Music News: Nov. 25, 2014

November 25, 2014

Gala of the Legendary Pacific Musical Society

November 25, 2014

The Pacific Musical Society, San Francisco's oldest and noblest support organization for young musicians has been helping to launch careers since 1910, with a roster of hundreds of alumni.

The list includes Yehudi Menuhin (the first prize winner), Pierre Salinger (pianist and press secretary to President Kennedy), tenor Jess Thomas, composer David Del Tredici, pianists Leon Fleisher and Roy Bogas, cellist Matt Haimovitz, and many, many more.

The major source of funding grants to competing youngsters is the annual gala, a major social-artistic event. This year, it takes place on Dec. 6, at the Metropolitan Club — a historic venue only five years younger than the Society, built at the apex of the women’s suffrage movement, and the first women’s clubhouse in the state designed on the model of a Renaissance palazzo, a style associated in the past with business and masculine institutions.

For the first time in years, the gala will go on without Frederica von Stade, called away on family business, but she is participating in preparations, and remains one of the mainstays of the organization (as she is of many similar groups working for the welfare and success of young talent). The gala will honor Sheri Greenawald, director of the San Francisco Opera Center; performances are by award-winning young artists, the Society's Marcelle Dronkers (soprano), accompanied by James Meredith (piano).

Meredith is the Society's vice president, along with Claudia Landivar; Monica Foyer is the president. They and the rest of the board relish the group's vigorous growth, increasing first-prize awards to $4,000, recruiting important new board members and supporters, starting several new initiatives, such as the Living Legends video recording project "to connect younger musicians with the collected wisdom of the past." A three-hour video interview with legendary pianist Ruth Slenczynska has been completed, next up are Flicka and Olivia Stapp, with plans for many more.

Meredith is also founder/director of the Sonos Handbell Ensemble, which celebrates its 25th anniversary next year, and a key faculty member of Berkeley's Young Musicians Choral Orchestra which, he reports, "is going strong with this year's crop of graduating seniors getting their applications in to colleges and conservatories." YMCO will have a program on Dec. 18, featuring Flicka; I will have more information when it becomes available.


Family Bohème: the Blessings of Opera

November 25, 2014

If San Francisco Opera's family productions didn't exist, they would have to be invented. The idea — and execution — is one of the greatest win-win propositions in music theater:

  • The company is raising its future audience.
  • The children — small, smaller, and seemingly impossible smallest, I mean age 3 or 4 — have the invaluable first experience of a live performance (yes, Virginia, there is life beyond screens), and what may well become that first opera getting them hooked for life. (I speak from experience.)
  • The performers, almost all young, several current Adler Fellows or former Merolini, a kind of company farm team, get a big opportunity in the big house (the War Memorial, not a penitentiary venue).
  • And, an unintended benefit for heroic ushers: a veritable dress rehearsal for the fast-approaching 30-performance run of twice-daily Nutcracker mania, which pits three dozen ushers against a mostly "first-time-in-the-opera-house" crowd of about 100,000, children in the majority, some easily prompted to cry, their parents often even more difficult to handle.

At the Saturday family matinee of Puccini's La bohème (what a perfect "first opera"!), I heard no crying, no noise beyond parents talking to their children, in general as good an atmosphere as you find at any regular performance (except opening night, traditionally impacted by what is imbibed at gala parties).

Although the same production as the rest of the Bohème run, the family performance had a helpful pre-curtain narration by Adler Fellow Efrain Solis, who then stepped back into the role of Schaunard.

A fellow Bohemian, the painter Marcello, whose love-hate relationship with Musetta is the counterpoint to the Rodolfo-Mimi affair, was portrayed by Joo Won Kang. The second-year Adler Fellow's powerful, melodious baritone was a high point of the afternoon.

