31 March 2008

I once was lost, but now am found

Our industrial and technological age may end up doing us in, but before the waters rise too high - whatever happened to the fire next time? - there is some amazing stuff turning up. I just read in the April Gramophone that the long-lost 1966 BBC film of Billy Budd (with Peter Pears, and with Mackerras conducting) has been found, and will be released in a Britten/Pears set with Peter Grimes and Idomeneo (the opera which sadly lacks a visible sea monster) later this year.

And kind reader ChiChi Fargo sent me the following link to a YouTube video of the 1992 Elmer Gantry workshop with Lorraine Hunt Lieberson as Sister Sharon, which I attended and wrote about here. I haven't seen the video yet, but if anything can finally rouse me to get off dial-up, this is it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=miwIaufwgr0

12 March 2008

point of honor

I think Amazon.com, or more specifically its Anonymous Random Recommendation System, just did the Internet version of slapping me across the face with a glove: it not only urged me to buy the Cliff Notes version of War and Peace, which would be bad enough, it did so because I had bought . . . the new Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace. Please. Please. As if! One has already read Tolstoy, of course. One is re-reading. If one wanted a cribbed version, one would turn to Mr. Prokofiev.

At first I figured Amazon was sulking and lashing out because I’ve cut my purchases way back (you know I can’t visit you without buying something, baby! just hang in there till I’m back on my feet! and I mean it this time!). Then I thought that maybe everyone gets these recommendations, and Amazon has never really understood me, and how I feel about only reading unabridged books.

Whatever. I just hate to see my longest-lasting and most successful love affair come to this. There’s always a tiny hidden crack in the golden bowl, isn’t there?

Barnes and Noble is on line now too, you know! And Borders! I don’t need you!

Enjoy the comical italics – it's all post-Sudafed euphoria.

In further Amazon amusement, they are offering a disc called The Only Choral CD You’ll Ever Need. Strong words! But once again I am flummoxed by art marketing: choral CDs seem pretty much like the very definition of something that either you don’t need at all, or you need in unquantifiable numbers. And I’m not sure the Only Choral CD One Will Ever Need should be quite so heavy on opera choruses: the Humming Chorus from Madama Butterfly is very beautiful, but maybe the choral finale of the Beethoven 9 should be there instead?

There’s also a separate CD called The Best Choral Album in the World. You’d think the Best and the Only One You'll Ever Need would be the same, but apparently you’d be wrong. I leave it to others to analyze the differences, partly because my thumbs are still hurting and I’m having a little trouble typing. My thumbs are hurting because I chopped a lot of wood this weekend – I know that sounds like a saucy euphemism, but I actually was chopping wood – and apparently the thumb muscles are of the meekly hidden but essential type that is frequently overlooked during strength-training in favor of the mirror muscles.

I also have been so doped up on allergy medications for the past three days that the effects of allergies have blended indistinguishably with the effects of anti-allergens, and I’ve been too zoned to post the entries I meant to write instead of this one. But here’s a tip for Bay Area theater-goers: this is your last weekend to catch Thick House theater’s production of Blade to the Heat, and though Cutting Ball’s production of Endgame has been extended, you really need to see it now.

03 March 2008

On one point rather sore, / But, on the whole, delighted!

The San Francisco Symphony announced its upcoming season today, and kindly invited me along, thanks to the far-reaching influence and benevolent intervention of sfmike.* Luckily for concert-goers, though perhaps not for readers looking for fireworks (disappointment brings out the best in me), I thought the season looked extremely promising, despite one glaring omission, which would be the failure to mark the centennials of Olivier Messiaen and, especially, since he is American and still living, Elliott Carter.

There was a question session, but I didn’t bother asking about their absence; Michael Tilson Thomas had said earlier, in discussing Mendelssohn, who apparently is having one, that he didn’t really pay attention to anniversary years, and even I can’t really imagine that the marketing department is going to urge him to go all out for Carter and Messiaen. And clearly he just doesn’t have much affinity with those composers; otherwise they’d be showing up more often on the schedule, saleable anniversaries or not. Maybe Levine in Boston will come up with something and I’ll be able to afford a trip by then (oh, it’s springish today, which means I can barely breathe due to allergies, so I feel entitled to some traditional seasonal optimism).

Also, as is often the case, the questions that were asked just seemed kind of silly to me – I figure if I could have answered them for MTT, there’s no point in taking up everyone’s time. For instance, someone asked why Sofia Gubaidulina had been chosen as the first Phyllis C. Wattis Composer-in-Residence (big excitement about this from me, by the way). Tilson Thomas, who had been smooth, low-key, and charmingly amusing for a whole hour, and though he must be practiced at that it seems like a lot to ask of anyone, seemed slightly flummoxed and eventually said something along the lines of “it was a good place to start.” I could have come in off the street and answered the question: Because we can; because she could; why the hell not? I’m sure it doesn’t hurt that there are a lot of Russian immigrants in this area, and also an interest in women composers. So why ask why there wasn’t a token performance just because of a birthday?

