Thursday, July 13, 2017

Music beneath Hale’s mighty eye


Works for violin and ‘cello, Mount Wilson Observatory

I wonder whether Dan Kohne and other Trustees and members of the Mount Wilson Observatory staff experienced a real “ah-ha!” moment when they first thought of using the dome of its 100-inch telescope as a music venue? One hopes so, because the concerts by Ben Powell (violin) and Cécilia Tsan (‘cello) on Sunday 9 July demonstrated the concept’s viability with stunning success (we heard the 5 p.m. recital; the artists had already played the same three works, by Johan Halvorsen, Reinhold Glière, and Kodály, at 3 p.m.) 

Everything contributed to a sense of specialness – the long drive out from LA’s teeming traffic and 100˚F heat and up the increasingly winding and precipitous road to the 5700ft. mountain-top elevation; glimpses of the great white dome amidst bare pine-trees; once inside, climbing the lofty open stairway to the floor level of the telescope itself; first sight of the vast cool interior with its skeletal blue-painted giant vertical in the center; and finally the majestic drawing apart of the roof aperture (to allow natural light) and slow, near-silent revolution of the entire dome, complete with audience in situ, before the performers made their entrance.

Ideally, a guided tour is needed to get a proper sense of the sheer audacity of the Observatory’s builders over a century ago, and of the propelling vision behind them – Chicago astronomer George Ellery Hale’s determination to build ever more powerful telescopes to reveal the hidden wonders of the universe. After a brave but abortive attempt in 1889-90 by Harvard and USC astronomers to establish a permanent observatory on Mount Wilson, Hale arrived in 1903 and, funded by the Carnegie Foundation, took over the task. 

Most ambitious were his two giant reflecting telescopes, the first with a 60-inch mirror – not quite the largest-ever, but far more sophisticated in design and flexible in use than any previous. Then, while the 60-inch was still being built, Hale – this time with funding from LA hardware magnate John D. Hooker – pushed forward with the mirror casting and then construction of Mount Wilson’s crowning glory, the 100-inch reflector, a century old this year. 

In such a unique venue with that background, it would be easy to view the actual performance as secondary, but this was emphatically not the case due to the interest of the program chosen by Ms. Tsan and Mr. Powell (right), and the passion and commitment of their playing. The order of items changed: the first piece, listed as Passacaglia [by] Haendel-Halvorsen, was moved to the end to act effectively as an encore, and this worked very well. 

The now rarely-heard Norwegian composer really deserves most of the compositional credit, as the 29-year-old Halvorsen in 1893 subjected Handel’s harpsichord original, published in 1720, to a very free and furiously virtuosic reworking that pits the two soloists as equal high-wire athletes, requiring razor-sharp ensemble and spot-on intonation. It came as quite a shock from a composer I’d tended to think of as amiable and a little unexciting, and Hale’s dome reverberated with deserved audience cheers for a performance of edge-of-seat excitement. 

The opening item comprised the first three and penultimate of Glière’s Eight Pieces (“Huit Morceaux”) for violin and violoncello Op. 39: Prélude, Gavotte, Berceuse, and Scherzo. Glière was Ukrainian by birth (he adopted the French-style spelling of his name around 1900), and by the time these pieces were written in 1909 he was thoroughly installed as a teacher in Moscow’s Gnesin Institute. 

Befitting the cosmopolitan musical climate that prevailed in pre-Revolutionary Russia, there is nothing audibly Slavic in the style of his Morceaux, but rather – after the slightly ominous Prélude – a gentle and tuneful sensibility across what amounts to a small-scale suite, which fits with the French of both of the movement titles and that of the complete work. These four short pieces, with their even-handed distribution of melodic interest between the two instruments, benefited just as much from the care and commitment with which Ms. Tsan and Mr. Powell projected them as did the more demanding music that followed. 

