Friday, January 22, 2010

A Rainy Week In Southern California

After two full weeks of positively summer-like weather (high temperatures were up in the mid 70's F or around 23C here) Old Man Winter finally realized that Southern California is still quite a bit north of the Equator and therefore on his legitimate hit-list this time of year... So, for the past 5 days, the weather here has been looking like this ...

I'm a few miles inland from the waterfront now, so I'm not affected by flooding. Power was out for a few hours Wednesday, though, and the palm trees lining the streets here are looking balder than usual (woe to the cars that were parked below them!). I went out and got my grocery shopping done during a break in all the airy howliness and was rewarded by a glimpse of a rainbow! This is Southern California, mates... When people say it's raining here, it usually is only sprinkling, so rainbows don't stop by this way all that often.

Anyhow, with all the time being stuck inside I managed to learn how to cook another Thai dish... Egg & pork paloh (paelo) soup.

All you need are: cubed pork, hard boiled eggs, hard tofu, Chinese five spice mix, salt, brown sugar, and soy sauce. It is actually easier to make than I thought it would be, though it does take a while (about 40 minutes).

Carmen HD Broadcast (Garanca/ Alagna)

... Having convinced myself that timeliness is a virtue unknown to anyone whose screen-name is only a couple of letters different from both a slug and a snail, I indulge myself on procrastination and happily fail to acknowledge the unfashionable-ness of writing about things a whole week after they had gone out of the hip list. After all, Haiti remains quite thoroughly ruined now as it was a week ago, and Elina Garanca's performance as Carmen last week at the Met can't get any less stellar no matter how late I report on it.... I think.In case anyone still isn't privy to it, the Metropolitan Opera is having quite good success broadcasting many of its performances in high definition to movie theaters around the globe. If you are living in a big American city, chances are there is a theater near you carrying the gig!

I should state outright that I went into the well packed theater rather skeptical of Elina Garanca in the title role of this fiery Spanish-flavored French opera. She has always struck me as something of a gorgeous voiced ice queen, whose singing is invariably flawless and dramatically uninvolving. But man, how wrong she showed me to be last Saturday! That she is one of the most beautiful women to grace the operatic stage is already a given, but that she could transform herself into a deliciously poisonous femme fatale to gay guys and straight women (and everything in between) alike was a revelation worth paying a fortune to see (which I didn't... tickets to Met HD broadcast are only $22!).

Frau G was gorgeous with clothes on (and even more when it was just barely on... as was the case in the final scene) and sang gorgeously and expressively even when afflicted with all the dance moves imposed on her by Richard Eyre, the stage director (how in the world does she keep singing like that while being carried around supine by the dancers in a mystery worth a scientific investigation). I still think she slipped back into cold and detached singing during the most dramatic moments of the opera (Act III tarot card scene and the final scene with Jose) and that sometimes her super clean French diction gets in the way of the music, but theatrically the lass was absolutely beyond any criticism through out the evening.

As her temperamental Don Jose was the acclaimed French tenor, Roberto Alagna, whose Sicilian disposition is a perfect fit for the hot blooded soldier from Navarre. As theatrically convincing as he was, though, his singing was rather suspect especially up top. After quite a few wayward top notes during his duet with the stellar Micaela of Barbara Frittoli (beautifully well rounded portrayal if with too wide a vibrato on held notes) you could actually see his Carmen quietly bracing for the worst as her Jose worked himself up to the climatic lines of the famous Act II flower song.... which was quite drastically improvised into a phraseful of falsetto. But one must give M. Alagna credit for his rallying back in the final two acts and earning his warm ovations at the curtain. Everyone has a bad day every now and then, to dig himself in and make a fine lemonade out of a (hopefully temporary) sour voice is a good show of character!

Mariusz Kwiecien was slated to sing Escamillo (I liked him a lot when he was here singing the Count in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro in 2007) but took ill and was replaced on short notice by New Zealander Teddy Tahu Rhodes (previously known to me as the Pilot in Portman's The Little Prince), who gave a good performance as a dashing and very tall bull fighter. The young Canadian maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin led the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra on a spirited pace that made the whole show seemed half its length (a good thing considering that the one intermission lasted a good 40 minutes!). 

