese, and Balinese music, Lieberman also authored biographical studies of Lou Harrison (with Leta Miller), and wrote frequently about the Grateful Dead.

He found a home for the band's archives at UCSC's McHenry Library, and collaborated with Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart on Planet Drum, Drumming at the Edge of Magic, and Spirit Into Sound.

Lieberman has also created pioneering college courses about Broadway musicals, especially of Stephen Sondheim, film scores, the Beatles, rock, and pop. In recent years, his research focused on the music industry and copyright law. A published composer and poet, he had a deep involvement with Zen Buddhism.

Lieberman with Mickey Hart, his coauthor for several booksHis American Harmonist: The Music of John Adams, begun in 2001, was to be a full-length study of Adams and his work, but was left unfinished at Lieberman's death.

Lieberman's A Chinese Zither Tutor: The Mei-An Ch’in-P’u and Chinese Music: An Annotated Bibliography remain landmark studies of the subject, in addition to his publications about Toru Takemitsu, Jean-Joseph-Marie Amiot, and the music of Bali.

He published several compositions, and was an avid collector of musical instruments from Asia. There seemed to be no subject mentioned to which he couldn't make a contribution. Just last week, in response to a review of Joss Whedon's Much Ado About Nothing, Lieberman surprised me with yet another demonstration of his all-encompassing interest on a subject seemingly far away from his usual territory:

Given Whedon's tendency (like Sondheim) to assemble ensembles from a cohort with whom he feels comfortable, casting errors in Much Ado are understandable, and your critique seemed reasonable. Nevertheless, any way to bring kids brought up on pop culture to appreciate Shakespeare seems a legitimate risk.

In Firefly and Serenity Fillion fits his role well, with a deadpan delivery and understated bravado somewhat like Harrison Ford in the early Indiana Jones films. In Dr. Horrible, he's a cartoon character (super-hero with excess of ego, "a bear of little brain"), and that works, too, as do Neil Patrick Harris and Felicia Day. I'm perfectly willing to accept that he was terrible in Shakespeare, since I trust your aesthetic judgment and usually agree with it.

Amy Acker wasn't as good in Cabin in the Woods as in Angel, where she delightfully nailed a complex dual-personality role. Alex Denisof was a bit shaky and wooden in his somewhat clichéd role as a bumbling Brit in Buffy and Angel (though much can be forgiven the man who had the good taste to marry Alyssa Hannigan).

Indeed, I'm trying (perhaps not so gently) to encourage you to sip a little more kool-aid. Buffy and Angel, Whedon's major work, not only expanded the boundaries of TV, but also, significantly, hit enough teen-to-twenties buttons that it's not surprising that many of its locutions, expressions, and inventions have been adopted into everyday English (there's a fun but scholarly book on the subject).

My Lit-Crit PhD daughter hosted full-house Buffy parties weekly with her UC Berkeley colleagues, during the first run of the show, even though it was set at "UC Sunnyvale," a not-very veiled version of UCSC, perhaps with a soupçon of UCSB.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at

Little Women, Big Challenge

May 7, 2013

The Sunday cast of <em>Little Women</em> (they had the whole stage) Photos by Billy WhitcombIt wasn't just a drill, but a real emergency, giving voice students a taste of how wacky and impossible opera can be — and how to stand your ground.

Shortly after 3 p.m. Friday, just four hours before the S.F. Conservatory Opera Program's fully-staged premiere of Mark Adamo's Little Women, disaster struck. The entire front section of the Concert Hall's stage, which normally houses instruments, got stuck six feet up in the air, separating the rest of the stage from the auditorium. It could not be budged, not at 4, not at 5... not by the scheduled 7:30 p.m. performance.

Cancel or do "The Show Must Go On" bit? With the redoubtable and fearless Stage Director Heather Mathews in charge, canceling the show was not an option. Mathews has handled impossible challenges for numerous small-and-brave opera companies, so this was just another notch on her belt of staging heroism.

After much milling about in the lobby, confusion and uncertainty, some of the audience had a chance to see the performance, only slightly delayed. As one of the lucky ones, part of the reduced audience, I couldn't quite believe what Mathews hath wrought.

Ellen Presley, Kate Mathews, Chelsea Melamed, Reid Delahunt She gave up on the 400-seat auditorium, turned as much of the set around as possible, had chairs placed on every available spot of the stage (I was sitting inches away from pianist Darryl Cooper) and put others in the small choir loft overlooking the stage.

The strangest bit: The control booth in the back of the auditorium could not be moved, so lighting was handled from there, but with the elevated downstage in the way, so while they provided light, the technicians were truly "in the dark" — and did just fine.

