Wednesday, August 27, 2014

A wedding goes forward in NY while a marriage in Atlanta is in trouble

Le Nozze di Figaro
It's now old news that the Metropolitan Opera unions avoided Peter Gelb's threatened lockout by agreeing (at 6:15 a.m.! last Monday) to concessions considerably lower than those demanded by the General Director.  Gelb had all along insisted that labor costs be decreased by 16-17%; in fact, the real number was an immediate 3.5% drop to be followed by another 3.5% in six months.  That will be followed by a 3% increase in the fourth year of the deal.  Of particular note is that there appear to be no changes in work rules, so it is tantamount that management rein in what have become excessive overtime costs.

In addition, the Wall Street Journal reports, following the agreement reached with the stagehand's union, that financial analyst Eugene Keilin would stay on in his capacity to oversee implementation of budget costs. These will also include over $11 million per year in non-laror-related expenses (think the $165,000 poppy field).  It is important to note that this action marks the first time in the company's history that Met unions have agreed to salary/benefit concessions, thus assuring that the season will begin with the September 22 opening of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro (a new production by Richard Eyre and conducted by James Levine).

Other productions of note for the 2015-16 season include
  • David Robertson (St. Louis Symphony) conducts a powerful new production by director Tom Morris of John Adams The Death of Klinghoffer.
  • Renee Fleming appears in a New Year's Eve opening production of Lehar's Merry Widow.  Susan Graham fills in for Fleming later in the run.
  • The seemingly indefatigable Valery Gergiev leads a double bill of Tchaikovsky's Iolanta (featuring Anna Netrebko) and Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle.
  • Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi leads a Cavalleria/Pagliacci double bill.
AND, two of the company's 18 revivals include two rarely heard works:  Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, by Dmitri Shostakovich and Stravinsky's Rake's Progress.

* * * * * * * * * * * *

Atlanta Symphony Hall--a case for a larger venue?
If only life were as grand in Atlanta.  Two years ago, that city's orchestra (along with the Minnesota) was embroiled in a bitter contract negotiation, resulting in a reduction of forces and $5.2 million in concessions, this after a two-week lockout.  Now, Jennie Jarve writes in ArtsAtl

Among the focus of disagreement are proposals to cut musicians’ pay and health care and scale back the size of the orchestra. Both sides have repeatedly declined to discuss details of contract negotiations with the media. Stanley Romanstein, ASO’s president and CEO, announced last week that the company ended its fiscal year 2014 on target and on budget, but he turned down requests for an interview. Paul Murphy, associate principal violist and president of the Players’ Association, which represents musicians, would say only that they hope to reach consensus by the September 6 deadline.

So, if the cash is there, why the need for further cuts?  One understands that both ticket sales and donations continue to fall, perhaps because the public feels that they have an inferior product.  Players are leaving the orchestra in increased numbers   Jarve further notes, three senior members retired in 2012, one in 2013, and four more — with a combined service of 182 years — retired this summer. Two players, Colin Williams and Richard Deane, take on full-time positions with the New York Philharmonic in the fall. Another, George Curran, became bass trombonist for that orchestra last year.

One has to feel that there is not a pleasant end in sight for Atlanta, its orchestra and its musicians.

Monday, August 18, 2014

My bucket list: (wind) pieces I need to conduct

What’s on Your Bucket List? 101 Things To Do Before You Die

I've been at this conducting thing for many years now, having first led an ensemble in public sometime in June 1975.  The piece was E. E. Bagley's National Emblem and the occasion was my own high school graduation.  It would be five years until I would take up the baton with a wind group, although I already had several years of choral conducting under my belt, so to speak.  Sometimes I almost have to feel sorry for the folks in that Presbyterian church choir back in Michigan.  I'm sure that I made more than my share of mistakes, but the experience gained was beyond anything experienced in more "formal" studies.

From time to time, I've found it necessary to reflect upon the works I have chosen for study, including those pieces that I find myself returning to after an absence (regardless of its length).  The latter are mostly pieces from the earliest years of the repertoire of the modern wind band: the Holst Suites and works of Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gordon Jacob, and others.  Sometimes I just feel the need to encounter an old (musical) friend, or else I am tempted to escape the sins of my youth, of which there were many.