The main work was Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello Op.7, composed in 1914. While not as rare a figure in the concert-hall as Halvorsen and Glière, Zoltán Kodály is by no means a program staple, but among violin/cello chamber works his Duo must surely stand as one of the genre’s masterpieces. Equally surely it is undersold by its title, being in three movements totaling nearly a half-hour, and thus outbulking many a sonata. Its rhetorical intensity is established from the very first measure of the opening Allegro serioso, non troppo, with a passionate cantilena from the ‘cello outlined against slashing chords on the violin. The combination throughout of leaping melody and highly chromatic tonality, dynamics that range from ff outpourings to delicate pp pizzicato ostinati, and abrupt changes of tempi, all against an earthy underpinning of Hungarian folk-music influence, make for a pungent and compulsive whole, and I would love to hear Ms. Tsan and Mr. Powell, absolutely at one and surmounting all its challenges, play it again. 

After such a triumphant success it’s good to know that this is intended to become a series, with Ms. Tsan as Artistic Director. Meanwhile, even without the lure of great live music, Mount Wilson Observatory is a wonderful place to visit


100-Inch Telescope Dome, Mount Wilson Observatory, Sunday 9 July 2017, 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. Photos: Interiors: Cécilia Tsan; Exterior: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis, courtesy Los Angeles Magazine.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Shilvock, Part 2: Leadership, and Creating a New Canon

Simon Pauly, SF Opera

INTERVIEW: San Francisco Opera

War Memorial Opera House

Erica Miner: How does Wagner’s magnum opus remain relevant in our day and age, historically and politically? 

Matthew Shilvock: I’ve been thinking a lot about the “connective tissue” between the Ring and John Adams’s Girls of the Golden West. Both pieces are very much focused on the quest for power, the greed for success and frenzy of people coming together trying to find quick wealth. There’s a huge amount of parallels that become more overt as we spend time with John Adams’s piece. Francesca’s conception of the Ring, the despoiling of nature and that tradeoff between hunger for power and the natural world, those themes are very much present in both of those pieces, but also in modern-day Bay Area. That goes back to this notion of building this bridge between the community and the opera company, finding ways of telling stories or the stories themselves, in the case of John Adams, that help us understand who we are right here in the Bay Area. 

EM: That’s what people respond to in such a big way. 

MS: Hugely so. That was a big part of the success of Dream of the Red Chamber last September. It allowed a new community within the Bay Area, the Asian American community, to understand how one of their great stories could be expressed on stage. 

EM: What are some of the supplementary activities related to the Ring that will take place in connection with Bay Area cultural institutions? 

MS: We know there are some people who just want to delve as deep as possible into the Ring. Other people just want to express it on their own terms, but for people who want to delve deep we’re putting together symposia, lectures, maybe even some concerts through the course of each cycle, utilizing the space next door like the Wilsey Center, so that people can feel they can take that journey on an even deeper level if they want to. We haven’t yet announced the specifics of that, but I think people who are coming to the city, or even in the city, can feel like they can spend a whole week immersed in the Ring. We’re working with various partners, including the Wagner Society, to put together some really interesting speakers. Again the quest for understanding the Ring is so deep with people, we can glimpse it through them. 

EM: Let’s talk about The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

MS: Yes! 

EM: There’s been an incredible amount of media attention surrounding Mason Bates. What led to your company’s co-commissioning the opera? 

