Music News: May 10, 2011

Janos Gereben on May 10, 2011

Somber Words from the Opera House

David Gockley used the occasion of the five-year extension of his contract as General Director of the San
David Gockley
Francisco Opera last week to sound yet another alarm about the company's present and future.

In an interview with the The San Francisco Chronicle, Gockley said:

I look at this company as teetering. The annual expenses are about $7 million more than we can reliably fund, and half of our annual gifts are made by just 11 individuals who are over 65 years old. That is sleep-depriving.
Gockley also referred to the company's $136 million endowment as being "only half as large as it needs to be," and warned about high fixed costs, particularly for health care, "a punishingly compact performance schedule in a technologically antiquated facility; and a geographically scattered patchwork of office space, rehearsal venues, and storage facilities."
A house divided

Further down in the story, the awkward San Francisco Opera/San Francisco Ballet sharing of the War Memorial in large, mutually exclusive blocks of time is discussed as if it were a virtually unsolvable problem.

SFB has December for Nutcracker, then January-May for the season, SFO has the rest, so there is no ballet summer-fall, and no opera in spring.

What I don't understand is why this situation doesn't exist in most other cities where opera and ballet share a single venue: London, Paris, Munich, and so on, mix-and-match, so you get opera one evening, ballet the next. Obviously that traditional division has its own problems, but it's nothing like the either-or situation in San Francisco.

The Thrill of a Great Choral Performance

Carol Copperud, Mary Hudson, and Elizabeth Emigh of the SFS Chorus

Ragnar Bohlin's San Francisco Symphony Chorus provided a blessing for Davies Symphony Hall audiences last weekend in performances of Mahler's Symphony No. 2, conducted brilliantly by Michael Tilson Thomas — and put a kind of whammy on itself by establishing the highest standard against which all future performances will be evaluated.

I can just hear murmurs from coming months and years: "This was fine, but do you remember the sound in the 2011 'Resurrection'? You should have been there."

It's impossible to put in words the thrill of 132 singers "speaking" with one voice, a voice coming from far and yet as if from deep inside the listener: "Aufersteh'n, ja aufersteh'n wirst du, mein Staub, nach kurzer Ruh!" (You will rise again, yes, rise again, my dust, after a short rest!)

It was not a matter of spirituality, religiousity, hope-against-hope defiance of death, but an expression of ultimate humanity, an exaltation of music. A performance exceeding the SFS's own previous accomplishments, something from the same domain where true greatness dwells (the Bruno Walter-Vienna recording), the preparation for the concluding sonic orgy Leonard Bernstein had put his stamp on. Is this excessive praise for the SFS Chorus? Don't take my word for it. Check out Lisa Hirsch's review in this issue. Ask anybody from the audiences Saturday-Sunday.

David Varnum and Micah Epps of the SFS Chorus

Listen to former choral conductor Robert Commanday: "The chorus entrance was the most sensitive single moment of the performance, as Mahler intended, and the singing continued to be beautifully balanced and spiritual." Or The Wall Street Journal critic David Littlejohn's unrestrained characterization of the chorus as "sublime, best I've heard it, micromillitone control. And the brass section was pure gold ..."

Here's a small downer to help climb down from the gushing heights: this same wonderful chorus will not participate in the orchestra's European tour because their sheer numbers would double the already huge expense of the 2 1/2-week trip. Where SFS is performing the Mahler Second, local choruses will take part.

These are famous choruses — Czech Philharmonic Choir Brno, Wiener Singakademie, Choeur de Radio France, Orféon Donostiarra, and Gulbenkian Choir — but can they equal our people, the San Francisco Giants of choral World Series? Not likely.

Ring Basics

It's highly unlikely that those who invest time, money, long-distance travel, and so on to attend Ring cycles still need "Ring for Dummies" guidance, but it never hurts to pull together some basic information, so in advance of the upcoming San Francisco Opera Ring, here it comes:

The focal point of Richard Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen (The Ring of the Nibelung) is the ring made from gold stolen from the Rhine River. It can be forged only by one who renounces love forever, and it gives whoever possesses it unlimited power.

This may sound familiar even to opera newbies: From ancient Nordic mythology to Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings to Peter Jackson's film trilogy, there are recurring stories of the all-powerful ring, and what befalls mortals, and even gods coveting them.

