Primary tabs

Music News

March 17, 2009

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

West Bay Opera Marches On, 'Shooting Freely'

Understandably enough, even the more adventurous opera companies are cutting back on expenses ... and adventure. West Bay Opera — little (dollarwise) and old (California's second, and turning 54) — is handling this conundrum by sandwiching an unusual work between two great warhorses.

Announcing the 2009-2010 season, company director José Luis Moscovich says WBO opens in October with Puccini's La bohème, closes next May with Verdi's La Traviata, and in February is offering Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz.

Drawing a line between the current season's odd man out, Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice, and Der Freischütz, Moscovich spoke of von Weber as "the link in the chain from Gluck towards Wagner. The sound realm of his work presages Wagner so well. And it is so powerfully dramatic."

Der Freischütz (The free-shooter) is a virtual national opera for Germany, but it has had slow going in the U.S. The San Francisco Opera produced it only in 1964 (Spring Opera) and 1985 (concert version). Says Moscovich:

"I'm excited about doing it, as you can probably tell, but I am even more excited about giving the folks in the Peninsula, especially our loyal audiences of many years, a chance to truly discover it and see what a tremendous impact it can make on people when they see it onstage, as opposed to just listening to a CD of it.

"Of course I'm excited about doing Bohème and Traviata too. There's a reason why they're so popular. Those scores are fabulous."

Moscovich, who is also a government official, tried to get help for opera in Washington:

"My proposal for a $7 billion bailout of opera companies did not prosper in Congress. My next initiative is to go after the bonus package to AIG excutives for endangering the entire world's financial system. We should redirect half of it to small opera companies and force the execs to come to the performances. We'll see if it pans out.

'In the meantime, we're holding fund-raising soirees in the homes of some of our patrons. The first one was yesterday, in Palo Alto. We had Raeeka Shehabi and Matt Edwardsen (our Pinkerton) sing for an intimate gathering of opera patrons. Bruce Olstad accompanied. It was magical. Listening to "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" (my only concession to operetta in the program), I felt transported back to my childhood of chamber music in the living room. We need to get back to the roots and bring live music to people's homes. It seems like something you do in a recession, and we'll emerge from it with lots of converts who will be buying season tickets. Remember you heard it here first."

Ugly Allegations Behind a Beautiful Theater

Here's the official description of the Legion of Honor's gorgeous bright little theater [with its vastly overpriced rental forcing opera and chamber-music organizations to seek other venues — but that's another story]:

Originally called the Little Theater, the Florence Gould Theatre opened at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in 1924. The Gould Theater was designed by George Applegarth, architect of the museum itself, and decorated in the Louis XVI style.

The ceiling of the 333-seat jewel-box theater boasts an elaborate mural, The Apotheosis of the California Soldier, painted by Spanish artist and decorator Julio Villa y Prades. The Little Theater was rededicated as the Florence Gould Theatre in 1987, after an extensive restoration and renovation funded by a grant from the Florence J. Gould Foundation.

No one has thought twice about the name and the donor, but after today's article in The Boston Globe, that is likely to change forever.

The article by Alex Beam is about a newly published biography of Gould, adding some surprising remarks about the conductor Charles Munch:

A few years ago, I made a small, vociferous — but high-toned — coterie of enemies by writing about former Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Charles Munch's activities in Nazi-occupied Paris during World War II. Boston University professor Jeffrey Mehlman offered evidence that the Alsatian-born Munch was at best a fellow traveler and at worst a collaborator with the Nazis.

Now a new book from Yale University Press states that the late Florence Gould — benefactress of the Symphony's Florence Gould Auditorium at Tanglewood, whose foundation bountifully subsidizes programs at Harvard, Milton Academy, the Boston Public Library, the Boston Camerata, the New England Conservatory, UMass-Amherst, and elsewhere — was a dyed-in-the-wool Hitlerite and bigot.

"She was a Nazi sympathizer and a terrible anti-Semite who cohabited with the most appalling figures of the German occupation in Paris" — including the head of the Gestapo responsible for dynamiting synagogues and deporting Jews to the death camps — according to the book's author, Frederic Spotts.

Who was Florence Gould? She was a French divorcee and dancer who caught the eye of Frank Jay Gould, son of the famous robber baron Jay Gould. Her husband spent World War II on the Riviera, but she "quickly returned to Paris," according to Spotts's book, The Shameful Peace: How French Artists and Intellectuals Survived the Nazi Occupation, "and in no time was cultivating Wehrmacht officers and Gestapo officials."

Spotts writes that Gould became a "collabo [collaborationist] queen" who hosted a ritzy salon "while Sylvia Beach [American founder of the famous bookstore Shakespeare & Co.] and some three thousand British and American civilians languished in an internment camp." According to its most recent tax filing, the Florence Gould Foundation donated $10,000 to Shakespeare & Co. in 2007.

