Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Happy Days Are Here Again

OK, we're going to do this in slightly allusive fashion, and with no links, because the last time we all had this much fun we brought The Man down on us and he took away our toys.

Remember the party a few months back, the one with Beethoven and Britten and Kurt Weill? Well, it's started up again, in another house a little ways down the block, and now Schubert and Fauré are there too. If you know what I'm talking about, you know what to do; if you don't, poke around a little bit, either here or elsewhere in the blögôsphère (® Alex Ross).

The Gold Paint Guy is my hero.


Philip Glass turns 70 today. I've been trying without success to remember when I first became aware of his music. Unlike Steve Reich — who came into my life unforgettably through my first exposure to Music for 18 Musicians — Glass seemed to have always been there. It's an illusion, of course, and probably an accident of historical timing — a function of having begun to pay serious attention to new music just after the Big Bang of Einstein on the Beach, so that Glass's expanding musical universe was the one I was already living in.

What I do remember, though, is the U.S. premiere of Satyagraha — still my nomination for Glass's profoundest and most beautiful work — at BAM in 1981. The idea that these distinctive musical techniques could be put in the service of a spectacle that was (unlike Einstein) narrative without being conventionally dramatic, expressive without being emotional, and simultaneously repetitive and developmental, felt earth-shaking. Years later, after all the operas and quasi-operas and film scores, it still does.

What's been interesting too is to watch the progress of Glass's name as a cultural signifier, from obscurity through the phase of stupid knock-knock jokes and out the other side again. It's unfortunate that that last stage has had a lot to do with his involvement with Hollywood; but that's the world we live in, and it's better than nothing. As Mr. Satyagraha almost said, first they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they give you an Oscar.

Happy birthday, Philip.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Mad Dad, Glad Dad

Yesterday brought back-to-back concerts in which young (or youngish) musicians played under senior conductors, and it made me wonder how far the different typologies of parental style carry over into the orchestral world.

Lorin Maazel, who conducted the Symphonica Toscanini in Berkeley in the afternoon, came off like an embodiment of that scary archetype, the dad who's always mad. He was actually quite gracious to the musicians, who played very well on the whole, but the interaction never felt entirely safe. There was a vibe in the air all afternoon that made you feel as though anyone who flubbed an entrance would be going to bed without any supper.

Then I crossed the Bay for a concert inaugurating the new concert hall at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and heard the finale of Tchaikovsky's Fourth played by Michael Tilson Thomas and the Conservatory Orchestra — and man, did they have a good time! It was as though MTT's goal was not just to elicit a fine performance out of these kids — which he did — but also to jolly them along, and to help them get why it was really worthwhile to do their best. Good parenting, in other words.

I don't want to oversell the contrast — obviously, there's a world of difference between being the music director of an ensemble of fully trained professional musicians, and doing a short one-night stand-in with a group of undergraduates. And I've heard enough stories about life in the New World Symphony — not just from former players, but from MTT himself — to know that you really, really don't want to be the oboist who suddenly forgets how many sharps there are in the passage you're in the middle of.

Still, if I were a young Bratschenspieler, I think I know who I'd rather play under.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Gockley, in Depth

This realization sort of snuck up on me, but I have to say I think David Gockley's first fully planned season is the most exciting one the San Francisco Opera has offered in a quarter of a century. The claim to fame isn't the rep list itself — it's slightly chestnut-laden, and although I love me some Civil War, the prospect of Philip Glass's Appomattox doesn't set the pulse racing like Saint François d'Assise or Le Grand Macabre, to say nothing of Doctor Atomic.

But what this season has going for it, unprecedentedly in my experience with the company, is that it's entirely filler-free. Every single production promises some reason to get excited — the first visit by intriguing directors like Robert Lepage and Mary Zimmerman, starry debuts by Natalie Dessay, Ewa Podles and Angela Gheorghiu, a huge list of debuts by singers I never heard of, or, what the hell, even just Maurice Sendak's Magic Flute production, coming here for the first time.

The only thing on the schedule that leaves me cold is the opening-night Samson and Delilah, and that's a function of my own idiosyncrasies: I have no particular use for any 19th-century French music that isn't by Berlioz (remember, "Gounod" is an anagram of "ungood"), and although I'm an Olga Borodina fan, I'm not, you know, the world's biggest Olga Borodina fan. If you're a little more normal than I am on either of those two points, then even that one should get you going.

