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IN Music News
THIS WEEK:
Jan. 9, 2007

Martha Opens Pocket Opera's 30th Season

S.F. Symphony Gets New English Horn Soloist

"Mozart Year" — Not Quite Over

Thirlwell's Coming of Age

Music for Motion

Opera-and-Popcorn From the Met

Young Soloists for Santa Rosa Concerts

Napa Rollback

Lesher Center Thrives

Walnut Creek Cantor Records Biblical Opera

In Memoriam: Stephanie von Buchau

Badmouthing Meyerbeer

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Luisotti Named Opera's Next Music Director

By Janos Gereben

When Nicola Luisotti appeared at a press conference this morning on the stage of the War Memorial, he spoke exactly the way he conducted Verdi's La Forza del destino here a year ago: passionately, from the heart, unguarded, honest, and he was vastly entertaining.

The 45-year-old Italian conductor has been named San Francisco Opera's next music director, on a five-year contract, to succeed Donald Runnicles, effective with the 2009-2010 season. When company director David Gockley announced what he referred to as this "worst-kept secret, a momentous day in the history of the Opera," Luisotti was asked to say a few words. A translator was sitting nearby, ready to assist.


Nicola Luisotti and David Gockley

Luisotti then improvised a 20-minute, free-flowing, funny, and affecting riff, without the need for assistance of any kind. The animated, apparently guileless conductor spoke of his "dream visit" to San Francisco in 2005. He thanked former General Manager Pamela Rosenberg for engaging him and acknowledged Runnicles' support ("he showed me the list of future productions, and told me to pick anything I'd like"). He described his excitement in receiving the offer from Gockley ("YES!"), and paid heartfelt tribute to the Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

He also recounted in minute detail the first experience of rehearsing with the Orchestra ("getting three days' work done in one"), the great impression Ian Robertson's Opera Chorus made on him, as well as the personal negotiations with Rosenberg and potential funders to increase the size of the chorus twofold. Luisotti spoke of his "first-sight love" with San Francisco, and offered proof of the durability of such affairs of the heart. He recounted his 17-year-long marriage to the woman he fell in love with at age 15, and courted until she married him in 1989. (No, this is not an Oprah segment; it's a press conference in real life.)

Luisotti, born Nov. 26, 1961 in Viareggio, started his career as a pianist, singer, and La Scala apprentice. These days he is turning up in the world's leading opera houses: He makes his Covent Garden debut this month ("I'll be in rehearsal in London tomorrow ... no, tonight," he said, trying to figure out time zones), and then he will go on to the Vienna State Opera, Berlin Philharmonic, and other major companies. Obviously, his main interest is in Italian opera, but he has also led Russian works and even a Wagner Tannhäuser not long ago.

Bay Area audiences will not have to wait until 2009 to see Luisotti on the podium. He will conduct this summer at Napa's Festival del Sole. He makes his San Francisco Symphony debut in the 2008-2009 season, and will be heard during the Opera's upcoming seasons. Once he takes over the music director's position, Luisotti will spent five months of the year here, leading four to five productions. No contract terms were announced.

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OEBS Wins MetLife Award

Oakland East Bay Symphony is one of only four orchestras in the country to receive a MetLife Award, according to an announcement from the American Symphony Orchestra League on Monday. The award, for "excellence in community engagement," is an acknowledgment of the orchestra's Community Building Project, which includes the commissioning of new works to connect to new audiences. Since its 1998 formation of a partnership with the James Irvine Foundation, OEBS has commissioned symphonic works, especially from local composers. Music Director Michael Morgan has initiated and led the project for the past eight years.

The other MetLife Awards, which included a $7,500 grant to each orchestra, also went to the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Longwood (Mass.) Symphony. The Virginia Symphony received a $10,000 grant for its "Harmony Project," influenced by the St. Louis Symphony's "In Unison" initiative.


OEBS Music Director Michael Morgan

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Martha Opens Pocket Opera's 30th Season

Once on top of the operatic hit parade, Friedrich von Flotow's Martha is about to make a local comeback. While its famous tenor aria, Ach so fromm, has remained in the recital repertory, the work itself has recedeed in decades past. The last San Francisco Opera mainstage production took place in 1944 with a fabulous cast, led by Licia Albanese, Herta Glaz, Bruno Landi, Lorenzo Alvary, and Salvatore Baccaloni.

