Saturday, November 1, 2008

21ST-CENTURY MUSIC / November 2008


November 2008

Volume 15, Number 11

Work-in-Progress, October 3, 2008

Mauricio Kagel (1931-2008) / Mark Alburger

Rick Wright (1943-2008) / Phillip George

Bernstein Bounce / Mark Alburger

Roll Dem Bones / Mark Alburger

Calendar for November 2008

Chronicle of September 2008

Illustration / Mauricio Kagel

Editorial Staff

Mark Alburger

Harriet March Page

Patti Noel Deuter

Erling Wold

Alexis Alrich
Katherine Buono
Ken Bullock
David Cleary
Jeff Dunn
Phillip George
Brian Holmes
Jeff Kaliss
John Lane
Michael McDonagh
Tom Moore
William Rowland
Andrew Shapiro


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Mauricio Kagel (1931-2008) / Mark Alburger

Mauricio Kagel (December 24, 1931 - September 18, 2008) was born into a Jewish family which fled from Russia in the 1920's. He studied music, history of literature, and philosophy at the University of Buenos Aires.

In 1957, he came as a scholar to Cologne, Germany, where he lived until his death. From 1960 he taught at the International Summer School at Darmstadt.

Kagel taught at the State University of New York at Buffalo from 1964 to 1965 as Slee Professor of music theory and at the Berlin Film and Television Academy as a visiting lecturer. He served as director of courses for new music in Gothenburg and Cologne.

Many of his pieces give specific theatrical instructions to the performers, such as to adopt certain facial expressions while playing, to make their stage entrances in a particular way, and to physically interact with other performers. His work has often been compared to the Theatre of the Absurd, including such pieces as Match (1966), a tennis game for cellists with a percussionist as umpire.

In the radio play Ein Aufnahmezustand (1969), the incidents surrounding the recording of a radio play turn out to be the work itself .

Kagel also made films, including Ludwig van (1970), a critical interrogation of the uses of Beethoven's music made during the bicentenary of the elder composer's birth. In it, a reproduction of a Beethoven composing studio is seen, as part of a fictive visit of the Beethovenhaus in Bonn. Everything in it is papered with sheet music of Ludwig's pieces. The soundtrack of the film is a piano playing the music as it appears in each shot. Because the music has been wrapped around curves and edges, it is somewhat distorted, but recognizable exceprts can still be heard. In other parts, the film contains parodies of radio or TV broadcasts connected with the Beethoven Year 1770.

Kagel later turned the film into a composition which could be performed without the film -- the score consists of close-ups of various areas of the studio, which are to be interpreted by performer[s].

Staatstheater (1970) also demonstrates Kagel's absurdist tendency. The work is described as a "ballet for non-dancers," though in many ways it more resembles an opera, with musical instruments including chamber pots and enema equipment. In the spirit of Ein Aufnahmezustand, as Staatstheater progresses, the piece itself, as well as opera and ballet become its subject matter.

Other pieces include Con Voce (With Voice) (1972), where a masked trio silently mimes playing instruments, and Match (1966), a tennis game for cellists with a percussionist as umpire.

He was professor for new music theatre at the Cologne Conservatory from 1974 to 1997.

Kagel also wrote a large number of more conventional pieces, including music for orchestra, chamber ensembles, and films.

Rick Wright (1943-2008) / Phillip George

[Pink Floyd in the 1970's: Rick Wright, David Gilmour, Nick Mason, Roger Waters]

Rick [Richard William] Wright (July 28, 1943 – September 15, 2008, London, UK) was a keyboardist best known as a founding member of Pink Floyd.

Wright's richly textured keyboard layers were a vital ingredient and a distinctive characteristic of Pink Floyd's sound. In addition, he frequently sang background and occasionally lead vocals onstage and in the studio with Pink Floyd (notably on the songs Time and Astronomy Domine).

Though not as prolific a songwriter as fellow band members Roger Waters (bass) and David Gilmour (guitar), Wright wrote significant parts of Meddle, The Dark Side of the Moon, Wish You Were Here, and The Division Bell.

Wright was born in London and educated at the Haberdashers' Aske's School and the Regent Street Polytechnic College of Architecture, where he met future associates Waters and Nick Mason (drums).

He married his first wife, Juliette Gale, in 1964, and had two children with her, Jamie and Gala.

Wright was a founding member of The Pink Floyd Sound in 1965, and also participated in its previous incarnations, Sigma 6 and The (Screaming) Abdabs.

In the early days of Pink Floyd, the keyboardist was a prominent musical force in the group (although not as much as Syd Barrett, the band’s chief songwriter and front man at the time) and he wrote and sang several songs of his own during 1967-1968. While not credited as a singer on The Piper at the Gates of Dawn, he sang lead on Barret's Astronomy Domine and Matilda Mother, and harmonies on Scarecrow and Chapter 24. His early songs included Remember a Day, Paintbox, and It Would Be So Nice.

As the sound and the goals of the band evolved, Wright became less interested in songwriting and focused primarily on contributing a distinctive style to extended instrumental pieces such as Interstellar Overdrive, A Saucerful of Secrets, Careful with That Axe, Eugene, and One Of These Days. and to musical themes for film scores (More, Zabriskie Point, and Obscured by Clouds).

He also made essential contributions to Pink Floyd's long works such as Atom Heart Mother and Echoes (on which he sang lead vocals) His four compositional collaborations on The Dark Side of the Moon (1973) were Breathe (with Gilmour and Waters), Time (with the previous and Mason, singing lead vocals on alternated verses with the guitarist), The Great Gig in the Sky (with Clare Torry, after she won a legal battle against Pink Floyd), Us and Them (with Waters), and Any Colour You Like (with Gilmour and Mason).

Wright is also credited as composer, with Gilmour and Waters, of the nine-part Shine On You Crazy Diamond, from Wish You Were Here, noting

"It's hard to say but it just happens to be the album for me that from the moment it starts 'til it finishes, it flows, the songs flow into each other and it just has a wonderful feeling in it" [In the Studio with Redbeard, March 1994],


"It's an album I can listen to for pleasure. And there aren't many of the Floyd's albums that I can say that about" [Pink Floyd Legends, 2001].

Wright recorded his first solo project, Wet Dream in September 1978. Battling both personal problems and an increasingly rocky relationship with Roger Waters, he was forced to resign from Pink Floyd during The Wall sessions by Waters, who threatened to pull the plug on the album's tapes if Wright did not leave the band. However, he was retained as a salaried session musician during the subsequent live concerts to promote that album in 1980 and 1981.

Ironically, Wright became the only member of Pink Floyd to profit from those hugely spectacular shows, since the net financial loss had to be borne by the three remaining "full-time" members. He was the only member of the band not to attend the 1982 premiere of the film version of The Wall. He and wife Juliet divorced in that same year.

In 1983, Pink Floyd released the only album on which Wright does not appear with The Final Cut.

During 1984, Wright formed a new musical duo with Dave Harris (from the band Fashion) called Zee. They signed a record deal with Atlantic Records and released only one album, Identity. This was also the year of his second marriage, to Franka

Wright rejoined Pink Floyd following Waters's departure. Because of legal and contractual issues from his "hired gun" status during The Wall world tour, Wright's photo was not included in the 1987 album A Momentary Lapse of Reason and his name was listed in smaller letters than Mason and Gilmour. By the time of the Momentary Lapse world tour and the 1988 live album The Delicate Sound of Thunder, Wright was contractually a member of Pink Floyd once again.

