Music News: July 26, 2011

Janos Gereben on July 26, 2011

S.F. Opera Negotiations on the Right Track

Unlike the U.S. debt ceiling's rendezvous with destiny, San Francisco Opera's budget situation is in much better shape, thanks in part to union cooperation and willingness to (pardon my French) compromise.

For several months now, General Director David Gockley stressed repeatedly the importance of reaching a workable agreement with the Opera Orchestra musicians before their five-year contract expires on July 31. The company concluded Fiscal 2010 with a $1.5 million deficit on an annual operating budget of $65.2 million. (The U.S. budget for the same period shows $1.8 trillion deficit on total expenditures of $3.5 trillion.)

"John Adams wrote Nixon in China for an orchestra of 40," Gockley said, citing an example of budget problems, "but our contract requires us to pay for 70 musicians [when that opera is performed]. Unless we can address structural problems like this and lower our high fixed costs, we are going to be in trouble."

Gockley has also said the entire budget, and even the company's future, is affected by the labor situation: "In the performing arts, costs have continued to grow faster than income, and generous union contracts are one of the reasons for this. Raising more money is only part of the solution. Labor must assume its share of the burden."

At the same time, Gockley and the administration had unstinting praise for the Opera Orchestra’s valiant performances, especially during last month's Ring cycles, under the direction of Donald Runnicles.

Last weekend brought very good news. Although no details are yet available, Opera management negotiators — including Matthew Shilvock, the company's associate general director — reached an agreement with the American Federation of Musicians Local 6. On Friday, a week before the deadline, the musicians ratified the contract.

What remains is the potentially more complicated negotiations between the Opera administration and the American Guild of Musical Artists (AGMA), affiliated with AFL-CIO, representing some 500 soloists, chorus members, production staff, and dancers. (The contract for stagehands, represented by another union, is not expiring yet.)

Ballet San Jose Contract Talks

The Ballet San Jose Web site says the 2011-2012 season will be "announced soon," but there may be a question about how soon that will be, pending apparently stalled contract talks.

From its complicated birth in 1986 as the San Jose Cleveland Ballet, the company has struggled after the end of that alliance when Cleveland Ballet ceased operations in 2000, then it became Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley, and eventually assumed its present identity.

From 2004 on, John C Fry of Fry's Electronics has been a major financial supporter, giving the company in excess of $10 million, as well as in-kind contribution of services over the years. 

AGMA National Ballet Executive Nora Heiber says talks on behalf of the dancers began in January, but negotiations were suspended by the company indefinitely on June 8. The contract expired on July 1. According to Heiber:

We have been told the reason for the stalemate is John Fry's unwillingness to approve a budget and repertory for next year. Mr. Fry rejected AGMA's proposal to extend the current contract for one year with a cost of living increase to the dancers. Instead his proposals include longer work days with less pay and the elimination of seniority and severance pay.
AGMA has filed a grievance against the company for failure to provide the dancers with their employment dates for the 2011-2012 season, and the organization plans to move forward with an unfair labor practice suit. Heiber added this comment:
We don't understand why someone who has been generously supporting the company for so many years would be acting in such a destructive manner. AGMA has worked closely with BSJ for several years to support whatever was needed for the company to survive the recent economic downturn with the dancers willingly giving concessions.

The worst part of this is how it is affecting these young dancers who are the top in their fields and have such short careers. They have lost opportunities to seek and find other work and are currently in a state of confusion as to what to do next as they come to the end of their unemployment benefits.

Apparently, contract talks are also in negotiations with IATSI (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees), the union representing stagehands and wardrobe, whose contracts expired at the same time as AGMA's.
**NOTE: Read more about the Ballet Contract talks below in the comments section.

A Tiny Jewel of the Big Music@Menlo Festival

It was just what the (music) doctor ordered: a simple, quiet, utterly gorgeous piece of chamber music, the perfect resting point between San Francisco Opera Ring cycles and the upcoming San Francisco Symphony centennial season.

The cleansing of the palate came Sunday at the Music@Menlo opening series of concerts, with Schubert's Notturno in E-flat Major. This pensive, lyrical piece — played brilliantly by festival codirector cellist David Finckel, violinist Cho-Liang Lin, and pianist Juho Pohjonen — was part of broad, generous introduction to the main subject of this year's festival, Johannes Brahms.