Martha will open Pocket Opera's 30th season with performances in and around San Francisco, between Feb. 4 and March 11. As with most of the Pocket Opera productions, Flotow's work will be performed in a translation by company director Donald Pippin. Performances for the rest of the season include: Handel's Flavio, March 31 – April 15; Nicolai's The Merry Wives of Windsor, April 27 – May 6; Tchaikovsky's Queen of Spades, May 4 – 20; world premieres of Henry Mollicone's Emperor Norton and Starbird, May 26 and June 9; Puccini's Madama Butterfly, June 23 – July 22; and Offenbach's The Bandits, June 3 – 24.

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S.F. Symphony Gets New English Horn Soloist

Russ deLuna, Atlanta Opera's principal oboist for the past decade, has been named Solo English Horn for the San Francisco Symphony, effective next summer. He succeeds Julie Ann Giacobassi and will participate in the orchestra's European tour.

DeLuna began saxophone lessons in the sixth grade and studied piano and oboe at Northwestern University. While there, he was also a member of the Chicago Civic Orchestra, at times playing with the Chicago Symphony. He is member of the Piedmont Wind Quintet and has performed with the Atlanta Chamber Players and the Emory Chamber Music Society. He has performed as a soloist with the Columbus Symphony, the Sewanee Summer Music Festival Orchestra, the Georgia State and Columbus State Wind Ensembles, and the Radio Orchestra of Bucharest, Romania.

As an educator, deLuna he has been artist-in-residence at the Sewanee Summer Music Festival for the past eight years, and he is on the faculty of Columbus State University and Emory University. He currently lives in Peachtree City, Ga., with his wife, Julie, and their two children.

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"Mozart Year" — Not Quite Over

For the Midsummer Mozart Festival, every year is a Mozart year, not just 2006, the composer's 250th birthday. And so, Midsummer Mozart presents the West Coast premiere of a new documentary film, In Search of Mozart. The fundraising event is scheduled on Jan. 28, at 4 p.m., in the Delancey Street screening room (Embarcadero and Brannan). A reception follows at Art of Navigation, on Pier 38. If you go to the Midsummer Mozart Web site, you can sign up for the event and see the just-announced 2007 festival dates.

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Thirlwell's Coming of Age

Reading program notes in advance is risky. If I had perused the program of the Kronos Quartet concert Monday evening, at Temple Emanu-El opening the Music at Meyer season, I would have been deeply suspicious of the first work. Fortunately, I didn't read about J.G. Thirlwell until well after hearing his Nomatophobis. (Truth to tell, I did look up the explanation for the title: It has to do with "fear of words.")

And so, listening to the music without preconceived notions resulted in a strongly positive experience. Dense, complex, attractive chord progressions gave way to some otherworldly sounds. These were not cheap sound effects (as the Kronos kept switching to various levels of amplification), but interesting and captivating musical ideas. The piece ends with an affecting disappearance of sound — so soon after the Sunday evening performance of the Shostakovich String Quartet No. 3 — with its similar, if far more powerful, finale.

In the ultimate test for new music, Nomatophobis demands to be heard again. But who is the composer? Born in Melbourne in 1960, Thirlwell moved to London, then Brooklyn, and associated along the way with the experimental groups Nurse With Wound, Bang on a Can, and so on. Meanwhile, he wrote under a host of pseudonyms, including Foetus, Steroid Maximus, and Baby Zizanie. He says he considers himself "both an investigative and an 'ingesticative' artist: I swallow huge amounts of plankton and output cross-genre hybrids infused with my obsessions." Forget all that, if you can: The music is the thing, not the precious juvenile — or middle-aged — posturing.

At their amazingly consistent, high level of performance, David Harrington, John Sherba, Hank Dutt, and Jeffrey Zeigler gave their all throughout the rich, ambitious concert. The program ranged from the high point of John Adams' 1994 John's Book of Alleged Dances to the depressing low of Meredith Monk's 2004 Stringsongs — four derivative, unimaginative, uninteresting pieces.

A personal epiphany at the concert was the actual hearing (rather than merely allowing the sound to enter the ears) of Witold Lutoslawski's 1964 String Quartet. A previously annoying piece is now a well appreciated work of fragments and "micro-sounds" (my lacking term for something quite undefinable). For the first time, I saw and admired the composer's integrity and boldness in following his own path. He made a case for it, quite without caring about conventional ways and means. Besides the obviously needed repetition, Harrington's total dedication to the work, and the brilliant contributions from all musicians helped mightily to make the Lutoslawski "discovery" possible.