Still, I find the need to establish a kind of "bucket list" of those works I have--intentionally or not--avoided.  It may be due to a simple "fear" (I'm just not ready for that) or I don't have the "horses."  The latter is no longer true a the Quad City Wind Ensemble will play anything that I throw at them, but still, I must remember that the ensemble does not exist for my own repertoire development or self-aggrandizement.

There exist on the web (yes, its on Wiki--but I can vouch for it) several lists of the significant works for the wind band.  For the sake of this exercise, I am going to ___ my own shortcomings from a group identified as cornerstone works, "some of the most universally respected and established cornerstones of the band repertoire. All have "stood the test of time" through decades of regular performance, and many, either through an innovative use of the medium or by the fame of their composer, helped establish the wind band as a legitimate, serious performing ensemble."  While I have conducted many of these (thank goodness!) there remain some pieces that I (and I feel my ensembles) need to study and perform.

  • John Barnes Chance:  Elegy.
  • Aaron Copland:  Emblems.  I'm not exactly sure that I'm sold on this, but it is on the list.
  • Antonin Dvorak:  Serenade, Op. 44.  Amazing that I've yet to conduct this.  Of course, the presence of those darned strings (a cello and a bass) poses such a problem for the wind conductor!
  • Morton Gould:  Symphony No. 4, "West Point"
  • Paul Hindemith:  Symphony
  • Karel Husa:  Music for Prague, 1968:  one of those pieces in the "fear" category.  Having spent time with Husa during his UNI residency in 1992, I am always amazed that such a seemingly simple man could write such complex music.
  • Vincent Persichetti:  Symphony
  • Arnold Schoenberg:  Theme and Variations, Op. 43a
  • something by Joseph Schwantner.
  • something (big or small) by Igor Stravinsky
  • Ralph Vaughan Williams:  Toccata Marziale:  at least I've programed this one for the upcoming season.
Are there pieces to revisit?  Sure.  I need another go at Lincolnshire Posy now that I kind of have that dreaded third movement figured out.  Same goes for Milhaud's Suite Francaise as well as Incantation and Dance and the Suite of Old American Dances.

The list isn't really a daunting one, but of course, completely ignores anything written more recently.  My first concert of the 2014-15 QCWE season includes:

Karel Husa:  Smetana Fanfare 

Ralph Vaughan Williams:  Toccata Marziale 

Friedemann/Lake, Kent:  Slavonic Rhapsody 

Ottarino Respighi:  “The Pines of the Appian Way,” from Pini di Roma 

Meredith Willson/Iwai:  76 Trombones 

Yasuhide Ito: Funa-Uta 

Ralph Hultgren:  Hornet’s Nest or Australian Rhapsody 

SOLO:  Kurt Dupois (Principal Trumpet, U.S. Marine Band) TBA

Hmmm.  Looks like I still have a long way to go.  The joy of the conducting profession: so much great music, so few concerts!

Sunday, August 10, 2014

America's disposable society

In 1989 a new opera house opened in Paris on the site of the infamous Bastille, that fortress/prison stormed at the onset of the French Revolution some 200 years before.  This new house, called the Opéra de la Bastille, is now home to the French National Opera.  Seating some 3300 patrons, its programming also includes concerts and ballets.  The new house has been plagued by political intrigue over its artistic direction:  its first two artistic directors, Daniel Barenboim and Myung-whun Chung, were sacked, the former before he'd conducted a note.  The building itself has not been without distraction, with necessary internal and external retrofits: there was need for both acoustical improvement and replacement of parts of the building's facade.  For all of its problems, here it is:

I don't really is atrociously ugly.

But what of the Palais Garnier, that showpiece with probably the most famous staircase (and chandelier) in the world?

Oh yeah, it's still dazzle generations to come....

In Prague, one can still visit the "birthplace" of Don Giovanni.

Stavovske Divadlo, Prague

In Budapest, the 1884 Hungarian State Opera House still stands in all of its neo-Renaissance glory.

And in America, this:

has become this:

Detroit's amazing Michigan Theater is now a parking garage.
Yes, that's the upper balcony seating at the rear of the photo.
But an even greater architectural travesty took place in New York City in 1966.  Along with the Philharmonic, which formerly played at Carnegie Hall, the Metropolitan Opera moved from its home at Broadway and 14th Street to Lincoln Center, trading this:

Last night at the "old" Met

For this:

The "new" Met....Lincoln Center...take your pick.

