Music News: June 26, 2012

Janos Gereben on June 26, 2012

Another Zoltán Explores the Roots of Music

Documentarian George Csicsery with Erzsi Papp in <em>Songs Along a Stony Road</em>
Documentarian George Csicsery with Erzsi Papp in Songs Along a Stony Road

Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók invented and were the most prominent practitioners of boots-on-the-ground ethnomusicology.

That's what I wanted to say, but prominent ethnomusicologist Fredric Lieberman, of UC Santa Cruz, corrected me, pre-publication:

Ethnomusicology as such wasn't born until 1955 when Jaap Kunst made up the word. The first boots-on-the-ground collectors and recordists were active circa 1890 with the Passamaquoddy Indians and other tribes near Boston.

So let me rephrase the lead: Kodály and Bartók were the most prominent folk-song collectors and recordists in Central Europe, active in the early 20th century. They traveled through many villages to research and record old Magyar folk melodies, and kept following the trail to the east.

The result of their quest was the discovery that these folk melodies were based on the pentatonic scale — having little to do with Gypsy music, whatever Liszt might have thought — similar to those in Asian folk traditions. That information has contributed to the ethnic research establishing that the ancestors of these Central European peoples migrated from their original homeland near the Ural mountains.

Interesting as all this may be (and there is so much more to it), the obvious question is why bring it up now? The reason is another Zoltán, a little-known, but important ethnomusicologist, Zoltán Kallós, whose work is chronicled in a new documentary.

Anna Bálint, folksong diva of <em>Stony Road</em>

The release of the Songs Along a Stony Road DVD is coinciding with an upcoming screening of the documentary in the Roxie Theater on July 12. Along with Songs, also to be screened: Sprout Wings and Fly, Les Blank's tribute to Appalachian culture and the legendary fiddler Tommy Jarrell.

Songs, by George Csicsery and Chris Teerink, follows Kallós as he is gathering music and information in the villages of Transylvania and Romanian Moldova, home to two million Hungarian speakers.

Since he became interested in the subject 60 years ago, Kallós — now 77 — has collected more than 15,000 songs across the ethnic and political divide between Hungarians and Romanians.

The music reflects similarities and the crossover between styles and cultures. "For musicologists and ethnographers, it is a treasure trove as rich and diverse as any to be found in Europe," say the filmmakers.

Under the long rule of Romania’s communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu, the ethnic diversity of Transylvania was a non-subject, and western musicologists had little access to the villages where traditional music of any kind could be heard, be it in Romanian, Hungarian, or one of the Romany dialects.

In many places, particularly among the Csángó people of the Gyimes Mountains and Romanian Moldova, the folk songs and the music itself might well have been forgotten; unusual musical instruments, like the furulya (a wooden flute), and the gárdon (a cello used as a rhythm instrument by hitting the strings with a wooden stick) might easily have disappeared, along with the knowledge of how and what to play.

That the music is alive today is largely due to the efforts of one man (Kallós) to preserve, collect and record it, while encouraging the villagers to keep performing.

Oakland resident Csicsery (whose name is unpronouncable for non-Hungarians, but it's close to Tschitscheri) is a distinguished documentarian of subjects as varied as mathematics (Julia Robinson and Hilbert's Tenth Problem and N is a Number: A Portrait of Paul Erdös), the saving of the Mir space station (The Right Spin), memories of Oakland police veterans (The Thursday Club), romance writers (Where the Heart Roams), the Muslim Tausug people of Luuk township on Jolo island in the Philippines (People of the Current), and many others.

Csicsery says of his coauthor: "Chris [Teerink] shot the film, and he was the one who wanted to know about the Bartók background, and that's what started our research expeditions. The film would be nothing without Chris."

Met Salaries on the Up and Up

Even though Metropolitan Opera Music Director James Levine has been on medical leave since last September and is not expected to return until late 2013, his compensation during 2010 (information for which has just become available) was increased 39 percent from the previous year, to $2.1 million, according to Bloomberg News.

James Levine: $67,742 per performance
James Levine: $67,742 per performance

Met General Manager Peter Gelb earned $1.4 million in pay and benefits in 2010, up 4 percent. His base salary was $1.25 million "and he sometimes flew first-class. Moreover, a car and driver is available for business purposes seven days a week. When he uses the chauffeured car for personal reasons, he must pay taxes on the benefit," a Met spokesperson said, adding: "He never asks the driver to work seven days a week." Gelb's predecessor, Joseph Volpe, who retired in 2006, received $406,101 in pension and health benefits.

Met master electrician Paul Donahue earned $516,577 in pay and benefits in 2010, up 18 percent from a year earlier. The stagehand’s compensation topped that of the best-paid stagehand at Carnegie Hall, Dennis O’Connell, who earned $436,097 that year, according to the tax return of Carnegie Hall.