Wright and Franka divorced in 1994, the year in which he co-wrote five songs and sang lead vocals on one song (Wearing the Inside Out) for The Division Bell. This recording provided material for the double live album and video release P*U*L*S*E in 1995. Wright, like Nick Mason, performed on every Pink Floyd tour.

In 1996, inspired by his successful input into The Division Bell, Wright released his second solo album, Broken China, including contributions from vocalist Sinéad O'Connor, guitaristsDominic Miller (known from his guitar work with Sting) and Tim Renwick (another Pink Floyd, bassist Pino Palladino, and drummer Manu Katché.

Wright married his third wife Millie (to whom he dedicated Broken) in that year. Their only child is named Ben. Also in 1996, Wright's daughter Gala married Guy Pratt, a session musician who has played bass for Pink Floyd since Roger Waters's exit.

On July 2, 2005, Wright, Gilmour, Mason were joined by Waters on stage for the first time since The Wall concerts for a short set at the Live 8 concert in London. Wright underwent eye surgery for cataracts in November 2005, preventing him from attending Pink Floyd's induction into the UK Music Hall of Fame. Roger Waters, who was also unable to attend the band's induction due to rehearsals for the opening of his opera Ça Ira in Rome, appeared in video link and stated, tongue-in-cheek:

“Rick actually hasn't had an eye operation, he and I have eloped to Rome and we're living happily in a small apartment off the Via Venuti!”

Wright contributed keyboards and background vocals to Gilmour's On an Island, and performed with the latter's touring band for over two dozen shows in Europe and North America in 2006.

Wright died of an undisclosed form of cancer in his home in Britain on September 15, 2008 at 65. At the time of his death, he had been working on a new solo album, which was thought to comprise a series of instrumental pieces.

David Gilmour noted:

No one can replace Richard Wright. He was my musical partner and my friend. In the welter of arguments about who or what was Pink Floyd, Rick's enormous input was frequently forgotten. He was gentle, unassuming and private but his soulful voice and playing were vital, magical components of our most recognised Pink Floyd sound. I have never played with anyone quite like him. The blend of his and my voices and our musical telepathy reached their first major flowering in 1971 on Echoes. In my view all the greatest PF moments are the ones where he is in full flow. After all, without Us and Them and The Great Gig In The Sky, both of which he wrote, what would The Dark Side Of The Moon have been? Without his quiet touch the album Wish You Were Here would not quite have worked. In our middle years, for many reasons he lost his way for a while, but in the early 90's, with The Division Bell, his vitality, spark and humour returned to him and then the audience reaction to his appearances on my tour in 2006 was hugely uplifting and it's a mark of his modesty that those standing ovations came as a huge surprise to him, (though not to the rest of us). Like Rick, I don't find it easy to express my feelings in words, but I loved him and will miss him enormously.

Roger Waters's website displayed a picture as a tribute, showing an array of candles and poppies against a black background. Waters stated:

I was very sad to hear of Rick's premature death, I knew he had been ill, but the end came suddenly and shockingly. My thoughts are with his family, particularly [his children] Jamie and Gala and their mum Juliet, who I knew very well in the old days, and always liked very much and greatly admired. As for the man and his work, it is hard to overstate the importance of his musical voice in the Pink Floyd of the 60's and 70's. The intriguing, jazz influenced, modulations and voicings so familiar in Us and Them and Great Gig in the Sky, which lent those compositions both their extraordinary humanity and their majesty, are omnipresent in all the collaborative work the four of us did in those times. Rick's ear for harmonic progression was our bedrock. I am very grateful for the opportunity that Live 8 afforded me to engage with him and David [Gilmour] and Nick [Mason] that one last time. I wish there had been more.

Pink Floyd drummer Nick Mason told Entertainment Weekly:

Like any band, you can never quite quantify who does what. But Pink Floyd wouldn’t have been Pink Floyd if [we] hadn’t had Rick. I think there’s a feeling now -- particularly after all the warfare that went on with Roger and David trying to make clear what their contribution was -- that perhaps Rick rather got pushed into the background. Because the sound of Pink Floyd is more than the guitar, bass, and drum thing. Rick was the sound that knitted it all together... He was by far the quietest of the band, right from day one. And, I think, probably harder to get to know than the rest of us... It's almost that George Harrison thing. You sort of forget that they did a lot more than perhaps they’re given credit for.

Bernstein Bounce / Mark Alburger

The Democratic and Republican National Conventions both provided "bounce" for their respective nominees Barack Obama and John McCain. Similarly, the opening gala of the 2008-2009 season, on September 3 at Davies Hall, proved likewise for candidates Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, in a bouncy program that featured music by Leonard Bernstein, Sergei Rachmaninoff, and Leo Delibes.

The compositional front runner was unquestionably Bernstein's popular Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story", a perennial favorite that reminds us of just how important this composer and this work are and were to the American scene. Even a quick google can make a telling comparison, in terms of number of internet citations as of today (September 9):

Leonard Bernstein 2,870,000
Aaron Copland 1,110,000

West Side Story 5,130,000
Appalachian Spring 209,000

Certainly Bernstein's West Side Story would trounce Copland's Appalachian Spring (possibly the most-referenced American work in criticism, programming, and textbooks) in any musical Electoral College. And what Thomas and the Symphony reminded us was that WSS is appropriate not only for gala and pops concerts, but for any place and time, as a composition of beauty, depth, and energy. If the composer received assistance in its orchestration (by top orchestrators Sid Ramin and Irwin Kostal), surely this points simply to Broadway deadlines, as, ironically, the work sounds as quintessentially Bernsteinian as anything Lenny ever wrote.

Styled as a series of nine attacca numbers, the Symphonic Dances feature much, yet not all, of the most arresting sections of the musical, as the entire evening's entertainment clearly has engaging music to burn (such memorable pieces as America, Maria, and Officer Krupke never make it out of the caucuses, for instance). What survives -- Prologue, Somewhere, Scherzo, Mambo, Cha-Cha, Meeting Scene, Cool Fugue, Rumble, and Finale -- makes for festive suite that proved the high point of the proceedings.

Also a contender was the Piano Concerto No. 3 of Rachmaninoff, with Yefim Bronfman on the docket. While not as immediately engaging as this fine conservative composer's second essay in the genre, the work certainly has its advocates, such as both the conductor and the soloist, who both blazed their way through blizzards of notes on this balmy night. If the work meanders a bit, there is much pleasure in the wanderings, and the finale evokes a romp along with the best of them.

The opener opened with Delibes's Cortege de Bacchus from Sylvia, featuring heroic brass fanfares and resonant string passage work.

Unlike the political rallies, however, the opener failed to provide us with any contemporary notions of diversity beyond the expected male European-American dominance. And, while the performers were certainly lively, the composers were, as is so often the case, all dead -- casting programming Music Director Thomas in an aesthetic position way to the right of a musical Sarah Palin.

Roll Dem Bones / Mark Alburger

Opera is always a gamble, and the more players, the more risk.

