Fiddling With Your Investments

In 2011, the “Lady Blunt” Stradivarius sold for $16-million (U.S.) A Guarneri del Gesu went for $10-million in 2009.

While investors with a heavy stock portfolio may have spent the past six years on a rollercoaster, investors in the rare-instrument market have been enjoying unprecedented good fortune. Prices have risen well ahead of inflation since the 1980s and accelerated even more since the turn of the century.

Good returns aren’t just for the top of the market and you needn’t be super rich to have some skin in the game.

Ric Heinl, a fourth-generation fine instrument dealer based in Toronto, says, “With the right guidance, if you buy a $10,000 instrument today, in 20 years you will double your money or, at the very least, find the rate of return to be quite to your satisfaction.”

A 2013 study by Brandeis University economists Kathryn Graddy and Philip Margolis found that from 2007 through 2012, rare violins outperformed fine art and the S&P 500 index.

One big advantage of the fine instrument market is its weak correlation to the stock market. Because prices remain unaffected by the bear-bull cycle or even global meltdowns, instruments make an ideal asset with which to balance a portfolio.

The insular nature of the market is partially because the supply is finite – it’s not like Stradivarius and company can resurrect themselves and make more fiddles – and because buyers tend to invest long-term.

A disadvantage is that instrument ownership can be difficult to get into – New York public radio station WQXR’s music business writer Brian Wise estimates only 10-20 per cent of instruments are sold on the open market.

It can also be difficult to get out of. “Unlike stocks, art is not fluid,” Mr. Heinl says. “When you decide to sell, it might take two days, but it might also take two years.”

There are also brokerage fees to buy or sell, and insurance (about half a cent on the dollar) as well as storage, appraisal and maintenance fees to consider. Commission is somewhere around 10-15 per cent of the instrument value, plus expenses. Auction house commissions can reach 35 per cent.

Most of the rare-instrument chatter is about violins, but there are also very fine violas and cellos available that achieve similar returns. Another alternative, especially if you don’t have a large starting pool, is bows.

“Bows are just as fine an investment as instruments,” Mr. Heinl says. “Each one has a different voice or personality. Top ones go for about $400,000, but bows that cost $2,000 a few years ago are now trading for $8,000.”

It is possible to go in together with a group and buy shares in an instrument, but Mr. Heinl says the arrangement is “fraught with peril and rarely works.” An alternative may be to hold a mortgage for a player (or parents) who can afford payments, but can’t convince a bank that a piece of wood is worth the investment.

The major downside to this active market is that working musicians can no longer afford to buy the instruments they need. If you are thinking of buying an instrument and you don’t play yourself, it is expected that you will loan it out to an appropriate player. “Instrument buying generally starts with a philanthropic notion,” Mr. Heinl says. “Quite often, if you loan an instrument to an institution, like the Canada Council or a university, they will pick up the tab for the insurance, which is nice. The days of hiding instruments away are gone.”

These intangible rewards – watching something you purchased help artists reach the next step in their career – are a big part of why investors choose instruments over stocks. “I’ve been deeply moved to hear these historically significant instruments come alive in the hands of such talented musicians,” said a long-time anonymous donor to the Canada Council for the Arts musical instrument bank. “It gives me great pleasure to know that the instruments are helping musicians to reach their true potential and thrilling audiences in concert halls around the world.”

DOs and DON’Ts

According to Toronto-based fine instrument dealer Ric Heinl, here are some dos and don’ts to consider when getting into the market.


- Buy the cleanest, healthiest instrument you can afford. A fine specimen of an instrument will increase in value more quickly than one in poor repair from a fashionable maker.

- Consider modern instruments. A 1900 Stefano Scarampella, for example, sold for $12,000 in the early 1980s. Now, you wouldn’t get one for much less than $150,000.

- Get in touch with reputable dealers. Ask around. Meet them and have a long chat about what your goals are, financially and artistically. If you feel pressured, leave.


- Google elite violin makers and buy something online that seems like a good deal. If you pay $10,000 for an instrument and find out it’s only worth $1,000 when it is appraised for insurance, you’re out of luck.

- Don’t get your heart set on a maker that is out of your price range. A Gagliano that should be worth $100,000 but is selling for $10,000 because it has been poorly repaired will freeze your money. It’s a high price to pay for bragging rights.