In fact the Symphony seemed to be trying for a more in-depth approach, which is preferable anyway. Not only is there the new Composer-in-Residence program, but Lang Lang will be here for a week of activities, there will be a series of events celebrating the Ruffatti Organ’s 25th anniversary (and there's a concert for a Handel anniversary; hmmm, maybe that “we don’t pay attention to anniversaries” remark was a more calculated evasion than was apparent) including both a new work by Gubaidulina and a Halloween showing of the Lon Chaney Phantom of the Opera (though am I the only one for whom organ music automatically conjures up silent movies? maybe this connection shouldn’t be emphasized), and a Schubert/Berg Festival at the end of the season. That’s an exciting pairing. Tilson Thomas said he felt there was an “achey lyrical connection” between the two. He spoke at length, quite movingly, about the Schubert Mass No. 6 in E-flat Major, D950, especially the Et incarnatus est, which he described as a combination of complex choral writing against a simple, compelling melody, “almost country western . . . it would be perfect for Elvis to sing in Heaven, and I say that with the greatest respect.”

Mason Bates, a young composer now living in this area, spoke about his upcoming commission, The B-Sides. For once I actually got something out of hearing an artist describing his work; it gets played up that Bates works as a DJ, as if some club-hip cool is going to rub off on Davies Hall, but I’ve never found electronic music (or club-hip cool, for that matter) very interesting (technology is seductive, but new systems can easily substitute themselves for new thoughts). But he was quite thoughtful and interesting, discussing how he might do something “that didn’t involve lots of cables”, while incorporating the elements and effects of electronic music that he liked. I did want to hear the piece after hearing him. Both he and Tilson Thomas made some interesting points about the cost and elaborate preparations involved in cable-based music, and how quickly the technology of these pieces gets outmoded, rendering them unplayable. You don’t have that problem with pianos, just as an electronic “book” will be outmoded soon, but a regular printed book can be read centuries later. I’m just saying. . . .

Everyone will have different works or soloists that look appealing, and I can’t say I’ve fully absorbed the whole season schedule, what with having to go right back to work and take plentiful allergy medications, but offhand I can think of quite a lot I want to hear. Maybe this time I will actually be able to get a ticket to the Mahler 8 (and if I can't they promise to record it this time); and there are a couple of pieces by Ligeti, including the Requiem, SF premieres by Schmidt and Szymanowski, and works by Ades, Higdon, and Knussen. Kristian Zimerman is playing the Lutoslawski Piano Concerto and Martha Argerich is playing the Ravel. Hilary Hahn is playing the Tchaikovsky violin concerto and Joshua Bell is playing Ravel and Saint-Saens. And I’m pretty thrilled to see the Beethoven 9 on the schedule, which I really haven’t heard live all that often, and Anne-Sophie Mutter is playing not only the US premiere of Gubaidulina’s Violin Concerto No. 2, but also the Mendelssohn. Apparently the Stradivarius played by the SF Concertmaster is the one on which the concerto was first performed; Tilson Thomas implied Mutter might use it (“grab it from the concertmaster” is closer to what he said, actually) for the performance.

And I’m already really excited about the season end, which is the SF Symphony premiere of Iolanthe. Oddly enough, about a week ago I suddenly had the urge to listen to Iolanthe over and over, and I was wondering if the Lamplighters were going to be putting it on anytime soon, or if there was a decent DVD available. And now here it is (well, in a year and half), semi-staged! It’s almost as if Tilson Thomas and I are psychically connected, except that, you know, we’re not. Now all I need to do is hope that they don’t body-mike the (TBA) cast, as they sometimes do for musicals in Davies. I think Gilbert and Sullivan are actually pretty difficult to perform well – there’s always the temptation to emphasize the archness, which makes it awful, instead of playing it straight, and there are scenes of genuinely moving dramatic power in many of their works.

*Update: Click here for Mike's excellent round-up of the press conference, with nice photographs and several anecdotes I omitted.

02 March 2008

Amazon eeriness

I was poking around Amazon yesterday, and among other things I wanted to check out a recital by Patricia Brooks that has just been released. I had never heard of her, but the disc was getting raves. When I typed in her name, one of the choices was a recording of Robert Ward's The Crucible. I hadn't realized there was a recording, much less one featuring someone I had just heard about for the first time. I also hadn't really heard of the operatic version of The Crucible until Trinity Lyric had to substitute it for the previously announced Nixon in China. (You know that weird thing when you've never heard of something, and then you hear about it two or three times in as many days? This is sort of a double version.)

I didn't buy anything then, partly because I've been on a CD-buying binge and am trying to stop (maybe just one more! just one!) and partly because I was trying to decide if I wanted to hear The Crucible before seeing it -- if I'm going to an opera I'm unfamiliar with I will sometimes purposely avoid hearing the music or reading the libretto beforehand, just so I can discover it in the theater. So I went back to Amazon tonight, because I'm like an alcoholic who keeps walking past bars, and under their extremely helpful "More to Explore" categories, they suggested that since I had looked at The Crucible, I might also be interested in . . . Nixon in China! It's a small world.

A small, cruel world.

I have long suspected that the universe is designed to laugh at me, and I consider this convincing proof.

Ah, who knows, maybe when I see The Crucible I'll love it more than Nixon in China anyway. We'll see who laughs last. . . .