So it is no surprise that The Bonesetter's Daughter, a new roll of the operatic die by composer Stewart Wallace and librettist Amy Tan, commissioned and presented by San Francisco Opera (September 13 through October 3 at the War Memorial) is somewhat of a crap shoot -- an uneven work of high-rolling musical-theatrical fireworks and less-than-engaging table time.

Certainly it is a committed production. From the opening cavalcade of orchestral effects, graced by sona oboes (not trumpets, as erroneously designated in the program), everything is in place to astound. Wallace's score is appealing throughout, showing plenty of Western chutzpah in evoking matters Eastern in a world where the likes of Tan Dun and Chen Yi find their natural voices) -- this is perhaps not surprising, given the composer's previous success in Harvey Milk, where he demonstrated, as here, remarkable "suction-cup ears" (a recent characterization in the New York Times of peer Howard Shore's LA Opera endeavor, The Fly).

With flying Chinese acrobats (suspended on cables from the flies), stunning sets by Walt Spangler, winning vocal contributions by such artists as Zheng Cao (as Ruth Young Kamen), Ning Liang (LuLing Liu Young), Quian Yi (Precious Antie), James Maddalena (Art Kamen), and Hao Jiang Tian (Chang the Coffinmaker) there is much to enjoy.

But the story remains problematic. The opening "Fountain Court Chinese Restaurant, San Francisco, February 1997," while graced with wonderful projections (Leigh Haas) and costumes (Han Feng), veers (as does the whole show) between banality and pomposity. The seeming attempts to transform the ordinary into the archetypal and noble -- as so well achieved in, say, John Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men -- seems to elude the creators here.

The great climax of this story, where the villian Chang (who, as can be the case, has some of the greatest music and scenes here) gets his comeuppance, turns out to be a castration and descent into the pit. Hmm, we all showed up in our fancy clothes for this?

The last scene "A Hospital Room, San Francisco, 1997" (coming after the flashbacks "Immortal Heart, a small village on the outskirts of Beijing, late 1930's" and "Hong Kong Habor, 1940's") seems a tedious hit-us-over-the-head, with its protracted spelling out of reconcilliation. We got it, already.

Still, there was enough to take in and marvel that it was a pleasure to attend this, the most ballyhooed San Francisco Opera event of the season. Congrats to General Manager David Gockley, Director and Choreographer Chen Shi-Zheng, Conductor Steven Sloane, the assembled company of artists, and of course to creators Wallace and Tan. May we have more such talked-about evenings of new music drama!

Calendar for November 2008

November 7

San Francisco Cabaret Opera in Mark Alburger's Antigone, John Bilata's Quantum Mechanic, and Amy Beth Kirsten's Ophelia Forever. The Next Stage, San Francisco, CA. Repeated 11/8; also 11/14 (Chapel of the Chimes, Oakland) and 11/15 Temple United Methodist Church (San Francisco).

November 8

San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra. Old First Church, San Francisco, CA.

Chronicle of September 2008

September 5

San Francisco Cabaret Opera presents excerpts from Mark Alburger's Mice and Men. Community Music Center, San Francisco, CA. Repeated 9/6, 12, and 14.

September 7

American premiere production of Howard Shore’s The Fly. Los Angeles Opera, Los Angeles, CA. Through 9/17. "Given its location, it makes sense for Los Angeles Opera, of all companies, to recruit creative talents from the film industry to try their hands at energizing opera. This has certainly been a priority for Plácido Domingo as the company’s general director . . . With a libretto by the playwright David Henry Hwang, the opera is based on the director David Cronenberg’s 1986 film, for which [Howard] Shore wrote the music. Mr. Cronenberg, working closely with Mr. Shore, directed this opera, a co-production with the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, where the work had its world premiere in July. But despite the inventive staging and all-out efforts of an admirable cast -- especially the courageous performance of the Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch as Seth Brundle, the obsessed scientist who morphs into the hideous creature he calls Brundlefly -- The Fly is a ponderous and enervating opera, and the problem is Mr. Shore’s music. Mr. Shore’s scores for films like The Silence of the Lambs and, more recently, Mr. Cronenberg’s Eastern Promises evince his indisputable skills, keen ear for harmony and feeling for instrumental color. And moment to moment there are intriguing qualities in The Fly. As the opera begins, the ominous mood is introduced through pungent, elusive and quietly restless chords spiked with prickly dissonance. Film composers, who need to work in all manner of styles, tend to develop suction-cup ears, and Mr. Shore shows off his with music that recalls everything from Berg to Bartok and a swath of classic movie scores. But considering that Mr. Shore has worked on some feverishly intense films, his writing here is curiously tame. Singers exchanging dialogue in winding vocal lines are often accompanied by chords that pass by with strangely metronomic regularity, while a meandering counter-line in the lower strings is tossed in to keep things tense. A large contingent of offstage and onstage choristers portray guests at a party for science writers, boisterous regulars at a pool hall and others. But the choral writing is terribly ineffective. Words are typically set in block chords, with pummeling rhythms . . . . The most exasperating stretches of the score come when Mr. Shore is most somber. Wandering vocal lines intertwine with every-which-way instrumental lines that skirt tonality, while sustained orchestral harmonies provide a static support. With hints of 12-tone rows and Bergian richness, the music shows signs of Mr. Shore’s craft in almost every measure. But it never adds up. It’s as if Mr. Shore had abandoned his cinematic imagination to write a dutifully contemporary opera. Mr. Domingo conducted. The score is outside the realm of the standard repertory works he has mostly led. The performance he elicited seemed fairly assured and texturally balanced. Still, a conductor with real credentials in contemporary music might have made a better case for Mr. Shore’s work. . . . The opera is based not just on Mr. Cronenberg’s film, which was set in the 1980s, but also on the original short story from 1957 by George Langelaan. The setting has been moved back to the late 1950's. As depicted by the set designer Dante Ferretti, the computer in Brundle’s lab that connects the two huge teleports he has invented is a big, old-fashioned thing with knobs, lights and control panels. . . . In the opera we are simply told about Brundle’s eating habits in one of those clunky, offstage choruses, voicing the thoughts of the computer. But the conception of Brundle, at least as portrayed by Mr. Okulitch, has poignant allure. . . . At one point in Act II, Mr. Okulitch, his skin now covered in hideous scales, is suspended by wires. He enters his studio upside down, crawling along a ceiling crossbeam and then slithering head-first down a metal column, singing all the while. This is something voice students are not prepared for in conservatory training. Mr. Okulitch, who has a warm and lyrical voice, sings with conviction, intelligence and volatility. His voice is not large, and he is sometimes drowned out, though that may be the fault of Mr. Shore’s sometimes misgauged orchestration or Mr. Domingo’s conducting. The lovely Romanian mezzo-soprano Ruxandra Donose sings Veronica, the most dramatically pivotal role, with vulnerability, quiet intensity and lush colorings. She too takes risks with her portrayal. Wearing just a slip in an intimate romantic scene with Mr. Okulitch, she writhes with pleasure as he fondles her breasts and strokes her crotch. It’s hard to imagine even a go-for-broke artist from earlier times, like Teresa Stratas, consenting to such a thing. For better or worse, opera is breaking new ground. . . Now and then the music grabs you, as in an extended love duet for Brundle and Veronica. Finally, here are captivating lyrical phrases that flow with halting, elusive restraint, cushioned by bittersweet orchestral harmonies. Mr. Shore has clear strengths as a composer and may have a good opera in him. The Fly is not it" [Anthony Tommasini, 9/8/08].