And what stands at 14th and Broadway?  An office tower, built after the management of the Met decided to raze the "Golden Horseshoe," a prime example of our disposable society.  Buildings go up and then come down.  While this might be appropriate for sporting venues (does anyone really care about the fate of the Houston Astrodome?), our cultural treasures deserve more for a society that refuses to preserve the important vestiges of its past ignores its history.  What do we know of the ancient Romans and Greeks but from the monuments left to us over the millennia?  What shall we pass on to future generations?  Or does anyone even care?

And that former home of the New York Philharmonic, which has been relegated to Avery Fischer Hall and its plethora of acoustical "improvements"?  (They'll never get it right.)  It's still there!

....and one has to think it's awaiting the orchestra's return.

I'm long past practicing enough....guess I'll just have to fly in for a concert.

Life Before Peter Gelb. What will life after look like?

Rudolf Bing
There was once an autocrat named Rudolf Bing, who served as General Manager of the Metropolitan Opera from 1950 to 1972.  Previously, he had served in a similar capacity in Berlin and Darmstadt.  The son of a well-to-do Jewish family, he and his Russian-born wife fled Nazi Germany in 1934 for Great Britain, where he founded the opera festivals at Glyndebourne and Edinburgh.  Needless to say, he was eminently qualified for the post in New York.

While not without controversy (well-known was his banishment of famed soprano Maria Callas in 1958; she would not return until her final year of performing, 1965), his achievements were, for their time, more than remarkable.  He integrated the company with Marian Anderson appearing in 1955.  Many other artists of color would follow.  Beverly Sills, herself a future chair of the Met Board, had to wait until Bing's retirement until she sand her 1975 Met debut (Bing later admitted his mistake).  And, of course, Bing oversaw the company's move from the "Golden Horseshoe" on Broadway to the new Met at Lincoln Center.

Bing's tenure was not without its own labor strife.  The 1969 season did not commence until December due to protracted labor negotiations.  According to the New York Times, “it took years for the Met to recover the subscribers it lost during the 1969 strike.”

Bing was never afraid to speak his mind, regardless of the artist.  About George Szell, he wrote,

"Mr. Szell's comments on my work at the Metropolitan leave me cool. I am completely disinterested in his artistic judgement on stagecraft. Mr. Szell before emigrating to this country, worked at a medium class German theatre in Czechoslovakia and since then has never seen or done opera outside the Metropolitan. His knowledge on the subject is of no consequence."

And to a writer who protested his mere suggestion that the stage of the Metropolitan was open to all, regardless of race,

"Thank you for your letter of April 19th and for the kind interest you are displaying in the Metropolitan Opera's affairs.

I don't think that I will have any Negro singers in next season's roster as there are no suitable parts and the roster is complete, but I am afraid I cannot agree with you that as a matter of principle, Negro singers should be excluded. This is not what America and her allies have been fighting for.

Thank you for having written to me."

* * * * * * * * * *

James Levine
After Schuyler Chapin's three years as General Manager, the leadership of the company was divided among a General Manager, Artistic Director, and Director of Productions.  The one constant from 1973 until the present has been conductor James Levine, who has molded the Met Orchestra into one of the best ensembles in the world.  During this time, the company also celebrated its centennial with a two day, eight hour gala performance featuring 26 performers from the Met's glorious past:  it was here that Birgit Nilsson appeared for the last time on the Met stage.

In 1980, the employees of the Met were locked out after labor negotiations, having begun in January, reached no conclusion by the beginning of September.  This lengthy stoppage did result in more equitable compensation for the Met orchestra, based upon the number of required services per week, improved benefits, and vastly improved per diem rates when the company was on tour.  But still, the season opened late and subscribers would be slow to return.  But, of course, they did and the Metropolitan Opera settled into a kind of Pax Romana that would last for nearly a quarter century.

Joseph Volpe
In 1990, the company returned to a single leader, Joseph Volpe.  Having started his career at the Met as a carpenter, Volpe's tenure was monumental.  International tours were expanded, the Met Orchestra began its own concert series at Carnegie Hall, and the repertoire was considerably expanded, with four world premieres and 22 Met premieres, more new works than had been heard in decades.  And a few of the great artists to grace the Met's stage included Diana Damrau, Natalie Dessay, Renée Fleming, Juan Diego Flórez, Angela Gheorghiu, Susan Graham, Ben Heppner, Anna Netrebko, Bryn Terfel, and Deborah Voigt.

