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November 9, 2010

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Makropulos: a Case for Great Music

San Francisco Opera's season-closing production of Leos Janácek's The Makropulos Case has many attractions:

  • A phantasmagorical story about a singer whose life has extended over three centuries
  • The great Finnish soprano Karita Mattila in the title role
  • Olivier Tambosi, director of Mattila's acclaimed Manon Lescaut seen here in 2006, is in charge of the production, which is designed by Frank Philipp Schlössmann
  • Brno-born Jirí Bélohlávek conducting this work by Brno's Janácek, which had its 1926 premiere ... in Brno — so it's authenticity that cannot be improved upon
And yet, lest we forget what opera is about, the ultimate reason to go is the music. Typical of Janácek, it's a restless, twisting, pulsating score, interspersed with meltingly lyrical passages. Just as with his Jenufa, Kat'ia Kabanová (also starring Mattila here a few years back), Cunning Little Vixen, and other operas, Makropulos is full of haunting, vibrant music.

Unusual, even for Janácek, the orchestra is a separate voice, underscoring vocals, commenting on the story, and sweeping along in tandem with the singers.

Thank heaven for supertitles because this two-hour work has a plot just as complex as a four-hour Wagner opera. The libretto is by the composer, based on a play by Karel Capek, one of the earliest science-fiction writers, originator of the word robot.

Simplified, it's about the consequences of a discovery by an alchemist, called Makropulos, of the elixir of life. The opera diva Emilia Marty (Mattila) is the ever-surviving beneficiary of the elixir, and her secret is suspected when she displays surprising knowledge about a century-old lawsuit over an important will. Vast complications thereof follow.

Besides Mattila, Makropulos features a prominent cast: tenor Miro Dvorsky returns to San Francisco as Albert Gregor; bass-baritone Gerd Grochowski makes his local debut as Baron Jaroslav Prus; former Adler Fellow Dale Travis, who has performed in some 30 SFO productions, returns as Dr. Kolenatý.

The rest of the cast consists of past Adler Fellows Thomas Glenn and Matthew O'Neill as well as current Fellows Susannah Biller, Austin Kness, Brian Jagde, and Maya Lahyani.

Bélohlávek, chief conductor of the BBC Symphony, is making his S.F. Opera debut in this production. He is considered a leading conductor of Janácek's works, just as Sir Charles Mackerras was for much of the last century. These performances are dedicated to the memory of the former SFO principal guest conductor, who died this summer.

Where Are They Now?

This launches an ongoing series of reports about young artists hailing (at least musically) from San Francisco.

- One of this column's many favorite young singers, the lyric tenor Eleazar Rodriguez (S.F. Conservatory; Merola 2009, 2010) is with the Heidelberg Opera, singing Tamino (Magic Flute) for his European debut, then Jaquino (Fidelio, opening on Nov. 7), and then Cassio (Otello) in the spring. Next year, it's the opera house in Karlsruhe that's the likely venue for Rodriguez, especially as SFO’s John Parr is becoming music administrator in that house.

- Lyric tenor Alek Shrader (Adler 2008/2009) is having a career-defining month at Munich's Bavarian State Opera, which is still under Artistic Director Kent Nagano of San Francisco, now scheduled to leave his post in a couple of years. Among Shrader's roles in November: Belmonte in Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio, Egeo in Giovanni Simone Mayr's Medeo in Corinto, and Tamino in Mozart's The Magic Flute.

- Soprano Anna Netrebko (Merola, 1996 — yes, it's true) is starring in the current Metropolitan Opera production of Donizetti's Don Pasquale, with Matthew Polenzani, Mariusz Kwiecien, and John Del Carlo (Merola 1977), conducted by James Levine. The performance on Saturday, Nov. 13, will be broadcast on radio, beginning at 10 a.m. PST, and also shown in theaters around the world in live HD.

- Tenor David Lomelí (Adler 2009/2010) is having a banner year. His appearances included Edgardo in the Pittsburgh Opera's production of Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, Alfredo in Verdi's La Traviata with Deutsche Oper, Nemorino in Donizetti's The Elixir of Love with New York City Opera, MacDuff in Verdi's Macbeth with Opéra de Lille, and Rodolfo in Puccini's La Bohème with Santa Fe Opera. Future appearances are scheduled with the San Francisco Opera, Glyndebourne, Canadian Opera Company, Houston Grand Opera, Oper Frankfurt, and Oper Köln.