September 9

Gustav Mahler’s sprawling, 80-minute Symphony No. 8 ("Of a Thousand”) scored for a massive orchestra, two choruses and nine vocal soloists. Hollywood Bowl, Los Angeles, CA. "Esa-Pekka Salonen conducted the Los Angeles Philharmonic in a vibrant performance of this ecstatic and metaphysical work . . . on a balmy night. . . . [I]t was refreshing and moving to hear the piece at one of the world’s largest amphitheaters before an enthusiastic audience. . . . Both this facility, which opened in 1922 but has gone through several renovations since then, and the scene this concert generated were fascinating. . . . The Los Angeles Philharmonic offers a summer series, and there are also concerts by the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra. The seating area can accommodate 18,000 people, and some seats are in small boxes where makeshift tables can be set up for a picnic dinner. . . The Mahler performance attracted 9,128, according to the Bowl’s tally. In the park outside the Bowl before the concert, the mood was festive, with snack bars, restaurants and musical groups . . . . To make the immense stage and seating area feel more intimate, there are two enormous video screens on either side of the proscenium, carrying close-up images of the performers and, on this night, English subtitles to translate the Latin and German texts. . . . Salonen led an urgent, sweeping and nuanced account of the score. The piece was dubbed the 'Symphony of a Thousand' by the agent who arranged its 1910 premiere in Munich, conducted by Mahler. For that first performance Mahler assembled a roster of choristers and orchestra players that numbered just over 1,000. But he disliked the nickname and the 'Barnum & Bailey methods' used in promoting the work, as he wrote at the time. . . . Mahler might have been touched by the populist trappings of this concert and the sight of thousands of people enjoying dinners of roasted chicken, pasta, salad and wine, and then turning their attention to a symphony that juxtaposes the sacred and the secular, eternal life and eternal love, as Mahler described it. . . . Salonen had a more manageable roster of performers: the 100-member Los Angeles Master Chorale (Grant Gershon, music director); the 75-member Los Angeles Children’s Chorus (Anne Tomlinson, artistic director); the Philharmonic, 122 players strong; and the 8 vocal soloists, for a total of 305. . . . Mahler recalled in an account of the work’s genesis that he composed it in, for him, an astoundingly short burst of creative inspiration, mostly in 1906. “I saw the whole piece immediately before my eyes, and only needed to write it down, as though it were being dictated to me,” he wrote. There is little trace of the tortured, bitterly ironic Mahler in this work, perhaps his least convoluted and most openhearted symphony. Mr. Salonen’s performance managed to convey the piece as a whole, as a cogent entity. While the sudden emotional shifts of the music came through, both the passages of ruminative quiet and the tumultuous outbursts, so did the compelling narrative arc. . . The soloists were excellent: the sopranos Christine Brewer, Elza van den Heever and Stacey Tappan; the altos Nancy Maultsby and Elena Manistina; the tenor Anthony Dean Griffey; the baritone Alan Held; and the bass John Relyea. And Mr. Salonen seemed elated by the audience’s ovation. . . . [These] are his last concerts at the Hollywood Bowl as the Philharmonic’s music director: he steps down next spring, at the end of the season" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 9/10/08].

September 11

Robert Ward's The Crucible (after Arthur Miller). Dicapo Opera Theater, New York, NY. "The Crucible, Arthur Miller’s searing play about the 1692 Salem witch trials -- an allegory about Senator Joseph R. McCarthy and anti-Communist witch hunts -- was only eight years old when Robert Ward completed his Pulitzer Prize-winning operatic setting, in 1961. And with the Kennedy era just dawning (brief as that dawn turned out to be), the McCarthy era was still fresh in the national memory. The Dicapo Opera Theater’s spare but powerful revival of Mr. Ward’s score . . . was enough to make you nostalgic for that fleeting moment when new theater and new opera were socially relevant and could make common cause. It remains a powerful work. The McCarthy hearings may be nearly six decades behind us, but orthodoxies of all kinds continue to be corrosive. Mr. Ward’s work, with a libretto by Bernard Stambler, requires a large cast of townswomen, their husbands, a couple of preachers, a slave and a judge, as well as the young girls who, with a variety of unhealthy motives, denounce the women as witches. It is, mostly, an ensemble opera: the real beauty, tension and drama are found in crowded scenes, where characters with conflicting agendas create a rich, fast-moving vocal fabric. Even in the second act, a long confrontation between John Proctor and Abigail Williams, his former mistress and his wife’s accuser, the solo writing for the characters is more like an expansive duet than a series of arias. Throughout, Mr. Ward’s orchestration is vivid, rhythmically vital and melodically eclectic, with folkish vocal settings intertwined with a gently angular modernism. Pacien Mazzagatti’s conducting mined these characteristics astutely. Robert Alfoldi’s production, with its minimal sets by John Farrell and Puritanically colorless costumes by Sandor Daroczi, accomplishes much with little. The symbolism of the shallow pits in which much of the action takes place is clear enough, and white face paint gives the townspeople a ghoulish look: the accusers, the accused and the judges are all spiritually dead. The singing was uniformly strong, with Zeffin Quinn Hollis and Lisa Chavez working in tandem as a pained, sympathetic John and Elizabeth Proctor; Marie-Adeline Henry as a strikingly powerful Abigail, more misguided than malevolent; and Katherine Keyes as a rich-voiced Rebecca Nurse, the moral pillar of the piece. Michael Bracegirdle was a magnificently imperious Judge Danforth, and in smaller roles, Lynne Abeles (as Mary Warren), Matthew Lau (Rev. Hale), Nicole Farbes-Lyons (Tituba) and David Gagnon (Rev. Parris) contributed ably to Mr. Ward’s intense mosaic" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 9/12/08].

September 12

Douglas Geers's Calling: An Opera of Forgiveness, whose libretto is based on Wickham Boyle's A Mother’s Essays From Ground Zero. La MaMa E.T.C., New York, NY. "In the first scene, “Blue Sky,” singers enter the bare stage area from throughout the theater, intoning the words of the title over a tremulous accompaniment. . . . A tense undercurrent in the music builds to a sudden whine from Mr. Geers’s computer. As faces turn upward, sounds cease, and overhead lights go out. The cast is frozen in silhouette against a somber, blue-lighted backdrop. After an extended silence the vocalists stagger into motion, to fumbling lines on violin and cello. . . . Geers’s music, a tonal vocabulary punctuated with fidgets and squeals, aptly conveys contradictory moods, though it seldom asserts a character as personal as that of Ms. Boyle’s words. Several scenes feature the wordless chants and sighs characteristic of much post-Philip Glass opera. In the Apartment, in which the mother and father debate retrieving their younger daughter from a school near the towers, verges on musical-theater melodrama. In Empty Socket and The Clean Up, family members and relief workers declaim lines rather than singing them. A small ensemble, positioned to one side of the stage area and conducted by Hiroya Miura, played with polish and confidence. Another conductor, Carl Bettendorf, helped to coordinate the vocalists from a seat near the opposite wall. . . . Minor rough edges aside, “Calling” admirably translates Ms. Boyle’s singular observations of horror and hope into a genuinely touching theatrical experience" [Steve Smith, The New York Times, 9/15/08].