Volpe could be a tyrant, more often that not, but the man got things done and was willing to do whatever possible to insure the high standards of the only employer he'd ever had.  In addition to his artistic and technical successes, Volpe's tenure included the tripling of the Met's endowment (to over $300 million) and the largest gifts ever made to the company.  It seems important to note that the endowment has actually shrunk dramatically since Volpe's departure.

* * * * * * * * * *

And then came Peter Gelb, whose spendthrift ways (a 50% increase in the company's budget in eight years, far exceeding substantive corporate and private donors as well as falling ticket sales.  In current labor talks with all of the unions (contracts for every musician, stagehand, carpenter, etc. expired on July 31), Gelb's standard line seems to be pay cut or lockout.  It was reported that he turned down a proposed five-year pay freeze from the stage hands, insisting instead in a 14.5% reduction in salary and benefits.

Federal mediators have been called in and there will be an independent audit of the books, so that all concerned can see the true financial picture.  There remains rumor and innuendo, and much of this should have been cleared up when talks began in the spring, but Peter Gelb is definitely out of his league, much like Michael Henson, former CEO of the Minnesota Orchestra.

Antony Tomassini writes in The New York Times, "It’s telling that both sides have latched on to the role of new productions to buttress their arguments. Mr. Gelb has long said that bold new productions will bring opera in line with the latest currents in theater and entice new audiences to the house and to the Met’s HD simulcasts around the world, which are reaching some 2.5 million viewers each season. The unions claim that the new productions are too risky and expensive.  Outsiders cannot possibly understand the internal dynamics of an institution as large and complex as the Met. But this argument over the new productions could compromise the artistic ambition and global influence of the company."

Apparently, some of the new productions--particularly Francois Girard's Parsifal--was a genuine success.  The same cannot be said of this season's "unfocused" Eugene Onegin or the tetralogy that has become better known as the debate of the machine: Robert Lepage's "Ring" cycle.  Herein was proof that stage directors and designers have become too important a part in the production of the grandest of operas.  Throughout the run of the "Ring," it seemed (at least from this far away) that too much print was spent discussing whether or not the machine was working that evening, rather than upon the magnificent voices necessary to mount a successful "Ring."

Tomassini continues, "Overall, the mix of solid hits and so-so shows under Mr. Gelb had been about in line with the record of previous general managers. Yet, Mr. Gelb’s new productions seem not to have reversed the decline in attendance. At a time of financial crisis, he must grapple with tough questions: Will he continue with the Met’s “Traviata” for the foreseeable future? Having seen it once, will Verdi fans, even those deeply affected by the production, want to see it again? And again?

When Mr. Gelb arrived in 2006, he presented himself as a business-savvy savior come to bring innovation to a field in crisis and rescue a great company heading toward insolvency. Such talk, among other annoying things, slighted the record of his predecessor, Joseph Volpe, who, during 16 years, expanded the Met’s repertory with some 20 works new to the company, including daring 20th-century operas like Shostakovich’s “Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District,” a powerful 1994 production slated to return this season. You could argue that another Volpe initiative, Met Titles, the company’s innovative system of seat-back English translations,introduced in 1995, did as much, if not more, to demystify opera and entice newcomers to the house than the HD broadcasts."
Strangely silent and no one has heard from him at all is conductor James Levine, who, because of health issues, has been away from the podium for several seasons.  Perhaps Maestro Levine should at least insert himself into the negotiations in some way, for a sense of historical continuity if for nothing else.

The Met is at a crossroads.  One can only hope it moves in the right direction and not the road travelled by the now defunct City Opera, which downsized its company and its offerings until there was nothing left.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

The "good" file

Those of us in the music biz (at least me) have a tendency to place too much focus on those tiny negatives in live performance, rather than the effect of the whole.  It's easy to forget the impact we have on audiences and players alike.  That's why I try to keep a "good file" of appreciative notes and the like, so that I can refer to them in times of need.  It's getting a lot harder to do since the dawn of electronic mail and social media.  Please forgive me if I indulge myself with some recent missives.