The cycle is made up of four operas:

Das Rheingold, 1869 (first performance); 2 hours and 35 minutes — The Nibelung Alberich (Gordon Hawkins) renounces love, takes the gold, and fashions the all-powerful ring from it. The ruler of the gods, Wotan (Mark Delavan), takes the gold and the ring from Alberich by trickery, with the fire god Loge's help (Stefan Margita), but he realizes there is a curse on the ring which may destroy the world.

Donald Runnicles (right) conducts the Ring here once again, shown here with George Cleve and Crowden School Executive Director Doris Fukawa
Photo by David Weiland

Die Walküre, 1870; 4 hours and 30 minutes — Wotan's human children, Siegmund (Brandon Jovanovich) and Sieglinde (Anja Kampe/Heidi Melton), have been separated since birth, find each other. Their unlawful union will produce the hero, Siegfried (Ian Storey), capable of destroying the ring, and saving the gods and the world. Wotan's favorite daughter, Brünnhilde (Nina Stemme) defies Wotan, helps Sieglinde escape, and is punished by being put to sleep, not to be awakened until a hero reaches her through a ring of fire.

Siegfried, 1876; 4 hours and 50 minutes — Siegfried (the role sung by Jay Hunter Morris in this opera) grows up, forges the mighty sword Notung, slays dragons and enemies, finds and awakens Brünnhilde, and for one grand scene, the dark, menacing story of the ring turns into celebration and a potential happy ending, but ...

Götterdämmerung (Twilight of the Gods), 1876; 5 hours and 15 minutes — Hagen (Andrea Silvestrelli), Alberich's son, ensnares Siegfried, who betrays Brünnhilde, and is killed. What happens at the end will not be disclosed here, so that if you followed this 17-hour saga to its conclusion, it won't be spoiled.

Lucky, lucky contemporary audiences, who can follow the story with the Supertitles; I come from the generation before English translation, and that was no picnic.The San Francisco production, building up during the past three years with individual performances of Das Rhinegold and Die Walküre, will now be completed with Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, given in single-performance premieres on May 29 and June 5, respectively, then three complete cycles of the four operas following June 14 through July 3.

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Premiere of new productions for Siegfried, May 29 (1 p.m.), of Götterdämmerung, June 5 (1 p.m.)

Cycle 1: June 14 (8 p.m.); June 15 (7 p.m.); June 17 (6:30 p.m.); June 19 (1 p.m.)
Cycle 2: June 21 (8 p.m.); June 22 (7 p.m.); June 24 (6:30 p.m.); June 26 (1 p.m.)
Cycle 3: June 28 (8 p.m.); June 29 (7 p.m.); July 1 (6:30 p.m.); July 3 (1 p.m.)

Tickets: $60 to $360 for individual operas, $460 to $1,440 per cycle. (Incredible but true: standing room is $10)
Contact: (415) 864-3330,

Ring Funnies

"Kill the wabbit!"

So global, historic, and iconic is the Ring that there have been many comic takes on it, usually by those who are its greatest fans.

The inimitable Anna Russell had made a career of her one-woman Ring presentations; Das Barbecu is a well-known spoof show, often performed in cities where the cycle is given; Chuck Jones' animated short classic, What's Opera, Doc?, has Elmer Fudd singing "Kill the wabbit!" as he hunts Bugs Bunny to the strains of "The Ride of the Valkyries," from Die Walküre. ("The Ride" has been used innumerable times, perhaps most memorably as a kind of morbid ballet music for helicopters in Apocalypse Now.)

Both the BBC and the Canadian Broadcasting Company have held limerick contests on occasions of Ring presentations. Here's one of the winners, from Martin Clay:

"Fifteen hours — unless there's an edit
And the libretto — if you have read it
Expansively ranges
To tell of the dangers
Of buying Valhalla on credit"

'Great Moments in Opera'

Peninsula Symphony features soprano Heidi Moss and baritone Eugene Brancoveanu, the 140-voice Stanford Symphonic Chorus, and members of the Stanford Chorale in highlights from Carmen, The Barber of Seville, I Pagliacci, Aida, and Faust.

Mitchell Sardou Klein conducts the concerts, beginning at 8 p.m. on May 13 in the San Mateo Performing Arts Center, and on May 14 in DeAnza College's Flint Center in Cupertino.

Plump Jack in Munich

Gordon Getty's opera Plump Jack was performed Sunday in Munich with a bevy of San Francisco Opera Merola Program alumni, including Melody Moore (see her description of the trip), Susanne Mentzer, Robert Breault, and Chester Patton.