MS: Cal Performances had already been involved in terms of the commission process, and they were participants in workshops that happened over the last few years. When Santa Fe took it on they were looking for partner companies. That was about the time of the transition here. When I assumed the role I had the chance to hear it workshopped at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and was blown away by the humanity that Mason was writing, and librettist Mark Campbell as well. I’d known about the development of the piece for a while. I was concerned it was too close to us, too recent for us to take on. The story of Steve Jobs here is very different from anywhere else in the country taking on the story. This is a community that he was a part of; people know him, his family. I was concerned that we be thoughtful about entering a piece like that. Having had the chance to listen to the piece at a workshop I came out of it saying, “How can we not be a part of this?” It not only tells the story of Steve Jobs’ life, it tells of modern day humanity in general - the tensions between work, life, love and relationships, how one prioritizes one’s life, how one looks back at the end and say, “Have I made the right choices? Did I put my priorities in the right place?” It does that in a very sweeping, beautiful way. The relationship between Jobs and both his girlfriend Chrisann and his wife Laurene - Laurene really comes out as the heroine of the piece, the moral compass in many ways. I just found it an achingly beautiful story, not in any way just a biographical piece of opportunistic writing. This was something much, much deeper, finding an emotional core in an iconic figure known for his products and success. 

EM: He’s had a huge impact on everyone. 

MS: Absolutely. Really defining a lot of how you think about technology now. This opera really pushed beyond that. It’s speculative because it’s a piece of art, but also the emotional underpinnings of one of the great icons of the 20th and 21st centuries. I was thrilled that we could join and become a part of that project and really talk to the importance of this community out of which Steve Jobs flourished, a real connection to that operatic story. It will be 3 years before we do it, 2020. Nonetheless I think it was very important we were a part of it from the beginning. 

EM: By the time you do it here, it’s going to become iconic.

Simon Pauly, SF Opera
MS: Right. It’s good that sometimes pieces have a chance to live and breathe before they get to a stage this big. It’s a daunting place to unleash a brand-new work. The most important thing to me is that we get a great work to the stage. It doesn’t have to be the first time it ever appears. EM: Speaking of brand-new work, how would you compare this opera with John Adams’ Girls of the Golden West that will premiere in November? Are the two composers totally different overall? 

MS: I think they have a very different style. But I do think there’s a great self-assuredness about both writers, which I find very appealing. A certain self-understanding of what they’re trying to accomplish in their music, which comes across very powerfully. There’s also an appreciation of the human voice and its storytelling capabilities. The fact that they’re both Bay Area composers is a wonderful testament to the fertile creativity of this community, and of course Jake Heggie as well. We’re doing his It’s a Wonderful Life next year. What a great affirmation of the creative energy of the Bay Area. 

EM: We did Jake’s Great Scott in San Diego and I interviewed him a couple of times. He is such a breath of fresh air, and full of energy. So you have these 3 composers, not to mention Mark Campbell, who is wonderful, all creating in this day and age, 400 hundred years after opera began. 

MS: It’s a great gift. I’m thrilled that we can celebrate John Adams, in his 70th birthday year, in this way that’s so fitting - tying a story of part of the world in which he lives - that we are raising a curtain on that here in the Bay Area. 

EM: The founding of the city and the state. 

MS: Right. You really feel you can reach back and touch that history, that it’s being illuminated in this dramatic way on stage, with costumes and scenic elements. Act 2 is this recreation of a 24-foot-diameter, 1,000-year-old tree stump from Calaveras State Park that was felled in 1850s for fun. The tree itself is still lying there, you can still see it, nothing was done with it, and it became an image of the environmental movement, John Muir. So there’s so many layers of local resonance tied up in that, just as there will be in the Steve Jobs opera. 

EM: Different times, different periods, yet it all comes together as part of this part of the world. 

MS: A depiction of the energy of this part of the world and that quest for the next thing of that frontier spirit, which is still very pervasive. 

EM: Tell us about your “Opera for All Voices: Stories of Our Time” project. 

MS: We have been talking with Santa Fe Opera for a couple of years now about trying to improve the amount of really good quality family operas that can be done by companies large and small. Really focus on the importance of building a canon. Over the years we’ve refined this program - again, Santa Fe has been a tremendous lead and partner - to try and come up with a framework that will allow our company to not only create those new pieces but also help mentor and guide composers in the creation of those pieces. So we’re actually feeding the field as opposed to just creating works. The idea is that there will be a number of pieces commissioned through the process, the first of which we have invited a composer and librettist to undertake that journey. Then they will become mentors as part of a competition that will find some exciting new voices. To create a sustainable platform by producing works of unshakable quality that will stand the test of time, also help encourage new composers to write for the family genre. 