- Daniel Silberman, a double-bass student of Stephen Tramontozzi at the S.F. Conservatory, gave two solo recitals in the Chicago area this summer, and he was invited to play a joint recital in spring 2011 at University of Illinois/Urbana-Champaign.

- Violinist Stephen Kim, a student of Bettina Mussumeli, in the S.F. Conservatory Preparatory Division, was awarded first prize in the 11th California International Young Artists Violin Competition as the youngest first prize winner in its history. He also received third prize in the Stradivarius International Violin Competition in Salt Lake City and performed as concerto soloist with the Fremont Symphony Orchestra.

Adlers: Help Wanted

In the item above, in many articles in recent years, you have been reading about the great successes of Merola and Adler participants, but would you be part of the effort to help young talent go forth from San Francisco, even while providing important performances to us here? (Check the Makropulos Case cast alone.)

On Sunday, Nov. 21, beginning at 7 p.m., the annual fund-raiser recital for the Adlers' New York audition expenses will be held in Jim Heagy's San Francisco home. There is no fixed charge, just a donation requested, traditionally ranging from $50 to $500. There will be a separate collection for the benefit of Tamara Sanikidze, from the Georgian Republic, who needs assistance to remain and work in the U.S. Send RSVPs to [email protected]; checks to P.O. Box 27397, San Francisco, CA 94127.

Parnassus Scales Musical Heights

Symphony Parnassus is named for the street where its musicians spend their days. Doctors, medical workers, and students of UCSF make up the core of this "citizen orchestra," a term helpful in avoiding the incorrect "amateur" designation.

Members of Symphony Parnassus do not get paid, so technically they are not professional musicians, but make no mistake: This is an outstanding band, with a long history, imaginative programming, and San Francisco Symphony principal bassoonist and 30-year SFS veteran Steven Paulson as music director.

Originally created as the UCSF Orchestra in 1989 by Jonathan Davis, then a graduate student in biophysics, Symphony Parnassus has grown steadily over the years, venturing out from its home in Millberry Gymnasium to such major concert venues as Herbst Theatre, Masonic Auditorium, and the Palace of Fine Arts.

Unlike similar community orchestras, usually favoring standard repertoire, Parnassus follows Paulson’s adventurous leadership. For the orchestra's next concert, on Sunday, Nov. 14, in the afternoon in Herbst Theatre, the program marks the centennial of Samuel Barber, with his virtually unknown Fadograph of a Yestern Scene, plus his Violin Concerto.

The soloist for the concerto is a special young talent, 13-year-old Alina Ming Kobialka, daughter of S.F. Symphony violinist Chun Ming Mo and retired SFS principal second violinist Daniel Kobialka. She is an eighth grader at Lawton Alternative School, class president, active on the swim team, and a violin student at the S.F. Conservatory. I don't suppose she has much free time.

L.A. Philharmonic Joins the HD Crowd

Beginning next year, Los Angeles Philharmonic will transmit three concerts per season to more than 450 high-definition-equipped movie theaters throughout the U.S. and Canada.

The Philharmonic will partner under an exclusive one-year contract with Denver-based NCM Fathom, the entertainment division of National CineMedia, and Cineplex Entertainment, which distribute scores of concerts, sporting contests, and other entertainment events to movie theaters and other venues. Among their offerings is "Met Live in HD," the Metropolitan Opera's big-screen simulcasts, which have drawn more than 2.4 million people since 2006.

Mill Valley Philharmonic Venues

Mill Valley Philharmonic's free November concerts have a change of venue. Here is the lineup: Nov. 12, 8 p.m., and Nov. 13, 4 p.m., Mt. Tamalpais United Methodist Church, 410 Sycamore Ave.; Nov. 14, 4 p.m., Mill Valley Community Center, 180 Camino Alto.

The program, conducted by Laurie Cohen, is Dvorák's Slavonic Dance No. 8, Op. 42; Mozart’s Flute Concerto No. 2 in D (with Esther Landau); Brahms’ Symphony No. 4, Op. 98.

Sheaff Retires From Festival Opera

After two decades at the head of Festival Opera, Helen Sheaff is retiring, but she will continue to help with fund-raising.