Ulf Schirmer conducted the Munich Radio Orchestra, with the Bavarian Radio Chorus. Originally scheduled for Samuel Ramey, the title role was sung by Lester Lynch.

Bayern 4 Klassik broadcast the performance, and podcasts are available until May 16. Check also OperaShare.

Extreme Youth in the SFS Youth Orchestra

Benjamin Ring in the percussion session, flanked by Collin Boltz and Zachary Singer
Photos by Kristen Loken

The San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra has turned 30, but its youngest member is of an age when he can still be properly referred to in a publication by his first name. Benjamin, 13 (when Master turns to Mister), thinks there is nothing as cool as SFSYO.

"It's one of the best youth orchestras in the country," says percussionist Benjamin Ring. As to his dedication to the work: "Saturday is 'Youth Orchestra day,' and that is my first priority. Even on the day of my bar mitzvah, I ran straight to the rehearsal, right after the service was over."

Benjamin and more than 100 of his fellow orchestra members (whose age ranges from 13 to 21) will be heard Sunday in Davies Hall, at a 30th anniversary gala concert, in a substantial and challenging program.

Led by Wattis Foundation Music Director Donato Cabrera, the orchestra performs Béla Bartók’s 1939 Divertimento, a complex, virtuoso work, and Gustav Holst’s grand orchestral suite, the 1918 The Planets.

The Youth Orchestra is held in high esteem in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, following its many tour appearances. At home, it has been providing tuition-free orchestral experience to young musicians from the greater Bay Area.

Benjamin's story:

Music is a very important part of my family life, with my father being a professional musician and my mother an amateur one, so I have been around classical music my entire life. Even so, SFSYO has made me love classical music.
How hard was it to be selected, to take on this task in addition to school work?
Getting into the orchestra took work. I had never played any mallet instruments before, so my dad bought me a used little marimba and I spent most of my summer working on the excerpts. I also tried to find some full-sized xylophones that other people or organizations had to practice on because one of the audition excerpts was for xylophone.

Once I got to the audition, I was nervous because I was in front of some pretty important professional musicians. And then I saw Donato in there — the conductor! Boy, that made me really nervous! But overall, it was a good experience because the judges and Donato had a good vibe to them throughout the whole audition, which put me more at ease.

What effort goes into sustained participation?
Youth Orchestra music is probably what I practice most of all the music I'm learning. I even took my tambourine on vacation to get a part right in The Planets.

I take two lessons every week with two different teachers. One is for drum set and the other is for orchestral percussion and mallets. Then there is also practice time. I also make sure to listen to every piece we are playing before we start rehearsing it.

I've learned to take public transportation (BART) from the East Bay to rehearsals and it's really worth the effort to be with my friends in the orchestra. They also make it really clear that you have to make a commitment and not miss any rehearsals. But I don't even mind because I really like going to rehearsals. I haven't missed a single rehearsal this year.

What does it mean to be the youngest?
I am the rookie this year in the percussion section and all the other guys in the section have been really supportive and have made it a point to help me learn what they know. All of them are a lot older than I am, but I never feel like an outsider. My section rocks.

I was playing a lot more jazz before I joined SFSYO, but since I've been a member, it has brought out an interest in classical music that I never had before. Being around people who are really devoting their lives to being strong musicians inspires me to do the same. I now try and go to SFS concerts whenever I can.

I also always seem to have a melody from one of our pieces stuck in my head after rehearsals. It's great!

Levine Interview on 'Fresh Air'

James Levine, celebrating his 40th year with the Metropolitan Opera, tells Terry Gross of "Fresh Air" that one of the most important things he does as a conductor is not to get in the way of the artistry of the musicians who are playing.

Listen to the interview, in which Levine says:

I want to be always there for the players, so when they check for something they want to remember — or for something that they need, or for something that is a technical help in the concert — they can see it. But I want to do that in a way in which the audience is not getting a visual show instead of an aural one.

If your orientation is to watch the conductor, you get your aural sense interfered with in a way that is not completely controllable and conscious — because you see the conductor gesturing in a way that shows something about his feeling about the passage. And this, unconsciously, you measure against what you hear. And I think the most satisfying pieces that I hear live are usually conducted by conductors who have a very clear-cut idea of what their function is at a rehearsal and what their function is at a concert.

Because of recent health problems, Levine resigned as music director of the Boston Symphony, withdrew from Tanglewood and several Met productions, and will not participate in the Met tour of Japan or Boston Symphony tours to Los Angeles, San Francisco (next season), and elsewhere.


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