EM: Lay a foundation for the future. 

MS: Exactly. There’s attributes that make for a successful family opera. We collectively, along with a consortium of 5 or 6 other companies, want on a national basis to set the importance of that as a priority for the field. I’m excited to see what comes out of that. 

EM: As am I. It seems entirely different from anything anyone else has done. 

MS: I think we have to start thinking more collectively in many different areas of the arts. There’s such an exciting swirl of commissioning happening, just unbelievable the pace in this country, and that’s tremendous. But I think if we can focus that a little bit around a certain number of companies and say, “Let’s collectively try and put our resources into something that will be of sustainable benefit for the whole field.” Hopefully we’ll come out of it with works that really can speak to different communities. 

EM: I can’t wait to see what’s going to happen. 

MS: [Laughs.] 

EM: I’m excited by what your company is doing, Matthew, and this has been wonderful. Thank you so much. 

MS: Erica, thank you. Such a pleasure to spend time with you.

Simon Pauly, SF Opera


Photo credits: SF Opera
Erica Miner can be reached at:

Friday, July 7, 2017

Matthew Shilvock Ponders Priorities, Wagner, Steve Jobs

Photo: Simon Pauly, SF Opera

INTERVIEW: San Francisco Opera

War Memorial Opera House

Since his appointment as San Francisco Opera’s seventh General Director, Matthew Shilvock has become known throughout the opera world for his leadership and passion in guiding the company into a well-deserved media spotlight. 

Originally a part of former General Director David Gockley’s transition team, Shilvock assisted Gockley closely in every facet of the company’s management. Now, as newly minted General Director, Shilvock is hands-on, continuing that role: overseeing repertoire, producing community events, administering the company’s Artists Program; and, according to the company’s mission statement, “poised to lead the Company into a bold new era.” 

Two exciting projects are slated for the near future: a return of the company’s 2011 Ring of the Nibelungen (legendary Wagnerian soprano Kirsten Flagstad sang her first complete Ring with the company in 1935), and a co-production with Santa Fe Opera and Seattle Opera of local composer Mason Bates’s boldly creative new opera, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs

Erica Miner: You’ve been deeply committed to the cause of the performing arts during your entire career. What led you to the field of executive management in arts administration? 

Matthew Shilvock: I’ve always been a musician. I began piano at age 4, then took on cello and organ. Playing and studying music were always part of my childhood, very much my drive. I began my opera journey at about age 12, seeing a production of what was then the Birmingham Touring Opera, I think, now just Birmingham Opera, Graham Vick’s company, which he established some decades ago as a way to engage the community. It was a really innovative, participatory exploration of the art form for me at that point. The first opera I saw was a contemporary Beauty and the Beast, done in television studios in Birmingham. The audience was part of the action. I loved that sense of participation, my first sense of how engaging opera can be. Then I went on to university in Oxford, reading music. I think that’s where I developed a passion for arts administration. It was both a drive from the perspective of repertoire; and also from the administrative side the complexity of opera really appealed to me, the jigsaw puzzle-like interlocking nature of all these different art forms coming together. So that’s where the real seeds came from, artistic and administrative. 

EM: So that love of opera was first engendered when you were an adolescent, an impressionable time. 

MS: Right. The Welsh National Opera played in a number of cities, including Birmingham - the closest to me - and Oxford. It was a great way to learn the repertoire. I saw a good amount of it through the years. 

EM: Was there any particular repertoire that made the most impression on you when you were first starting out? 

MS: Probably Mozart and Wagner. And Strauss as well. 

EM: Strauss and Wagner go hand in hand. 