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Music for Motion

Dance, as it is often said, is music in motion. Let us consider the engine for all that motion at the San Francisco Ballet, home to the city's third large, permanent orchestra (after the Symphony and the Opera). From the Ballet site, a great deal of information is available about choreographers and dancers. But what you find here is a listing of the highlights of what to expect from the pit when the season opens at the end of the month:

  • PROGRAM 1 — Mozart's Divertimento No. 15, K. 287; short pieces by Eva Crossman-Hecht; and Bach's Chaconne from Partita No. 2, BWV 1004.
  • PROGRAM 2 — Short pieces by Elena Kats-Chernin; Shostakovich's Piano Concerto No. 1, Op. 35; Stravinsky's Firebird (1945 version).
  • PROGRAM 3 — Tchaikovsky's The Sleeping Beauty, Op. 66.
  • PROGRAM 4 — Richard Strauss' Divertimento (after Couperin), Op. 86; excerpts from Bright Sheng's China Dreams; Steve Reich's "Dolly" from Three Tales (a video opera).
  • PROGRAM 5 — Excerpts from Richard Rogers' Carousel; excerpts from Lou Harrison's Trio for Violin, Cello, and Piano; Harrison's Dance (for Violin), Rhapsody (for Piano), Song (for Cello), Allegro; Karl Jenkins' String Quartet No. 2 and Largo from Palladio; Bernstein's Fancy Free.
  • PROGRAM 6 — Matthew Pierce's Seven Pieces, Ned Rorem's String Quartet No. 4, Copeland's Rodeo.
  • PROGRAM 7 — Music by Dave Brubeck, Matthew Hindson's The Rave and the Nightingale and Technologic I, Bizet's Symphony No. 1.
  • PROGRAM 8 — Minkus' Don Quixote (with additional music by A.S. Arista, Patrick Flynn, V.P. Soloviev-Sedoi, R. Drigo, Delibes).


The company in Paul Taylor's Spring Rounds,
to music by Richard Strauss
Photo by Erik Tomasson

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Opera-and-Popcorn From the Met

Last month, when the Metropolitan Opera rolled out an exciting new program of live high-definition telecasts to movie theaters, at $18 a pop. But the number of participating theaters was limited. In local terms, that meant the nearest theater for the first telecasts was a long way from San Francisco: Hacienda Crossings in Dublin (and now in Antioch and Saratoga).

But now, just in time for next Saturday's live telecast of Tan Dun's The First Emperor, Emeryville's Emery Bay Stadium 10 — minutes away from San Francisco, Oakland, and Berkeley — has joined the ranks of venues. Featuring Placido Domingo as the Emperor, the Met world premiere is one of the highlights of the season.

Future simulcasts include Eugene Onegin led by a Valery Gergiev, with Dmitri Hvorostovsky in the title role, Renée Fleming as Tatiana, and Ramón Vargas as Lenski (Feb. 24). The new Met production of The Barber of Seville (March 24), features Juan Diego Flórez, Joyce DiDonato, and Peter Mattei. Another highlight comes on April 28 with director Jack O'Brien's new production of Il Trittico, with a team that includes Maria Guleghina, Salvatore Licitra, Juan Pons, Barbara Frittoli, and Stephanie Blythe.

If you missed the telecast of the new, 100-minute Julie Taymor "reduction" of The Magic Flute, it will have an encore theater presentation on Jan. 23, and will be televised (free) on KQED, Channel 9, on Jan. 24 (10 p.m.), and repeated on Jan. 28 (noon). All Saturday morning matinees are broadcast on radio, locally on KUSF-FM, 90.3.


Elizabeth Futral as Princess Yueyang
in The First Emperor
Photo by Ken Howard

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Young Soloists for Santa Rosa Concerts

Winners of the Santa Rosa Symphony's Concerto Competition will be showcased in a concert conducted by Richard Loheyde on Jan. 14, in Sonoma's Jackson Theater. The first-place winner is cellist Jaime Feldman from Sebastopol; followed by flutist Adhish Yajnik from Rohnert Park; flutist Taylor McKinnie from Petaluma; and violinist Annie Rodier from Santa Rosa. Ranging in age from 15 to 17, the young musicians will solo in concerti by Lalo, Stamitz, Mozart, and Mendelssohn. Tickets are priced from $8 to $12.

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Napa Rollback

Without an announcement, financially troubled Napa Valley Symphony has apparently halved its schedule by canceling the Tuesday repeat concerts for the season's four Sunday performances in Yountville's Lincoln Theater.