The two female leads were both already well-known and acclaimed Adler Fellows: Julie Adams as Mimi and Maria Valdes as Musetta. Adams, one of César Ulloa's many prominent students, shone in yet another major role, her Blanche in Dialogues of the Carmelites, and another Blanche, in Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire, firmly in mind. Those and other performances took place in smaller venues, but her debut in the War Memorial made a convincing case for her future in any house.

Rodolfo, the tenor lead with a fine but smallish voice, was Eric Margiore, making his San Francisco debut; Scott Conner was Colline. The formidable and enduring Dale Travis once again conquered with the dual roles of Benoit and Alcindoro, making something memorable out of two usually throwaway comprimario portrayals.

The Café Momus scene — with Ian Robertson's Opera Chorus and San Francisco Boys Chorus, and Lisa Bielawa's San Francisco Girls Chorus — was more boisterous and prominent than during the regular run, appealing strongly to fellow boys and girls in the audience.

Dennis Doubin's debut as conductor gets a passing grade, as he led the singers ahead of the orchestra, but it all came together, at least in the perception of those who hear this glorious warhorse in their head.

How great was the occasion? A friend with husband, daughter, son-in-law, two other adult children, and six grandchildren in tow, told me before the performance that her main concern was that the young ones of the tribe remain under control. At the intermission, glowing with pleasure from the performance, she said she is buying tickets for a family matinee next year. (Probably The Magic Flute.)

No need to wait that long — the Bohème family matinee will be repeated at 1 p.m. on Nov. 29. Not sure if there are tickets left in the 3,146-seat auditorium, but you can always look.

When I checked on Monday, there were only 25 seats available in the orchestra, but over 100 in the balcony. It's important to know that the less expensive balcony seats provide excellent acoustics, and thanks to OperaVision — HD video screens from the Koret-Taube Media Suite — there are better closeups of the performance than from anywhere in the orchestra.

S.F. Symphony Tour Ends in Miami, MTT's Other HQ

November 25, 2014

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony concluded their national tour Saturday night in Miami, where MTT's other residence and orchestra are located. He is founder/director of the New World Symphony, and is spending a substantial part of each year with the organization, but this is the first time in 19 years that he led the San Francisco orchestra back to the Sunshine State.

Before that, since last week's report, it was Princeton and Carnegie Hall. The Adams-Prokofiev-Ravel program was broadcast live on WQXR as part of the Carnegie Live series, to be syndicated nationally later this year. The broadcast can be streamed for the next couple of week.

Earlier on the tour, Boston greeted MTT in another homecoming with an article in The Boston Globe recalling his California roots:

As a boy, Michael Tilson Thomas would often take the train up the California coast from Los Angeles, where he was born, to visit his mother’s family in San Francisco. He fell in love with the northern city’s fog, the Palace of Fine Arts, the world around the opera and symphony. “Lots of the scenes that you see in [Alfred Hitchcock’s] Vertigo are exactly what I was experiencing,” he said during a phone interview. “That was very much my family’s world.”

That early relationship to the Bay Area made the fit instinctive when Thomas began guest conducting stints with the San Francisco Symphony at the age of 29. (His first performance with them featured Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.)

And, he added, “it felt very natural” when the invitation to become the orchestra’s 11th music director came two decades later. “They always had a really daring spirit, I would say, which was certainly in concord with my spirit.”

After the orchestra tour, the musicians return for two Thanksgiving weekend concerts (see next item), while MTT is celebrating his 70th birthday at special performances in Vienna, Budapest, and elsewhere. He will have his birthday gala on Jan. 15 in Davies Symphony Hall, appearing as conductor and pianist in Liszt's Hexameron for Six Pianos and Orchestra, with Emanuel Ax, Jeremy Denk, Marc-André Hamelin, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Yuja Wang.

MTT will also go on an anniversary tour next spring with the London Symphony Orchestra, giving concerts in San Francisco on March 22 and 23. On the first night, the program is terrific: Britten's "Four Sea Interludes" from Peter Grimes, Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 1 (with Yuja Wang), and Sibelius' Symphony No. 2. The second night is pretty good also: Colin Matthews' Hidden Variables, Gershwin's Piano Concerto in F Major (with Wang), and Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5. The remarkable week continues with Semyon Bychkov conducting SFS in Bruckner's Symphony No. 8 on March 25-27.