If this show is ever released as a commercial DVD, I'd be hard pressed to have to choose between it and the DVD from the ROH with Anna Caterina Antonacci and Jonas Kaufmann as Carmen and Jose (Garanca compares very well with Antonacci, whose choreography makes her seem too vulgar for me for much of the show. Kaufmann gives the superior performance on both theatrical and musical front, though I like Nézet-Séguin's brisk pacing better than Pappano's sometimes sluggish tempo, but the ROH cast also has Elena Xanthoudakis as its sterling voiced Frasquita).... Though I'm still hoping for a DVD release of this same opera from Opernhaus Zurich with the singular Vesselina Kasarova in the title role! Three good recent DVDs of the show surely is better than just one, ay?

Anyhow, the sold out audience were rightfully ecstatic about the performance (and it seems the Met is enjoying quite a box office hit with the thing). I'm compelled to try to catch the re-broadcast of Der Rosenkavalier next Wednesday... and get into a seriously operatic mood by the time the San Diego Opera season begins with La Boheme on the 30th!

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Haiti: A Quake Needs Attending To Properly

We had a relatively minor earthquake near here (a 5.8 one just south of the Mexican border) 2 weeks ago that didn't even manage to skew the pictures and calenders on my wall here in San Diego. It wasn't scary (unless for folks experiencing their first one, perhaps), but it did remind a bunch of us that one of these days the more appropriate immediate verbal response to the shaking on the ground would be 'Sh*t!' instead of 'Cool!'... Port au Prince, Haiti is apparently on the same type of fault line as California's (in)famous San Andreas Fault (it doesn't run through San Diego, but skirts the mountains on our eastern border), so I can imagine what's going on there happening near here one day (perhaps not to the same catastrophic extent, but still not 'Cool!' inducing in the least).

So, for those of us who haven't already done anything to help but would like to (after all, just sitting there feeling sorry for the Haitians really aren't going to do them or anyone any good), here is a great webpage listing what organizations are on the ground in Haiti who can really use your donation (of any size) and how to contact them... along with helpful precautions against those soulless predators who wouldn't think twice about setting up a scam on the 'help Haiti here' theme to benefit themselves.

A lot of Haitians were living on $2 a day, so even a $5 donation would go a much longer way there than you might expect.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

A Chat with Gary McKercher, San Diego Master Chorale's Forward-Looking Music Director

Established in 1961 as the San Diego Symphonic Chorale attached to the San Diego Symphony Orchestra, the San Diego Master Chorale broke off to become an independent art organization supported by a grant from the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture and by private donations in 1979. The SDMC performs 25 or more concerts each year all over the city and even abroad, with a vast choral repertoire ranging from spiritual to classical to operatic numbers. I heard them for the first time in April 2008 singing in the world premiere of Daniel Kellogg's The Fiery Furnace with the San Diego Symphony (the collaboration won them the 2009 Chorus America/ASCAP Alice Parker Award), and have since been so impressed with their consistent excellence that I stopped by at their reception table during a recent concert of Beethoven's 9th symphony not long ago and, with the help of Dr. Carol Manifold, the SDMC's vice president, got to ask their music director, Dr. Gary McKercher, a few questions:

Smorg: Is the SDMC composed of mostly local singers? Do you get big turn outs at your auditions?
Gary McKercher: SDMC draws its membership from every direction of San Diego County. Audition turnouts vary from a half dozen to as many as 20-25 singers. There doesn't seem to be a pattern.

Smorg: Is singing at the SDMC a full-time job or secondary job for the singers?
GM: If by job you mean, a real job with remuneration, it is neither full or secondary. All singers are amateur/volunteer performers, generally with an extensive singing background. They are rigorously auditioned. Unless retired or having someone in the household bringing home the tofu, no singer could live on a union wage even if we were paid. The payoff is solely musical and the joy of the corporate singing experience.

Smorg: Has the economic downturn been rough for the SDMC in the past year?
GM: It has had its negative impact. The largest hit was suffered in the men's sections with members losing jobs and having to leave the area permanently, or jobs that stayed here and were expanded making it impossible to meet the SDMC performance schedule and many variations on this exclusive theme. A few local critics seem not to uniformly understand the social dynamics of this situation for our organization and others like it. If a job or family takes singers away, I don't have a pool of professionals to whom I can immediately turn.

