Philosophy, literature, mythology, psychology, climate, history.

Posts Tagged ‘san francisco

San Francisco Classical Music 101

with 4 comments

A user-friendly introduction to the classical music scene in San Francisco, intended to help and encourage people who may have an interest in attending performances, possibly for the first time. We’ll look at where to get started, what the deal is, how expensive tickets are, and where to find music that you love, even if you aren’t very familiar with classical music. I hope you find it useful.

Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments field, or send me an email (contact info here).

Getting Started: An Overview of the Scene

If you have any interest in classical music, you’re in luck. San Francisco boasts a world-class symphony, the second-largest opera company in the United States, and an audience hungry enough to attract the best ensembles and soloists in the world. The city is a mecca for early music from the Renaissance and earlier (see “Early Music on the Rise“), and experimental music is well represented by the Other Minds festival and the new Ojai North series.

Getting started can seem daunting, in part because there is so much. But it’s actually quite easy once you find something you’re interested in – usually a matter of picking up the phone or logging into the box office website.

Let’s start with a look at some of the heavies.

The San Franicso Symphony is currently under the directorship of Michael Tilson Thomas, a vital and forward-thinking conductor. The SF Symphony frequently features brilliantly-programmed evenings, blending repertoire favorites with less familiar work. The recent Schubert-Berg series, for example, featured programs pairing the straight Romantic composer Franz Schubert with the far-out twelve tone composer Alban Berg, who is sort of the late-period John Coltrane of classical music. In 2011 Thomas performed Mozart’s towering Requiem Mass back-to-back with Morton Feldman’s introspective and hushed Rothko Chapel. The two pieces could not be more different, and the juxtaposition was fascinating.

Thomas is well respected for his intelligent, precise, and agile interpretations of scores — expect brisk, clear phrasing. He is a great advocate of contemporary American classical music by composers like Steve Reich, John Adams, and Charles Ives  — keep an eye on the American Mavericks series in 2012 if that grabs you. Thomas also does a mean Beethoven, and is regarded as one of the world’s foremost interpreters of Mahler.

The SF Symphony performs at Davies Hall near the Civic Center, and is surprisingly affordable. You can get better seats at a bit of a discount if you buy season tickets, but that means planning well in advance. If you’d like a low-cost option that’s more casual, I have had some great experiences on the second balcony – particularly toward the front. You can usually get away with tickets up there for around $30, and can select your own seats on the Box Office website.

Keep your eye on the Goldstar discount ticket broker – they often have symphony tickets for half-off.

No less extraordinary is the San Francisco Opera, which usually produces around ten operas a year, seven in the fall and three in the summer. Sadly, we recently lost a treasure with the departure of musical director Donald Runnicles. He is a great interpreter of Wagner and has premiered exciting work, like Olivier Messiaen’s Saint-François d’Assise, a fascinating opera about the saint that incorporates faithful transcriptions of bird song into the score.

Runnicles was replaced by Nicola Luisotti in 2009. Early indications are that under his direction the opera will favor mainstream Italian opera by masters like Verdi, Donizetti, and Puccini. I’m more interested in challenging opera than the beautiful arias and melodrama myself, but the more conservative programs of the last two years may reflect the fact that the Opera is facing difficult financial times and needs to fill seats with better-known works (see “David Gockley seeks to overhaul S.F. Opera funding“).

Seeing an opera performance can be an experience of unparalleled beauty and power, if you find a piece that you respond to musically and dramatically. It tends to be expensive, though, with good seats running $125 and up. However, when I was doing opera on the cheap I made regular use of the Standing Room option, which I highly recommend. If you arrive at the box office an hour or so before showtime you can buy standing room seats for $10. There is a rail along the back of the orchestra level where you can stand, and the view and acoustics are excellent. This is a great option for exploring opera on a budget, as you won’t often find discount seats through Goldstar.

Tip: the SF Opera website reports the run-times for their shows — personally I don’t like to stand for longer than three hours.

The San Francisco Ballet shares the War Memorial auditorium with the SF Opera, typically producing ten performances in the spring. I am a newbie to Ballet but have had a very good time with it in the last few years. If the idea of music without action leaves you cold, but opera isn’t your style, it’s a great way to go. It is very difficult to get bored at the ballet. My anecdotal sense, for what it’s worth, is that the Ballet audiences skew about 10 years younger in average age than opera.