September 13

San Francisco Opera premieres Stewart Wallace's The Bonesetter’s Daughter, with a libretto by Amy Tan. War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, CA. Mr. Wallace and Ms. Tan essentially wrote the piece in tandem, scene by scene. Their work involved several trips to China over three years, immersing themselves in the music of ethnic minorities and observing village funerals and weddings. The concept of the opera took on a more mythical dimension when the Chinese-born director and choreographer Chen Shi-Zheng became involved. And David Gockley, general director of the San Francisco Opera, who commissioned the work, also had a hand in shaping it. . . . And whatever anyone’s reaction to the piece (I had mixed feelings), it is certainly a work of total theater. Mr. Wallace incorporates aspects of Chinese music, including Hong Kong film scores, into his Western contemporary classical style. The music is so bound to the libretto, visuals, choreography and special effects that it is impossible to assess the quality of Mr. Wallace’s score on its own. It took him nine months, but Mr. Wallace convinced Ms. Tan, who was hesitant about the project at first, that her generational story of three Chinese women who are all, in different ways, searching for their voices, cried out for music. The main character is the American-born Ruth Young Kamen, who lives in San Francisco in the 1990s, married to Art Kamen, whose two daughters from a previous marriage resent their ethnic stepmother. Ruth works as a ghostwriter. So she is used to submerging her voice into that of her clients. Her immigrant mother, LuLing, is disgruntled and controlling, filled with unspoken resentments, yet tenaciously connected to her daughter. In childhood LuLing worked as a laborer in an ink-making studio in a village outside Beijing. She has long spoken with equal measures of reverence and guilt about the woman who reared her, Precious Auntie, the daughter of a renowned bonesetter, who mended broken limbs and collected precious dragon bones, as they were called, relics carved with sacred inscriptions or ground into potions for healing. Though LuLing grew up thinking Precious Auntie was just her nursemaid, she discovers that this facially disfigured and mute woman who communicates through grunts and hand gestures is actually her mother. In the novel Ruth learns the truth by reading LuLing’s diary. In the opera Precious Auntie first appears as a surreal and entrancing ghost, leading Ruth back into her mother’s youth in the 1930's. The mezzo-soprano who sings Ruth, Zheng Cao, symbolically becomes her mother during these pivotal flashback scenes, a conceptual twist more operatic, if also more melodramatic, than the novel. But the device allowed Mr. Wallace, Ms. Tan and the production team to enhance the work’s mysticism. This is a story about the pervasive impact of family history on an individual. And music is very handy for tapping into subliminal emotions. But the opera’s mystical dimension is overblown. The prologue, set in a timeless void, begins startlingly with the wonderfully reedy braying of two suonas, Chinese instruments that resemble oboes. Imagine the jazzman Steve Lacy evoking ethnic Chinese music with his wailing soprano saxophone. But when the three main characters -- Ruth, her mother and her grandmother -- appear and begin singing an ethereal trio amid billowing, ghostly stage fog, the vocal lines meander and the orchestra gets stuck in repetitive eight-note ostinato patterns, with thick-layered sustained harmonies quivering above. . . . Mr. Wallace’s. . . best-known wor [is], the 1995 opera Harvey Milk . . . [B]y immersing himself in Chinese music, he seems to have given a fresh, pungent jolt to his musical voice, at least in the score’s most effective episodes. He . . . let the Chinese sources influence him without directly quoting anything" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 9/14/08].

American premiere of Iannis Xenakis’s "sharp-edged, otherworldly" opera Oresteia. Miller Theatre, Columbia University, New York, NY. "Xenakis composed the core of the work as incidental music for a staging of that Aeschylus trilogy in Ypsilanti, MI, in 1966 and recast it as a concert suite in 1967. In 1987 he expanded it significantly, adding a long Kassandra section for bass and percussion. And in 1992 he added the finale, La Déesse Athéna (which is sometimes performed separately). What was heard at Miller was the first American performance of the final version. But given how compressed Mr. Xenakis’s gloss on this complex ancient story is, you get the impression that if he hadn’t died in 2001, he might still be adding to it. The 1987 and 1992 additions fill out considerable stretches of the story, which begins at the close of the Trojan War and touches on Agamemnon’s return with Cassandra, the captured daughter of the King of Troy, as well as the murder of them both by his wife, Clytemnestra. The matricidal vengeance taken by Agamemnon’s son, Orestes, is mentioned in passing, and the work ends with Athena’s establishment of mortal justice and her conversion of the Furies into the more benign Eumenides. Possibly because the work began as incidental music, a familiarity with the Aeschylus plays is presumed. It isn’t absolutely necessary: Oresteia works powerfully on its own terms. But having some background helps. The libretto alludes fleetingly to important events that are not otherwise discussed or enacted, and it must seem bizarrely cryptic to anyone who doesn’t know the story. In truth, Oresteia is less an opera than a hybrid oratorio and ballet. The choruses convey much of the drama in a highly stylized, changeable language that at first has the rhythmic and melodic character of church chant and later takes on a freer, more idiosyncratic accent that, combined with the text in ancient Greek, conveys a modernist’s vision of a starkly elemental, nuance-averse ancient ritual. The only solo vocal music is in the Kassandra and “Déesse Athéna” sections, and they are as idiosyncratic as can be: in the first, the bass switches between his natural voice and falsetto to produce a dialogue between Agamemnon and Cassandra; in the second, he sings as the goddess Athena, leaping between basso depths and falsetto heights: why limit a goddess to the vocal range of a mortal woman? Wilbur Pauley, the soloist at Miller, gave a vital account of these sections, with magnificent support from David Schotzko, the percussionist. Mr. Schotzko had plenty to do through the rest of the score as well, where the percussion is prominent in an ensemble of woodwinds, brass and a single cello. Mr. Xenakis’s scoring is ruggedly dissonant, with harsh quarter-tone chords, sliding sitarlike cello lines and screaming clarinets and oboes describing the tensions only hinted at in the spare libretto. The orchestral music also goes a long way toward describing the action, which is brought to life not by the singers, as in a conventional opera, but by six lithe dancers. Luca Veggetti, who directed and choreographed the production, found a fine, expressive balance between fluidity and jaggedness, modern sensibility and imagined antiquity. Pascal Delcey’s projected artworks, which melted into one another on a screen to the side of the stage, offered similar juxtapositions. With Steven Osgood conducting, the International Contemporary Ensemble and the three choirs — a men’s chorus, a women’s chorus and the Young People’s Chorus of New York City — performed the music with ample polish and not the least restraint. Mr. Osgood and his musicians understand Mr. Xenakis’s quirky, vibrant writing, and they make it exhilarating" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 14/08].

September 14

Memorial Event for Jorge Liderman: Tropes V (Jackie Chow, piano), Tiempo Viejo (Florian Conzetti, percussion), Aires de Sefarad(Matt Gould, guitar and Beth Ilana, violin), Antigone Furiosa (film clip), and Swirling Streams (Berkeley Contemproary Chamber Players).
Hertz Hall, University of California, Berkeley, CA.