Along with works by Mozart and Schumann, the Schubert miniature led up to an energetic performance by pianist (and festival matron) Wu Han and violinist Arnaud Sussmann of the Brahms Scherzo in C Minor, and then the Brahms Piano Trio in B Major with Lin, Pohjonen, and cellist Laurence Lesser.

Wish I could share the experience of the magical "night music" of the Schubert, going right to the heart, but until the Menlo CDs are issued in the fall, here's a classic Suk Trio performance.

At the festival, the tempo was super-slow (how can you produce a sound if your bow is not moving?!) and eerily quiet, probably not something that will come across fully in a recording. The message: Get thee to the festival and hear live performances to treasure.

In its ninth season, Music@Menlo has become huge: a nationally famous complex of hundreds of performances, events, and multilayered educational activities. Each of the six main series of concerts presents Brahms' music in context with the German master's predecessors, contemporaries, and successors.

Among the many famous instrumentalists at the festival: pianist Wu Han (festival cofounder and director, along with Finckel, her husband); San Francisco Symphony principal clarinetist Carey Bell; violinists Ani Kavafian, Elmar Oliveira, and Philip Setzer, a founding member of the Emerson String Quartet, along with Finckel; San Francisco Conservatory of Music faculty member Ian Swensen; and many, many more.

The storied pianist and teacher Menaham Pressler, 88, was to participate again, but on Monday, he canceled appearances.

Besides the main concerts, the festival presents individual string quartet performances, encounters, café conversations, master classes, Prelude Performances (by International Program artists), and concerts featuring Koret Young Performers of the Chamber Music Institute — talented teenagers from the Bay Area and elsewhere, taking part in an intensive summer program led by the stars of the festival.

Music@Menlo was conceived, say Finckel and Wu Han, "as an environment of immersion in great music, a place of exploration, enlightenment, and enrichment. While the festival has grown in many ways, that spirit has not changed, and since its inception, the festival has become world-renowned for its rigorous, in-depth programming."

The splendid 500-seat Center for Performing Arts at Menlo-Atherton is a welcome addition to the Menlo School facilities and St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Palo Alto. Concert tickets range from $20 to $72, but the festival offers many free events.

Here's a sample for this week:

- Listening Room with Patrick Castillo, 4:15 p.m. Wednesday, Martin Family Hall, free
- Master class with cellist Laurence Lesser, 11:45 a.m. Thursday, Martin Family Hall, free
- Prelude Performance (Brahms, Schumann), 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Stent Family Hall, free
- Encounter II: Brahms and the Schumanns, 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Martin Family Hall, $20 to $42
- Master class with violinist Daniel Hope, 11:45 a.m. Friday, Martin Family Hall, free
- Prelude Performance (Mozart, Haydn, Dvořák), 6 p.m. Friday, Martin Family Hall, free
- Concert Program III: "Veiled Symphonies" (Bach, Clara Schumann, Vivaldi, Brahms), 8 p.m. Friday, Stent Family Hall, $35 to $72; and 8 p.m. Saturday, CPA Menlo-Atherton, $20 to $65

Nora Norden: 'Bright Spark of Life' Extinguished

Nobody in the throngs of Ring maniacs (present company included) converging on San Francisco last month could hold a candle to Nora Norden in her dedication to the cause. The company's longtime German language coach, who died last week, worked tirelessly during the years of preparation, which culminated in three complete cycles last month. She was 95.

"The spark of life burned brightly in her heart to the very end," says San Francisco Opera General Director David Gockley. "The Ring was a huge passion for her, and nothing would ever have gotten in the way of her full participation through ‘Das Ende.’ A couple of days prior to the last performance, she announced her full and final retirement. She was so frail."

A colleague of Norden at the Opera for some three decades, French diction coach Patricia Kristof Moy calls her "a phenomenon and a true original":

Her longevity and dedication as a teacher and coach are well-known, but not everyone knows that this tiny little 95-year-old dynamo was an omnivorous and voracious culture vulture and avid supporter of every kind of new and experimental art, and that her name could be found among the sponsor lists of some of the most esoteric, experimental and avant-garde artistic projects in the state, the more eclectic and nonconformist, the better. She was one in a million, but she'd hate that trite and hackneyed cliché.
In a 2007 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Norden spoke of her "picaresque life" in whimsical terms. Of her early life in Hamburg, Norden said:
We had two maids and three seamstresses — one ate in the kitchen, one in her sewing room, and one was allowed to sit at the table with us. And there was a washerwoman who never left the kitchen. They were all called Anna. My mother never bothered to find out their actual names.
She has outlived three husbands, the story says, "none of whom were named Norden — that is a pseudonym she invented as a child for a planned career as a ballerina but adopted only when she began painting in her late 40s."