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Lesher Center Thrives

Walnut Creek's Lesher Center for the Arts set an attendance record in 2006, welcoming more than 350,000 ticket-buyers into its three theaters. Managing Director Scott Denison lists 900 events during the year, from 85 producers, including the local Symphony and Opera companies, and the Center Repertory Company.

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Walnut Creek Cantor Records Biblical Opera

Retired Walnut Creek cantor Steve Richards's opera, The Ballad of Ruth, recorded by the Israel Philharmonic in Tel Aviv, is available on CD from Amazon.com. A report in the Jewish News Weekly traces the history of the opera, based on the Book of Ruth, from its creation in 1959 to its recording in Tel Aviv last year. It was finished just as the war with Hezbollah began and Richards dedicated the recording to Israel's soldiers.

The libretto focuses on the love story between Ruth the Moabite and Boaz the Hebrew, and includes a plea for welcoming the convert into the Jewish fold. "The book was a protest against the edict against intermarriage," Richards is quoted. "It was written after the Babylonian exile, when the Persians permitted the Jews to go back to Israel. A lot of intermarriage had gone on, because the Jews were in Babylon 75 years, so some of the prophets and priests put out these edicts. This book was written to show not only that intermarriage was a good thing, but that Ruth was the great-grandmother of King David."

A New York native, Richards received a master’s degree in composition from Columbia University. He served as cantor in congregations across the country, from Rochester to Indianapolis to Phoenix. He moved to Walnut Creek in the 1990s to serve with B'nai Tikvah. Now retired, Richards is composing a series of piano etudes and preparing for a Feb. 2 concert of his works at Los Gatos’ Congregation Shir Hadash.

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In Memoriam: Stephanie von Buchau

"The only truly objective critic is a dead critic," Stephanie von Buchau once said. Her life was a testament to the glory of individual, strong, provocative, fearless opinions, which often offended but never wavered. Her independent voice was silenced with her passing in her Marin home in mid-December.

The well-known and frequently controversial critic — a stranger to political or any other kind of correctness — died at the age of 67, probably from complications of her decade-long bout with diabetes. Although she wrote extensively about movies, restaurants, and many of the arts, she made the greatest impression with her knowledgeable, utterly passionate treatment of opera. Her interviews, feature articles, and reviews were published under the byline Tiger Hashimoto in the San Francisco Examiner, Opera News, The Oakland Tribune, San Francisco magazine, Bay Area Reporter, as well as many other publications.

Her longest association was with Marin’s Pacific Sun — almost four decades. In fact, police discovered Buchau’s death on Dec. 19 when they were alerted by Linda Xiques, her former editor at the Sun, who heard that Buchau missed her deadline. It was such an unprecedented occurrence from this professional journalist that something had to be wrong.

Buchau created international headlines in 1975, when she was "banned" from the War Memorial by San Francisco Opera General Manager Kurt Herbert Adler. Adler (at least as prickly a personality as Buchau) took offense at one of her reviews and ordered the publicity department not to make press tickets available to her.

That order was soon rescinded, and Buchau remained a regular in the Opera House. During the intermission of the Tristan and Isolde premiere last year, I saw her fall. She hurt herself so badly that she was taken to the hospital, but only over her loud objections that she wanted to stay because she was reviewing. Even with her iconoclastic, headstrong ways, she received much recognition for her work — by the Northern California Chapter of the Society for Professional Journalists, the National Association of Alternative Newsweeklies, and others.

There were no sacred cows for her, but when she found a great artist, her praise was unstinting. Here she is writing about Franco Corelli: "Yes, he was an Italian stallion, nostrils aflare and ego bigger and more fiery than Vesuvius, but he was also a student of singing with a strong technique. He owned a big, rich, gorgeous sound and he was fab."

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Badmouthing Meyerbeer

Robert Greenberg, in the middle of his otherwise reverential Beethoven lecture at Herbst Theatre on Saturday afternoon, spoke of Wellington's Victory ("a loud bit of schlock"). Giacomo Meyerbeer was in the orchestra during the Beethoven premiere, Greenberg said. He was soon to become one of the most popular opera composers of the 19th century. Somewhat gratuitously, Greenberg added: "Ah, Meyerbeer: a Frenchified Andrew Lloyd Webber!" Ouch.

(Janos Gereben is a regular contributor to San Francisco Classical Voice. His e-mail address is janosg@gmail.com.)

©2007 Janos Gereben, all rights reserved