The other Conservatory troupe of the double-cast opera performed under normal circumstances on Sunday. For the Friday Cast A, it was great going, led by Hannah Headland's untiring Jo March and Anneka Quellhorst's striking Meg March. Chelsea Hollow's Amy and Jill Morgan Brenner's Beth rounded out the quartet. Among the men, Daniel Bates' Laurie impressed with a strong tenor and assured acting. Curt Pajer conducted.

The 1998 Adamo work was of special interest, coming just a month ahead of the San Francisco Opera premiere of the composer's The Gospel of Mary Magdalene (see next column item). Little Women is one of the most frequently performed contemporary operas, a pleasant, enjoyable work, with too much text (the cast handled diction very well, except for the Four Voices mini-chorus), and very short melodic lines, almost like musical fragments.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at

As Mary Magdalene Is Approaching

May 7, 2013

Nathan Gunn (Yeshua) and Sasha Cooke (Mary Magalene) Photo by J. Henry Fair Mark Adamo's The Gospel of Mary Magdalene will have its world premiere at the War Memorial Opera House on June 19, for seven performances through July 7. As recent SFCV video reports show, the production is nearing completion, but there is a great deal of work yet to be done.

Sasha Cooke has the title role, opposite the Yeshua of Nathan Gunn, Maria Kanyova is Yeshua’s mother Miriam and William Burden is the the disciple Peter. Kevin Newbury is stage director, Michael Christie conducts.

In anticipation of the new opera, here's a look back at what Adamo wrote at the time of composing Little Women (1998) of differences and similarities between opera and musical theater:

... theater doesn’t encourage musical sophistication, only the sophisticated use of unsophisticated musical materials, which is why the only possible place that music-heavy shows like Rent or Les Miserables could be called operas would be on Broadway. The musical thinness is understandable, given the unreliable skills of that category "singing actor," which has covered everyone from elegant croaker Rex Harrison to opera-singers-on-Broadway Alfred Drake and Barbara Cook. And the musical’s up-from-songbook history has sown, if not active resistance, than striking disinterest in the idea of symphonic or motivic development as analogous to dramatic process.

Model of David Korins' set design Photo by Cory Weaver   Conversely, American opera hasn’t always encouraged theatrical sophistication, just the musically sophisticated elaboration of theatrically often simple-minded ideas. The skill-sets of the usual performers are again germane here, because the category of “acting singer” has included everyone from Lauren Flanigan to Luciano Pavarotti.
As economic quantities, obviously, they’re part of different cultural categories: Musicals belong to the business of theater, which retains its shimmer of populism despite $80 Broadway tickets, while opera belongs to the business of “elitist” classical music. There are technical differences, too. Musicals are amplified these days (though ‘twas not ever thus): opera's not, for reasons good (few know how to do so either appropriately or creatively) and ill (the new fundamentalism about the sacrality of the acoustic voice, a catechism about as sensible as loyalty to gut strings or the fortepiano.) Composers orchestrate their own operas; theater composers almost never score their own shows.

I imagined writing the libretto for Broadway and the score for Lincoln Center, much as, I imagine, did the writers of Porgy and Bess and Candide. In every production so far, the farce scene that most regularly plays like that of a musical comedy is, coincidentally, the scene most driven by twelve-tone recitativo secco. When talking about opera and musical theatre, the operative word has to be AND.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at

Into the Woods, Here and There

May 7, 2013

Michelle Jasso: Witch hereIt's somewhat of a hush-hush yet, but apparently there is an upcoming Rob Marshall-directed Disney film of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods, with Meryl Streep (Witch) and Johnny Depp (Wolf).

On the other hand, all is known of the Ray of Light Theatre's May 31-June 29 production at the Eureka Theatre.

Not quite with Disney's resources, small, spirited Ray of Light has had great success with Sondheim's Sweeney Todd and Assassins, besides a slew of demanding musicals, such as Jerry Springer The Opera and Tommy.

Into the Woods features great musical selections on order of "Hello Little Girl," "I Know Things Now," "Giants in the Sky," "Agony," "It Takes Two," "No One Is Alone," "Children Will Listen," and others.

Meryl StreepStage direction for the production is by Eliza Leoni and musical direction is by David Möschler.

In the cast: Nikki Arias (Stepmother), Marisa Cozart (Baker’s Wife), Danielle DiPaola (Florinda/Sleeping Beauty), Austin Ferris (Baker), John Flaw (Wolf), Angela Jarosz (Cinderella’s Mother/Granny), David Naughton (Cinderella’s Prince), and Ted Zoldan (Rapunzel’s Prince).

Also Caitlin O’Leary (Lucinda/Snow White), Nancy Sale (Jack’s Mother), and Bill Tankovich (Cinderella’s Father), among others.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at