The pay for Levine and Gelb was roughly in line with other top arts executives in New York. Thomas P. Campbell, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, earned pay and benefits of $1.04 million in 2010. Reynold Levy’s pay and benefits as president of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, including money for retirement, was listed as $1.8 million, $133,333 of which was reported in the prior year.

Levine conducted 31 times in the 12 months ending in July 2011, double that of a year earlier. The Met, the largest U.S. opera presenter, spent $321 million during 2010-2011, up 8 percent. It had a $41 million surplus, reversing a $25 million deficit the prior season, as contributions and revenue surged. Advertising agency Serino/Coyne received $3.9 million, up a third from 2009. The spokesperson said the increase was the result of "the timing of invoices."

BBC Proms Time Is Upon Us

World's greatest, longest, free-est summer music festival, the BBC Proms, opens July 13, running through Sept. 8, in the Royal Albert Hall, but you don't need to wade through the Olympic crowd mayhem to attend these pinnacles of concerts or buy tickets: They are as close as your computer with BBC3 broadcasting them live and free.

In addition to my own picks, I asked SFCV's Jeff Dunn to make some selections, and here they are, with his descriptions:

    * July 26: Elgar's In the South, and Hugh Wood's fine Piano Concerto
    * Aug. 4: Turangalîla Symphony
    * Aug. 10: Elgar's Apostles
    * Aug. 11: gaggle of quasi-modernist British composers
    * Aug. 13: Olga Neuwirth's Remnants of Songs ... an Amphigony; and Bartók's Concerto for Orchestra
    * Aug. 21: I like the title of this work, Emily Howard's Calculus of the Nervous System
    * Sept. 8: "Last Night," with the usual panoply; this time, it's choral/operatic, with Suk, Delius, Verdi, Bruch, Puccini, Shostakovich, Brodszky, and — of course — the Elgar "Land of Hope and Glory" Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1, and the National Anthem, sung by 8,000-plus.

Jagde in Santa Fe Opera Opener

Brian Jagde in the Santa Fe <em>Tosca</em> Photo by Ken Howard
Brian Jagde in the Santa Fe Tosca
Photo by Ken Howard

June is a very good month for third-year Adler Fellow Brian Jagde. He was a prize winner in Plácido Domingo’s Operalia Competition in Beijing, and last weekend, he was given the role of Cavaradossi in Santa Fe Opera's season-opening Tosca on Friday.

Jagde was in Santa Fe to cover the role, but General Director Charles MacKay announced tenor Andrew Richards has withdrawn from the production "for health reasons due to severe allergies." Jagde to the rescue; both in his company and role debut. (He is scheduled to sing the role in San Francisco in November and with Donald Runnicles' Deutsche Oper Berlin in 2013.)

"Discovering new talent has been the hallmark of the Santa Fe Opera," said MacKay, "and Brian is one of them. He stepped in totally prepared and with great poise, and we expect great things."

Besides Jagde, the Santa Fe Tosca has other San Francisco Opera Center alumni: Thomas Hampson as Scarpia (Merola 1980), Dennis Petersen as Spoletta (1984), and Dale Travis as the Sacristan (1986).

GG Park Band: Centennial Plus 30

The historic Golden Gate Park bandshell
The historic Golden Gate Park bandshell

While the San Francisco Symphony's centennial season concludes this week, another local music organization is still in the middle of its 130th. The Golden Gate Park Band has been playing free public concerts on Sundays in the park continuously since 1882.

Led by Michael L. Wirgler, and band plays classical and opera music, marches, swing, tunes from Broadway shows, and ethnic programs. The season runs from April through Oct. 7; concerts begin at 1 p.m. and last about two hours. The venue's historic and official name is the Spreckles Temple of Music in the Music Concourse.

Some of the upcoming programs:

    * July 4, a Fourth of July special of American music
    * July 8, the music of Leonard Bernstein
    * July 15, "Viva la France!"
    * July 22, "Water Music," inspired by rivers, lakes, streams, and the sea
    * July 29, concert band music
    * Aug. 5, "Marches of the World"
    * Aug. 12, the music of Edvard Grieg
    * Aug. 19, St. Stevens Day: Hungarian music and dance
    * Aug. 26, Ukrainian-American Day

Armida + Jung = Nixon in China

The origins of John Adams' Nixon in China — now in the War Memorial for only three more performances — are passing strange.

Peter Sellars, who proposed the project to Adams in 1983, was inspired by "working on Haydn’s Armida, trying to understand the Vietnam War, I got out the Kissinger memoirs and was rereading my Mao. In the middle of all of that, I thought, oh, there’s an opera waiting in there!"

John Adams, David Gockley, and conductor Lawrence Renes, working on <em>Nixon</em>

And Adams had just completed "a film score for a documentary about Carl Jung and had been spending a lot of time with Wagner’s operas. I was thinking a lot about myth-making, and that put me very much in the mood to create my own opera, but I had no idea what the theme should be.

