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Music News

June 30, 2009

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

Adès Premiere in San Francisco

Just as John Adams has "distilled" his 2005 opera, Doctor Atomic, into the new Doctor Atomic Symphony, now Thomas Adès is providing a similar treatment for the piano of his Powder Her Face.

Ruth Felt told Classical Voice that her San Francisco Performances has cocommissioned the work, along with London's Barbican Centre and Canada's Vancouver Recital Society. The premiere will be performed by Adès at his Herbst Theatre recital on March 16, part of S.F. Performances' 30th season.

It will be interesting to hear the piano reduction of the opera's orchestration I described at its Aspen premiere in 1997:

The orchestra — if not the audience — can have some fun with the piece: For example, the sole percussionist is given tubular bells, snare drums, flat bass drum, pedal bass drum, small bongo, timbales, roto-tom, clash cymbals, suspended cymbals, sizzle cymbal, hi-hat, temple blocks, brake drums, tambourine, triangle, tam-tam, vibraslap, washboard, cabaca, large fishing reel, whip, lion's roar, popgun, rattle, scrap metal, and electric bell.

And let's not forget the accordionist and pianist both doubling on the fishing reel, and the third clarinetist doubling on the swanee whistle.

The score calls for the likes of "Hideous white noise of needle going round the rubber turntable," and a finale of "Very irregular, poor ensemble ... with fishing reels, strings col legno, mutes rattled in bells, clicked keys."

S.F. Performances, even with a 13 percent reduction of its annual budget, is putting on a grand show upon reaching a remarkable 30th year. Besides Adès, pianists coming to Herbst include Angela Hewitt (Dec. 1), Marc-André Hamelin (Dec. 15), Richard Goode (Jan. 22), and Yuja Wang (April 22).

The vocal series features Thomas Hampson (Sept. 30, the season-opening recital), Joyce DiDonato (Nov. 16), Nathan Gunn (Jan. 12), and Alice Coote (April 2). There are lots more attractive events in the dance and virtuoso series. For subscription information, see the S.F. Performances Web site.

The World Beyond Ringtones

Full disclosure: I use my so-last-century, just-a-phone mobile to make and receive phone calls. So, I don't really understand these things, but apparently iPhone & Such allow, nay, encourage their owners to expand their horizons beyond obnoxious ringtones by actually making music on and with their phones.

And so Smule — "creator of the popular Ocarina and Leaf Trombone" — is teaming up with the San Francisco Symphony for all kinds of musical adventures, culminating in the July 18 SFS "Distant Worlds: Music From Final Fantasy" at Davies Symphony Hall. The event will include world's first Ocarina Master Class and an Ocarina Orchestra postconcert performance.

To get a better grip on all this, watch the Ocarina solo (with the piano-guitar-pipa keyboard) of Naruto: Sadness and Sorrow, one of the more cheerful examples of the genre.

The Symphony and Smule are sponsoring sweepstakes offers to win concert tickets, iPod touches, Zipcar vouchers, and Smule applications. To enter the sweepstakes, join the Symphony’s Social Network before July 15. 

Futral-Lomelí Traviata

After the highly successful San Francisco Opera run of La traviata with Anna Netrebko (acclaimed by all but one), the soprano has left, but the opera is staying.

Monday night was the first performance with Elizabeth Futral in the title role and Adler Fellow David Lomelí making his house debut as Alfredo (there is nothing like starting at the top). This cast will return on July 2 and at the summer-season closing matinee on July 5.

Ailyn Peréz sings the role on July 1, Charles Castronovo returns as Alfredo July 1 and 5. Instead of Dwayne Croft, Stephen Powell was Germont on Monday, and will be again on 7/2. (Complicated? You bet. Welcome to multicast opera.)

Futral, who created the role of Stella in the world premiere of André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire for the San Francisco Opera in 1998, struggled somewhat at the beginning of the first act, but soon the brilliant voice and innate musicality took over.

