Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Taruskin, the Director's Cut

My profile of UC Berkeley musicologist Richard Taruskin ran in The Chronicle on Sunday, at about 70 percent of the length at which I filed it. That was right and just — the original was far too long, and I knew it would have to be trimmed — but there was some choice material that I was sorry to see consigned to the cutting-room floor. Here are a few outtakes, including some quotes that didn't even make it into the first draft.

• "Anytime you do anything in musicology," says [Klara] Moricz, "you generally check to see what Taruskin did. Then you arrange your view either with him or in opposition."

• His scholarly role model, he says, is Edward Lowinsky, a German-born Renaissance scholar who died in 1985, and who taught briefly at Berkeley.
"Lowinsky was wrong about everything — he made a whole career of being wrong. But the process of disproving all his grandiose hypotheses did more than anyone to advance musicology.
"As opposed to Oliver Strunk, who did practically nothing but is considered to be the irrefutable mandarin of rightness: little ventured, little gained. And actually I managed to disprove one of his hypotheses when I was doing my Busnois research! So the mighty Strunk, who hardly ventured to say anything because what if I'm wrong — even some of the little that he said was wrong.
"I think it's much better to be bold and put out a hypothesis that makes a difference, and then let them tear it down. Because even tearing it down accomplishes something.
"People are so invested in being right. I can honestly say that I'm not. I'm more interested in saying something that is interesting and significant — and if it turns out not to be right, I can live with that."

• "I spent a wonderful year in Moscow in the early 1970s, at the height of the Cold War. Brezhnev was stagnating as they now say, and there was a treaty that had been carefully negotiated by the State Department for a student exchange on a strictly one-to-one basis: 40 and 40. But of course the Russians were all studying agronomy and technical subjects, and we were all studying Pushkin or something really innocuous."

• "Think of all the composers who, during the Cold War, wrote serial music who otherwise wouldn't have. Sometimes they say so — in fact, it became a cliché for a while. 'I felt such a pressure to write serial music and I never even liked the stuff!' And on the other side, think of someone like Khrennikov. They know they have to write music that is tuneful and accessible and conveys the right message. These are social pressures, and we are more inclined now to recognize them as such."

• "Writing about 15th-century music is like walking into a dark room where there are dozens of people sleeping on the floor. Anywhere you move, you wind up stepping on someone, and they shout at you."

Thursday, February 27, 2014

A Ringing in My Ears

Sure, we all hate the cell phone that goes off right in the middle of a performance – except when it offers a perfect obbligato counterpoint to the music at hand.

Last night's duo recital by Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax, part of Ax's "Brahms and Beyond" project, included the best cell-phone ring evah. It came near the end of Brett Dean's new piano solo Hommage à Brahms, and it fit so beautifully among the delicate, high-pitched keyboard filigree of the last movement that I wasn't sure at first whether I was hearing a phone or part of the piece. That's how smooth the blend was.

And Ax, god love him, handled the situation perfectly: He came out afterward, assured the audience that it wasn't part of the piece but should've been, and even said a few reassuring words to the kid with the onstage seat whose phone it was — and who must have been dying of embarrassment.

A composer I know once had the premiere of an orchestral piece interrupted by a big squawk from a clarinetist who'd lost count of his rests; he liked the sound of it so much he added it to the score for later performances. I'd love to see Brett Dean do likewise.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

And the Grammy Goes To...

To the surprise of not too many people (among those paying attention), Osmo Vänskä and the Minnesota Orchestra just won a Grammy for their recording of Sibelius 1 and 4. Well, of course. Vänskä and the Minnesota have a terrific partnership going, especially in this repertoire.

Or, y'know, had. With every passing day, the magnitude of the loss occasioned by the past year's insane labor struggle — not just to the Twin Cities, but to the entire American orchestral community — becomes clearer and more heart-breaking. How could anyone think this was worth it?

Friday, November 01, 2013

Take a Bow

David Kadarauch, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra's principal cellist for the past 40 years, is getting the San Francisco Opera Medal, to be presented onstage at tomorrow night's Falstaff. This is the company's highest honor, and it puts Kadarauch in the company of people like Joan Sutherland, Plácido Domingo, Charles Mackerras and Kurt Herbert Adler. He deserves every bit of the glory.

I suppose it's possible to go to SF Opera performances pretty regularly and not notice what a fantastic artist Kadarauch is. That's the nature of the gig — opera musicians labor away down there in the pit, sight unseen, and they don't get anything like the solo opportunities that symphony players get. But then you hear Kadarauch play something like the big cello solo from Act 4 of Don Carlos, and you think, "That's why Verdi wrote the scene that way. It was so someone would come along and play the music as sublimely as David Kadarauch does."

Then you start to pay attention, and you notice that whenever you hear cello music in the War Memorial Opera House, you snap to attention. Kadarauch's robust and supple string tone, the elegance of his phrasing, the combination of emotional urgency and expressive immediacy that he brings to everything he plays — these are among the reliable delights of operatic life in San Francisco. And it's not just the big cello moments, in Pagliacci or Guillaume Tell or Act 1 of Walküre; Kadarauch illuminates the most ordinary passages with the same kind of artistry.

Opera companies tend to key their programming decisions to the available singers — they do Falstaff for Bryn Terfel, or Onegin for Anna Netrebko. I get it; singers are admittedly important. But I've always believed that the San Francisco Opera ought to program Don Carlos just because they have David Kadarauch.

Monday, October 21, 2013

The Departing Dutchman

The curtain goes up on The Flying Dutchman at San Francisco Opera tomorrow night, but without director and designer Petrika Ionesco on hand. It seems the lavishly mustachioed French-Romanian auteur, who made his company debut directing Franco Alfano's Cyrano de Bergerac, had the fabled "artistic differences" with David Gockley, who ushered him out of town last week. The remaining work on the set and staging was done by in-house staff, according to SFO spox Jon Finck.

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Well, Lookie Here

Pianist, writer, blogger and musical thinker Jeremy Denk has won a MacArthur Fellowship, a/k/a "genius grant." The reason these things are so prestigious isn't just the money — though that helps — but because they so often go to the right people. Case in point.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Lotfi Mansouri (1929-2013)

Sad news: Lotfi Mansouri, the inventive and tireless former general director of the San Francisco Opera, has died at 84. Obituary is here.