Gender Is Not an Issue for Mälkki the Conductor

November 25, 2014

Still astronomically out of balance, the number of women among conductors is slowly increasing, very slowly, and mostly not at the top: According to the League of American Orchestras at the end of last year, of the 103 ensembles with the biggest budgets, 12 have female conductors, just one of the top-tier 22 is led by a woman (Marin Alsop).

And yet, it's possible — I hope — to do this: report on a conversation with Susanna Mälkki and "bury the lead" by starting with this on top: What she is bringing to Davies Symphony Hall on Nov. 29 and 30, for her return concerts with the San Francisco Symphony.

The concerts open with Charles Griffes' rarely heard 1915 White Peacock, which Mälkki first conducted in Scotland. "I wanted to have an American work on the program," she says, "and this is a beautiful French-influenced piece with luxurious sonorities."

For the concerto, she selected Béla Bartók's 1945 Piano Concerto No. 3, one the composer's last works before his death in the same year. Mälkki says it's "more classical in language, and crystalized musically, compared with other Bartóks of the period," and also because "the first and second concertos are more difficult," although she knows the soloist could handle equally any of them.

Pianist Jeremy Denk is Musical America’s 2014 Instrumentalist of the Year, and known for his virtuoso performances.

The second part of the concert features Johannes Brahms' 1877 Symphony No. 2, one of the composer's more cheerful and pastoral works, which Mälkki has performed several times recently, including with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at concerts she calls "very successful." A Los Angeles Times review said "She etched lines with a crisp and dry sensibility ... brought out details that took the breath away."

Now, the "gender issue": Mälkki, at age 45, heads the Helsinki Philharmonic Orchestra, the major ensemble in her native Finland; she is the principal guest conductor of a Lisbon orchestra in Portugal, and she conducted opera in Milan's famed Teatro alla Scala, the first of her gender on the podium of the 236-year-old company. She was music director of the Ensemble InterContemporain, from 2006 to 2013.

Her versatility and broad repertoire have taken her to symphony and chamber orchestras, contemporary music ensembles and opera houses throughout the world. This season Mälkki debuts with The Philadelphia, Cleveland and New York Philharmonic orchestras, Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Orchestra Filarmonica del Teatro la Fenice.


Toiling in the World of Music for Naught or $5

November 25, 2014

Of course, your reward is not monetary, and for filthy lucre you would turn to professional sports, but still...

There is much internet buzz about Opera Australia's use of unpaid supernumeraries:

The Call Out says that the national Opera company is seeking “students currently undertaking a performance based degree to join the Aida cast” and notes that they will get a lot out of doing that including, “You will be in the cast of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, an opera unlike any other opera in the world!” and, “You will work under the direction of our internationally renowned creative team and amongst a cast and crew at the top of their games.”

But that’s not all — with students being promised that they will have their name listed in the program “alongside our international cast members” and they will “get the experience of working on a production of international scale, from rehearsal room to stage.”

The deal requires that participating students will need to commit to rehearsals over a period of time and provides an “indicative” schedule and work that really totals to about two months solid full-time work. Importantly, the opera says that students will have to “Cover all their own expenses, including travel and food expenses. We unfortunately cannot provide any reimbursements or allowances to secondment positions.” [Secondment = temporary?]

The roles will play the part of supernumeraries (non-speaking, non-singing actors on stage).

This is a questionable undertaking of the national lead opera company. If the national opera, well-sponsored by Handa, wish to stage a mammoth production of an opera for the whole world to come and watch, then they should do so properly. Getting students (or anyone) to stand on a stage and perform for free is unacceptable.