MS: Indeed. I remember immersing myself in those Colin Davis Mozart recordings, and really getting to know the Ring and seeing it for the first time in a concert performance in Birmingham Symphony Hall when the Opera was on hiatus. I never got to Götterdämmerung because I came down with mono. So I didn’t make it to the destruction of the world [Laughs].

EM: Eventually you did.

MS: Yes!

EM: Since the announcement of your appointment as General Director, you’ve overseen a plethora of opera activities: simulcasts, commissioning new projects, the Diane B. Wilsey Center for Opera, the professional Artists Training Program, not to mention the company’s ambitious season. Plus you have an active young family. How do you manage it all?

MS: [Laughs] When we first had young children I realized sleep is a luxury in life, so I was well prepared on that front. Having been here for almost 12 years, I knew what the rhythm of the company was, what the demands of the company were, these many layers of things we’re engaging in, so that wasn’t really a surprise. I don’t think my hours have changed that much. David Gockley had been wonderful in letting me into so many parts of the company. I was used to prioritizing things across different departments. I think what is changed is the amount of public-facing activity that one has; you really have to prioritize the limited amount of time you have sitting at a desk actually getting work done, having to be really thoughtful about that. So I’m learning my lesson.

Simon Pauly, SF Opera
EM: It’s only been a year and a half.

MS: [Laughs] But I have to say I love that part of the job. Getting to know the audience, the community, having that interaction with people who come into this building because they just love it so passionately and deeply. It’s quite an infectious energy to pick up on. We have hundreds of people who’ve been subscribing for 40, 50 years or more. There’s a great legacy of dedication to this company. I knew about that but I really experience it now in an even greater way.

EM: People who are passionate about opera to begin with, who are as devoted to opera as they are in this city - it must be incredible for you to be so immersed into every aspect of it day to day.

MS: You walk down the corridors of the Wilsey Center - the top floor is publicly accessible - there are two galleries showing the company’s history. It really gives you something to think about in terms of the legacy, the important work that’s happened on this stage. It’s incumbent upon us to create the next generation of that legacy.

EM: It’s this kind of work that you’re doing that’s so important in order for it to continue.

MS: Yes. The Rigoletto we just closed, for example, even though individual singers may not have the name recognition they used to, the compelling power of what they do on stage is still every bit as impactful. So to hear Quinn Kelsey doing Rigoletto and this new tenor from our program, Pene Pati, doing the Duke, you felt the energy in the house. When you get artistry on the stage that is that powerful the audience knows and reacts to it regardless of name recognition.

EM: As these names become more familiar, people will identify them with Verdi, Mozart, Puccini. That’s what lives forever. You’re carrying this legacy forward. If anything deserves to live forever, it’s opera. I’m not biased of course.

MS: [Laughs.]

EM: One of your missions with the company is to “connect audiences with opera’s emotional core.” Could you comment on the connection between the season that just ended - the three love-oriented operas La Bohème, Don Giovanni and Rigoletto - and the legendary San Francisco “Summer of Love” of the 1960s?

MS: I think opera over the last century has sometimes painted itself into too intellectual a corner. It can be seen as this art form that requires too much knowledge to experience, appreciate and understand. That’s so far from the truth. Opera is one of the most emotional art forms. It renders so many people blubbering messes at the end of La Bohème or Traviata because it speaks to that inner core of who we are as human beings. You don’t need to understand the dramatic details about what disease consumption was, or living conditions in Paris of the 19th century. You need to understand how they relate to us as human beings now. Those relationships in terms of how we experience tensions, love, tragedy in our own families. That’s why we cry at the end of Bohème - because we feel something personal. It’s the most powerful, visceral thing imaginable. You don’t need a PhD in musicology to understand what’s on the stage. Even if you didn’t have the titles above the stage you’d probably still understand the tragedy at the end of Bohème. For me it’s encouraging the audience, trying to break down that barrier and return opera to its real emotional core. That’s where it’s most successful, what’s kept people coming back time and time again. Opera has sustained itself on a relatively small repertoire for 400 years, what has survived as a canon and regularly played today. Our ability to go back to some of these great pieces is because of their universality, timelessness and emotional core. That’s what we should be playing off as a company.

