May 27, 2009
May 25, 2009
When posed the ethereal question of “What plans do you have for your next
life?” David Gockley pauses, considering an alternate existence as an
architect or professional basketball coach. Then he stops. “No,” he says, “I
would do this again."
“Managing the financial end is more difficult now, with the numbers
and what the numbers will buy,” Gockley said. “But every financial decision is an
artistic decision. I must create a balance to maintain a critical mass of
quality, attractiveness, attendance, funding ... to keep the whole thing moving
Earlier this month I wrote post criticizing SFO's cutbacks that in my opinion fell too heavily on the backs of the administrative staff (see "Smell the dirty laundry"). Gereben's fawning has prompted me to look for more stuff that stinks in SFO's numbers and it wasn't hard to find.
May 23, 2009
First up was Sibelius's Symphony No. 4. MTT offered a disclaimer of sorts complete with spoilers and samples before starting the music. I'm not the only person in the audience who didn't appreciate this, but we are probably in the minority. I think he should save that stuff for the 6.5 audience. The piece itself was well-performed, with a restraint that must have been difficult to achieve because the opportunities to go overboard are present at almost every turn. The horns sounded especially in sync with the tone of the work, something that hasn't been too common in the concerts I've heard lately, especially in the beautiful, lachrymose 3rd movement, which to my ears sounds very reminiscent of Puccini's "E lucevan le stelle" from Tosca. Tim Day's flute was simply gorgeous.
MTT said in his remarks, somewhat spinning Sibelius' own comments on the work, that "no one is prepared to offer a conclusive answer" as to what the music is about. Written against the idea "program music," Sibelius' 4th is regarded as being "austere" and "severe." I look at it another way: the composer is striving to get out from under Beethoven's shadow and in this piece I think he fails completely. Every movement seems to be written as a direct antithesis of Beethoven's 9th to the point where I found myself distracted by the dialogue the between the two.
The second work of the first half featured a commission by composer/DJ Mason Bates, The B-Sides. Featuring samples of Apollo 5 astronauts, a broom, a typewriter and a large orchestra, Bates manned his laptop as a member of the percussion section and gave the audience a vision of where contemporary classical music may be headed. The percussionists looked pretty happy to have him in their midst, though I sensed a more subdued response from the rest of the orchestra, as if the future had just dropped by unexpectedly and was now seated at the kitchen table and they were unsure if they should ask it to stay for dinner.
MTT was uncharacteristically subdued during the performance and it was hard for me to tell who was leading whom during all but one of the work's five sections. It almost seemed like duelling conductors, but I immensely enjoyed watching the breakdown of the traditional conductor/orchestra barrier. The nature of the work transformed the orchestra into something that was at once more cohesive yet also somewhat unsure of its role. It was a significant performance which I won't soon forget.
As for the music itself, it was pretty engaging, creating a musical kaleidoscope encompassing everything from Beck to Bernard Herrmann, though parts did remind me of the more ambient side of The Art of Noise, especially during "Aerosol Melody." The audience ate it up and gave Bates a huge ovation. I overheard one older gentleman enthusiastically exclaim afterward "now that's what contemporary music should sound like!" I have to say I admire the way Bates can forge a funk groove and make excellent use of a full orchestra in the same piece. Let's have more of this, please.
Yuja Wang joined the orchestra after the intermission to perform Prokofiev's 2nd Piano Concerto. On the orchestral side, the work features many of the elements one likes most about Prokofiev- those spidery, jumpy folk tunes jumping out of that make one want to move with the music without being aware of it. For the pianist it's simply a tour-de-force finger-buster. The cadenzas are two stops beyond over-the-top and could be easily be called gratuitous but that's what makes the piece fun.
Wang performed it with a dexterity and precision that was pretty much mind-boggling to watch and hear. However, I can't say she performed it with a lot of feeling, which may be the downside of being such an immensely talented musician at the age of 22. I would love to hear her perform this piece again at 10 year intervals so we can witness her interpretation being informed by her experiences. She received an extended, very loud, and I'd say well-deserved ovation. She's definitely a star and her future appearances should be considered be must-sees.
This was brilliant programming, and given the tremendous enthusiasm with which it was received, obviously appreciated by the audience. It should be noted far and wide that the most satisfying and electrifying SFS programs of this season have all featured contemporary works and female soloists. The world is changing right in front of us.
The final "After Hours" event of the season was held after the concert, which I'll cover in another post.
May 20, 2009
This week's performances feature pianist Yuja Wang performing Prokofiev's No. 2 concerto in G Minor, Sibelius' 4th symphony, and electronica composer/DJ Mason Bates performing his own work, The B-Sides, with the Symphony. If nothing else, these concerts should be interesting and are likely to fascinate with their contrasts. Additionally, Bates is going to be DJing the next Davies After Hours, scheduled for this Friday after the concert. These are well worth checking out after the show.
