Music News: March 31, 2009

Janos Gereben on March 31, 2009

They Came to Play

As luck would have it, the first four items of today's column share a fascinating subject: musical contests. These stories may also remind the reader of American Idol, but be assured: They Came to Play, Every Little Step, The Audition, and the global Internet contest for participation in the YouTube Orchestra have nothing to do with TV's overblown, grotesque exploitation of young talent. The events and films chronicled here come from the heart, and they honor both the music and the performers.

Ken Iisaka
at the Fort Worth competition

The utterly delightful Every Little Step — an exciting, affecting documentary about auditions for A Chorus Line — will have its commercial release soon [see next item], but a similar documentary of outstanding merit has no such assured future of being seen ... yet. It should.

At a private screening Friday at Dolby Laboratories, They Came to Play impressed this viewer as a potential commercial crackerjack, and, alternatively, PBS-worthy to a T.

The "They" of the title are 75 contestants accepted — from hundreds of applicants — at the fifth International Piano Competition for Outstanding Amateurs in Fort Worth, hosted by the Van Cliburn Foundation. A more motley crew you will never see, ranging from a Moldova-born dental assistant in Oakland (with an overlarge Phyllis Diller personality) to doctors, lawyers, a former coach of the French national tennis team, and a man battling a fatal disease.

They are all amateurs — in the sense of not making a living playing the piano — and they all love music in palpable, moving, sometimes hilarious, and often dramatic ways. From the Bay Area came Ken Iisaka, well known in local circles.

In his directing debut, Alex Rotaru (a Romanian-born editor for BBC and Screen Actors Guild Awards telecasts) follows a dozen contestants (some making the finals, some not — it's great fun to root for your favorites) from their homes through the contest. Those homes range from Texas to Berlin to the Bay Area; the contestants represent a cross-section of humanity.

They Came to Play is a brilliant multiple character study, an in-depth look at how music is made, and it provides generous excerpts from fascinating performances. It's amazing how much is squeezed into 90 minutes.

To state the obvious, this is not "the" Van Cliburn competition, but it is run by the same foundation, and the man himself makes a few fleeting appearances. That's all to the good as Cliburn's habitually strange behavior has reached something just plain weird. With the mien of an Old Testament figure (à la Charlton Heston), Cliburn makes terse, incomprehensible pronouncements — but doesn't overstay his welcome.

As for the Players Who Came, their welcome could easily extend to twice the length of the movie. Take a look at the film's Web site for festival screening information, and be sure to check out the trailer, and see if a DVD is available yet.

Note: Word came on Sunday that They Came to Play won a top prize at the Romanian B-EST Film Festival. (Besides promising high quality, the event's name is a contraction of its venue: B[uchar]EST.)

Every Little Step

A Chorus Line, as most everybody knows, is about auditions. Every Little Step is a documentary about auditioning for A Chorus Line (which is about auditions, to drive the point home).

Too clever by half? No, too (too) good — an absolutely terrific film, which combines Broadway history, close-ups of generations of artists, the suspense of many contests for the coveted spots in the cast, the triumph and heartbreak of "what they did for love," an introduction to and/or re-experiencing one of the seminal musicals of our time. The late Michael Bennett's original production of A Chorus Line ran on Broadway for 15 years from 1975 on and was seen by six million people. It won a Pulitzer, nine Tonys, and many other awards. Subsequent productions have circled the globe.

It all started with an all-night session of dancers in 1974, invited by Bennett to talk about their lives. There was an open-reel recorder in the room, and the tape survives to this day. Excerpts from it, text that went right into the show, are heard in Every Little Step, along with snippets of the original production, public appearances by Bennett and conversations between Bennett and his colleagues, who include the director/choreographer Bob Avian, a major figure in the revival and the film.

Interspersed with scenes from the origins and legacy of the show are the settings of the recent present as Avian and others — including the original "Connie," Baayork Lee, now the choreographer — are auditioning singers and dancers for the 2006 restaging of A Chorus Line.

The camera follows relentlessly the young hopefuls on and off stage, winners and losers alike in breathtaking cinéma vérité. In one unforgettable scene, the very young Jason Tam's audition with "Paul's monologue" (about a father's acceptance of his gay son) has all the hardbitten audition judges in tears, amazingly so as they have heard that text constantly for over three decades.

Another scene with "Cassie" dancer Charlotte d'Amboise's father — the great Balanchine star Jacques d'Amboise — is unforgettably poignant as the aged and crippled dancer speaks glowingly of the power and beauty of ballet.