BSO spokeswoman Bernadette Horgan said the Tanglewood auditorium was built in 1990 with a gift from the Florence Gould Foundation. The recently reported details of Mrs. Gould's biography were news to her. Foundation president John Young did not return my call.


Greek Operatic Tragicomedy

News is where you find it. This startling bit came to me over the weekend at the San Francisco session of the New York International Opera Auditions. I asked a friend from a Spanish opera house about a mutual acquaintance who was to represent the Athens Opera at the auditions, and the response was: "You don't know?" I didn't, and then this improbable story started unspooling.

According to the Spanish artistic director friend, a couple of weeks ago, in a new production of Rusalka in Athens, two men kissed on stage, and all hell broke loose. (I searched the web for "Homosexuality Shocks Greeks," but couldn't find an entry.)

The alleged hell came from a surprising source: it wasn't the audience, but the orchestra protesting the "unnatural act." At the next performance in the opera house, gays protesting the orchestra protest were — I am told — attacked and beaten by musicians. The next day, a significant force of lesbians entered the fray, but the outcome of that is unknown.

All this is hearsay, albeit from a source I know and trust. Looking on the web, I found this, which goes back to early February and seems to deal with another — rather weighty — issue:

"Last week the National Opera House (Ethniki Lyriki Skini) was occupied by dancers renaming the historic Athens building "Insurgent People's Opera." Since the Opera has been functioning as a free space for revolutionary workshops and forums in solidarity to K. Kouneva and the arrested insurgents of December, as well as against the police state and the culture of the Spectacle."

But then, other links started popping up:

"Gay rights activists protesting the censorship of the opera Rusalka by Antonín Dvorák were attacked by members of the orchestra and security staff at the Greek National Opera (Ethniki Lyriki Skini) in Athens yesterday evening.

"Members of the gay and lesbian rights group OLKE were protesting the demand made by the National Opera to cut a scene from the production in which the two male characters kiss. Marion Wassermann, the French director said in an interview (click on to see video) with independent news service, that although the content of the opera had been known for six weeks she was asked to make the cut only during final rehearsals."

The opera house is now in a kind of lockdown. The Greeks may have a word for it, but I am speechless.

Composers of the World: Emerge!

Berkeley Symphony's continuing Emerging Composers-in-Residence program is inviting applications for the 2009-2010 season of "Under Construction." The deadline is May 1. Four Bay Area composers will be selected to be in residence with the orchestra, with the opportunity to develop three short works to be read and performed in the program's three concerts: Oct. 18, Dec. 6, and Feb. 7.

One important change from previous seasons is that incoming Music Director Joana Carneiro is planning to consider some of the works from the "Under Construction" season to be premiered on one of the following season's Berkeley Symphony subscription concerts.

The program was restructured in the past two years to facilitate ongoing and long-term opportunities for emerging composers, and this latest change is intended to make the program even more attractive for some of the Bay Area’s most promising new symphonic composers. Application guidelines are available on the web. Current residents are Jean Ahn, David Graves, Patricio da Silva, and Clark Suprynowicz.

Local Composer Plays Duet with Strindberg

Yes, that Strindberg: August, the great playwright. David Graves, resident with the Berkeley Symphony (see item above), is composing incidental music for Berkeley's Aurora Theatre Company's upcoming production of Strindberg's Miss Julie (April 3-May 10). Samples of the music — recorded by members of the Real Vocal String Quartet — are available online.

Graves is a composer in multiple genres, including ambient, jazz, and rock. As a recipient of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation Fellowship, his large-scale ambient pieces have been installed at the Djerassi Resident Artist Program in 2003 and the SURROUND>SOUND series in 2006. In July and August 2008, he performed Human Street Textures on the Soundwave>Series AudioBus: along with the artist Ruidobello, he collected, modified, and merged street sounds with prerecorded compositions. He has scored numerous works for the San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra since 2004, and has studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music as well as the City College of San Francisco.

Baltimore Opera: From Chapter 11 to Chapter 7

Three months after seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection and canceling the remainder of the 2008-2009 season, the board of trustees of the Baltimore Opera Company have voted to pursue Chapter 7 liquidation, and dissolve the 58-year-old organization. The company will sell off its assets, including a warehouse, scenery, costumes, and technical equipment, and distribute the proceeds among creditors.

The Baltimore Opera, similarly to many arts organizations, has experienced a steep drop in income from tickets and contributions last fall as the national economy soured. Cash flow reached such a critical state that a board member had to personally guarantee cast salaries for what turned out to be the company's final production in November at the Lyric Opera House.