If director Marta Domingo didn't dictate a persistent waving of the arms and other needless "body characterization," Futral could have done even better.

It's difficult to believe that young Lomeli was making his War Memorial debut on Monday. His was a self-assured, impressive performance, his brilliant lyrical tenor soaring freely in the big house. He is sure to join the famous alumni of the S.F. Opera Center, including — just in this production — Netrebko, Pérez, and Castronovo.

Current Adler Fellows are doing very well in Traviata: Renée Tatum (Anina), Kenneth Kellogg (Doctor Grenvil), Austin Kness (d'Obigny), and Andrew Bidlack (Gastone).

Polite Suggestions for Audience Behavior

Benedict Nightingale, theater critic of the Times of London, pulled together the top 15 rules of etiquette, and we offer just eight of them it would behoove concert and opera audiences to observe:

* Never whisper, let alone talk, during the performance. Don’t hum along with songs, even if they’re by Rodgers and Hammerstein.

* Always apologize if someone is forced to stand as you make your way to your seat, but if you are late (and you should never be) reduce your apology to a quick, sorrowful nod.

* Don’t clap actors’ entrances, even if they’re famous, or their exits, even if they make them in the swaggering style that half-invites applause. All this is dated and naff and makes you look like a celeb-hungry prat.

* Have nothing to do with standing ovations unless a performance is close to a once-in-a-lifetime experience. In America such ovations have become meaningless and, if they don’t occur, they indicate disapproval. We don’t want them to become regular here.

* No need to dress up, let alone wear dinner jackets and evening gowns, as was once the case. But try to be a little better dressed than the critics, who often look as they’ve been grabbed from a washing machine that hasn’t yet been turned on.

* If you see a sleeping critic don’t necessarily wake him or her up, as guilt is likely to ensure that his or her review is more favorable than it might otherwise be. But don’t let him sleep too deeply or he may (and this has happened) crash into or across an aisle, causing injury to the innocent.

* If critics irk you by scratching notes on a pad, be forgiving. They’re only doing their jobs. And virtually all critics accept that lighted pens, once common, are now verboten. If you see a critic turn one on, whisper something tactfully germane, like "you blind sod, switch it off."

* If the child you’re bringing is chatty, gag it. If it’s fidgety, handcuff and shackle it. And if you’re altruistic enough to bring a school party to a Shakespeare matinée, threaten potential wrongdoers with tickets to the next revival of Timon of Athens, to be followed by a ten-page essay on the ethics of Apemantus.

Merolini Ahoy!

What a lively bunch they are, the 29 singers and prospective directors making up San Francisco Opera's Merola Program 2009. And, according to reports Sunday from the General Director's Auditions (an early look-and-listen at who is to go on to the Adler Fellows program), it's also an exceptional class of the stars of the future.

When the new Merolini first met the public a couple of weeks ago, they introduced themselves briefly, presenting a dazzling variety of places and circumstances where each hailed from. The most memorable story came from apprentice coach Tamara Sanikidze, a young pianist/conductor originally from Tbilisi, Georgia.

Tata, as she is known, was invited to the White House last year where she played Chopin during dinner. "They didn't exactly talk during my performance, but didn't fall off their chairs either. I am used to people falling off their chairs."

So, she switched abruptly from Chopin to Bartók. The Allegro Barbaro, no less, a savage, non-background sort of piece. The First Couple — probably experiencing Bartók for the first time — didn't quite fall off their chairs, but they did pay attention. After the performance, Bush invited Tata for a tour of the White House, and spent 45 minutes showing her the "highlights."

In the recital and, especially, during the walkabout, Tata was in intense pain, but said nothing. She began the evening by slipping on top of a White House staircase and descending on her derrière. Later, when she got to a hospital, her tailbone was found to have been fractured in seven places.

Her hobbies include "cleaning, reading, traveling, watching The Golden Girls, going to the zoo, movies, and eating." When she is through with the nine-week Merola season, she will join Marilyn Horne's 75th birthday tour of Europe.