In the mix of dancers' real life, the show about it, the life and artistry of those auditioning for the roles, everything coheres into an affecting, fascinating, and eventually deeply moving whole.

National limited release for the film is on April 17; in San Francisco, it's early May, but before then, Every Little Step will be shown at the 52nd annual San Francisco International Film Festival. Another music item from SFIFF-52: The soundtrack for Barbara Ettinger's A Sea Change is Philip Glass.

The Audition

Alek Shrader

An HD telecast in movie theaters of The Audition is scheduled for April 19, 10 a.m. PDT.

Directed by Susan Froemke, the documentary shows young opera singers prepare for and go through the career-boosting (or dooming) Metropolitan Opera's National Council Auditions.

The focus is on three young tenors in last year's auditions: 22-year-old Michael Fabiano, San Francisco Opera's 25-year-old Alek Shrader, and 30-year-old Ryan Smith, a singer with little formal training.

Other HD telecasts from the Met include the encore of the Mary Zimmerman-directed La Sonnambula on April 1, and La Cenerentola on May 9 (encore on May 20).

YouTube Orchestra

MTT in various SFS projects

Now that the international online auditions for the YouTube Orchestra are over, preparations are being made for the April 15 Carnegie Hall concert, under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.

Here are excerpts from a report by Richard Fairman in The Financial Times:

In Modesto, California, Dr. Calvin Lee breaks off from his morning's work as an acupuncturist to talk about his passion for music. Although he studied the violin from the age of seven, Lee qualified as a general surgeon. For 15 years he has not played the violin in any serious way and the feverish practising that he is doing at the moment has given him a nasty back pain — although, as an acupuncturist, he knows a good treatment for tendonitis.

Meanwhile, over in Montreal, 15-year-old Stéphane Tetreault is putting in extra hours on the cello. He also started music lessons at seven and is now studying at the University of Montreal.

Lee and Tetreault have not met yet, but before long they will be among more than 90 musicians in 30 countries heading to New York to make up the YouTube Symphony Orchestra. It has ambitiously booked its public concert debut at Carnegie Hall on April 15, only days after the players meet for the first time.

The idea for the YouTube Symphony Orchestra came from one of the junior staff in Google's office in London: what if an orchestra could be formed from musicians around the world who won their places by auditioning over the internet?

"We thought the idea had legs," says Ed Sanders, YouTube marketing manager for Europe, the Middle East and Africa. "A feasibility study showed there was interest from users and potential partners and we were amazed at how many people were enthusiastic. People portray the classical music world as an anachronistic beast — unwilling to embrace technology or understand how a platform like YouTube can be utilised — but that wasn't the case at all. There was already a strong set of classical music communities on YouTube: classical music is a language that transcends geographical and linguistic boundaries."

MTT is quoted as being uncertain what's awaiting him in New York:

"After Leonard Bernstein passed away, a memorial concert was given by players from orchestras he had worked with in Vienna, London, New York, and so on. I gave my downbeat and they came in with about six different attacks, because there was no agreement where 'now' was. We know from their auditions that the YouTube musicians play with great heart and skill, but it isn't clear what is going to happen when we put them together."

The unpredictability appealed to him, however: "I especially wanted to explore the networking aspects of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, seeing what ages they would be, what nationalities — and how these very different people would connect to each other."

Google, the owner of YouTube, has identified this as an area worth promoting. It will do no harm to YouTube's public image if the Symphony Orchestra means it is seen as more than the purveyor of video clips starring skateboarding dogs (778 at the last count).

Baldini Named to Davis Orchestra

Christian Baldini
Photo by Irene Haupt

Christian Baldini, conductor and music director of the Symphony Orchestra of the State University of New York at Buffalo, has been named conductor of the UC Davis Symphony Orchestra.

The Argentinean-born composer will join the faculty of the UC Davis Department of Music as an assistant professor on July 1. He will make his conducting debut at a June 4 concert at the Robert and Margrit Center for the Performing Arts. Baldini succeeds Kern Holoman, who is stepping down after 30 years as symphony conductor.

Holoman, who remains on the UC Davis faculty as the Barbara K. Jackson Professor of Orchestral Conducting, said that Baldini's record of accomplishments is "exceptional."

Baldini has won awards in global music competitions including the 2005 Seoul International Competition for Composers in South Korea, the 2005 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Tribune of Music, the 2006 Sao Paulo Orchestra International Conducting Competition in Brazil, and the 2008 Ossia International Competition in Rochester, N.Y.