Born in Hamburg, and eventually moving to the Bay Area, she said that answering an ad for a housekeeper put her in the house of a widowed UC Berkeley professor and his two young children. "His name was Timothy Leary," she said, "so that was my big encounter with psychedelia, of which I did not partake." Norden was author of a novel called Sentenced to Live.

Kip Cranna, the Opera's director of musical administration, told Classical Voice:

Nora was already an institution at San Francisco Opera when I came here 33 years ago, and it's hard to imagine the company without her. The list of great artists who became her dear friends during their work with her here is long and distinguished.

She was firmly dedicated to the cause of making opera performances as good as they could be. On a personal level I knew her as a kind but exacting teacher who always insisted on speaking German with me and graciously overlooked my glaring errors. I was always struck by her wide-ranging knowledge not only about music but about all the arts.

She was quite passionate about new music, and despite being in her ninth decade she stayed up to date on all the latest happenings. She set a very high standard for the rest of us.

Appointments: Kellogg, Mandel

Jean Kellogg at Merola

Merola Opera Program Board President Patrick Wilken has announced the appointment of Jean Kellogg as the organization's first executive director, effective Oct. 1. Kellogg — who will supervise the administration, development, finance, operations, marketing, and public relations for Merola — currently serves as executive director of the Hylton Performing Arts Center in Manassas, Virginia. There, she was responsible for opening the community-based Center, completing a $50 million capital campaign, in addition to raising $2 million toward operating funds.

She has also served as director of education for Lyric Opera of Chicago, dean of the Levine School of Music in Washington, D.C., and artistic administrator for Greater Miami Opera (now Florida Grand Opera).

René Mandel to Berkeley Symphony

The Berkeley Symphony has named René Mandel to be its executive director, succeeding James Kleinmann. Mandel was Berkeley Symphony's artistic administrator and orchestra manager from 2006 to 2009, and principal second violin in the orchestra.

Recently, he served as executive producer at the Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal, headed by former Berkeley Symphony Music Director Kent Nagano.

"It's a privilege to be returning to Berkeley Symphony," says Mandel, "I am honored to be entrusted with the stewardship of Joana Carneiro's bold and passionate artistic vision." Carneiro met Mandel during the search for music director that brought her on board three years ago.

Merola Veteran Wins Operalia

The 19th edition of Plácido Domingo's Operalia competition, held in Moscow this year, ended last week, awarding tenor René Barbera (Merola 2008) first place among men. Placing first among women was South Africa soprano Pretty Yende.

Barbera performed "Ah mes amis" from Donizetti's Daughter of the Regiment and zarzuelas by Sorozobal, at the final concert, conducted by Domingo. Yende sang an aria from Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda, and zarzuelas by Giménez.

Some 1,000 singers applied for the competition; 40 were selected for the quarterfinals and semifinals, including Adler Fellow mezzo Maya Lahyani of Israel.

A panel of judges of directors from major opera houses throughout the world awarded the prizes. Replays of the finals are available on free of charge, though registration is required.

If Perm Can Do It ...

Perm, as in Siberia. The city has set aside almost 3 percent of the region's budget for cultural development, amounting to approximately $53 million (nearly half of the NEA budget).

All this in a remote place. According to the story:

The gateway to Siberia and some 900 miles from Moscow, Perm used to be the last stop to nowhere, the transient point where criminals, political prisoners and other people deemed undesirable by the czars and the Soviet regime passed through on their way to forced exile and later the gulags, often never to be heard from again. During the cold war, Perm itself disappeared from Soviet maps when it became a "closed city," off limits to outsiders thanks to its military production facilities.
But now, under the leadership of Perm Province Governor Oleg Chirkunov, who says, "a city must have a dream," in the city center "where candy-colored czarist buildings huddle with Siberian log cabins and Soviet concrete monstrosities," there are art galleries, outdoor sculpture, theater, and music fairs, and even — in a former prison camp — a production of Beethoven's Fidelio, an opera about political repression.

Oh My! What Big Voices They Have

For context, consider that Herbst Theatre, with 900 seats, is less than one-third the size of the War Memorial Opera House. Still, at the Merola Program's Schwabacher Concert on Friday, the first public performance by the Class of 2011, I was fairly blown out of my seat by volume that at times became uncomfortable.