- Buy an instrument if you are going to keep it under glass. Instruments need to be played. Otherwise, all you have is nicely carved box.

First published in The Globe & Mail


Carmina Burana

“When I was in high school and first heard the piece I immediately fell in love with it. It was sexy, naughty and little dangerous. By the time I got to college, I had dismissed it as cheesy trash. Now that I am older, it’s all of the above.”

That’s Grant Gershon, music director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, summing up the paradox that is Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana.” The choir is performing the work for the 17th time in its 50-year history Saturday and Sunday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, along with the L.A. Children’s Chorus and three soloists.

Audiences love it. If you’ve ever seen a movie trailer or played video games, you’ve heard “O Fortuna,” the opening of “Carmina.” If there were a Giants of Choral Music Club it would have been a top member since its premiere in 1937.

“Carmina Burana” doesn’t quite fit in with its cousins — the masses, requiems and oratorios. The reason comes down mostly to a case of the wrong trousers. At club meetings, everyone is milling about discreetly in fine navy wool while “Carmina Burana” shouts “How you doin’?” in red polyester.

“It’s just right there,” says Gershon. “There’s obviously not a lot of depth to it. I actually remember very clearly [Esa-Pekka] Salonen doing the piece about 15 years ago and he said something like, to him, growing up in Finland, this piece was like ABBA. Something would never admit to your intellectual friends that you enjoyed.”

Spiritual transcendence, the territory of masses and requiems, is put to one side in “Camina Burana” in favor of a boisterous exegesis on love, the pleasure of drinking with friends and the promise of spring. Long phrases and soaring lines meant to bounce around a cathedral become short, repetitive motives made more urgent by extensive percussion.

Orff chose to paint in broad strokes not because he lacked the skill to create something more detailed but because he intended “Carmina” to be the beginning of a new musical idiom. He rejected the Romantic excesses of Mahler, Brahms and Bruckner in favor of something that would more accurately reflect the modern man.

PHOTOS: Arts and culture in pictures by The Times

In the early 1930s one of Orff’s friends showed him a collection of poems called “Carmina Burana,” written by 12th century theology students. He immediately chose 24 to set for choir and orchestra.

If not for a small wrinkle in medieval ecclesiastical law, Orff would probably have been at work on some bad religious poetry. History is in the wrinkles, however, and it turns out that in the 12th and 13th centuries, theology students traveled freely among universities and were exempt from serving in the military, paying taxes and trial by secular courts.

Imagine hundreds of students roaming France, Spain and Germany not overly troubled by the strictures of religious life, distinguishable from, as one academic put it, “penniless vagabonds drinking, dicing, wenching” only in that their actions had few consequences.

The most notorious of these scholar tramps, the Goliards, are thought to be the authors of the “Carmina Burana.” Their secular poetry is rough and unsophisticated, and talks about things like what is feels like to be in love right this second, instead of Love with a capital L and its nature.

That sort of spirit suited Orff. His larger goal was to use primitive, instinctive gestures to free listeners from their quotidian lives and turn their attention to the oneness of the universe.

“I have never been concerned with music as such,” he wrote, “but rather with music as ‘spiritual discussion.’”

In terms of overarching philosophy, “Carmina” shares much with its more overtly religious cousins. Legacy-wise, Fate had other ideas. “Carmina Burana” is played at Wrestlemania, the Daytona 500 and Pittsburgh Pirates games. And, while we’re at it, it’s been heard in “Shrek,” “The King of Queens,” “Capitalism: A Love Story,” “Glee,” “The Rachel Maddow Show” and “The Howard Stern Show.”

“Carmina Burana” is the sound of epic.

“His idiom has become so part of the underscoring of our lives, says Gershon. “Every epic fantasy film adventure or salad dressing commercial seems to evoke it.”

Even if the actual music isn’t used, the gestures of “O Fortuna” in particular — loud percussive opening and then a patch of quiet but energetic chanting — are everywhere. “My 11-year-old son is really into video games,” says Gershon, “and I’m struck by the soundtracks. They all sound like ‘Carmina Burana.’”

Fortunes change, but it seems safe to mark Orff’s new music movement as unrealized. That said, with his music under copyright until at least 2052 and his system of music education for children in use worldwide, his estate can’t be unhappy with how the wheel has turned.