Instant Brahms, Great Young Talent

Ask conductors on the international circuit, and most of them will tell you that American musicians are the best at sight-reading. (Probably because in Europe and Asia rarely are such unseemly requirements made of professionals.)

Empirical evidence of sight-reading ability of the highest order was well in evidence Sunday evening at a memorable San Domenico School Orchestra da Camera concert. Those going without sufficient rehearsal were not the bright teenagers, but the dozen or so San Francisco Symphony players participating in the concert to provide woodwind and brass for the string orchestra.

Mayumi and Mariko Wyrick
in their third curtain call
on Sunday

The presumption is made on circumstantial evidence: there was only an hour-long rehearsal before the concert in the JCC's Kanbar Hall. As the Brahms Double Concerto and the Adagietto from Mahler's Fifth Symphony take up more than an hour, it's quite obvious that at least some of the concert was performed "on the fly."

Thanks to George Thomson's conducting, the girls' superior performance, and the experience of the Symphony musicians (although not of the two specific pieces, which they haven't played in a long time), it all worked out wonderfully well.

School musicians not only performed the program-opening movements from the Mendelssohn Octet, arranged for string orchestra, in a fluent, spirited manner, their virtuosity in the Presto was dazzling. No wonder Thomson's school project, under which they are being trained, is called the Virtuoso Program. The principal cellist was Mariko Wyrick, one of the evening's featured soloists, here just a member of the band. No star conceits among these young ones.

Then came the joint Mahler, with Symphony harpist Dan Levitan, and it was solid, soulful, straightforward — conveying deep feelings without sentimentality.

The Brahms was simply the best. How Thomson managed to hold the big Allegro together, make the Andante sing, and have the closing Vivace non troppo exactly right — with a teenage/ad-hoc hybrid orchestra, and two student soloists — is a rhetorical question; a possible general answer: talent and hard work.

Violinist Mayumi Wyrick and the above-mentioned cellist Mariko Wyrick performed on a high professional level, their age showing — delightfully — only in their expressions of excitement and enjoyment. Both have "big sounds" and an admirable degree of precision and innate musicality. The sisters' parents, cellist Peter Wyrick and violinist Amy Hiraga, played with the orchestra, and must have experienced total bliss in witnessing the triumph of their prodigious progeny at such close quarters and "in concert."

In the audience was Faith France, who started and built the San Domenico Virtuoso Program over the years, until her retirement five years ago, at age 82. Like the Wyricks, she too must have felt overflowing parental pride and satisfaction.

Music to Stop Hatred ... Briefly

Children of the Jenin Orchestra
now disbanded

George Thomson opened the San Domenico School concert on Sunday [see item above] with a brief speech about teenagers and music. Young musicians, of the same age as the San Domenico girls about to give the concert, Thomson said, clearly moved by the story, were involved in an attempt to overcome hatred in the Middle East, and he dedicated the concert to the same cause, "to stop the hate."

The event involved Authorities in an impoverished Palestinian refugee camp who have shut down a youth orchestra, boarded up its rehearsal studio, and banned its conductor from the camp after she took 13 young musicians to perform for Holocaust survivors in Israel.

Conductor Wafa Younes took the children from her Strings of Freedom orchestra to sing songs of peace last week. Once parents and leaders back in West Bank's Jenin refugee camp realized where the group had been, they shut down the program, saying Younes had dragged the children into a political issue.

A community leader in the Jenin camp, Adnan Hindi, said the musicians' parents had not known where Younes was taking their children and were angry when they learned of the performance from media reports.

"She exploited the children for a big political issue," said Hindi, head of a camp committee responsible for municipal duties.

"If I had known this was a political excursion, I would not have let my son go," said Ibrahim Samour, father of 18-year-old Qusay, who plays the kamanja, a traditional Arab stringed instrument similar to a violin.

When asked why he objected to his son performing for the group of about 30 elderly Holocaust survivors, near Tel Aviv, Samour, 61, said his family fled to Jenin in 1948 from land that is now part of Israel.

"I'm not denying bad things happened to them, but there has to be mutual recognition," he said.

Avner Shalev, chairman of Israel's Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, called the orchestra's closure "very unfortunate."

Younes, an Arab from the northern Israeli village of Ara, had been training the modest orchestra of 11- to 13-year-olds for about three years and had taken them on previous trips, camp residents said.

