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Music News

April 7, 2009

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Carneiro's Debut Season in Berkeley

In her first season as music director of the Berkeley Symphony Joana Carneiro will not only uphold the Kent Nagano tradition of championing new music, she will go one better than the orchestra's former music director (who often featured music from Berlin and London), by providing more opportunity to local composers than that mega-Symphony across the Bay.

On tap for the Oct. 15 – April 1 (2010) season are Berkeley composers John Adams (The Chairman Dances), Gabriela Lena Frank (Peregrinos), and Paul Dresher (Cornucopia). Also on the lineup are two composers with whom Carneiro worked during her three years as assistant conductor with the Los Angeles Philharmonic: Esa-Pekka Salonen (Five Images After Sappho) and Steven Stucky ("Lament" from the oratorio August 4, 1964).

Repertory includes works by Barber, Bartók, Beethoven, Brahms, Sibelius, and Stravinsky, as well as Jörg Widmann's Con brio Concert Overture for Orchestra. Season subscriptions (including a four-concert introductory package starting at $40) are available online. KALW 91.7 FM will air all Berkeley Symphony subscription concerts.

Her first season, Carneiro said, "represents a first reaction of my musical personality to the culture and community of Berkeley. I wish to create a sense of trust with the community, introducing composers that appeal to me but still respecting the references of the past the audience has had."

Soprano Jessica Rivera, who sang the premiere of Adams' The Flowering Tree, and is known for her performances of works by Osvaldo Golijov, will be the soloist on the Feb. 11 and April 1 programs, in Salonen's Five Images and Barber's Knoxville, Summer of 1915, respectively.

This spring, Nagano returns from Munich, where he heads the Bayerische Staatsoper, to lead Berkeley Akademie concerts on May 17 and 31. New works by four Emerging Composers-in-Residence will be read and performed on Oct. 18, Dec. 6, and Feb. 7.

DeCray: Harpist-and-Much-More Extraordinaire

The more things change, the more they remain the same, goes the old saying, and is it ever right. Ask harpist Marcella DeCray about her first job, and she will tell you that the Metropolitan Opera hired her in 1948 as an extremely young musician, without a big-name school or much experience behind her.

Why? Amazingly, six decades ago, even the biggest music organizations were having severe financial problems, scarily similar to those on our own horizon (here is just one example). Lacking funds, and in the middle of difficult labor negotiations, the Met was planning to cancel the entire season. In the resulting confusion, several musicians left for greener pastures, including the harpist ... and in came the young woman from Philadelphia — although not a Curtis graduate. (She received private training in New York and Paris.)

Between that remarkable career start and her retirement as the San Francisco Ballet's harpist for the past 29 years, DeCray packed an eventful musical life, while also raising a family. She has been on the faculty of the S.F. Conservatory of Music for some 40 years — probably longer than anyone else. She was a fellow instigator and mainstay of San Francisco Contemporary Music Players, probably the country's first such organization. "We were really surprised by the reception for new music in San Francisco," DeCray recalls. How so? "People came to our concerts, and kept coming."

After four years with the Met, with Max Rudolf on the conducting staff, DeCray returned to her hometown, and joined the Philadelphia Orchestra, to play there for 11 seasons, under the direction of Eugene Ormandy. She arrived in San Francisco in 1963, "with husband and a year-old son," and freelanced until joining Denis de Coteau's Ballet Orchestra. That same year, 1980, Davies Symphony Hall opened and the three organizations — Opera, Symphony, Ballet — which had shared the same orchestra in the Opera House, now each employed their own musicians.

After all the years with the Ballet Orchestra, DeCray has nothing but praise for the organization and her fellow musicians, "lovely, down to earth people." When asked about her favorite ballets, DeCray demurs, explaining that with harp set in the back of the pit, she didn't get to see the dancing.

The founding of the Contemporary Music Players by DeCray, Jean-Louis LeRoux, and Charles Boone, in 1971, stands as one of her most important legacies. LeRoux recalls that when the three realized the need for getting some legal business done quickly, "In 24 hours Marcella had gone to Sacramento and organized the whole thing, and we were a corporation," he said. As to the state of contemporary music now, she is "not too pleased" and feels that it's not growing as it should. At the same time, DeCray understands the reluctance of large orchestras (such as the San Francisco Symphony) to experiment too much, especially during these lean times; "they must be very careful not to lose traditional audiences."

The last word goes to Lexy Loewenstein, DeCray's eldest son: "On top of being incredibly accomplished (don't forget she was a professional woman before there were professional women), she's been a great Mom, a nice person, and a real class act."

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'Atlanta Model' for Sharing the Pain

The Atlanta Symphony has announced a comprehensive, long-range plan that may well become a model for art organizations to meet the deepening fiscal crisis. Following administration cost-saving measures announced last week, the artistic leadership and orchestra musicians followed suit on Tuesday, further reducing the budget by $4.2 million over the next four years. Previous measures involved furloughs and hiring freezes.

The musicians ratified an agreement to modify the current collective bargaining agreement, taking a 5 percent pay cut and making other concessions. Symphony President Allison Vulgamore, Music Director Robert Spano, and all employees have volunteered to reduce their compensation by 6 to 14 percent — the top figure representing Spano's pay cut for Fiscal 2010.

"Our musicians, our staff, and our professional leadership are taking absolutely unprecedented steps to sustain one of Atlanta's and the nation's most precious cultural assets, said Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chairman Ben Johnson.