"Then I met Peter in 1983, and he proposed the idea and even the title for Nixon in China. My first response was pretty skeptical — Nixon was little more than a butt for late-night comedians by that time. But I eventually realized it was a perfect idea, and that it was right to find our mythology in our own contemporary history."

SFO General Director David Gockley, who has supported, championed, premiered (Houston, 1985), and also brought the opera "home" to San Francisco, is now making unusual extra efforts to make sure that the video of the production will be as remarkable as the live performances are.

Others may know better, but to me it's unusual, perhaps unprecedented, to have a full rehearsal of an opera in the middle of a run which is going so well. But that's exactly what the rumor is, Gockley calling (and paying) for a full sitzprobe with principals and orchestra before tonight's final taping. That "sitting rehearsal" customarily is the first run-through of a performance, so the assumption is that Gockley is looking at this recording as a matter of legacy — kudos to him, Adams, and all components of this great production.

Lawrence Renes

According to a participant in the production, Super Supernumerary M.S., "From what I have been able to hear and see backstage, each performance got appreciably better, musically and dramatically, and so have the audiences. An usher friend told me that the Nixon audiences have been different than usual, both younger and more serious, and that after the last performance ushers had to prod them towards the exits because they wanted to stand around in the lobby to talk about the opera."

Even the lynchpin of the musical production, conductor Lawrence Renes, in his San Francisco debut, is Gockley's contribution. At age 27, the Dutch conductor, had his U.S. debut in Houston, invited by Gockley to lead The Marriage of Figaro in 1992. Renes is now chief conductor and music director of the Royal Swedish Opera,

Before the Houston debut, Renes first came to international attention when he replaced Riccardo Chailly on short notice with the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam. A video recording of the concert subsequently became the basis for the documentary A Dream Debut. (Another local connection: Renes began his career in Holland as assistant to Edo de Waart, later to become music director of the San Francisco Symphony.)

Where SFS and Innovative Programming Foregather

Imagine a San Francisco Symphony concert where the Bartók Second String Quartet is the most familiar work. I know, you can't.

Bob Ward and Jonathan Ring on the right (dressed more formally for Vienna than for Sunday's concert)

But so it was Sunday afternoon, in the middle of the teeming zillions of the Pride Parade without, when within Davies Symphony Hall, the SFS Chamber Music Series presented yet another unusual, imaginative, rewarding concert. What would SFS be like (other than bankrupt) if the musicians did all the programming?

(Before going further, let's acknowledge that this week's season-closing concerts will preface the Beethoven Ninth with Ligeti's Lux Aeterna, and Schoenberg's A Survivor from Warsaw, while last week's fare included Bartók’s Bluebeard's Castle.)

On Sunday, two of the orchestra's great horn players, Robert Ward and Jonathan Ring, starred in Beethoven's rarely performed Sextet in E-flat Major (with Dan Carlson, In Sun Jang, David Kim, and Sébastian Gingras).

Then came another rarity, Anton Arensky's Piano Trio No. 1 () — a pleasant, ultra-romantic piece, which runs about twice as long as it should. SFCV colleague Michelle Dulak Thomson somewhat ameliorated my evaluation with "It's just prolix in the way early Mendelssohn is. And rather like it, at that, at 13 or 14. The 8th String Symphony comes to mind. Okay, dude, we get that you can do invertible triple counterpoint. Can you wrap it up now, please?" And still, isn't it better to hear something rare than the umpteenth repetition of the same warhorse?

Still in Rarityville, this one with a vengeance, Louise Farrenc's 1857 Trio in E Minor for Flute, Cello, and Piano (with Linda Lukas, David Goldblatt, and Marc Shapiro) — a work on the cusp of Classicism and Romanticism, with some of the best features of both.

And finally the Bartók from 1917, a bold, exhilarating work, performed beautifully by Nadya Tichman, Amy Hiraga, Jonathan Vincour, and Peter Wyrick.

Remember to look for the next Chamber Music Series, beginning Oct. 14.

Amateur Pianists: Your Place in the Sun

The Van Cliburn Foundation's seventh International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs will be held in 2015, but the 2012 Amateur Piano Video Contest is coming up this summer. Entries are invited through July 15. Judging will be held July 16 through Aug. 10, winners announced on Aug. 14. For entry requirements, see the competition website.

If you've seen They Came to Play, you know how delightful these amateur competitions are; if you haven't, see it and have a ball.

For repertoire examples, see past amateur contestant videos on the Cliburn YouTube channel.

Here's how the Van Cliburn Foundation describes, surprisingly, an "amateur":

Our definition of an "amateur" is one who says he or she is an amateur. All competitors will be considered amateurs in the best sense of the word — not as those who "dabble," but as those who play the piano as a serious pastime rather than as a profession — sometimes having had to make the difficult choice between their profession and their potential career as a concert artist.

Many past Amateur Competition participants have, at one time in their lives, received advanced piano degrees; others have never studied the piano professionally.