The SF Ballet offers a varied repertoire, mixing narrative showcases like “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Nutcracker” with masterpieces by the exalted choreographer George Balanchine with edgy modern pieces like Helgi Tomasson’s harrowing and evocative “The Little Mermaid.” Resident choreographer Yuri Possokhov usually puts on a few works a year, and they are always outstanding. This year’s premier of his stunning “Raku” brought down the house, and rightfully so. His sense of style, elegance, and beauty are second-to-none, and he uses just the right amount of story, giving an emotional structure to his dances without cluttering them with pantomime.

SF Ballet also does not seem to show up on Goldstar, but it is rather cheaper than the opera. Excellent seats can be had in the $50 range.

There are more modest symphony orchestras in Oakland and Berkeley, with shorter seasons. I am not as familiar with their orchestras, but the reviews I’ve read for Oakland performances have kept me away.The Philharmonia Baroque is a first-class period orchestra, and is not to be missed.

Concert Serieses. Es.

San Francisco and the East Bay abound with performances in smaller venues, which are often excellent and a good bargain. The best way to track these is to check out the FIND EVENTS engine on San Francisco Classical Voice. Select a few simple options and you can check out what’s happening in your part of the Bay in the next month or two, ranging from chamber music in nearby churches to operas at the Memorial opera house. Top talent can be found in the CalPerfs series in Berkeley and the San Francisco Performances series. In recent years they have presented superstars like Yo-Yo Ma, John Williams, Anonymous 4, Hilary Hahn, Jordi Savall.

Tips for Finding Music you Like

If you might be interested in attending but you don’t know where to start, don’t panic! Start with what you do know. It’s hard to go wrong with Beethoven, for example. Everyone knows something by Beethoven, right? Duh-duh-duh-DUHHHH….

If you get the bug and want to come back for more, it’s easy to move from things you know and like to things you don’t know but will probably like. Get a sense of how adventurous you are. Do you like hearing stuff you are acquainted with, or do you like boldly checking out new composers and styles? That’s a question you can easily answer with a little bit of experimentation. If you’re a Beethoven fan, try attending a symphony that you aren’t familiar with. If you’ve heard the 5th a million times, try the 4th, or the 8th.

Fortunately the SF Symphony makes it easy to stick close to home and find new things, because of their tendency to mix things up. I discovered one of my favorites composers, Thomas Adès, when his violin concerto was sandwiched between symphonies by Mozart and Haydn, a regular chestnut sandwich.

If you want to sample almost any piece before buying tickets, check YouTube. Everything is there.

You can follow genres, or performers you like, or composers. If you respond to a composer, try to read a little bit about him or her, and find out who they liked. Do you love Bach? Try Dietrich Buxtehude then. Bach loved Buxtehude’s music so much that he walked 250 miles in the German winter, on foot, to visit him. Buxtehude’s influence is unmistakable in Bach’s composition.

A Note on Etiquette

Expect to see people dolled up to the nines, especially at the opera, but you won’t draw nasty looks if you wear jeans. At the symphony the convention is to applaud when the entire work is complete, not between movements. If in doubt, just wait and see. No talking during the performances, please!

I walked into the opera cold several years ago on a friend’s advice, and it literally changed my life. So … if you’re curious, I hope this gives you some help.

Useful Resources

San Francisco Classical Voice – The best place to find out about events, hands down. Also includes articles, news, and reviews.
SF Symphony – Season and box office.
SF Opera – Season and box office.
SF Ballet – Season and box office.
San Francisco Performances – Excellent solo and small ensemble series in San Francisco.
Cal Performances – Excellent solo and small ensemble series in Berkeley, as well as theater and dance.
SF Early Music Society – Good resource for early music.
Gold Star – Offers discount tickets to many events. Highly recommended if you’re on a budget.
San Francisco Chronicle critic Joshua Kosman – Insightful and articulate criticism and reviews.


Written by Mesocosm

June 14, 2011 at 10:57 pm

Creative Misinterpretations: SF Opera’s Ring Cycle

with one comment

The San Francisco Opera production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen gets many things right, and a few things very wrong.

Note: This post contains spoilers.

It is perhaps a quixotic gesture at this late date to criticize non-traditional productions of Wagner’s mighty Ring, but the San Francisco Opera’s current production illustrates the pitfalls of such an approach. The production is superb in many aspects. Under the commanding baton of Donald Runnicles the orchestra offers a dynamic and bracing interpretation, and a dazzling collection of vocal and acting talents includes not one but two superb Siegfrieds in Jay Hunter Morris and Ian Storey, as well as audience-favorite Nina Stemme as Brünnhilde, and David Cangelosi in a surprisingly engaging turn as Mime, a character I never thought I could love.

So with all due respect, and much is due, let us turn to the staging.