I hope their collective, thoughtful actions will be an example to our volunteer leadership, our many generous and supportive patrons, and the community at large to take their own steps to recognize that even in the darkest financial hours, the arts must sustain us and must be sustained by us. The Orchestra's agreement to reopen their four-year contract in its second year is a remarkable example of the cross-constituent understanding and shared ownership of the organization's sustainability that makes the Atlanta Symphony so unique. Both I, and the Symphony's Board, are deeply grateful to both the musicians of the Orchestra and Allison Vulgamore. This is precisely why our best days are ahead.

Bhangra on Spark

KQED's Spark series on the arts will feature a program about bhangra dance and the Contemporary Jewish Museum on Wednesday, April 8, at 7:30 p.m. Bhangra is a traditional Punjabi dance that's been revitalized by a generation of young Indian-Americans. Teams of bhangra lovers merge time-honored movement with contemporary hip-hop music, and travel around the country to battle it out at heated competitions.

The second segment on the program will visit the Contemporary Jewish Museum, examining a new exhibit there of artists from various backgrounds who have created objects inspired by the ceremonial Seder plate. There is a preview available online.

The May 6 Spark program features the 100-member Firebird Youth Chinese Orchestra, a San José organization that offers Chinese-American children a chance to learn to play the traditional instruments from their ancestral homeland. On May 13, the vocal group Kitka is the subject, followed by a collaborative story with Jim Lehrer, of the PBS NewsHour about how the current economic downturn is affecting artists in the Bay Area.

Stravinsky, Vivaldi, and Bernstein in Motion

Stravinsky at his most gloriously dissonant, Vivaldi mushed together with Ezio Bosso compositions, and Bernstein's riotous West Side Story combine for a delightfully varied musical background to the San Francisco Ballet's Program 6, which is running through April 9.

Concertmaster Roy Malan not only plays the solo for the violin concerto (his instrument amplified needlessly and excessively), but he — along with violist Paul Ehrlich — plays solos in the music of Vivaldi and Ezio Bosso, and not overamplified this time. The Ballet Orchestra is playing well under the direction of David Briskin, visiting principal conductor of the National Ballet of Canada.

The next program at the Ballet, April 25-May 10, will be another musical feast: George Balanchine's complete Jewels, each of its components reflecting the music it uses — Emeralds is set to interludes from Gabriel Fauré's Pelléas et Mélisande and Shylock, Rubies uses Stravinsky's Capriccio for piano and orchestra, and Diamonds excerpts from Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 3.

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German Music Programs on Local TV

The German television service Deutsche Welle, seen in the Bay Area on channels 9, 10, and 32 (in addition to a full-time paid cable channel), presents Concert Hour, exploring the Bach Festival in Leipzig, the Wagner Festival in Bayreuth, and the Beethoven Festival in Bonn. Also covered: Germany's big, regional festivals, such as the statewide Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival in the North, MDR Summer Music in the East, and the Rheingau Festival in the center of the country.

You can listen to a potpourri of Deutsche Welle music programs on the Web as well.

The Sound of Music in Collective Action

Just what is going on in Antwerp's Central Station in Belgium?

Take a look at something that should, well, set your toes tapping.

Medici.TV April Specials

Medici.TV is streaming Claudio Abbado programs with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra, performing mainly Mahler's works, during April — including Symphony No. 5.

There is also a Medici.TV YouTube site, offering the Mahler Symphony No. 2 with Abbado, and highlights of last year's Verbier Festival. At Verbier 2009, here's an operatic super-cast for Don Giovanni:

Leporello — René Pape

Donna Anna — Edita Gruberova

Don Giovanni — Bryn Terfel

Commendatore — Thomas Quasthoff

Don Ottavio — Matthew Polenzani

Donna Elvira — Susan Graham

Zerlina — Sylvia Schwartz

Masetto — Robert Gleadow

Braunfels Opera in Los Angeles

"When James Conlon agreed to become Los Angeles Opera's music director in 2006, according to a report, he had two primary goals, one of which — conducting all of Richard Wagner's operas — was predictable. The other — reviving the music of composers stifled by Nazi Germany — was not." [There is no byline on this article, so I don't know whose idea this is, but if Conlon's 20-year-long crusade in this cause is not a reliable predictor, I don't know what is.]
Serendipitously, both goals intersect this month. Interspersed with the seven performances of "Die Walküre" that Conlon is leading from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion pit are four performances of Walter Braunfels' "The Birds" ("Die Vögel") that will begin Saturday night at 7:30 p.m. in the Pavilion. The other performances are April 13 at 7:30 p.m., and April 18 and 26 at 2 p.m.

It's the latest and the most ambitious effort in the company's "Recovered Voices" project, which began in 2007 with concert performances of excerpts of works that included "The Birds." Last season came a double bill of short operas, so this season's mounting of The Birds is the first full-length opera to be presented (two hours and 50 minutes, including one intermission).

Braunfels enjoyed great popularity between the two World Wars, but the half-Jewish musician was forced to withdraw from public life and his music was banned as "degenerate" by the Third Reich. He never recovered his earlier fame and died in 1954.

Based on an ancient Greek comedy by Aristophanes and composed in 1920, Braunfels' "The Birds" is a late-Romantic work reminiscent of Strauss and Wagner. The work's premiere in Munich was so successful that there were nearly 50 subsequent performances there, with later productions in Berlin, Vienna, Cologne and elsewhere.

"Braunfels embodied everything that represented the best of the German Romantic legacy," Conlon said. "Had the Nazis wished to see his music as a model for all of their professed ideas about Germany and art, it would have seemed an ideal choice. Their hatred of him resided not so much in their anti-Semitism but because he had openly opposed and criticized them in the 1920s, refusing to write an anthem for their movement.

"There was no one more quintessentially 'Deutsch' than Braunfels, who embodied the very best of Germany and its music, and who honored the tradition — in the best sense of the word — of its great culture."

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].