The biggest sound — almost obscuring a voice with great technique and marginal diction — came from soprano Elizabeth Zharoff (from Washington State), shaking the rafters. Merola coaches might have pointed out to the young singer that Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi is a bel canto opera, which means “beautiful,” rather than very loud, singing. I am looking forward to Zharoff’s singing Wagner in large opera houses.

Another huge voice belongs to Joo Won Kang (South Korea), who sang the title role of a lengthy Rigoletto Act 2 excerpt in a manner that was a great deal more appropriate, allowing such liberties in verismo. Xi Wang (China) as Gilda and Cooper Nolan (Florida) as the Duke kept up well with Kang.

Voice preferences are so personal. I wonder if anyone shared my enthusiasm for Texan tenor Scott Quinn, in the title role of two substantial excerpts from Don Carlo. His is not a big voice, he was obviously nervous, and a couple of times there was a hint of a slight intonation problem, yet he sang in a clear, beautiful manner, with high notes clear as a bell and an effortless legato — a voice to really, really like. Once he learns to cope with the stress, Quinn could become an effortlessly elegant lyric tenor, with a pleasing edge to the voice.

In Don Carlo, Guodong Feng (China) as Rodrigo burned up the stage, and North Carolinian Deborah Nansteel's Eboli was impressive; hers is another big voice, but kept in check.

Amazing Russian diction came from South Korean Suchan Kim as Onegin; Marina Boudart Harris (Whittier, California) was the Tatiana.

It was a busy night for Kang; besides Rigoletto he sang Prince Gremin, Enrico in a Lucia duet with Nolan, and the Monk in Don Carlo. Laura Krumm (Iowa City) was Zharoff's Romeo and a statuesque/comic Giovanna in Rigoletto. The rest of the 20 Merola singers will be heard in upcoming full productions of Rossini's Barber of Seville.

Robert Wood conducted the summer crew of the Opera Orchestra and Peter Kazaras was stage director, varying configurations of six small boxes, which might have given the administration ideas for saving on mainstage productions. (Is there anyone else who fondly remembers the long-long time ago Magic Flute at the Carmel Bach Festival in the late Albert Takazauckas' production with six chairs?)

Carmel Capers

Of the Carmel Bach Festival's St. John Passion, Alfred Harris wrote to Music News:
The "Action, Action, Action" contagion spreads to the Bach Festival. My complaints that your greatest adventures should be between your ears were not in evidence in the cacophonous enthusiasm displayed at Sunset Center in Carmel for the Carmel Bach Festival’s presentation of St. John Passion under the direction of its hyperactive new British director, Paul Goodwin.

I understand the objective in attempting to make classical music more attractive to younger people. Unlike many of the older people in the audience I was not particularly distressed by the "mod slob" garb of the participants. The semistaged quasi-operatic presentation was a really good idea and should be worked on although this would be difficult given the stage limitations of Sunset Center.

Bach’s passion music in particular is contemplative, particularly the arias. Contemplation was little in evidence in this performance. Most of the choral music was about as loud as the chorale could deliver. Excitement and action were the order of the day. This worked well in the trial section in the second part of the Passion, however it rendered the contemplative latter sections anti-climactic.

Will this type of presentation bring younger people in their twenties to forties to a true appreciation of classical music? Maybe, but I doubt it. Almost everything in entertainment today, be it television, movies or opera, emphasizes action. Even in church, contemplation and self-examination frequently take a subsidiary role.

Harris is proprietor of the Sand City/Salinas Opera Company (it's known under both names), and here's his report about company plans:

James Grainger, our great bass, and I are planning "A Satanic Evening" soonish. Not yet included in our list of items for that program is the Schumann Faust which James last sang in Europe. Also to be included will be an aria Meyerbeer inserted in Robert the Devil for the debut of the great tenor Mario. It's a scene and prayer "Ou, me cacher? quelle horreur quel suplice! ... Oh! ma mere, ombre si tendre." I don't think it's been recorded by anyone, I found it in the back of James' ancient score that he acquired when he lived in Paris.

Peter Tuff and Aimee Puentes may join with us if they are not swamped with better paying opportunities. Also, soon to be completed, is "The Mascagni Project," a request of friends in Belgium and Italy. It will be mostly his terrific songs and religious pieces, half of which I don't think have been recorded by anyone.

Harris might have overlooked hundreds of Mascagni song recordings, but the more the better, anyway.

Bayreuth's 100th Season