Then there is mezzo Maya Lahyani, from Hod-HaSharon, Israel, who served two years in the Israeli Army, doing what soldiers do, plus singing in sandstorms, intense heat, freezing cold, and at events when the entire audience disappeared midsong as an alarm went off. "I am pretty much ready for anything to happen during a performance," she said.

For more stories and photos of the new Merolini, see the Civic Center blog.

Opening Merola Concert

Excerpts from Wagner's The Flying Dutchman, Gluck's Euridice, Puccini's La bohème, Rossini's L'Italiana in Algeri, and Menotti's The Medium will introduce the 2009 Merolini in performance on July 10 at Herbst Theatre. The Schwabacher Summer Concert will be repeated on July 12 at 2 p.m. in a free presentation at Yerba Buena Gardens as part of the YBG Festival.

Conductor and Merola alumnus Mark Morash will lead members of the San Francisco Opera Orchestra in the concerts named in memory of James H. Schwabacher (1920-2006). The concerts are underwritten by the Grace A. Diem and Alice E. Siemons Foundation.

Of the Merolini participating in the Schwabacher Summer Concerts, here's the casting, including some names yet to become familiar to local audiences:

  • The Flying Dutchman — Gregory Carroll (Erik), Kate Crist (Senta)
  • Orfeo ed Euridice — Ryan Belongie (Orfeo), Susannah Biller (Euridice)
  • The Medium — Ryan Belongie (Toby), Susannah Biller (Monica), Suzanne Hendrix (Baba), Michael Sumuel (Mr. Gobineau)
  • L’Italiana in Algeri — Susannah Biller (Elvira), Evan Boyer (Taddeo), Margaret Gawrysiak (Isabella), Eleazar Rodríguez (Lindoro), Yohan Yi (Mustafa)
  • La Bohème — Lori Guilbeau (Mimi), Susannah Biller, (Musetta), Brian Jagde (Rodolfo)

Opera Makes the Heart Grow Fonder, Stronger

You remember the Mozart Effect and all the good things you might have heard about what music does to body and soul — now there is exciting news from good old Circulation magazine:

Music with a faster tempo increases breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure, while slower-pace music does the reverse.

Music induces a continuous, dynamic — and to some extent predictable — change in the cardiovascular system.

Dr. Luciano Bernardi and colleagues, from Italy's Pavia University, asked 24 healthy volunteers to listen to five random tracks of classical music and monitored how their bodies responded.

They included selections from Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, an aria from Puccini's Turandot, Bach's Cantata No 169, "Va Pensiero" from Nabucco and "Libiam" from La traviata.

Every musical crescendo — a gradual volume increase — "aroused" the body and led to narrowing of blood vessels under the skin, increased blood pressure and heart rate and increased respiratory rates.

Conversely, the diminuendos — gradual volume decreases — caused relaxation, which slowed heart rate and lowered blood pressure.

A somewhat excessive journalistic claim based on a tiny study: "Listening to Pavarotti sing 'Nessun Dorma' could help stroke rehabilitation."

Luisotti: Ride 'em (Italian) Cowboy!

San Francisco Opera Music Director Designate Nicola Luisotti — a native of Viareggio and currently residing in Tuscany — has been chosen as civic grand marshall for the 141st annual Columbus Day Italian Heritage Parade on Sunday, October 11. Luisotti will appear in the parade passing through North Beach and Telegraph Hill before an expected crowd of 450,000 people. He will also be recognized at the Italian Heritage Grand Ball and Banquet.

"I am thrilled to have been selected," said Luisotti. "It is an honor to be recognized by my Italian compatriots in this wonderful city at the outset of what I know will be a long and prosperous relationship."

Not to worry about Maestro going AWOL: the conductor on that day, for Mozart's Abduction From the Seraglio, is Cornelius Meister.