Smorg: I feel I get every cent's worth of the ticket price every time I attend one of your performances. But it has to be a tough job to keep the entire chorus performing so well in so many different repertoire. How do you keep everybody so musically on-the-same-page in a chorus this big? Is the rehearsal time taking up all the weekends and holidays?
GM: SDMC rehearses one night a week for 2 1/2 hours and that's the whole cahuna. I very, very seldom schedule weekend rehearsals, and never holidays unless we are contracted by the SDSO (i.e. 4th of July). When the preparations tend to get crowded, I have a system of musical checkpoints which identifies for singers the sections, or movements, or entire pieces that must be ready by a designated date. Thus far, it has worked pretty well, but I always feel a bit like a well-known variety show act, the one where a guy is spinning plates at the top of sticks. When one is wound up another is winding down and needs attention.

Each Monday post-rehearsal, I have to assess what the group has or has not achieved, whether or not I can leave things that might be improved simply through repetition for the following rehearsals, but also that which will need much more time refining. The expectation is that the black and white on the page will not be taught in rehearsal. That's singer homework.

Smorg: I was very pleased to see such a good audience turn out during the Beethoven 9th concerts in early December since classical music (choral and opera included) events here don't seem very prone to selling out. The SDMC has performed abroad in Europe where classical music isn't as far removed from the mainstream as it seems here. Do you notice many differences in how performances are organized and how the audience reacts in Europe versus here in America (I'm assuming that the European audience would tend to be more familiar with the music performed than the American audience would)?
GM: This is an interesting and perplexing question, one which I and many colleagues have pondered at length over the years. There seems to be a hunger for live performance overseas on a more consistent level than here. Let's face it, European classical music was transported to the States, and being an adopted somewhat elitist art music in its early life, it tended not be a music of the American people at large nor have their widespread interest.

Jazz and musical theatre is what America has uniquely contributed to the music world and these have had a major impact. The pervasiveness of popular culture in this country is seductive, but I sense no more so than in Europe. What is crucial to creating new audiences is that which happens in formative years in school and home with probably home being prime.

There is no logical reason why the Midwest has produced such a fertile choral culture other than these two sources and the strength of the academic, community, and religious choral traditions. When I was growing up in rural northern Iowa, one would be hard-pressed to have found a household either in town or country that did not have a piano. Every little Midwest town had a choir and a band and many still do. This can create a culture not only of performers, but eventually, listeners.

Smorg: Last year the Zurich Opera staged a performance of Verdi's La Traviata at their central train station and broadcast it live on TV. It was a major hit with the television audience in Switzerland. Do you think the same sort of thing can be attempted here? Would it successfully draw enough attention and new audience to classical music and opera to offset the cost?
GM: I applaud any efforts to bring new audiences to the music that we have grown to appreciate. Some of this may appear to be gimmick-laden, but so what? Last summer I attended a choral convention in Philadelphia where a new work, "Battle Hymns" was premiered in the city's 18th century armory, just a vast open warehouse area.

The work opened with a horse and rider sauntering in then out, followed by the appearance of a choir in military costume marching (after a fashion), but often moving during the piece. There were also dancers amidst the choir and a percussion ensemble stationed at opposite ends of the armory. By the way, the horse and rider returned to end the work.

Engaging? Arresting? Very... Groundbreaking? I'd say so. The performances not staged for the convention participants (mostly choral directors) later in the week were sold out. Something like what you mention and I describe could to be staged here in San Diego, but it takes an organization willing to take a risk and some major underwriters.

Smorg: Is there any chance of the SDMC doing Beethoven's Choral Fantasy or Verdi's Requiem in the near future? :oD
GM: We performed the Choral Fantasy January '09. Verdi has been done in past, but no plans for it in near future, but definitely being considered by SDSO in years to come.

Smorg: What is the best thing that could happen to a choral performance? Is there any sort of experience that makes one feel really good about singing at the SDMC?
GM: That it moves both audience and singers; that it explores familiar and unfamiliar musical terrain; that it represents the highest possible musical attainment and potential of the singers. That is makes hearts pump and tear ducts active. I loathe the common introduction to audiences just before a performance: "Sit back, relax, and enjoy the performance". I feel a really engaging concert should have people on the edge of their chairs, a little tense, and sometimes not entirely entertained, but at very least a concert experience that asks people to think and feel on several levels.

Smorg: Is there any sort of project/performance that you would really like to put on if you don't have to worry about funding or attracting good audience turn out?
GM: A concert of the most cerebral choral music currently available. Mind you, there is good stuff and there is a lot that is not so good. I throw one or two pieces of this nature on our self-produced concerts, but wish I could do more.