EM: Timeless is a key phrase. It goes back to the catharsis of the Greeks, then the Florentine Camerata.

MS: It’s so hard to find now, that ability to go into a place and experience something emotionally deep like that. To give oneself the freedom to do that for a few hours is a very special thing.  

EM: Which brings us to the Ring. Everyone I know in the opera world is hugely excited over the return of your 2011 production of Wagner’s Ring ( next summer. Would you say this overall excitement is matched within the company?

MS: I do think there’s a huge excitement for the Ring. I think people see it as the epitome of what a company can do. There’s a relatively small number of companies that do it, and with the kind of dramatic sweep that we had here in 2011 - to bring that back with a different cast but with the same foundational guidance of Donald Runnicles and Francesca Zambello, I think we’re in for something very special. The audience is responding very well. Ticket sales are above this time last spring. People seem passionately connected to this interpretation. It’s strong storytelling that resonates with an American aesthetic without being a difficult overlay of narrative on top of Wagner. It really exists to unlock Wagner’s narrative. The little things like the Citizen Kane-inspired Valhalla, or Brünnhilde’s rock being modeled on the Marin headlands - you don’t need to know those things, the opera exists successfully without knowing those things, but they’re little glimpses of comfort and connection. I think this particular conception of the Ring is one of the most successful pieces of dramatic storytelling, where you really feel at the end of 16 hours like you’ve gone on a deep and profound journey. I think the company, the audience, are really excited for it.

Photo: Simon Pauly, SF Opera
EM: Everybody’s rallying around. You say the word and it’s like a magical key to opening a door.

MS: [Laughs.]

EM: How would you describe Zambello’s “visionary” concept in this production?

MS: There’s two particular things I really admire in what she’s doing and has talked about in terms of framing this. One, is that it’s a family drama. Though it’s a story of gods, monsters, heroes, creatures, it ultimately comes down to a family story of about 20 people. That sustains itself through the course of the Ring. Again it comes back to that emotion of universality and connection to us as individuals. I think Francesca really makes those characters approachable on a more human scale. Wotan’s angst around his disappearing power is very much identified with one generation passing knowledge and leadership to the next generation. There’s anguish, tension of both letting go and also being proud of their taking the world forward. There’s a great immediacy in how she portrays these characters, even the lofty gods. The second is the critical role she gives Brünnhilde. Francesca’s conception that’s fundamental in Wagner’s conception is that Brünnhilde is the hero of the Ring. Wotan spends the first couple of operas looking for the hero that’s going to save the gods without realizing the hero is his own daughter. The way Brünnhilde emerges at the end is a very redemptive role. Francesca has said that she’s tried a number of different endings. Probably she’ll still keep refining the ending as we go into this cycle, to make sure it’s as powerfully stated as possible.

EM: To make something even more powerful than it is, that’s something not to be missed. And that continuity - you become invested in the characters at the beginning, then develop your own relationship with them.

MS: Exactly. To find those elements of the Ring that draw out your own life experiences. We have a young daughter now, so I think I will see the end of Walküre very differently than I did in 2011. That’s something I love about the Ring, it’s so multidimensional. Whatever stage of life you’re at you’re going to find a different point of reference.

EM: That’s one of the reasons people follow the Ring all over the world. It’s the same for me, playing it. I found something new and different every time that I didn’t realize was there.

MS: Motifs you didn’t notice before.

EM: Or connecting one motif to another. So as a performer you develop a relationship with it.

MS: It’s a great adventure, a great journey. Our hope is that people will make the journey in an engaging space, coming out of it feeling a great sense of having accomplished something as a listener.

Next, Part 2: Leadership, Creating a New Canon and Collective Sustainability


Photo credits: SF Opera
Erica Miner can be reached at: