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New Seats for the War Memorial Opera House

June 2, 2015

So many seats, so much to doSitting Pretty in the Opera House

If you are not completely comfortable sitting in ancient, seemingly forward-slanting seats through five hours of Les Troyens in the War Memorial Opera House this month, be of good cheer, Next month, work begins on replacing the balcony's 888 seats with new ones "that have a look and feel that is harmonious with the theater, but that feature a design that is more ergonomic for audiences,” according to San Francisco Ballet General Manager Debra Bernard. Oh joy!

This is the first phase of a collaborative project between the Ballet, San Francisco Opera, and the War Memorial Performing Arts Center, funded by a facility fee that has been in place since last year. Replacement of seats in the Dress Circle, Grand Tier, and Orchestra levels will follow in "subsequent years" (originally planned to be completed in 2017) for the entire, 3,146-seat auditorium.

Financing of the project is through the $1 per-ticket facility fee in balcony section prices; all other sections include a $2 per-ticket facility fee. I will have more about the project (what kind of seats, at what cost, etc.) once the work begins after the S.F. Opera summer season and before the Ballet's December Nutcracker blitz.

Initial – and logical – skepticism focuses on the "contemporary airline syndrome," in which economic considerations squeeze both legroom and elbow room, two of the current problems. Even if there is the will to provide space for legs generally longer than they were a century ago (or, in London's horrid balcony seats, centuries – plural), building structure, especially in the balcony, prohibits rearranging the number of rows, but there could be some hope for horizontal expansion.

Lieder Alive! Is Very Much Alive

Marilyn Horne was among the first guests.When Maxine Bernstein's LIEDER ALIVE! holds its annual benefit concert on June 21, the gutsy one-woman organization will mark eight years of "reinvigorating the teaching, performance, and appreciation of German Lieder, thereby keeping Lieder where it belongs — alive!," according to Bernstein.

The organization began with a bang, a star-studded inaugural program, the Vocal Master Workshop series, featuring master classes by mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne, baritone Thomas Hampson, soprano June Anderson, and baritone Håkan Hagegård. There has never been a privately organized series of music events like this here.

The mastermind is a London-born soprano who has lived, studied (at one time with Christa Ludwig), performed, and taught in New York, London, Paris, and Vienna before arriving in San Francisco. Bernstein explains:

I founded the organization to further develop my advocacy for lieder (Opera seems to do all right without my direct assistance!) I was fortunate enough to have access to some of our great lieder artists, and felt that organizing a way to have them mentor and teach emerging artists would be the greatest use of these invaluable connections. In addition to the master classes, we have also sent artists to study with both Edith Mathis and Christa Ludwig. Christa Ludwig recommended that I contact Marilyn Horne, who after teaching for us, spoke of how essential it is that we have an ongoing recital series. Naturally, I obeyed.

The core public program, Liederabend Series, has included performances by soprano Heidi Moss, mezzo-sopranos Kindra Scharich and Katherine Tier, countertenor Brian Asawa, bass Kirk Eichelberger, collaborating with pianists John Parr, George Fee, Bryan Baker, Peter Grünberg, and Simona Snitkovskaya, among others. A selection of concerts have been co-sponsored by both the Merola Opera Program and the Goethe Institut. A couple of years ago, the program named Kurt Erickson composer-in-residence and launched the Neue Lieder Commissioning Program.

The June 21 benefit gala, complete with wine and buffet supper in a San Francisco private residence, will feature Moss, Parr, and clarinetist Natalie Parker in performance of lieder by Schubert, Schumann, Strauss, and Erickson.

Bernstein says her next presentation is a "seminal event" — the world premiere of Alexander String Quartet violinist Zakarias Grafilo's transcriptions of Wagner's Wesendonck-Lieder and Mahler's Rückert-Lieder, performed by mezzo Scharich and the Alexander Quartet at 5 p.m. June 14, in the Noe Valley Ministry.

Scene from the restored 1951 Tales of Hoffmann film.Old Classic Opera Film is New Again

One of the finest opera films of all time, the lavish and phantasmagorical 1951 Michael Powell/ Emeric Pressburger Tales of Hoffmann, is being presented in a new 4K restoration, the result of international collaboration by the Film Foundation, the British Film Institute National Archive, and other organizations.

The British Technicolor extravaganza will be screened beginning June 5 in the Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco. The restoration, supervised by Powell’s wife and Oscar-winning editor Thelma Schoonmaker, is the "most complete, crisp and beautiful version ever released in this country," according to reports. It is also the longest, at 136 minutes.

Hoffmann was a follow-up by producer-screenwriter-director Powell and Pressburger to their renowned The Red Shoes, with Moira Shearer, Robert Helpmann, Robert Rounseville, and Ludmilla Tchérina. Powell (1905–1990) and Pressburger (1902–1988) collaborated for over 30 years on some of the most beautifully-conceived color films of their time, including Black Narcissus and A Matter of Life and Death.