Since joining the Walnut Creek company in 1991, Sheaff has played a pivotal role in building the nonprofit organization into the third-largest opera company in the Bay Area. Her shared vision of Michael Morgan's artistic direction has also helped Festival Opera gain national recognition for adventurous programming and as a showcase for young, emerging artists in principal roles. Among the company's recent productions, the West Coast premiere of Ned Rorem's Our Town in 2007, Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream in 2008, and Faust in 2009 received special attention.

Comments Artistic Director and Conductor Morgan:

Helen has made a difference in so many ways. She has this amazing ability to balance the sometimes-competing interests of a board, the artists, and the opera-going public, which has seen Festival Opera through a period of great artistic growth. She was never content to do the same repertory all the time. At the same time, she had such a clear vision of what a small opera company can do. She’s literally done everything for this company but sing.
Born and raised in London, Sheaff grew up accompanying her father to the opera, concerts, and theater. Following college, she settled in New York before moving to the Bay Area in 1969, where she also raised her three daughters.

In 1991, she joined Festival Opera as a part-time office employee shortly after they had mounted their first production. She still remembers her first assignment: to assemble a desk someone had given cofounder and conductor Jim Sullivan.

Sheaff says the reason for retiring now —

I want to spend more time with my seven grandchildren, and travel. Because our season takes place in July and August, I’m working from 9 in the morning to around midnight when they're out of school for the summer. Plus, this is an energy-consuming job. To stay on another season meant putting together the 20th anniversary celebration. I’d rather be in the audience for this one!
She is still taking a leadership role with the capital campaign to be launched next year. While a search is conducted for replacement, Arts Administrator Joan Lounsbery has agreed to serve as interim executive director for three months, beginning in early December.

The UCLA graduate, with a degree in music history, has over four decades of top management experience, including as the executive director at the Santa Rosa Symphony, Napa Valley’s Music in the Vineyards summer chamber music festival, and Milwaukee’s Artist Series at the Pabst and the Skylight Opera Theatre. She has also served as managing director of the Northern California Opera Consortium, as a member of the national board for Opera America, and as an advisor to the National Endowment for the Arts.

Mourning Shirley Varrett

Shirley Verrett, an acclaimed mezzo-soprano, who turned to soprano roles later in her illustrious international career, died Friday in Ann Arbor, Michigan. She was 79, and had been suffering from heart trouble for some time.

Born in New Orleans and raised mostly in Los Angeles, where she sang hymns in a Seventh-Day Adventist church, Verrett became one of the second generation of African-American singers — after Marian Anderson's breakthrough at the Met — to overcome prejudice and go on to a blazing career. During a long biracial marriage, she battled racial prejudice in a predominantly European-centered art form.

She studied at the Juilliard School in New York, and was a 1961 winner of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions.

Verrett had a long, happy association with the San Francisco Opera, from 1972 through 1988. Says General Director David Gockley:

We are greatly saddened to learn of the passing of extraordinary opera star Shirley Verrett. Ms. Verrett made her debut the with Company in 1972 in the second cast of Aida in the mezzo-soprano role of Amneris, followed by her success in the lead role of Meyerbeer’s grand opera, L'Africaine opposite Placido Domingo.

A magnificent singer who traversed the mezzo and soprano repertory, Ms. Verrett also sang Norma, Lady Macbeth, Dalila, and Azucena for the Company. She had an electrifying presence on stage both > musically and physically and was greatly admired by San Francisco audiences. In the Company's pantheon of legendary singers, Shirley Verrett holds a prominent place in our hearts.

Verrett was also a favorite of the SFO staff, having made many friends here. Diction coach Patricia Kristof Moy (now executive director of music at Kohl Mansion), remembers her unpretentious ways:
I loved working with her. I will never forget driving her to perform at Opera in the Park in my tiny little turquoise Volkswagen, as she was wearing a huge concert gown difficult to fit into the car. She was so gracious she pretended not to notice it was not a limousine.

Fidelity Investments Donates Instruments

Students at Berkeley's Longfellow Middle School received $20,000 worth of new music instruments last week from Fidelity Investments and the Fidelity FutureStage arts education program. Roberto Santos, of the company's Berkeley Investor Center, presented the gift to William Huyett, Superintendent of Berkeley Unified School District; music teacher Jan Davis; and some 100 students of grades 6–8.