Then we roll into what I've been waiting for all year long- the three week Dawn to Twilight festival of Schubert and Berg, which is a feast of gorgeous and challenging music with some serious talent showing up to play a part- Michelle DeYoung, Yefim Bronfman, Gil Shaham, Laura Aiken (whose turn as the Angel in SF Opera's St. Francis is still one of the most indelible performances I've ever experienced), Julia Fischer and more.
Finally, the week of June 18th, there's the semi-staged production of Iolanthe.
Tickets for most of the performances are showing up on Goldstar. If you haven't gone to the Symphony yet this season, now's the time folks.
May 19, 2009
May 12, 2009
Now the idea of the whole correct pronunciation thing is condescending and snooty enough, especially when Die Entfurhung aus dem Serail, La Fille du Regiment and La Fanciulla del West have all been translated into English and their original titles are nowhere to be seen. But what's even worse, is that yes, there is a pronunciation snippet for Porgy and Bess! I didn't go through all of them (I'm not that bored), but the easy ones are all there- Tosca, Faust and Otello. Even Die Walkure gets it's proper pronunciation. Now the ones, that may actually have been helpful, if done in their native tongues (see above)- are all dead links. Click on them and you get- silence. Well, there is a pronunciation for La Fanciulla del West, in English (wtf?) and Italian, even though the window is mislabeled for Faust.
All together now Tos-ca. Oh-tell-oh. Faoost. Very good. Now, say Poor-ghee and Bhess.
The voice sounds like Kip Cranna's. That's too bad. He seems like such a nice guy. I can imagine him grimacing into the microphone when he had to do this nonsense.
And as of this writing, it still remains to be decided if there will be nudity in Salome. Say-oh-my.
May 11, 2009
May 9, 2009
In an email, a friend pointed out these kinds of cuts are taking place in every sector, which is obviously true. He also defended SFO's forays into new media as a pro-active move in the never-ending quest to expand the audience. Furthermore, the money was spent or committed before the economic meltdown, all of which is true. I can see the validity of this viewpoint. I'm just not impressed with the execution and its implications.
True or not, it doesn't change my opinion that a four-fold increase in media spending in one year, including spending on poorly thought-out programs, is simply reckless. Nor does it change the upcoming season, a masterclass in provincial, safe programming done as cheaply as possible but sold as "grand and glorious opera." I for one, would rather have bold and provocative opera, presented with a guerilla mentality in response to the current economic reality, that would have people excitedly talking about what was happening here.
Next season is going to be what it is, and certainly there will be some highlights and great performances emerging from the scheduled dross. On the plus side, Nadja Michael's Salome, Voigt's Minnie, the star-studded Trovatore and Die Walkure are all things to anticipate. Be that as it may, the most exciting art form on the planet is certainly not being moved in a forward direction by the West Coast's company with the most resources at its disposal to do just that.
May 7, 2009
Since I previously ranted about San Francisco Opera's million-dollar budget cut largely being carried out on the backs of their administrative staff, I thought I would do a little digging around to see what else is going on over there. It isn't pretty and those latest cuts come on top of some made last year at the expense of the same folks.
As a non-profit (i.e. charity) SFO is required to maintain open books as far as the financials go, so it's easy to see where the money's going, or in this case, being blown. I looked up the 2008 Final Audit for the company and the thing that seemed most incomprehensible to me were the media costs.
By their own definition, these are "Expenses related to the Association’s new electronic media department and activities,which include OperaVision, LobbyVision, radio broadcasts, simulcasts, cinemacasts and DVDs."
According to the company's financials, in fiscal year 2007 SFO spent $716,853 on these activites and items.
For 2008, the number was $3 ,876,204. The math: an increase of more than 3 million dollars. Yeah. A three million, one hundred-fifty nine thousand and change in a year. Can you say "wtf"?
And for what? Oh yes, let's review: OperaVision, LobbyVision, radio broadcasts, simulcasts, cinemacasts and DVDs. Tell me, San Francisco Opera enthusiasts- are high-def close-ups of singers for the cheap seats worth it? How about those mid-day, non-live cinemacasts at the Castro, which have already been dumped as a loser? What DVDs? What radio broadcasts? Do they mean those months-later leftovers that show up on the otherwise opera-void KDFC? That was worth 3 mil?
Now, I don't know how much of that figure goes for "Opera at the Ballpark," which I do think is a great and successful idea. But it's also probably underwritten all the way, and if not, more shame should be spread. So the question here, to my mind, is who the hell signed off on this and why?
Yeah, it's too late now to save that cash and the contributions to the 401ks of SFO's administrative staff, but didn't someone on the board do some due diligence? Who is responsible for keeping Gockley in check? And by the way, I don't mean to trash the board, because they have really stepped in with some cash lately, even though that's why they're on the board in the first place. But really. If you go to Charity Navigator and start comparing the efficeincy rates and salaries for opera companies across the U.S., I think the conclusion you'll draw will be close to my own. Look at Houston's (Gockley's former home for over thirty years with a miserable overall efficiency rate of just 37.66) numbers vs. the in-dire-seriously-straits NYCO's (a 60.05 rating) and you too may get the sinking feeling that SFO needs a new direction- and fast.