Movado Hour. Pavel Muzijevic, Robert Spano, Tomas Sherwood, and Charles Sette in a program including John Cage's In a Landscape (1948), George Crumb's Music for A Summer Evening (Makrokosmos, Volume III), and Steve Reich's Clapping Music. Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York, NY. "This is a side of Cage you don’t hear often, and you would be hard pressed to identify it as his work. Its textures are gentle, rippling, vaguely Debussian, with simple melodies weaving through a tissue of arpeggiated, diatonic noodling. How odd to think that as a young composer, Cage wrote music that could today be mistaken as the New Age meandering of George Winston. "Mr. Sherwood and Mr. Settle took the floor -- the large studio in which the Baryshnikov Center offers its concerts doesn’t have a stage -- for a performance of Steve Reich’s Clapping Music (1972). This is a classic of Mr. Reich . . . , when he was exploring the complex patterns created by two musicians performing a simple line (in this case a clapped rhythmic pattern) . . . . Short of someone’s messing up (these players didn’t), not much changes from one performance to the next, but the web of rhythms that Mr. Reich’s techniques produce never grows old. The program’s main work, the only one that involved the full roster, was Music for a Summer Evening (Makrokosmos III), George Crumb’s 1974 evocation of a rarefied, magical atmosphere. Mr. Crumb asks much of his percussionists and keyboardists: the pianists produce both plain sonorities and harpsichordlike, plucked sounds, and the percussionists move from conventional instruments to slide whistles blown into the piano and spooky vocalizations. Mr. Crumb’s writing ranges from delicate to explosive, from simplistic and childlike to densely chromatic. This is a score awash in contradictions, as his works often are. But Mr. Muzijevic, Mr. Spano, Mr. Sherwood and Mr. Settle played it with a convincing power and subtlety" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 9/15/08].

[Pink Floyd in the 1970's: Rick Wright, Roger Waters, Nick Mason, David Gilmour]

September 15

Death of Rick Wright, of cancer, at 65. London, UK. "[He was] the keyboardist whose somber, monumental sounds were at the core of Pink Floyd’s art-rock. . . . Wright was a founding member of Pink Floyd, and his spacious, somber, enveloping keyboards, backing vocals and eerie effects were an essential part of its musical identity. . . . [Syd] Barrett’s whimsical, asymmetrical songs and the band’s fondness for experimental sounds placed it at the center of London’s underground psychedelic movement in the mid-1960s. 'Music was our drug,' Mr. Wright once told an interviewer. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn was released in 1967 and yielded pop hits in England, but LSD use and mental illness made Mr. Barrett so unstable that he left Pink Floyd in 1968. He recorded two solo albums; Mr. Wright and Mr. Gilmour produced the second one, Barrett, in 1970. Mr. Barrett died in 2006, at the age of 60. Pink Floyd’s late-1960's and early-70's albums mingled pop songs with extended pieces, like the 23-minute Echoes, which begins with single notes from Mr. Wright’s keyboard, on 1971’s Meddle. On the 1969 album, Ummagumma, which includes solo studio recordings by each band member, Mr. Wright’s four-part Sisyphus encompasses a majestic dirge with tympani, a piano piece that moves from rippling impressionism to crashing free jazz, a clattery interlude for keyboards and percussion, and a mostly elegiac improvisation with organ, guitar, tape effects and birdcalls. With The Dark Side of the Moon, Pink Floyd reined in its improvisation, came up with a concept album about workaday pressures and insanity and established itself as an arena-rock staple. The album stayed in the Billboard Top 200 album chart for 741 weeks. . . . But there were conflicts within the band. Mr. Waters, who had increasingly taken control of Pink Floyd, reportedly threatened not to release The Wall unless Mr. Wright resigned his full membership in the band. Mr. Wright quit, only to tour with Pink Floyd in 1980-81 as a salaried sideman. He does not appear on the band’s 1983 album, The Final Cut. After that album, Mr. Waters left Pink Floyd for a solo career, declaring the band a “spent force creatively.” Amid lawsuits, Mr. Gilmour and Mr. Mason regrouped under the Pink Floyd name; Mr. Wright rejoined them for the 1987 album A Momentary Lapse of Reason and The Division Bell in 1994. Mr. Wright, who was married three times, is survived by three children, Benjamin, Gala and Jamie; and one grandchild. In interviews in 1996, Mr. Wright said he had not spoken to Mr. Waters for 14 years. Mr. Wright played keyboards on Mr. Gilmour’s 2006 album, On an Island, and went on tour with Mr. Gilmour’s band. Pink Floyd’s 1970s lineup reunited briefly at the Live 8 London concert in Hyde Park on July 2, 2005, performing four songs before sharing a hug" [Jon Pareles, The New York Times, 9/15-16/08].

September 17

Music on Macdougal, with Sequenza21, in a program celebrating the 50th anniversary of Minimalism, including Terry Riley's In C. Players Theater, New York, NY. "[M]any new-music historians, date minimalism to La Monte Young’s String Trio, composed in 1958 . . . . Joseph Kubera, the pianist, played two works -- both called Piano Piece (1958, 1960) -- by Terry Jennings, a friend and colleague of Mr. Young’s. They are minimalist in the sense that their textures are spare, with notes and chords played softly separated by long silences, in which a listener savors the decay of the sound. Yet Mr. Jennings used 12-tone rows and dissonances: from that perspective, these pieces have more in common with Webern than with Mr. Riley and company. [Steve] Reich and [Philip] Glass were represented by works composed in 1967 that show the different approaches each took to this new musical language. Mr. Reich’s Piano Phase — Russell Greenberg and Mike McCurdy gave a focused, energetic reading on marimbas — is one of several works in which Mr. Reich has two players beginning in sync, gradually moving out of phase and then coming back together in the final bars. . . . If phasing was Mr. Reich’s engine of choice, Mr. Glass’s was additive process, a technique in which repeated figures slowly take on (and later shed) extra notes and phrases. That was the point of Piece in the Shape of a Square, an intensely contrapuntal flute duet given an athletic, graceful account by Elizabeth Janzen and Jessica Schmitz. The second half of the program was devoted to a taut, if occasionally woolly, 30-minute performance of Mr. Riley’s In C, performed by an ensemble of conventional strings, woodwinds, brass, percussion and keyboard. Both admirers and detractors of minimalism might consider this: In the last four years, In C has probably had more performances in New York than any individual Beethoven symphony, and it will have an all-star performance at Carnegie Hall in April. But after . . . [beginning], no two performances sound alike" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 9/18/08].

September 18

Cassatt Quartet, celebrating Joan Tower’s 70th birthday with one of three concerts at Thalia Theater. Symphony Space, New York, NY. "[E]ach [concert] includ[es] a work by Ms. Tower as its centerpiece, with a score by a younger composer before it and a standard repertory piece after it. The idea is to put Ms. Tower’s music in context, and in the opening program, on Thursday evening, her dark-hued, violently driven Night Fields (1996) was surrounded by the premiere of Libby Larsen’s Quartet: She Wrote (2008) and the shimmering Ravel Quartet (1904). Introducing her work, Ms. Tower said that she almost called the piece Nightmare instead of Night Fields but changed the title because she thought Nightmare was too heavy. . . . Ms. Larsen’s engaging quartet was inspired by a staccato passage in James Joyce’s Ulysses about a young woman: 'On solitary paper she writes. She thinks. She writes. She sighs. Wheels and hoofs. She hurries out.' What Ms. Larsen said she sees in this fragment, and wanted to capture in her piece, is the moment when ideas coalesce — when Joyce’s 'she' knows what to write. That’s a lot to capture in a string quartet; or maybe it’s too little, given that this magical moment comes in a flash. In Ms. Larsen’s piece it turns up at the end of the first movement. The rest is narrative. Even the introspective third movement, How She Felt, paints a melancholy, turbulent inner portrait. In the finale Ms. Larsen affords her protagonist a moment of emotional liberation; a tense opening passage gives way to a blues section and then, by way of a pizzicato cello line, a more free-spirited, jazz-tinged ending" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times 9/21/08].