The film version of Offenbach's opera had an unusual impact on film directors. Martin Scorsese, who has often cited Powell and Pressburger as inspirations for his own work, said Hoffmann was a major influence on his editing of Raging Bull. Even more surprisingly, horror icon George Romero has called Hoffmann his favorite film of all time and the one that inspired him to start making movies of his own.

New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay wrote of the restored film:

It’s crazy, twee, camp, exhilarating, trite, bold! This 1951 film belongs to a bewildering number of categories. It’s lip-sync opera, multilayered meta-theater (indeed, a dizzyingly baroque exercise in overt artifice), kitsch extravaganza of luridly colored design and keenly musical ballet.


New Bright Spots on the Orchestra Labor-Management Scene

The frequently turbulent world of orchestra contracts — at its worst in recent years when the San Francisco Symphony endured a lengthy strike and the Minnesota Orchestra almost ceased to exist —  has calmed down significantly.

The bad old days of the past: S.F. Symphony musicians picketing Davies Hall in 2013Last week, the Minnesota Orchestra announced an extension of its contract, which ended a 15-month-long lockout in January 2014. The agreement, reached almost two years in advance of the current contract's expiration, is effective through the 2019-2020 season. The musicians' minimum weekly salary will increase from $1,967 in 2016-17 to $2,127 by the end of the contract. (The S.F. Symphony's three-year contract, signed earlier this year, provides a minimum weekly base salary of $2,892, to increase to $3,200 at the end of the agreement.)

At the same time in Minnesota, a $5 million gift from University of Minnesota Foundation Life Director Douglas W. Leatherdale established a Music Director Chair in honor of Osmo Vänskä, the orchestra's music director, who resigned during the lockout in support of the musicians. The gift helps to extend Vänskä's contract through Aug. 2019. Commenting on the settlement, Vänskä spoke of the orchestra's groundbreaking tour of Cuba:

Last week, we shared great music with the people of Cuba, and it was a very unifying and humbling experience for us. I feel now more than ever, Minnesota is my musical home. We still have work to do together and many projects I am excited to pursue. I am grateful to continue working with these remarkable musicians and this exceptional community.

Closer to home, the S.F. Symphony's contract settlement in February went smoothly, and it will safekeep labor peace for the next three years. At San Francisco Opera, where General Director David Gockley has maintained good relations between management and orchestra since his arrival in 2006, the contract signed last summer is effective through July 2018. At the San Francisco Ballet, the three-year contract signed in 2012 runs through Nov. 30, 2015 (dancers are covered by an AGMA contract).

There is also positive news from orchestras (among many) in jeopardy during the Great Recession:

  • The Louisville Orchestra's 75th season ended with sold-out performances and what is called "the hugely successful inaugural season of Teddy Abrams as music director." Even with three world premieres, there was a 17 percent increase in subscriptions and a 42 percent rise in single ticket sales. Administration and musicians work together for a successful extension of the contract, which expires next May.

  • Utah Symphony/Utah Opera reached a three-year contract with the musicians, in advance of the Utah Symphony's 75th season. The agreement provides a 52-week contract for 85 musicians and will see the musicians’ base salary increase an average of 3.5 percent each year over the next three seasons. No specific minimum salary figures were provided by the administration.

  • The Cincinnati Symphony, which, in 2009, "didn’t have enough cash to make the next payroll," according to orchestra president Trey Devey, had such a successful turnaround in fundraising that a new contract allows hiring 14 more full-time players over the next four years, expanding the size of the ensemble to 90. A major contribution – $85 million – came from Louise Dieterle Nippert, an arts patron who sang Mahler with the ensemble in 1957.

  • In California, an unresolved problem at the San Luis Obispo Symphony was reported by the San Luis Obispo Tribune:

    San Luis Obispo Symphony musicians announced that they have voted no confidence in the organization’s board of directors and can no longer work with the board because of a breach of trust. The vote was taken in response to the board’s May 14 announcement that it had fired longtime Music Director Michael Nowak. The musicians have protested both Nowak’s ouster and the fact that they were notified of the move after a news release was sent out.

The orchestra website does not mention the dismissal or the response: It still shows Nowak as the director, and says that, since his taking office in 1984, "he has succeeded in bringing the San Luis Obispo Symphony to new heights of artistic excellence."

  • And, on Monday, the Buffalo News reported a longstanding, strange, and serious clash at the Buffalo Philharmonic: Former principal oboist Pierre Roy is suing the orchestra to be reinstated to the position he was fired from three years ago for his behavior. "Your lack of musicality is shocking and destructive to our orchestra,” Music Director JoAnn Falletta wrote to him before a previous dismissal, which was later reversed.

    The News article details a long list of episodes, some involving allegations of physical encounters with Roy.

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