The other piece on the Master Chorale program, Verdi’s “Te Deum,” will provide most of the concert’s redemptive material, but Orff’s version of universal oneness is not without its own moments of tenderness.

“There’s some really ravishingly beautiful love music for the baritone and soprano soloist,” says Gershon. “That’s the music that I think is the most evocative and what stays with me the most after a performance.”

As for the guy in red polyester, sometimes it’s nice to have a break from discussing the transcendental implications of one more canapé and share a raunchy joke already.

“I don’t lay awake at night ruminating on the mysteries of Orff,” Gershon said, laughing. ” ‘Carmina Burana’ exists while it’s being performed, and then it’s gone. I have to tell myself that not every piece has to be profound as Bach’s B minor mass. Sometimes it’s OK to just have fun.”

Words to warm a Goliard’s heart.

First printed in the Los Angeles Times


Robert Del Naja

Inspired by a Damon Albarn opera at the Manchester International Festival in 2011, Robert Del Naja, of trip-hop progenitors Massive Attack, hatched the notion of a collaboration with documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis. The result, Massive Attack v Adam Curtis, arrives in New York City this week, so TONY grilled Del Naja about the show: part cover-versions concert, part film and wholly political.

What was the biggest challenge for this collaboration?

How the hell are we going to do it?—was the first year of discussions, because there were so many possibilities and so many problems. How do you make a film that tells a coherent story, play a gig, interrupt it, fuck it up, make it sonically challenging and visually challenging, but still have a point? I childishly described it as a sort of drive-in on acid. Adam decided what sort of story he wanted to tell, and when it came to the music, we would look at each scene to see what point we were making and go from there.

Almost none of the people in the film were given their own voice. Were you trying to avoid the documentary vibe?
We had a choice of having something with Pauline Boty singing but we chose not to use it. We thought it would be better to let the songs we chose to go with the characters lives create their sound and their voice. We give voice to the characters.

I’ve read in other interviews that you are a natural pessimist. Is the central message from the show that the world is going to hell in a handbasket?
I’m not a total pessimist; I’m excited by the future as well. I think the film has that message, too. It uses history to explain where we are now, but then says that you don’t have to follow that path. This pattern doesn’t own you. Our positivity might be done in sort of more muted tones, but it’s been positive nonetheless.

That’s good to know. We’d hate to find out that you’re all secretly emos.
No, not at all. I’m really excited by science and technology and the whole social media thing. I think it’s fascinating. But at the same time I’m wary of bureaucratic systems and managers.

There’s a part in the film that says politicians are not looking out for our best interests. Were they ever?
I think there was a time when parties stood for a sort of belief, whether it was left or right or communist or whatever. Now it seems that belief is gone and it’s more like, how can we keep this from fucking up? People that get voted in just have to manage the problem, and have no energy left to create something new.

It’s hard to get anything done in a four-year term. You spend half of it getting ready for the next election.
It’s such a waste of resources and time and effort, really.

But the alternative is some sort of…
Dictatorship? [Laughs] That’s what we’re trying to get rid of Syria.

Yes. Your film came too early. Now we have the NSA and Syria and all sorts of crazy stuff happening.
fail to understand what we are trying to achieve in the region by destabilizing it, or helping it destabilize itself. There’s no goodies and baddies. It’s a myth, that.

This interview was first printed in Time Out New York


Music Ed in LA

The first day of school, one of America’s great communal experiences. Pencils are sharpened, backpacks bought and outfits laid out, found to be totally lame, OMG, and laid out again. But what today’s kids in Los Angeles public schools will experience on Days 2 through 180 is significantly different from what their parents enjoyed when it comes to music, art, drama and field trips.

For a variety of reasons, funds available to school boards for education in California have been devastated over the last 20 years, to levels some in the industry call the worst in U.S. history. Los Angeles Unified School District alone has reported a decrease of 50% for its arts program since 2007-08. To give kids as broad an education as possible under the circumstances, schools have reached out to area cultural institutions to help bridge the gap.

Southern California is home to more than 11,000 arts venues, including many well-respected museums, theaters, orchestras, dance and opera companies happy to be involved in education projects. The industry standard for arts organizations is to earmark between 3% and 10% of an annual budget for programs both on-site and in schools.

Because of the sheer number of participating organizations and the complexity with which these activities are administered, it’s difficult to come up with the total spent across all disciplines. But consider music programs for elementary schoolchildren: Some of Southern California’s big players (Los Angeles Philharmonic, Los Angeles Opera, Pacific Symphony, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Music Center) together account for an investment of more than $13 million each year for programs that send teaching artists to schools, arrange for kids to hear the pros in their home venues and work with teachers to develop cross-curriculum music learning.

“In years past we could supplement [school programs] with inspiration and be the icing on the cake,” said Pamela Blaine, the vice president of education and community engagement with the Pacific Symphony, who has been involved with education programs for 25 years.

“These days education programs … are also critical to our own survival. We used to choose the content and say this is what’s good for you and do you want to come and hear the concerts. Now it’s a two-way street. We adjusted everything to make sure we support the curriculum teachers are delivering.”

The L.A. Phil is making inroads with its 6-year-old Youth Orchestra L.A., modeled on Venezuela’s musical program El Sistema, which produced conductor Gustavo Dudamel.

The orchestra’s stated mission is that it views education programs as part of its obligation as a community member. The L.A. Phil has been doing residencies at schools since 2000. Now 16 schools are involved in YOLA neighborhood projects and the YOLA orchestra draws from 200 schools in East Rampart, South L.A. and, soon, East L.A.

The Los Angeles Master Chorale has a program that sends teaching artists all over L.A. County each year to teach 30,000 fifth-graders how to write and perform songs. In Orange County, the Pacific Symphony works with 16,000 schoolchildren annually in a program that has an orchestra member visit a school five times over the year as preparation for a trip to the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall to hear the whole orchestra.

At L.A. Opera Stacy Brightman oversees 25 education programs and works with “literally a couple hundred community partners” in her capacity as director of community and education programs.

“We want kids to know that it’s their opera house,” she said. “They make the best audiences. The story, the songs, the magic and all the crazy things that happen. Kids laugh louder, they gasp louder. Opera makes total sense to them.”

It is this kind of engagement that music educators hope will help teachers and school boards see the value in building up their music programs.

Mark Slavkin is vice president of education at the Music Center, one of the largest providers of music education in the L.A. area. A good part of his workday is spent talking to school board trustees, teachers and other people in charge of making budget decisions for schools.

“Ultimately they get it,” he said. “They want the kids to be well rounded. They know the benefits of the arts, so we don’t have a lot of time having that argument with people. It’s just been about the nuts and bolts of finding funding.”

Unlike most performance organizations, the Music Center is contracted by school boards to provide services. Because it is owned and funded by Los Angeles County, the Music Center works outside the traditional philanthropic model and takes a long-term approach.

Instead of relying heavily on outside sources, such as individuals or foundations, to provide the funding and then offering the programs to schools either free or nearly so, the Music Center prefers to have school boards invest in their programs to encourage ownership.

Paramount School District in L.A. County, for example, pays $70,000 a year for a program that uses theater to strengthen reading and literacy skills.

“That’s not the full cost of the program,” said Slavkin, “but it’s a significant investment. They take it a lot more seriously than if it were coming to them for free. Ideally we want school districts to invest in music teachers. We’re not arguing that what we do is better, we’re arguing that it’s a start until such time as they can invest more money.”

Charging a fee can put poorer school districts at a disadvantage, but offering everything for little to no cost can create an inward-looking circle of co-dependence. As Slavkin described it, “Schools cry poverty and performing arts organizations take that message to their donors and say we all know that arts are being cut in schools but your donation will help 100 kids or 1,000 kids. Our job is to augment, not replace.”

The Pacific Symphony’s Blaine has a similar outlook, “Arts organizations have some stature in the community where we should be having conversations with school boards about how they allocate their money. It’s a very small pie, but it feels like we’re moving in the right direction.

In the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest in the country, it seems the pie might be getting a little bigger. The district announced in mid-July that it is ready to implement a new five-year Arts Education and Creative Cultural Network Plan, which will increase community partnerships and aim to provide arts education to every student.

In a statement to ArtsforLA.org, LAUSD Supt. John Deasy said, “This innovative arts plan … does not restrict learning in the arts to only one carved out block of time every day or every week.

“Students will have the opportunity to express themselves creatively during their studies of mathematics, the sciences, history & the social sciences, and language arts — both English & world languages. The arts plan is an integral part of a carefully crafted District plan to provide the very best possible education to all of our students in LAUSD. I see it as their right.”

