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Music News

February 27, 2009

Stay up to date with weekly classical music news from the Bay Area, across the US & around the World.

Teenage Composer at SFSYO Concert

On the program of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra's March 8 concert: the premiere of 17-year-old Preben Antonsen's Thresh of Gear. The conductor is Wattis Foundation Music Director Benjamin Shwartz; the concert also includes Beethoven’s Symphony No. 8 and Stravinsky’s The Firebird Suite.

Antonsen is a composer and the keyboardist for the SFS Youth Orchestra. The Berkeley native began studying composition with John Adams when he was 10, and continues to work with him.

Antonsen has written more than 100 compositions, including piano sonatas, chamber works, and vocal pieces. His compositions have won several awards, including the ASCAP Morton Gould Student Composer Award, the BMI Student Composer Award, and the Music Teachers Association of California Student Composition Award.

An accomplished pianist, he has also won several piano competitions, including the Music Teachers Association of California concerto.

Thresh of Gear is scored for a large orchestra, including two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets, as well as an E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contrabassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, two harps, piano, and strings. The title of the work comes from Beowulf, where the phrase is used to describe the sound made as Beowulf’s crew disembarks from the boat that had carried them to Denmark for their impending battle with Grendel.

A Musician's Rant on Behalf of Music Students

The writer of the following impassioned report is a musician herself, and her questions go well beyond the rhetorical. By the time the next Music News rolls around, we'll try for some answers.
I was appalled by the recent lack of attendance at a glorious concert this past Sunday — a rainy day, no less, and perfect for music. With the Ives Quartet, the baritone Eugene Brancoveanu, a good program, including an amazing premiere (Joseph Gregorio's The Fullness of Peace, a work based on text by Lincoln) — there were nevertheless some three dozen listeners in the 445-seat auditorium of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Big hall, tiny audience

My shock over the empty hall was not so much due to the lack of general attendance: Contemporary music doesn't draw well, and in this economy luring even adventurous listeners to a chamber-music concert is obviously difficult.

No, what I found deeply disturbing is that this was in the Conservatory, with students milling about in the lobby just outside the Concert Hall, students who would (should) be eager to hear great musicians ... but they were not invited to attend. Certain concerts in the Conservatory (not produced by the school), I learned later, are not open to the students for free or even at a substantial discount. For students, $25 tickets are too costly, and the senior/student $20 discounted admission is not much help.

Why doesn't the Conservatory make such concerts more accessible to its own students? I can understand if the concert is selling well, producers of the event, renting the hall, would not want to lose revenue. But when there is an empty hall, why not open it up to students, either at a deep discount or even for free. Airlines fill empty seats by all means possible, so how about the Conservatory flying right?

When I was a student at Oberlin, one of the wondrous things I remember is attending some thrilling concerts I wouldn't ordinarily get to see. The Cleveland Orchestra came around, and for $5 I could hear masters at work. Almost every night, I would hear something amazing, either by on-campus performers or invited visitors. The school made it a point to have them accessible: They knew the value of experiencing professional musicians at work.

Why doesn't the Conservatory do that?

Concertgebouw Riches for Free

Bernard Haitink

Marking Bernard Haitink's 80th birthday, his great Concertgebouw Orchestra is making free downloads of complete performances available on the Web. Full symphonies by Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Mahler, Sibelius, and others can be found at the orchestra's Web site. Haitink has been associated with the orchestra since 1956. Don't worry if the site first comes up in Dutch; for those accessing it from the U.S., there is some English text. As it is, "Franz Schubert, Symfonie No. 8 'Unvollendete'" doesn't need too much explanation, and bang! you just learned to say "unfinished" in Dutch.

African-American Concert Singer Exhibit

Part of Black History Month (and extending beyond February to April 9), San Francisco Public Library is featuring "The African American Concert Singer: 1900-1960" in the Main Library.

Curator Bill Doggett says the exhibit "places the stories and struggles of these singers in the bright and positive context of San Francisco performing arts history."

Marian Anderson, Paul Robeson, and Leontyne Price come to mind immediately, but there is also Dorothy Maynor, Roland Hayes, and William Warfield, followed by lesser-known but important singers such as Carol Brice, Kenneth Spencer, Lawrence Winters, Camilla Williams, and Adele Addison.

The exhibit includes concert programs, posters, and historic recordings, highlighting the Bay Area and West Coast memorabilia of these pioneering singers.

A closing reception will honor the 111th anniversary of Robeson's birth, which falls on April 9, the last day of the exhibit.

San Francisco Festival Cutback, Survival

A month after San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s budget office cut $100,000 — that is, all — of the funding voted by the Board of Supervisors to support the sixth annual San Francisco International Arts Festival, the organization announced a scaled-back version of its schedule.

U.S. debut for Smita Nagdev

Reducing the event from three weeks to two, and cutting back somewhat on invited guest artists, the festival will carry on nevertheless, and with a modest ticket price range of $12-$25. One unfortunate victim of the cutback: the festival's youth arts education program, but there will be a new pilot program for younger artists, called MASH, taking place at Union Square.

Among the festival's featured artists: Sasha Waltz & Guests (Germany), the Akhe Group (Russia), Ranferi Aguilar & Los Hacedores de Lluvia (Guatemala); the U.S debuts of Cho-In Theatre (South Korea), and Smita Nagdev (India). Also, the Gamelan Sekar Jaya, ROVA Saxophone Quartet, Mark Foehringer Dance Project, Ballet Nacional del Peru, Bond Street Theatre, Exile Theatre of Kabul, Jeff Curtis/Gravity, Scott Wells & Dancers, and Ana Nitmar with Ixim Tinamit.