Patrice Chéreau and Pierre Boulez caused a scandal when they set the opening of Das Rheingold at a hydroelectric dam in their 1976 Bayreuth production. Today the action of The Ring is transposed to different times and places so often, it has become the norm. The LA Opera recently offered an abstract version with design elements suggesting a “Star Wars” influence (video here), and the New York Met is currently staging a version set around a large contraption of moving planks (video here). Seattle remains a holdout of traditional stagings and costumes.

Director Francesca Zambello has set the San Francisco Opera’s current production in a landscape evoking urban decay and ecological catastrophe. The corrupting influence of this Ring is measured by anthropogenic contamination that chokes the land with pollution, steadily worsening over the course of the four operas.

Das Rheingold sets the wheels in motion in the Industrial Revolution. Signs of trouble are clearly visible on the horizon when Walküre shows plutocratic gods in a corporate boardroom Valhalla. By the time Siegfried opens the world has been overrun. We find our hero living with Mime in a trailer parked in a squalid urban waste land strewn with rubbish. One wonders if Siegfried purloined his bear from a nearby zoo. By Act III of Götterdämmerung, the weary, land-bound Daughters of the Rhine heap bags of trash into piles.

The Industrial Revolution was well underway in Germany when The Ring was written, so it goes without saying that if Wagner had wished to tell a story about pollution and decay, he would have done so. Indeed, many of the core themes of Wagner’s musical drama are strikingly contemporary in resonance, such as his criticism of the exploitation of labor.

The interpolation of the environmental theme, then, is without question an addition to Wagner’s work. To get a sense of why The Ring is uniquely unsuited to the superimposition of extraneous themes, let us briefly review what Wagner had in mind when he wrote the work.

Wagner’s Theory of The Ring

Richard WagnerWagner wrote the music and the libretto for The Ring over a period of some twenty-six years, and no other work in the standard repertoire has been so thoroughly documented by its composer. Wagner left copious writings behind in which he clearly set out his compositional theory. One of the great miracles of The Ring is the degree to which he succeeded in reaching his stated goals.

Wagner’s central conception was to present an experience of music and drama united into a coherent statement that operates simultaneously on the levels of story, imagery, and music, with each level interacting with the others. In the service of this vision, he employed the leitmotif for which the work is famous — a device that he did not invent; but developed far beyond all precedent.

A leitmotif is a musical theme that is paired with a corresponding image, action, or idea. Wagner used leitmotifs to organizes and bind the musical structure of this colossal composition, and to constantly translate the the language of the libretto into the emotional and intuitive register of music. This interaction creates a synergy between the dramatic meaning of the opera and its expressive musical themes. The aggregate effect over the course of this long work is so powerful that certain motives become drenched with meaning, sometimes to such an extent that it seems impossible to remember a time when the motives did not clearly signify their particular resonance. They become as ingrained as the melody of “Happy Birthday.”

Wagner described The Ring as a unified art work, or Gasamtkunstwerk. He probably did not invent this concept, but raised it from a state of obscurity to a term in universal parlance by the success of The Ring.

In his influential essay “The Artwork of the Future” Wagner describes his conception of a unified art work:

Just as the joinery of my individual scenes excluded every alien and unnecessary detail, and led all interest to the dominant chief mood, so did the whole building of my drama join itself into one organic unity, whose easily surveyed members were made out by those fewer scenes and situations which set the passing mood: no mood could be permitted to be struck in any one of these scenes that did not stand in a weighty relation to the moods of all the other scenes, so that the development of the moods of all the other scenes, the constant obviousness of this development, should establish the unity of the drama in its very mode of expression. (1)

Wagner laboriously composed The Ring to produce a specific effect, based on the meticulously-designed concord of all of its various elements. We need not speculate, then, on how he would have felt about the interpolation of a foreign layer of symbolism on his work. Any extraneous element or theme a director adds to The Ring not only introduces new elements into a work that is already extremely dense with musical and dramatic ideas, but disrupts its carefully conceived unity.

This has a direct and predictable dramatic effect. Throughout the San Francisco production I found that when the scenes were set in a traditional vein, I was completely absorbed in what I was experiencing. When foreign design elements were at play, the spell was broken, and I was put into a intellectual relationship with the material. I would think about what was being shown and why, instead of feeling like a part of the world.

Image Confusion

Ring PosterLet us consider the San Francisco Opera’s program cover (pictured left). We have an image of a Valkyrie, possibly Brünnhilde, in silhouette, holding a spear. Around the base of the spear coils a sinewy vine, suggestive of the Ash Tree.