I am especially attracted to the music of the 20th century/new millennium Swedish choral school, but also the relatively unknown choral music of Max Reger, Bartok, Hindemith, Pizzetti, and Richard Strauss. There are some next generation Americans who belong on that list such as Stephen Paulus, Frank Ferko, Libby Larsen, Howard Helvey, Stephen Sametz and many others. It's almost overwhelming the number of good young composers currently creating for our art form.

Smorg: Aside from joining the San Diego Symphony in formal concerts and performing at private events, you also have excellent outreach programs that visit local schools and retirement homes. Tell us a bit about it?
GM: We have a dedicated corps of singers who have developed a program called "A History of Choral Music" which recently has taken off in a much more active way in county elementary and middle schools. It incorporates both recorded and live music to a visual track at a very basic, but engaging way in order to inform young listeners about the art form in which we are involved. The retirement home outreach is really a more "ears-on" experience where singers get seniors singing and listening to music that is familiar to them from their pasts through home, church, or school.

Pretty cool, ay? I didn't even realize before that the 125 men and women singers of the San Diego Master Chorale don't even get paid to perform. They are amateurs in the tradition of Bobby Jones, if you will, doing their thing for the love of the art. And doing it exceedingly well! If you ever find yourself in San Diego and with some free time on your hand, why not check to see if there is a SDMC performance going on near you? You can even hire them for private performances (like a wedding or other ceremonies). Visit their website at for more information.

Upcoming performances by the San Diego Master Chorale (2010):

February 14(4PM) - Sacred & Profane: Five Centuries of Music of Love and Laughter
Rancho Bernardo Presbyterian Church: 17010 Pomerado Rd, San Diego, CA 92128
March 20(8PM) - Cathedral Classics: Music for Choirs from Sacred Spaces
St. Paul's Cathedral (Banker's Hill): 2728 6th Avenue, San Diego, CA 92103
June 19(8PM) - Amigos in Concert: Music from Latin America
Copley Symphony Hall (Downtown): 1245 7th Avenue, San Diego, CA 92101

Belated New Year Post...

Hello! Hello! I hope everyone is having a good start to 2010! Yours truly is a bit spent at the moment. After years of going to no parties at all, I went to 4 (plus a cozy little get-together with friends) in the two weeks span of Christmas and New Year holidays. A very interesting experience, but one I can now happily put in the 'done that' category and retire back into my more comfortably boring loner mode for the rest of the year. But first thing first, here's a look at what the streets around here looked like at night for 4 weeks or so...

Some San Diegans sure know how to light up their neighborhood!

My flatmate and I went walking about Upas St. in North Park and then Ellingham St. in Rancho Penasquitos during the Christmas weekend, then drove by a particularly well lighted street in Point Loma over New Year. They had the lights on from sundown to about 10PM or so... Pretty good show of the holiday spirits after a rough economic year!

Shots of the much publicized New Year blue moon were taken, of course. La luna was rather disappointingly small for my taste, though she was still quite an effective howl-inspirer.

Sorry, no recording was made of my wolf-ihood, so I'll supplement your imagination of what could have (but surely didn't) sounded when
I looked up on the clear year-changing night sky to see the full silvery orb with...

Adrienne Pieczonka's rendition of the Moon Song from Antonin Dvorak's Rusalka, the operatic treatment of the beloved story
of the Little Mermaid who gives up her voice in the quest for humanhood and her beloved prince.

It's been a few weeks since the festivities, but I'm still feeling like a bloated blimp. These are some of the varied cuisines I helped to demolished over the holidays: a tableful of savory Filipino food (I was told what they are, but my brain retains nothing :o( ), juicy honey ham (3 of the parties served that and we took home a chunk of left-over), an authentic gingerbread house... without any child-eating witch inside!

It took us 3 weeks to finish off all the left-overs our kind hosts endowed us with. I'm still so round and massive that I'm still using inertia as the main excuse for my sluggish pace at answering emails and reading posts and posting stuff. That, and the fact that I've been working on a side project of interviewing interesting folks around town... The latest being Dr. Gary McKercher of the San Diego Master Chorale (will post the interview separately here shortly) and Ian Campbell, the Impresario of San Diego Opera.

Thanks everyone for dropping by! I hope 2010 has started well for you and continuing to get better. For those in Europe and North America (or other cold places far north of the Equator, for that matter), I hope the weather gets much more manageable and comfortable your way soon! It would be wonderful if you could send me snow and I the warm sunshine in return... I know my fellow San Diegans will hate me for it, but I actually like winter to behave like Winter!