The international program will include a new commissioned work by Greek composer Nicolas Tzortzis, who will attend the world premiere of the piece.

Mendelssohn at 200

Read Alex Ross' essay in The New Yorker.

Mills Music Festival

Mills Concert Hall

The 2009 Mills College Music Festival is now in full swing, through April 5, with activities centered on the renovated concert hall. With emphasis on contemporary music, there is a significant concert program in the offing.

Directions in Sound

Five hours of extremely contemporary music — if not "classical" in the traditional sense — will be presented at the 111 Minna Gallery on March 13, beginning at 9 p.m. Why start a marathon concert that late? I'll try to find out, but as of now, I have no idea.

The event, part of the upcoming 27th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, promises glitch-infused breaks, original bay slaps, tech-hop fusion, heavy dread bass, true-school heat, broken beats, dirty disco, freaked-out funk, and more. The concert is advertised as a "genre-bending showcase of rising stars, further proving that there is no end to the future-forward music blowing up in the underground around the globe."


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Rheingold a Hit in the Midst of Bad Times

From a breathless rave in The Orange County Register to a more restrained evaluation in The Los Angeles Times, Southland's new Der Ring des Nibelungen, which opened Saturday night, is getting good reviews.

Along with reports of the Ring cycle and the ongoing search for millions of dollars to pay for the production, there are some reality-check articles in Los Angeles papers, such as one about 2.2 million people in the county — one in five residents — receiving public assistance, "a level county officials say will rise significantly over the coming months as the fallout from the recession continues."

The historic context: The percentage of people on county aid already equals the figure at the height of the 2001-2003 recession and far exceeds the one in seven who needed help during the economic downturn in the early 1990s, and the one in nine assisted in the collapse of the early 1980s.

Attending the Los Angeles Ring

The biggest problem with the L.A. Ring for Bay Area Wagnerites, says a local fan, is that, when the entire cycle is presented next year, it will be performed over nine days rather than the customary week:
That means that culture tourists have to stay there for a long period of time. While this serves as an economic stimulus for the hotels and restaurants in the beleaguered downtown area — a dismal area which is a ghost town at night save when there are events at the Music Center. The restaurants in the immediate are not very good. You can walk five or six blocks down hill to Japan Town past the homeless in the surrounding parks.

Even the L.A. Museum of Contemporary Art nearly closed until the Broad Family Foundation rescued it recently. Who wants to stay in downtown L.A. for over a week? Who wants to stay in the outlying areas only to be faced with fighting gridlocked traffic to get to the Dorothy Chandler on time? It's a very unattractive proposition to those of us who go to Los Angeles only when absolutely necessary.

Not only that — top price tickets are over $500 each plus a hefty contribution. Finally: John Treleaven (Siegfried) and Linda Watson (Brünnhilde) are not my idea of Wagnerians who make it worthwhile to spend that amount of time and money.

In my view, Los Angeles is its own worst enemy with regard to the Ring. I'll see Das Rheingold and Die Walküre for Kowalijow's Wotan, but the rest? Probably not.

$1 Million Nilsson Prize to Domingo

Plácido Domingo — singing at the Metropolitan while his Los Angeles Opera is premiering Das Rheingold, and his Washington Opera is postponing the Ring due to lack of funds — is to received the first Birgit Nilsson Prize. The $1 million grant is the biggest prize in all classical music. It comes from the foundation established to honor the memory of the legendary Swedish dramatic soprano Birgit Nilsson (1918–2005). Domingo was selected as the first prizewinner by Nilsson well before her death, but kept secret until now.

'Doubleheader' at Wagner Society


Los Angeles Opera Music Director James Conlon, conductor for the company's first complete Ring cycle, will speak at the March 14 meeting of the Wagner Society of North California, held at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco.

The Society program, called "A Ring Doubleheader," also features Katherine Syer, professor of musicology at the University of Illinois, with a survey of Ring productions around the world.

Conlon on the Ring

James Conlon

Los Angeles Opera General Music Director James Conlon was previously music director of the Cologne Opera and then of the Paris Opéra; he is also artistic director of the Ravinia Festival. (He conducts the San Francisco Symphony March 12-14.)

Preparing for the Los Angeles Ring cycle, his and the company's first, Conlon has published an extensive article on the subject. Excerpts: In the course of four decades of listening, watching and, more recently, conducting the Ring, I have had time to consider and define certain artistic preferences, important choices that must be made on a fundamental level.

First, I wanted to have the pit covered and the orchestra and conductor invisible to the audience, on the model of the Bayreuth Festival Theater, Wagner's self-conceived temple, which he created expressly for the first presentation of his operas. This is a first small step towards a dream which is not only unfulfilled, but not remotely likely to be at this time. I have never understood why no one, in our country or any other, has attempted to replicate the unique theatrical and acoustical characteristics of that great theater.

Second, I wanted a production that respected the infinite power of myth in its rejection of a specific time or place. The timelessness of the Ring's messages is central to their strength, and the unfolding of its dramatic fabric in a timeless arena is the best conduit of its potency. The Ring shares this strength with myths and religious texts from around the world. It seems to me that timelessness is not just a component of Wagner's intentions, but integral to its essence.

Updating, contemporary costuming or situating the Ring and its characters in recognizable locales is to some degree the practice of the past several decades. There is no doubt that great creative work has resulted from exploring the theatricality of these works. That said, production values that were revolutionary and avant-garde a generation ago have now become, in many cases, clichéd.

Even more, I feel that the reductionism that underlies many productions weakens the full clout of their mythical power. Rather than strengthen, it dilutes. Rather than provoking the imagination and its connection to our unconscious, it constrains, through its specificity, our innate capacity to experience this work on multiple levels.

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