Chora Nova's Haydn

Chora Nova's next concert, on Nov. 20, in Berkeley's First Presbyterian Church, opens the group's fifth season with choral works by Joseph Haydn.

They are the Harmoniemesse in B-flat Major (called the "Wind-Band Mass" because of the prominence of wind instruments), the dramatic part song Der Stürm (The Storm), and Te Deum for Empress Marie-Therese.

Chora Nova Music Director Paul Flight conducts; soloists are Kathryn Krasovec, soprano; Lisa van der Ploeg, alto; Kevin Baum, tenor; and Paul Murray, baritone.

Babbitt Mass Premiere

Zane Fiala's adventurous Orange [San Francisco's favorite color] Chorale is giving the West Coast premiere of the complete a cappella performance of Milton Babbitt's 1941 Music for the Mass. Early from Babbitt's career, Music is quite different from the composer's later atonal works, with beautiful melodies from within the chromatic and contrapuntal structure.

The concert, titled Prewar to Postmodern: Music for the Mass(es), is scheduled for Nov. 20 at San Francisco's St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. Admission is free. Also on the program: works by Irving Fine, Robert Moran, Morten Lauridsen, and Craig Hella Johnson, in addition to three commissioned premieres by local composers: A Vision by S.F. Conservatory's Noah Luna; Joshua Saulle's i am a little church (to a poem, obviously, by the lowercase e.e. cummings); and David Harris' Presence, set to three poems by William Carlos Williams.

Mahler on Vinyl

San Francisco Symphony is producing a limited-edition vinyl box set of its complete “Mahler Project,” released on CDs. Vinyl, as some may remember, is the stuff old-fashioned LPs are made of.

The 22-LP set includes a new 45 RPM recording of Rückert-Lieder, performed by Susan Graham, Michael Tilson Thomas accompanying her on piano.

The Mahler cycle on vinyl in this 1,000-copy limited edition is priced at $749, with orders taken at the San Francisco Symphony’s eStore.

The announcement speaks of "180g virgin vinyl," and diligent research shows that it's 180-gram — that is heavy — pure vinyl, containing no recycled material. Exotic as this edition may be, green it isn't.

One of the audiophiles consulted on the matter volunteered a story from the long-gone days of phonographs. A U.S. Customs agent, aware of recent headlines in England, asked Oscar Wilde, embarking on a tour of the U.S., whether he carried any pornography. "No," replied Wilde, "I don't even own a pornograph."

Not Lost But Found: 'Voices of Music'

It's unusual for a group of such well-known musicians to fly under the radar, but — until now, at least — Voices of Music was doing that for me.

Their motto: "In which every musician has a voice." It's a variation on the motto of American Bach Soloists, except that their own focal point is not Bach, but rather Renaissance and Baroque music, and the music directors are Hanneke van Proosdij and David Tayler.

The forces consist of string players Lisa Grodin, Katherine Kyme, Carla Moore, and William Skeen; harpsichordist Hanneke van Proosdij; and Dominic Schaner and David Tayler on theorbo, archlute, and Baroque guitar. They’re featured in the performance of music by Buxtehude, Rosenmuller, and Uccellini in concerts named Stylus Phantasticus Virtuoso Violin Music From 17th-Century Germany and Italy.

The schedule: Nov. 12, First Lutheran Church, Palo Alto; Nov. 13, St. Mark's Lutheran Church, San Francisco; Nov. 14, St. Alban's Episcopal Church, Albany.

Hardest Nut Yet — Sans Mice, Sans Ballet

A Nutcracker looms on the horizon in which Tchaikovsky comes into his own only at the very end. That's when the opening of the First Piano Concerto rings out — as a chorus sang by the crowd, victorious over fascist rats who had oppressed them.

There’s no review yet, alas, of Andrey Konchalovskiy's The Nutcracker in 3D, not until its U.S. release on Nov. 24, but stand by to hear more about this British-Hungarian production featuring Nathan Lane (with a Viennese accent) as Uncle Albert, John Turturro as the Rat King, and the terrific Elle Fanning (younger sister of Dakota) as Mary (not Marie, not Clara).

So, from the 1816 E.T.A. Hoffmann, the story went on to Dumas père, to the Petipa-Ivanov version in 1892, to Mark Morris in 1991, and now to Konchalovskiy. But no ballet?!

