Monday, July 31, 2006

Back in the Saddle

Apologies for the semi-extended absence. Newbie blogger though I may be, I do know enough to appreciate the tactical unwiseness unwisdom (I know, it looks just as wrong, but Webster's confirms it) of not feeding the hopper just at the moment when a particularly gratifying spate of links has brought a burst of traffic to the site (and heartfelt thanks to Kyle Gann, M. C-, Steve Hicken, Lisa Hirsch, Big Marc Geelhoed, Orpheus, Patricia Mitchell, the fearsome ACD and über-referrer Alex Ross for their respective kind welcomes).

Although I spent the last week in San Antonio for reasons having nothing whatever to do with music, I had hoped to put in a brief appearance or two right here. So much for hopes. I can attest that the San Antonio Holiday Inn does provide free wi-fi in its rooms, but only if the wireless antenna in your superannuated laptop has a reach of more than a few feet. In my case, then, not so much.

As of today, though, I find myself in Santa Fe, ready to hoover up the 2006 opera season over five nights, with a daytime stop or two at the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival as time permits. Main draw, of course, is Thomas Adès' extravagantly praised Tempest, but the whole 50th season is devoted to new productions. More reports on those as they develop.

I haven't been in Santa Fe in several years, and walking around in the drizzle this afternoon, it felt odd to come here to her adopted home so soon after the death of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. It's not as though there were ghosts, exactly, but there was no avoiding the awareness that this was where she had chosen to spend her final years. It will be a long time before we begin recovering from her loss.

PS: I remembered later just when it was that I was last in Santa Fe. It was for the 1997 world premiere of Peter Lieberson's Ashoka's Dream, which is how they met.

Monday, July 24, 2006

Of Local Interest Only

Word on the street is that Frederica von Stade has put her Alameda house on the market in preparation for a move into San Francisco proper. That'd be nice. I have no idea who's positioned to succeed her as the island city's most prominent resident.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

In Memoriam

Beautiful memories of György Ligeti from Martin Bresnick, Roberto Sierra and Anne LeBaron.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

This Magic Moment (one in a series)

Mahler, Symphony No. 9, first movement, 2 mm. before fig. 5

We've heard the big first theme a time or two or three; we've crested one big crunching climax, with several more obviously still to come; and now there's stuff churning below the surface of this new reiteration. Complications are in the air. We careen around the corner, and — whoosh, everything gets sucked out of the atmosphere. Suddenly there's just this gaping wide-spaced ninth: B in the bass, C# way up in the first violins, and nothing much in between except a sugary harp arpeggio to fill in the simple harmony. It's like biting into what you think is a hunk of bread and finding meringue.

The first 15 or 20 times I heard the piece, this passage bugged the snot out of me. It sounded treacly and sentimental, and the unprepared rush into the wide-open texture inspired vertigo. And then one day I pulled a 180, the way one does. Now I look forward to it every time, and feel a little shiver of delight as it hits.

(As the title suggests, we're only doing individual moments here. You want large-scale harmonic effects, you gotta go elsewhere.)

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Goin' Downtown

Without much fanfare, Kyle Gann ties a little ribbon this morning around his remarkable career as the new-music critic for the Village Voice. Nineteen years' worth of virtuoso arguing, reporting, explaining and barely metaphorical fisticuffs — all the things a great critic is supposed to do — have come to an end, and even though Kyle sounds reasonably resigned, even serene, about it, I'm not. I'm sad and pissed off.

Not, I have to add a little sheepishly, that I'd been a regular reader of the column in years. When I moved to California from New York in 1983, I kept up a subscription to the Voice for a while, in the same way you might sublet a rent-controlled apartment: on the theory that it was only a matter of time before I headed back East where I belonged. Just around the time I realized that wasn't going to happen — at least not in the foreseeable future — Kyle started writing for the Voice, and I was on the hook for several more years of renewals. But eventually I had to cut the ties.

It's impossible to overstate the impact those reviews had on me, though. There was, first of all, the amazing erudition on display — the sense, which has only grown keener in the decades since, that Kyle had heard and analyzed and deeply understood every piece of music written over the past 50 years and more. There was the bare-knuckled truculence over musical politics, and the muscular-lyrical prose style that went with it (no surprise that Ives is his favorite composer). And there was the incredible urgency of those columns — the conviction that all of this mattered very deeply — which grew out of Kyle's double role as a musical practitioner and critic.

In theory I have grave doubts about that combination, and the various conflicts of interest that result. But with Kyle, I've never been able to resist it in practice. He's too damn good.

You can get a taste of those reviews in the recent collection Music Downtown, which I've been nibbling at compulsively. And of course Kyle's blog continues to be a source for Gannian prose. But there's something irreplaceable and unique about the flavor of a regular newspaper column, which neither a greatest-hits collection nor the intermittent postings on a blog can supplant. It's a shame.

Friday, July 14, 2006

Restless in Seattle

Some indeterminately large population of the Seattle Symphony's musicians is clearly dissatisfied with the leadership — musical or otherwise — of music director Gerard Schwarz, and once again the P-I's intrepid R.M. Campbell has the story. It's always difficult in a situation like this to gauge the real extent of the problem, and Richard does a good job in laying out the possibly dubious parts of the survey that was distributed among the orchestra's musicians. Any orchestra has its share of full-time malcontents, reflexive apple-polishers and so on. For that matter, the survey itself sounds like it might have been a fairly slipshod affair.

Still, it doesn't matter whether the majority of the players are pro- or anti-Schwarz or somewhere in between. The mere fact that the dissension has become so open and noticeable is a problem for the orchestra's board — or it should be. If the argument is about whether most of the musicians in the orchestra think the music director is doing a sucky job, or only some, you're already a tempo or two behind.

Plus, you want to bring in people who know what they're about. I loved this detail:

Don McDonough, founding partner of the Seattle survey firm Evans/McDonough, strongly criticized the survey in his two-page report.
"It is our professional opinion that there are serious flaws in the questionnaire design, data collection and overall methodology, and as a result of these deficiencies the results are highly suspect," reported McDonough, who misspelled Schwarz's name throughout the document.



Mr. Gockley offers a little reminder of who's signing the paychecks at SF Opera.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Get the Geats

Philip Kennicott has a long and brilliant review of Elliot Goldenthal and Julie Taymor's Grendel in the Washington Post today. I especially admired this observation about the John Gardner novel that is the opera's source:

Grendel's voice is familiar, and in the end, you realize that you know him well: He's one of those fabulous old drunks who used to haunt the English departments of small universities, with his head filled with the poems of Milton and Plath, his heart filled with self-loathing and his liver filled with half-metabolized gin. Gardner's Grendel could walk out of his cave and straight into Albee's "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" without so much as chipping a teacup.

Kennicott has read Gardner, and has a lot to say about where the opera hews to the novel or diverges from it (though some of that is misremembered — Grendel's somewhat sentimental susceptibility to the beauty of Hrothgar's queen, for example, is straight from Gardner). Tony Tommasini, by contrast, evidently has not, and confesses with admirable candor that he couldn't always figure out what was going on in the piece.

It's an open question which approach, if either, is preferable. Prepping is swell, but often — especially in connection with a new work — it puts a critic in a somewhat artificial position. Before reviewing the world premiere Los Angeles in June, I read not only Gardner but Beowulf (finally, for the first time); as a result, I was in no doubt about the shape of the piece, but also quite possibly blind to its narrative flaws. An opera should obviously be comprehensible, after all, even to a viewer coming in fresh. Doing my homework made it impossible for me to assess that question.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Let's Begin

Testing 1-2-3. Is this thing on?