Steven Stucky's August 4, 1964, to a libretto by Gene Scheer, based on events in the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. Dallas, TX. "A haunted tenor voice will . . . lament that a terrible war was based on a hollow threat, and that millions might have died because of a 'mistake.' . . . The Dallas Symphony Orchestra wanted a grand piece of music to commemorate Lyndon B. Johnson, born 100 years ago, and it may have gotten more than it bargained for: a 70-minute oratorio with implicit reverberations about another war propelled by faulty intelligence, prosecuted by another Texan. The work . . . is based on a single day in Johnson’s presidency, and it joins a genre of classical music rife with worthy intentions and inherent risks: compositions that address current or recent events. On that date Johnson told the American people that North Vietnamese forces had attacked a United States ship in the Tonkin Gulf, prompting retaliation and precipitating the resolution used to justify the Vietnam War. The report turned out to have been false -- a result of mangled and probably falsified intelligence relayed to the president -- although an actual attack had occurred two days earlier. Robert S. McNamara, Johnson’s secretary of defense and an architect of the Vietnam War, later acknowledged that the August 4 attack had not occurred and said that if Johnson had known, he would not have ordered the retaliation. 'Had we known it was a tragic mistake,' sings the tenor portraying McNamara, 'Had we known on August 4th, 1964, we were not attacked. / Had we known we would not have ordered the first bombing of North Vietnam. / Fifty-eight thousand U.S. dead. / Three point seven million Vietnamese dead." But that is not the only historical resonance of the piece . . . . On the same day as the Tonkin Gulf incident, Johnson was dealing with a more immediate tragedy: the discovery of the bodies of three civil rights workers who had been murdered in Mississippi, Andrew Goodman, James E. Chaney and Michael H. Schwerner. The killings helped galvanize support for Johnson’s civil rights agenda, including the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which forced Southern states to ease the path of blacks to vote, more than four decades before the nomination of a black man for president. Using a collage of excerpts from Johnson’s official diary, transcripts of Oval Office telephone conversations, speeches and contemporary news reports, Mr. Scheer has woven the incidents together in a libretto presenting a nuanced view of a complicated man. It combines Johnson’s greatest and worst legacies and portrays him as noble and bitter, compassionate and bellicose. The characters are Johnson (Robert Orth, baritone), Mr. McNamara (Vale Rideout), Mrs. Chaney (Laquita Mitchell, soprano) and Mrs. Goodman (Kelley O’Connor, mezzo-soprano). The Dallas Symphony’s new music director, Jaap van Zweden, conducts. In interviews past and present officials of the orchestra, Mr. Scheer and Mr. Stucky all said they had been aware from the outset that the work drew a parallel between two wars, Vietnam and Iraq, and two presidents, Johnson and George W. Bush. But they studiously played down the political issues. 'I think we should all, as citizens, reflect on the reality of what’s going on, and this may help,' Mr. Stucky said. 'I certainly don’t want it to be seen as a statement about the present, because it is so much about the past too.' The Dallas Symphony said that the Bush family had not been invited, and that Johnson’s two daughters had declined to attend. But others connected with the Johnson administration were expected in the audience, the orchestra said, along with officials from the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum, which cooperated with the project. One historian given a copy of the libretto said he found the juxtaposition of the two issues 'weird.' But then, 'it must have been weird getting his mind around two such different crises happening simultaneously,' said the historian, Edwin E. Moïse of Clemson University, who wrote a book about the Tonkin Gulf incident. 'There’s a reason he looked like an old man when he got out of White House,' Mr. Moïse said. 'The strain must have been terrible.' August 4, 1964 raises other questions. Classical music in recent times, especially in this country, seems less potent than other art forms as a means of challenging the status quo or making political commentary. But there have been powerful recent additions to the genre, including Steve Reich’s Daniel Variations, inspired by the 2002 murder of the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl in Pakistan. The Dallas work serves as a reminder of both the pitfalls and the value of such ventures. Too much relevance can lead to political schlock, like bad Prokofiev, or cornball (if sometimes endearing) hagiography, like Copland’s Lincoln Portrait. For the creators too much topicality may distract from the goal of making a piece of art that will endure. Mr. Stucky said he had not thought of the work’s political implications as he was composing. 'If you’re put in the position of writing polemical music or agitprop, you’re not likely do a good job,' he added. 'I was concentrated on writing the best piece I could.' . . . Mr. Scheer pointed out that the McNamara lament, which occurs late in the piece, came about largely because he and Mr. Stucky felt that the tenor character did not have enough lyrical material. It also provided a sense of redemption for the character. In the short term, topical works like August 4, 1964 at least provoke conversation, and the attention that classical music institutions crave in a pop-ruled YouTube world. . . . The man behind the idea of commemorating Johnson was Fred Bronstein, who was president of the Dallas Symphony until he moved on to the St. Louis Symphony six months ago. Mr. Bronstein said he had not seen the libretto and pointed out that the creators were given free rein about subject matter. The only stipulation was a piece for chorus, orchestra and four soloists to commemorate Johnson. When asked about modern parallels, Mr. Bronstein answered indirectly. 'History repeats itself,' he said. 'How this war is judged, time will tell.' For Mr. Stucky the task was daunting. He is a much sought-after composer, a Cornell University music professor who receives regular commissions from major orchestras. The New York Philharmonic is giving the American premiere of his Rhapsodies, which it commissioned, on the same night as the August 4, 1964 performance. Mr. Stucky will be in Dallas. But he said he had not written for chorus and orchestra since high school, which he attended in Abilene, Tex. His family moved to the state from Kansas when he was 10, and Mr. Stucky attended Baylor University in Waco. The Dallas Symphony liked the Texas connection. . . . Mr. Scheer, also a songwriter, has collaborated with Tobias Picker on works including An American Tragedy at the Metropolitan Opera, and with Jake Heggie; their Moby-Dick is to be presented at the Dallas Opera next season. . . . 'Gene stumbled on this fact that we could encapsulate those two sides of America in the ’60s on that single date,' Mr. Stucky said. 'That was a brilliant stroke.' . . . Mr. Stucky said he had made a mental checklist of what not to imitate: Lincoln Portrait, Britten’s War Requiem, John Adams’s Nixon in China. He described the musical grammar as somewhere between tonal and atonal, with an extroverted quality. Johnson’s lines are slower and more lyrical; the McNamara music tends to be faster, more nervous. When the chorus sings a text based on Oval Office diary entries (“7 a.m. Awake and up. 7:05 a.m. Breakfast. At 7:15 did exercises.”), the music is “strongly pulsed,” he said, with minimalist tendencies. . . . Stucky said that attentive listeners might catch a ghost of the civil rights anthem 'We Shall Overcome' [Daniel Wakin, 9/12/08].