Dr. Maestro Hughes,

You've earned it, let me address you as such.
(obviously from one who knows my feelings on "titles")

Thank you for a wonderful spring/summer season. You have breathed new life into the Park Band. I have been lucky enough to have worked with many gifted conductors - Mr. Christiansen'isms echo in my brain. Specifically, close is only acceptable in horse shoes and hand Grenadines and a true musician always knows the correct dynamic.  Thank you for pointing out the "church soprano" tendency I had developed.

* * * * * * * * * *

Commenting on the close of the TSWS season:  Loved playing with all of you this summer.

* * * * * * * * * *

From a TSWS "parent":  Thanks Brian! She really enjoyed it last year, felt it stretched her as a musician and student, and had a fantastic time. We are excited that she is a part of it too.

* * * * * * * * * *

I am sure that you know that we all enjoy giving you our best efforts, and the band is several hundred percent better for it.

* * * * * * * * * *

Thanks again for a great season and for the wonderful experience of performing at IBA. Congratulations on receiving your doctorate as well!

* * * * * * * * * *

Of course, this is a very small sampling.  I am very blessed to work with such wonderful and committed musicians.

Friday, August 1, 2014

The Day of Reckoning Comes and Goes

The lights are still on...for another 72 hours anyway...
News from NYC is significantly better than yesterday, but it's still hard to believe that the situation at the Metropolitan Opera is going to end up with satisfaction for either side of the labor conflict.  Unions have put together proposals that allegedly can save the company over $30 million and yet, Peter Gelb refuses to respond and remains entrenched, refusing to release any semblance of the Met's true financial state.

Late last night the New York Times reported,

With management granting a 72-hour reprieve to try to reach agreements with the unions, though, it was still unclear if the lockout had been averted, or merely delayed. While opening night for the new season is not until Sept. 22, a lockout would stop rehearsals that are already underway.

The Met’s general manager, Peter Gelb, had threatened to lock out the company’s employees if progress was not made toward new labor agreements before the contracts for 15 of its unions expired at midnight. But on Thursday morning the unions representing the orchestra and chorus agreed to his proposal to bring in a federal mediator, and after some late-night talks at the opera house, Mr. Gelb agreed to let talks continue.

“At the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service’s request, we’ve agreed to extend the deadline for 72 hours so we can have a chance to see if we can reach an agreement,” he said in an interview late Thursday night. “If they want to make a deal with us, and we hope to make a deal with them, the next 72 hours should give us ample time to do it.”

Gelb has had several months to reach an agreement with the unions but has apparently made no attempt to respond to union inquiries or counterproposals.  Why should another 72 hours make any difference?  Rumor has it that there is a "done-deal" in the wings waiting for the details to be ironed out.  This morning, Norman Lebrecht informs us,

We’re hearing that negotiators on both sides of the Metropolitan Opera dispute went to bed last night happy. A single source close to the Met management tells us ‘it’s a done deal’.

Peter Gelb himself described the 72-hour hiatus as a ‘one-time only extension’, designed to give Federal negotiator Allison Beck a chance to reach a deal. In fact, we’re told, the deal is done. The negotiator’s job is to save face for both sides.

Regardless of the outcome, this is not going to end pretty for anyone at the Met. A lot of bad blood (to say the least) has developed between labor and management, akin to the 16-month debacle at the Minnesota Orchestra, which ended up with a more modest--but still significant--reduction in players' compensation. Of course, CEO Michael Hensen is out the door soon and Osmo Vanska is back on the podium.  One must wonder if similar events are brewing at Lincoln Center.

Gelb's experience prior to his appearance as "Artistic Director" of the Met focuses largely around his Presidency of Sony Classical.  According to his Wikipedia article (I know, I know, not always a font of accurate information), Gelb pursued a strategy of emphasizing crossover music over mainstream classical repertoire.  Examples include cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who was encouraged to record americana, including an album with fiddler and composer Mark O'Connor and double-bassist and composer Edgar Meyer, Appalachia Waltz; electronic composer Vangelis, who recorded the choral symphony Mythodea; and Charlotte Church, a pop artist who started her career as a classical singer.  I am left to wonder how this track record prepares one to head the most significant cultural institution in the United States?

The bottom line is that costs are skyrocketing and the paying public has exited the 3800-seat house in droves.  Something/someone has to give.  One can only hope it's not Wagner, Puccini, Verdi and so many others.

Last night on Broadway...anyone miss the old house?