ASCAP Deems Taylor Awards

ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers) has announced the winners of the 42nd annual Deems Taylor Awards for outstanding print, broadcast, and new media coverage of music.

Books:

- Glenda Dawn Goss for Sibelius: A Composer’s Life and the Awakening of Finland, published by University of Chicago Press

- Jann Pasler for Composing the Citizen: Music as Public Utility in Third Republic France, published by University of California Press

- Peter J. Schmelz for Such Freedom If Only Musical: Unofficial Soviet Music During the Thaw, published by Oxford University Press

- Dorothy Lamb Crawford for A Windfall of Musicians: Hitler’s Émigrés and Exiles in Southern California, published by Yale University Press

- Jocelyn R. Neal for Songs of Jimmie Rodgers: A Legacy in Country Music, published by Indiana University Press

- David Hajdu for Heroes and Villains: Essays on Music, Movies, Comics, and Culture, published by Da Capo Press.

- David Lehman for A Fine Romance: Jewish Songwriters, American Songs, published by Nextbook/Schocken

- Robin D.G. Kelley for Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original, published by Free Press

Magazine Articles, Newspaper Articles, Liner Notes:

- J. Peter Burkholder for his article "Music of the Americas and Historical Narratives," from American Music, published by University of Illinois Press

- Richard E. Rodda for his program note for "Elgar, The Dream of Geronitius," published in the program book of the Grant Park Music Festival

- Russell Platt for his articles "The Lady Killer," published by Opera News," and "New-Time Religion," published by The New Yorker

- Joseph Dalton for his article "On Record: An Overview of the State of the Contemporary Music Recording," published by New Music Box

- Ann Powers for her articles "The Cultural Critic: Lady Gaga," "It’s Time for Idol to Open the Closet Door," and "My Night With Prince," published by The Los Angeles Times

- Ashley Kahn for his liner notes to Shaft by Isaac Hayes, issued by Concord Music Group

- Sylvie Simmons for her liner notes to Leonard Cohen Live at the Isle of Wight 1970, issued by Columbia/Legacy Records

- Gene Santoro for his article "W. Eugene Smith and the Jazz Loft," published by Chamber Music Magazine

The members of the ASCAP Deems Taylor Awards Judging Panel for 2010 were Paul Moravec, Curtis Hughes, Eleonor Sandresky, Richard Miller, Julie Flanders, David Massengill, Matthew Shipp, Pat Irwin, and Wesley Stace.

'Recorded' for How Long? Our Perishing Treasures

It happens to be today (Nov. 9) that a forum at Harvard University's Weissman Preservation Center is being held to discuss saving recorded media. But the disintegration of LPs, cassettes, CDs, MDs, and DVDs goes on every day.

The forum's specific subject is audiovisual research documents, called "a particularly endangered species":

Audio, and more recently video, analog and digital recordings, have opened new horizons for many research fields. They often form the only basis for many aspects of academic disciplines like anthropology, ethnomusicology, oral history and linguistics.

An impressive amount of publication is based on original field recordings, which have been published selectively in the form of LPs, CDs and DVDs. The greater part — presumably as much as 80 percent — of these primary sources are outside archival custody, sitting on the shelves of research institutes without adequate preservation protection, or still resting in the drawers of the fieldworkers. Mainly due to the imminent unavailability of replay equipment, the time left for bringing these sources into safe digital repositories is generally estimated to be only 15 years.

Meanwhile, music recordings sitting on our shelves are not doing much better. Deterioration of LPs and VCR tapes is especially swift and irreversible.

UC Santa Cruz Music Professor Fredric Lieberman writes:

I've begun to notice these problems already with VHS tapes. VHS players are now manufactured to much lower engineering standards than in the past, and have a very hard time tracking older tapes — tapes that play well on my old home Sonys and Panasonics are unusable on the university's newer machines. So I have to transfer them to digital media.

Of course it's worse with [Sony’s] Beta-tapes (of which I have a lot) since there are no Beta machines being made now, and none in stock at the university, so if I want to use one for a class (my copy of NYC Opera’s A Little Night Music, for example), I have to transfer it from my Beta player (which itself is on its last legs) to some digital format.

Other media are similarly going to be unplayable.

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