September 19

Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Miguel Harth-Bedoya, in a program of Sergei Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 2, Jimmy Lopez's Fiesta!, and Ottorino Respighi's The Pines of Rome. Bass Performance Hall, Fort Worth, TX. "López, 29, is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. Although Mr. Harth-Bedoya, in introductory remarks from the stage, called Fiesta! a 'miniature symphony,' it actually represents a genre with an even older tradition, a virtuosic suite of dances giving refined expression to popular idioms. Mr. López proves himself expert in orchestration" [James Oestreich, 9/22/08]

September 22

Death of Connie Haines, at 87. "[She was] a peppy, petite, big-voiced singer with a zippy, rhythmic style who most famously teamed up with Frank Sinatra as lead vocalists with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, then went on to a prolific career of her own" [The New York Times, 9/25/08].

September 23

New York Festival of Song, in music of Leonard Bernstein and William Bolcom. Merkin Concert Hall, New York, NY. "[W]ith the 90th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth (Aug. 25) celebrated far and wide, it made sense for the festival to open its 21st season with a hefty sampling of Bernstein’s songs . . . . Even so, Bernstein did not have the program to himself. . . . [T]he focus shifted to William Bolcom, who turned 70 in May, and whose music has a stylistic omnivorousness -- as well as a sense of humor -- similar to Bernstein’s. For the occasion the festival’s two pianists and directors, Steven Blier and Michael Barrett, assembled a cast of six singers, who performed together and separately, in a program shaped with dramatic flair. On the Bernstein half, ensemble pieces from the orchestral cycle Songfest framed selections from Arias and Barcarolles and a handful of theater works. It took the singers a few moments to find the right tone. Renée Tatum, a mezzo-soprano, applied an operatic intensity to Dream With Me that seemed wrong for this sweetly modulating outtake from Peter Pan, although Ms. Tatum’s personalized phrasing kept her account compelling. William Sharp’s theatrical approach to The Love of My Life, from Arias and Barcarolles, seemed miscalibrated as well, but he brought greater subtlety and suppleness to the introspective Seena, from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The heart of the Bernstein segment was a group of songs from Wonderful Town. Alex Mansoori, the tenor, gave a lively, smartly characterized performance of 100 Easy Ways to Lose a Man, and, with Sari Gruber, the soprano, a comic but sharply focused reading of Ohio. Ms. Gruber also moved easily between the comic spoken sections and the more deeply felt verses in her elegant performance of The Story of My Life. Mr. Bolcom’s music moves with a suave assurance that serves comic and dramatic impulses equally well, and he has an extraordinary facility for weaving the harmonic accents of blues and jazz into more formal and complex structures. Songs like How to Swing Those Obbligatos Around, sung zestily by Rebecca Jo Loeb, and the darker Otherwise, which Ms. Gruber sang, seem simple on the surface but are rich in surprising melodic turns. The most effective pieces were calling cards for two of Mr. Bolcom’s operas. From McTeague, Mr. Sharp gave a deftly characterized account of the retributive Jehosophat, and Ms. Gruber brought a mad eroticism to Golden Babies. And Mr. Mansoori gave an acidic reading of The Establishment Route from Casino Paradise. To close the concert the festival ceded the stage to Mr. Bolcom and his wife, the mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, for a brief cabaret set. As fine as the younger singers were, Ms. Morris’s superb way with a phrase in . . . Bolcom’s Over the Piano was a master class in comic timing" [Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 9/25/08].

Soprano Karita Mattila returns to portray the title character in Strauss’s Salome, a revival of the modern-dress Jürgen Flimm production created for Ms. Mattila and introduced at the Met in 2004. Metropolitan Opera, New York, NY. "Mattila’s emotionally intense, vocally molten and psychologically exposed portrayal four years ago made her seem born to this daunting role. And yes, during her uninhibited and kinetically choreographed performance of the “Dance of the Seven Veils,” she shed item after item of a Marlene Dietrich-like white tuxedo costume until, in an exultant -- and brief -- final flourish, she twirled around half-crazed and totally naked. Expect the same this time" [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 9/17/08].

September 24

Michael Tilson conducts the San Francisco Symphony in an all-Leonard Bernstein program to open the 118th season of Carnegie Hall. New York, NY. "On paper the gala program raised doubts. Segueing with hardly a break from the ebullient Broadway star Christine Ebersole singing I Can Cook, Too from On the Town to the cellist Yo-Yo Ma playing the elegiac, intensely somber Meditation No. 1 from Mass seemed a risky idea. But Mr. Thomas knew what he was up to. The program kicked off a citywide festival, The Best of All Possible Worlds, to honor the 90th anniversary of Bernstein’s birth. More than any other composer of the 20th century, Bernstein embraced a wide range of traditions: classical music, musical theater, jazz, Latin American dance and more. And Mr. Thomas, a Bernstein protégé, born to a Southern California family that thrived in Yiddish theater, shares his mentor’s multifaceted interests and skills. Beginning with the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story (1961), played complete, Mr. Thomas announced that this was not to be just a feel-good evening. The performance he drew from the San Francisco Symphony, which sounded great on this night, was the freshest, most incisive and respectful account I have heard of this undervalued score. There was plenty of jazzy energy and swing. But for Mr. Thomas, playing in a jazzy style does not mean loosening up on rhythmic execution. Riffs and rhythms were dispatched with a relaxed incisiveness. In the snappy Prologue and the restless Scherzo sections, the playing was crisp, lean and brassy. Mr. Thomas did not let a drop of sentimentality seep into the string playing for the soaring lyrical lines in Somewhere. He brought out all the intriguing subtleties of this score, for example, the ascending inner voices that crisscross the descending melodic line in the gently insistent Cha-Cha. And in the finale, which reprises the tragic conclusion of Somewhere, Mr. Thomas balanced the pungent chords so precisely that this passage seemed as harmonically inventive as anything in Stravinsky. . . Then, with the orchestra playing examples, [Thomas] took the audience through some specific passages in the work we were about to hear: excerpts from A Quiet Place, Bernstein’s 1983 opera. I keep waiting for a production of A Quiet Place to reveal this work as a great overlooked American opera. These excerpts did not provide that epiphany. Still, there are inspired touches in the music that was presented, especially the quietly ominous orchestra. . . Again, the mood shifted suddenly. [Dawn] Upshaw was charming in What a Movie, from the one-act 1951 opera Trouble in Tahiti, and Mr. Hampson gave a compelling account of To What You Said ..., a setting of a Whitman text, from Songfest, with Mr. Ma playing the poignant solo cello part magnificently. There was more. Five Juilliard School students portraying the roughneck Jets did a kinetically choreographed and delightful performance of Gee, Officer Krupke from West Side Story. The evening ended with Ya Got Me from On the Town. All of the soloists took part, each singing a verse, including Mr. Thomas, who proved an engaging, breezy and stylish singer. Can you imagine Lorin Maazel singing to his audience at the New York Philharmonic? [Anthony Tommasini, The New York Times, 9/25/08].