Is it? The world of music — opera, chamber music, choruses, etc. — is chock full o' volunteers, mostly happy ones because if you don't get something out of it, you can stop. But I wanted to check specifically on the issue of supers getting paid (or not) here, so I asked Michael Strickland, a veteran super with San Francisco Opera, besides many other occupations and distinctions:

Unlike the two months cited in Australia, San Francisco Opera usually takes three weeks of full staging rehearsals putting an opera together, although sometimes it's more like four or five weeks, but not eight. When I started supering at the S.F. Opera in the early 1990s, they had just changed from the old-fashioned custom of handing out a $5 bill every performance to each super as a parking/transportation stipend, and were now giving us checks at the end of a run.

Before that, I don't think anyone was paid for rehearsals, but by the 1990s we were getting something like $3 a rehearsal and $5 a performance. It was still treated as an honorarium, meaning there were no taxes taken out and no Social Security numbers being requested, which was just fine with me. The compensation has crept up to something like $5 a rehearsal and $15 for a performance.

In truth, most people interested in the experience would pay to be supernumeraries. It's an extraordinary way to absorb an opera, from the beginning of rehearsals to the length of a run, with some of the best voices in the world singing inches from your ears, an orchestra playing seemingly just for you, and enough theatrical danger from all the moving parts to keep you on your toes.

I have noticed that acting students are usually unsuccessful as supernumeraries because they're not particularly dependable, they want it to be all about them (they're budding thespians!), and are usually very disappointed that they are being hidden in the background.

In my eye, the best supernumeraries are the ones you don't notice, who help create the illusion that a king is worshiped or the peasants are oppressed or horror haunts the castle because there are a lot of dead people onstage (that last one is from the Andrei Serban production of Elektra with Gwyneth Jones).

From another friend:

When I sang with the S.F. Symphony Chorus, only the professional core members were paid. And I loved it. Wouldn't have missed the experience for the world. I was a tenor in the "expanded" chorus, which meant a lot of Beethoven's Ninth, but still...

A Young Star in the Community Music Center Firmament

November 25, 2014

The San Francisco Community Music Center has been doing great things for the community, from the youngest to the elderly. To understand just how the Center's education program works, we turned to somebody who is well familiar with the matter, CMC Development Associate Tamara Bock, asking her to give an example:

For eight-year-old violin student Loren Gigi, the Center is more than a place to learn how to play an instrument. It is a place that has taught her to truly appreciate music, not to give up, and to set goals.

Loren hopes one day to join a good orchestra so she can travel the world making music. To prepare, she studies violin with Sin-Tung Chiu at the CMC Richmond District Branch.

After only two years of study with Sin-Tung, Loren soloed at CMC’s Spring Gala at the SFJAZZ Center last May, where she brought down the house with her poised performance of Allegro by Fiocco. Loren has also participated in Sin-Tung’s violin ensemble in performances with the CMC Children’s Choir. One day soon she hopes to audition for the Junior Bach Festival.

Loren is a third-grader at Jefferson Elementary School. Being still small in size she plays on a half-size violin and bow, which Sin-Tung helped select for her. Loren has two one-hour lessons each week with Sin-Tung and she sometimes increases to four lessons during school breaks. She also participates in Sin-Tung’s violin ensemble class, which meets once a week for one hour.

Dedication and curiosity are ignited when students are paired with the right teacher: “Mr. Chiu tells me the secrets that help me play more beautifully. I also enjoy very much the music he teaches me,” says Loren.

The combination of a good teacher and a supportive family makes for a rewarding musical experience. Says Sin-Tung, “I am struck by the deep love of music and the intense devotion to learning music properly from the Gigi family.”

Loren’s mother, Oxana, plays a big role in helping Loren to prepare for her classes and believes that it is important to expose children to music and all things good. Loren is one of many students at CMC who benefit from financial assistance. Thanks to generous donors like you, CMC steadfastly maintains its original mission to make music accessible to everyone.

And from there, Bock fluently segues into a holiday pitch for a good cause: "Make your year-end gift today to make sure that more students like Loren have access to a quality music education."