I'll post more on these numbers and my interpretation of them in future posts. In the meantime, if you want to dispute them, say I have no idea what I'm talking about, call me an ass, whatever, please do- by all means!
May 5, 2009
The Opera Tattler, always first on the scene with this kind of info, just posted the following bad news from the San Francisco Opera. Naturally I'm not privy to the insider workings over there, but I for one have to wonder what SFO's board is thinking at this point about the man in charge. You don't have to wonder what I'm thinking, however- I wish Gockley would go back to Texas. Tomorrow.
It was my understanding Gockley was hired on the strength of his fund-raising and glad-handing abilities (certainly it wasn't his artistic vision), and he quickly brought in some huge contributions. Now, obviously everyone's endowments have been hard hit during this recession, but the only response I'm seeing from SFO is to cut this and cut that, none of which makes for a long term plan nor anything improving what goes on the stage. Now they've issued a press release on saving the company a million bucks largely on the back of the administrative staff (who no doubt are already making less than what they would doing similar jobs in the for-profit world). Is this supposed to inspire confidence in the company's leadership or direction?
How about scrapping Moby Dick, holding raffles at the ballpark telecasts and Opera in the Park for a pair of front-row or center box tickets, eliminating the redundant mailings for subscribers, raising rates for the full-page real estate ads in the programs, creating a worthwhile CD/DVD sales program based on the upcoming season, selling eye-catching posters and T-Shirts and creating new revenue streams in the War Memorial and eliminating Gockley's annual vanity project aka the season preview cd?
Can't SFO find a million dollars in these simple and easily executed suggestions? Hey, at least I'm offering them for free.
May 3, 2009
I have yet to see a Yuri Possokhov work I haven't thoroughly enjoyed. Fusion, according to the program notes, is meant to represent the choreographer's "personal struggle he experienced as he left dancing behind and gave himself fully to choreography." Movement representing searching and flight, discovery and awareness came across the stage with vigor, accompanied by a score of Burman arranged by Golijov and Fitkin that was a perfect fit for the choreography. Sarah Van Patten, as usual, held my attention every moment she was onstage.
Ratmansky's Russian Seasons featured almost all of the Ballet's top talent A-Team and yet the presence of Yuan Yuan Tan, Lorena Feijoo, Pascal Molat, Damian Smith and Van Patten couldn't overcome the dreary music and uninspired ideas of the work. Unfortunately, it also included a running motif just like the one from Fusion, making me wonder if all of a sudden we were having a theme night I was unaware of. Broken into twelve parts of different combinations of dancers, the piece is meant to evoke themes of life's struggle in an earlier time in Russia that may or may not still exist. There was one high point during this piece for me: at one point Lorena Feijoo fell back into the arms of Aaron Orza, lifted her leg, causing the boring costume to slide back along her thigh. It was like suddenly seeing a gorgeous bird soaring against an ugly, gray sky.
Jorma Elo's Double Evil incorporates contemporary and modern dance movements allowing the dancers to just explode across the stage and have a good time. They looked like they were having a blast and their enthusiasm reached across the pit and captivated the audience. While there are certain movements and poses this piece utilizes that I don't find particularly flattering or beautiful for the women dancers (I call it the assisted rotating beaver display), it is good fun (with music by Phillip Glass, even!).
For this weekend's performances, I've read Russian Seasons was to be replaced by one of the Balanchine Jewels, because of, ahem, a dancer's illness. Hopefully this dancer will remain ill for the rest of the schedule and you'll be spared the trip to the Gulag.
May 1, 2009
Today's post was particularly interesting for the completely opposite interpretations of the audience's perception of Siegfried, with L.A.'s director Achim Freyer calling it the most "beloved" of the cycle and containing a straight line narrative while S.F./D.C.'s Francesca Zambello says it's the one people think they "have to sit through" and it's all about language.
N.Y.'s Otto Schenk says it's all drama while Seattle's Stephen Wadsworth says Act 1 is "chock-a-block full of action."
I'm not familiar with the Seattle Ring, but I know the Schenk production through DVDs, and I am attending the L.A. and S.F. productions as they unfurl and the three couldn't really be more different. So far, L.A.'s is far away the superior and rewarding experience, but these differing interpretations of the same opera do illustrate one of the greatest things about the art and why directors are so important to the medium.
The Opera Tattler and the scribe of Out West Arts are two of at least four bloggers I'm aware of currently attending the last cycle of the Met's Schenk Ring and their reviews are making me feel somewhat better for skipping this jaunt, though I would love to have a pastrami sandwich this morning