This image is an amalgamation of some of the important symbols in the drama, apparently chosen at random and assembled into an incoherent form. The spear belongs to Wotan; Brünnhilde does not wield it, nor can she be coherently associated with its many meanings. The spear, carved as it is from the wood of the cosmic Ash Tree, symbolizes the process by which spontaneous natural forms are perverted when harnessed, such as when the Rhine Gold is forged into a ring. That makes it an ill fit with the new growth suggested by the seedling, about which I’ll have more to say later.

These points are not important in themselves, but they are typical of the production. The creative team sometimes seems to either not know or not care what the images mean and how they function. But The Ring was designed as a unified work of art organized by ideas and meanings, so the symbols are integral to the structure.

Perhaps the most disturbing dissonance in the production is the contradiction that sometimes separates the lyrics from what we are seeing. When Siegfried travels through the forest, he sings about the forest setting, but those references are stricken from the supertitles. Likewise, when we we meet the Norns in the prelude to Götterdämmerung, they are laying cables instead of weaving threads. The lyrics describe weaving while the supertitle translations refer to “laying cable,” which is a jarring dissonance. Presenting the audience with a contradiction pushes them out of the scene, and arbitrarily falsifying the translation of the libretto strikes me as a cheap tactic.

But something deeper than dramatic effect is at stake. Wagner has something to say about the relationship between the human spirit and nature. In his Siegfried, we get to know a hero who is a spontaneous man of action, unburdened by the corrupting influences of political entanglements or social bonds. His qualities of character are rooted in his love of the forests in which he dwells. We travel with him through that landscape and pause together to hear beautiful motives that have been described by musicologists as the “song of the birds” and “forest murmurs.”

Das Rheingold - Seattle OperaIn Götterdämmerung Siegfried at last wakens from the dark spell that has made him forget who he is and has turned him into a monster. He returns to his true self when he returns to the woods, and remembers the song of the bird. It is a song to which he had ceased to listen, and a song that closely resembles that of the Rhine Daughters, the charming agents of uncorrupted nature. His memory of what the bird taught him reminds him of his own identify, his love, his passion, and his commitments, which had been displaced by the bargains and deceits of the Gibichung court.

This beautiful relationship between Siegfried’s character and nature is all but destroyed when he is moved to a junkyard, and when his references to the natural world are blocked from his dialog. Ironically, this is apparently in the service of an environmental message. Which environmental message will resonate more deeply with audience members: Wagner’s carefully interwoven themes of nature developed throughout The Ring in mutually-reinforcing dialog, music, character, and action, or Zambello’s image of the Rhine Daughters heaving sacks of rubbish?

Spoiler alert!

Zambello’s final revision in the last moments of The Ring is the great interpretive blunder of the cycle, one that shows her to be tone deaf to Wagner’s work and to tragedy as a whole. The apocalyptic image of the world-ending fire — a fire lit by the funeral pyre of the two principle characters — sets up a tepid scene of a child bearing a new sapling onto stage and planting a new World Tree as the drama’s final gesture.

Surely if there is one thing that any director of tragedy must know, it is Aristotle’s concept of catharsis. Tragedy functions by inviting the audience members to participate in the action on the stage through their identification with the the characters, and to undergo thereby a symbolic death of tremendous psychological power. Zambello’s sapling is a facile gesture that disrupts the climax of Wagner’s towering tragedy and robs the audience of catharsis.

In Wagner’s conception, a legendary love has led to dreadful death, and the feeling of these events is of such magnitude that it is mirrored in the destruction of the heavens. The world itself breaks apart under the strain of its own contradictions. All things are consumed in fire and are washed back into the great primordial waters of the overflowing Rhine, from which all things arose in the very beginning of Das Rheingold. We have a classical depiction of the human heart exploding past the bounds of limit, rupturing the very power of form to bind the world into shape. This puts us squarely in a line with Aeschylus and Aristotle, by way of Schopenhauer.

The cute little girl with the tree could not be more counter to that effect, and by capping the gargantuan climax with that moment, its force is compromised and its message rejected. It disrupts the catharsis of The Ring and robs the audience of the payoff to which the entire opera has built, replacing it with a gesture of that is merely sentimental.

The fact that re-interpretations of The Ring have become commonplace does not give directors license to use them without care. Directors should ask themselves if their changes will add more than they subtract, and with a work as carefully composed as The Ring, they rarely will.


1. Wagner, Richard. ed. by Goldman, Albert and Evert Sprinchorn. On Music and Drama. Da Capo Press. 1964. pp. 227-8.

Written by Mesocosm

June 6, 2011 at 10:20 pm

Posted in Music, Reviews

Tagged with , , , , ,