Besides the season-opening Il trovatore, and other productions in the War Memorial, Luisotti will also conduct at two large free San Francisco Opera public events: Opera in the Park on Sunday, Sept. 13 in Golden Gate Park’s Sharon Meadow; and a live simulcast of Il trovatore at Webcor Presents Opera in the AT&T Ballpark on Saturday, Sept. 19.

Hampson on the 'Song of America'

In an article for The New Statesman, Thomas Hampson wrote about his "Song of America" project, which he is bringing to San Francisco Performances in September. An excerpt:

America is often cast as the land of freedom and opportunity, a place where the prevailing spirit is one of hope. But for almost a decade now, the emotion closest to the heart of the American people and culture has been fear. With its seeds in ignorance, and wilfully manipulated by the former political Establishment, this fear has eaten away at our sense of who we are.

Following President Obama’s speech in Cairo, we can at last begin to see a spirit of hopefulness returning to political dialogue. But the slow process of reopening the American mind cannot be conducted by politicians alone; it is a process that artists and performers such as myself have a responsibility to promote and engage in.

I began the "Song of America" project with the Library of Congress back in 2005 as a way of widening access to this central but neglected coalescence of our history, poetry and music. I felt this would be the best way to restore some of the lost intellectual and sensuous fabric of our society. Any history of song reads like a diary of society’s inner life, and from Francis Hopkinson — a friend of George Washington and signer of the Declaration of Independence — to Leonard Bernstein and John Adams, American song is no exception.

But the issue is more fundamental than one of spreading musical experience, for the past decade has taken a heavy toll on our sense of the meaning of culture more widely. The arts and humanities are in crisis not simply because of dwindling support and the havoc wrought on our cultural institutions by the recession. The value of the arts in America has been attacked at a much deeper level, by being mistaken for entertainment, for passive relaxation and an opportunity to forget worldly troubles.

The Flute Made 32,000 Years Before King Tut's Reign

A thin bird-bone flute carved some 35,000 years ago was found in southwestern Germany, scientists reported last week. It's from the time early Homo sapiens were also carving the oldest known examples of figurative art in the world.

Archaeologists said Wednesday they discovered last fall a bone flute and two fragments of ivory flutes that they said represented the earliest known flowering of music-making in Stone Age culture. They said the bone flute with five finger holes, found at Hohle Fels Cave in the hills west of Ulm, was "by far the most complete of the musical instruments so far recovered from the caves" in a region where pieces of other flutes have been turning up in recent years.

A three-hole flute carved from mammoth ivory was uncovered a few years ago at another cave, as well as two flutes made from the wing bones of a mute swan. In the same cave, archaeologists also found beautiful carvings of animals.

But until now the artifacts appeared to be too rare and were not dated precisely enough to support wider interpretations of the early rise of music. The earliest solid evidence of musical instruments previously came from France and Austria, but dated much more recently than 30,000 years ago.

In an article published online by the journal Nature, Nicholas J. Conard of the University of Tübingen, in Germany, and colleagues wrote, "These finds demonstrate the presence of a well-established musical tradition at the time when modern humans colonized Europe."

Musical Injuries (Other Than From Reviews)

Edward Ortiz writes about Instruments of Pain in the Sunday Sacramento Bee. The instruments are violin, cello, and similar deadly tools:

As with athletes, musicians' bodies are pushed to the limit through hours of practice and intense bursts during performances. And often, the result is the onset of a repetitive stress injury or similar ailment.

But you won't find many musicians admitting that they have tendinitis or carpal tunnel syndrome. There's just too much competition for too few gigs, and a music injury is like a dark stain on a musician's bright career.

As a result, the incidence of music injuries has yet to be adequately established. A recent joint study by the Texas Center of Music and Medicine at the University of North Texas and the Performing Arts Medical Association concluded that nearly 65 percent of the music-student population in the United States has dealt with some kind of repetitive stress or motion injury.

"These are hidden, tip-of-the-iceberg type numbers," said Dr. Robert Markison, a hand surgeon and clinical professor of surgery at the University of California, San Francisco. He is the cofounder of the health program for performing artists at UCSF.

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