"We've lost many of our corporate contributors that used to be headquartered here. And we had no endowment," board Chairman Allan Jensen said. "The final nail in the coffin was the recession."

Aviv Quartet in S.F. Debut

San Francisco Performances is sponsoring the local debut of Israel's Aviv String Quartet at Herbst Theatre on March 19. The concert includes the U.S. premiere of Lera Auerbach's Cetera Desunt: String Quartet No. 3, Beethoven’s String Quartet in F Minor, Op. 95, and Schubert's String Quartet in D Minor, D. 810 (Death and the Maiden). The quartet consists of violinists Sergey Ostrovsky and Evgenia Epshtein, violist Shuli Waterman, and cellist Rachel Mercer.

Members of the quartet met as students, and after concertizing in Israel, they moved to Cologne, where they became proteges of the Alban Berg Quartet. Recently, the Aviv recorded three Erwin Schuloff quartets on the Naxos label. The name Aviv means "spring" in Hebrew, signifying new beginnings and a fresh outlook.

Born in Chelyabinsk, a city in the Urals bordering Siberia, composer/pianist Auerbach is one of the most widely performed composers of a new generation. She became one of the last artists to defect from the Soviet Union during a concert tour in 1991, while still in her teens. She went on to earn her bachelor's and master's degrees from the Juilliard School.

Return of Ulysses Returns

In conjunction with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art's exhibit of William Kentridge's works, there will be performances of Kentridge's production of Monteverdi's The Return of Ulysses at the Project Artaud Theater, March 24-28.

The revival is directed by Luc de Wit; it is coming from Pacific Operaworks of Seattle, featuring the Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa. Musical direction is by Stephen Stubbs.

Kentridge's production places the dying Ulysses in a hospital ward in mid-20th-century Johannesburg. Using animated charcoal drawings and life-size wooden puppets, the artist adds a new visual interpretation to Homer's epic and Monteverdi's music. The work is performed in Italian with English supertitles, and running time is 100 minutes.

Met Gala Helps in Reaching $170 Million Goal

"There are galas and there are galas," reports Martin Bernheimer in his Tuesday Financial Times review of the Metropolitan's big bash on Sunday.

This was no ordinary garden-variety gala. This was the mighty Met celebrating its 125th birthday, and, at the same time, the 40th anniversary of its resident tenorissimo, Plácido Domingo.

Always attuned to conspicuous cultural consumption, New York turned out in force on Sunday, happy-talky patrons dressed to the gills. The top ticket cost $3,500, which covered an early cocktail party as well as a late dinner. Company officials boasted $6.3 million in receipts, reportedly pushing the current fund-raising campaign beyond its $170 million goal.

Music for the Year 2552

People from Laos call themselves Lao (not Laotian) and they are preparing for a big new year celebration of Pii May, marking the year 2552. This largest and most important cultural festival of Lao Americans will be held on Saturday, April 11, at the San Francisco Civic Center Plaza, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., with a reception in the War Memorial Green Room, from 7 to 10 p.m.

The events are hosted by three nationally recognized nonprofit organizations: the Center for Lao Studies (CLS), the Laotian American National Alliance (LANA), and the Lao Heritage Foundation (LHF). Close to one million people of Lao descent now live in the U.S., and about 35,000 of them reside in the San Francisco Bay Area.

"The first of its kind, this inaugural year's festival provides an opportunity for the overseas Lao community to promote a deeper understanding of our traditions, and to showcase the multi-ethnic cultural heritage of the people from Laos," said Pom Outama Khampradith of the Lao Heritage Foundation, Pacific Northwest Chapter. "It also represents the coming together of an emerging Lao American community to celebrate an ancestral heritage and to allow us to open our world to a broader general audience."

Pii May or Kut Songkaan is new year, according to the ancient Theravada Buddhist calendar, falling around April 13, 14, or 15 in the Gregorian calendar. It is seen as a day of rebirth and purification, celebrated by the Burmese, Cambodians, Thais, and Tai Lue (Dai) of Sipsongpanna or Xishuangbanna in southern Yunnan Province of China.

The highlight of the festival is the screening of Nerakhoon (The Betrayal), codirected by Thavisouk Phrasavath and Ellen Kuras, 2009 Academy Award Nominee for Best Documentary Feature and 2009 Independent Spirit Award Nominee for Best Documentary.

The day's program includes Khene music by Smithsonian Folk Artist/Khene Master Bounseung Sinanonh; Lam folk songs by Smithsonian Folk Singer Khamta Mounixay; Jonny Olsen's Khene and Lam; Kinnaly-Lao traditional music and dance troupe from Seattle; International Hmong Dancers from Fresno; and Lao pop stars Ketsana, Lila T., Fantazma, Evin After, and Malyssa. 

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