What's lacking from this season is the Bohème or Traviata revival trotted out in a familiar old production, with singers we all love but have heard a bunch of times before and an amiable time-beater in the pit. And that's not something you can say about any prior season that I can recall. If Gockley's tenure turns out to be as successful as I hope, it'll be due in part to this kind of conscientious consistency. He just doesn't seem to do throwaways.

P.S. To clarify, and forestall some needless whining: I don't care what the calendar says, as soon as Debussy picked up his pen the 19th century was over.

Da Bomb

So the Met is set to do John Adams' Doctor Atomic next year, but word on the rialto is that it won't be in the Peter Sellars production from the 2005 San Francisco premiere that's also going to the Lyric in December. Mr. Gelb was evidently not amused — no word on why, or who he'll get to direct in lieu of everyone's favorite manic sprite.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Hell (n.), see Other People

Condolences to Patrick, who spent last night in the company of some folks I know all too well, and thanks for turning it into comic fodder for the rest of us. Avoiding those people was not the primary reason I stayed away, but it turns out to have been a welcome side benefit.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Dept. of Gender Confusion

As part of his Schwabacher Debut Recital last night, tenor David Portillo sang Antonio Maria Abbatini's "Quanto è bello il mio diletto." The program included the Italian text as sung, but the English alongside it was a careful mistranslation, in which each masculine reference had been assiduously switched to a feminine one. The actual words must have struck someone as, I don't know, kind

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Nicola Ancora

Bloggy speculation about the forthcoming Luisotti Era at the San Francisco Opera has spun off in directions that I'd like to demur from, ever so gently — if only because some of it seems to have been spurred on, at least in part, by yesterday's post here.

At Out West Arts, for instance, the haplonymic Brian, after seconding my observation about Luisotti's limited track record with non-farinaceous opera, sighs, "Great — just what San Francisco needs, more Toscas and Traviatas" (which might should be "Tosche and Traviate," but leave it be). And in the Hills, these words were Reverberating: "I have to echo the concern that this means the opera is moving back to a repertory of about ten operas, all by Verdi and Puccini...I haven’t really been particularly impressed by many of the SF Opera's Verdi and Puccini performances through the years."

Well, I hate to put words into Mr. Gockley's mouth, but I think the point here is — neither has he. The goal of the Luisotti appointment, as I understand it, is to fix that chronic problem by hiring a music director who won't treat the Italian repertoire as the afterthought it too often is. This doesn't mean that spaghetti will become the sole staple of our operatic diet, or even that its frequency will necessarily increase significantly — only that what spaghetti we do get will be cooked really, really well. (And again, this is all based on just the one amazing Forza; I'd love to hear what people thought about his Seattle and Met debuts.)

Anyway, my worry was not about the proportions of the season schedule, but about whether Luisotti will be able to hold up his end as music director in other areas of the repertoire. Will he do as well with Mozart, for instance, or with French and Russian rep, as with Italian? How deep does he go, or, failing that, how fast can he get there? We'll see.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

It's Nicola

So the speculation was correct after all (and a big hat tip to Ching Chang, who had the inside dope way in advance). The San Francisco Opera today named Nicola Luisotti to succeed Donald Runnicles as the company's music director. He'll take over in 2009.

As far as one can tell with these things, this promises to be an excellent development all around. His 2005 company debut in La Forza del Destino — his only prior appearance here — was nothing short of amazing, he's an ebullient, likable fellow, and by all accounts the members of the Opera Orchestra and Chorus do like him and trust him. Course, they're also only going on the evidence of the one production, but that should tide everyone over until we see what else he can do.

The one cause for concern might be his range of repertoire, which doesn't seem to be very broad. The only non-Italian opera listed anywhere in his management bio is Carmen; for that matter, Pagliacci is the only other opera that isn't by Verdi or Puccini. He doesn't seem to have much knowledge of or interest in contemporary music. Runnicles was nine years younger when he got the nod, and he already had a much larger working repertoire.

Still, it's too soon to worry about that now. Anyone who can shape a performance like Luisotti's Forza — and inspire the confidence of the excellent but somewhat demoralized Opera Orchestra — can only be a force for good.

Now we just have to persuade his people to come up with a better mug shot. He's not Bela Lugosi, you know.