I asked Thomson after the concert for the reason he referred to the story before the concert, and he said:

I was fretting about the evening's event and thinking about how I was going to introduce our group when I read this sad news item on Sunday. There it was right in front of me — the starkest possible reminder that what these young people do can be incredibly powerful.

You play for others and you make a direct connection; for that length of time, you interrupt the hating, the fear, the cynicism. It's not gone forever. Yet the very idea that it can be set aside even for a few moments is too much for some people in power, apparently. And when my students played, they brought the love, along with their "A" game.


Das Kapital die Oper

Opera librettist Marx

A Chinese director is preparing an opera based on Karl Marx's 1867 Das Kapital ("Kritik der politischen Ökonomie"), a study of economy, capitalism and the alienation of labor, reports The Telegraph.

The production will borrow elements from Broadway musicals, and add a plot to Marx's text about a business whose workers discover they are being exploited. After turning to Marxist theory, some of the workers rebel against their employer, while others turn to collective bargaining.

The director, He Nian, says, "The particular performance style we choose is not important, but Marx's theories cannot be distorted." The opera is scheduled for a Shanghai premiere next year.

Festival of Song

The next event in the Schwabacher Debut Series, Sunday, April 5, at 5:30 p.m., at Temple El-Emanuel, is the New York Festival of Song, with Steven Blier.

Adler Fellows participating in the concert are soprano Leah Crocetto, mezzo Renée Tatum, and tenor Andrew Bidlack. The program focuses on Kurt Weill's Berlin, "with contributions from Tucholsky, Eisler, and Hollaender."

About Salaries at a Time of Financial Hardship

Public Television station KQED's CEO has a $361,000 annual salary, says an article in the Monday edition of The San Francisco Chronicle.

Discussing the relationship between nonprofit organizations and the salaries of their top administrators, Chronicle writer Joe Garofoli also lists the salaries of San Francisco Symphony and Ballet executives at $377,805 (on a $65 million operating budget) and $277,341 ($53 million budget) respectively. Not mentioned in the article are the salaries of artistic directors — in case of the Symphony, approximately $1.5 million for Michael Tilson Thomas.

At the Los Angeles Philharmonic, 2006 tax filing showed CEO Deborah Borda with $818,000 annual salary (plus $389,000 in deferred compensation and benefits, plus a $45,000 expense account). Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen (since then succeeded by Gustavo Dudamel) received $1,125,000 in annual salary. The only Philharmonic board member receiving compensation is former Executive Director Ernest Fleischmann: $35,000 plus $90,000 in deferred compensation and benefits, based on work schedule of one hour per week.

One more item of interest in the Philharmonic tax report: an "audio stagehand" receiving $240,000-plus annually for a 40-hour work week.

S.F. Symphony Contract Settlement

In a follow-up to the contract settlement between the San Francisco Symphony and the Musicians Union (report published in the March 3, 2009, Music News), the chief negotiator for the musicians made the following statement to Classical Voice:

The musicians of the San Francisco Symphony have come to agreement with Symphony administration over a collective bargaining agreement. The new contract, which runs until 2012, contains language changes which affect various areas such as salary, electronic media, health insurance, and pension. All efforts were made by both parties to maintain our artistic standing within the Arts community of the country and in the world. Special attention was given to create an agreement which allowed us to recruit the finest talent available while maintaining sustainability during challenging economic times.

The salary increases in the new SFS contract keep pace exactly with the group of peer orchestras which include the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, and the Chicago Symphony. With minimum weekly numbers of $2400 and $2495 during the first 2 years of the agreement, the SFS will remain within 15 dollars a week of those orchestras for the current and future seasons. With weekly minimums of $2445 and $2465 respectively, the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony will remain the highest paid Symphony orchestras in the United States.

There were also changes made to the ways in which the Symphony will be recorded and videotaped. The changes move the SFS to look more like the peer group. The national union, the American Federation of Musicians, has bargained a wide range of labor agreements with the Symphony Orchestra managers in the US that govern activities in radio, audio-visual, internet, and sound recording. Now the SFS will be signatory to all the agreements and will adhere closely to the national standards in all areas of electronic media. The musicians celebrate the extensive work by our management to keep us at the leading edge of the new technologies and maintain our leadership position in the industry.

Further changes in the area of health care, pension, and hiring practices were all designed to maintain adherence to Industry standards, and keep the San Francisco Symphony solidly in the mainstream of the Symphony orchestra world.

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