This piece first appeared in the Los Angeles Times.


Verdi’s Requiem

Usually when you go to the Hollywood Bowl all you need to bring are comestibles (cheesy or otherwise), an assortment of beverages (white or red) and a blanket. When the Los Angeles Philharmonic plays Verdi’s “Requiem” on Tuesday and Thursday, discerning concertgoers will also tuck a box of giant-sized tissue and some smelling salts into the picnic basket.

Why the precautions? When the Mass premiered in Milan, Italy, in 1874, one choir member had a seizure and an apprentice priest on duty reportedly cried for more than an hour.

With Gustavo Dudamel in charge this week, it is likely everyone at the Hollywood Bowl will get through the 90 minutes without needing a medic. As for the tissue, it’s a matter of when, not if, the tears will find you.

Santa Monica native Julianna Di Giacomo is the soprano soloist for the “Requiem” and has already sung the piece several times this year in Europe.

“This requiem is so intense because it’s half the length of a proper opera but still has all the drama,” she says.

The requiem as written to commemorate the first anniversary of the death of Italian novelist Alessandro Manzoni. It was not a commission —- at this point in his career the composer didn’t need the money — but a gesture of respect and Italian patriotism.

His “Requiem” was initially well received although there was some discontent on the part of devout Catholics about a sacred piece sounding so operatic.

The Los Angeles Master Chorale will be the choir for Bowl performances, and its music director, Grant Gershon, has studied the piece at length.

“Verdi was not religious in any way, but he knew the power, the drama and the intense devotion that people (especially his fellow Italians) felt for the liturgy of the Requiem,” Gershon explains in an email.

“A lot of the most interesting 19th Century composers wrote mind-numbingly dull liturgical music (Franz Liszt is Exhibit A for this). It’s as if they were going to be graded by their Sunday catechism teachers. Verdi didn’t give a rip what the Church thought, he was going to write a Requiem with the same sense of drama, humanity and passion that he brought to his greatest operas. The result is the most vivid and personal choral work of the Romantic period.”

The requiem Mass has been chanted during Catholic funeral services since the middle of the 12th century. In the intervening 900 years, the introduction of instruments plus patrons willing to give commissions and the natural drama of the text have been catnip for composers. An afternoon on Spotify is long enough to discover that everyone’s who’s anyone has set at least some requiem text.

In opera the drama usually comes down to love gone wrong, but in requiems it’s the tension between asking God for mercy on behalf of the recently departed soul and a not-so-subtle reminder to those who remain what the Day of Judgment is cooking up, should they fancy their chances.

There are four soloists, soprano, mezzo-soprano, tenor and bass, along with full orchestra and chorus, the full might of which is employed to spectacular effect in the “Dies Irae” (Day of Wrath) section. With a score marking of quadruple forte — ffff — that is, roughly, “as loud as you can plus one” it is some of the most ferocious music in the whole of the classical music canon.

Dvorak, Mozart and Fauré have their moments of anguish, but they tend to be more sorrowful than vengeful. Their best bits, respectively, are the more contemplative “Lacrimosa,” “Pie Jesu” and “Libera Me.” In the 20th century, when Catholic funeral rites were no longer a shared cultural artifact, such composers as Britten, Penderecki and Ligeti used instead the gesture of the requiem and its function as a public expression of grief to talk about the futility of war and politics rather than one individual death.

The problem with such emotionally charged material — there aren’t many people who haven’t experienced the agony of losing someone they loved — is how to shape it. Verdi, a man who spent his life honing his dramatic skills with “Aida” (Sunday night’s program at the Bowl), “Otello” and “Rigoletto,” among others, was a master of dramatic control.

Verdi’s only real challenger in the decibel stakes is the 1837 setting by Hector Berlioz. The French composer, a lifetime member of the “if four horns is good, eight is better” school, called for eight bassoons, 16 timpani (10 players), 10 pairs of cymbals, four offstage brass choirs and a choir of 210 singers that he recommended be double or tripled. He loved it more than any of his other works, “Symphonie Fantastique” included, but unfortunately it is rarely performed, mostly because no one can afford to stage it. Verdi, a successful opera composer, understood these practicalities in a way the likely bipolar, definitely opium-addicted Berlioz never did.

All this talk of efficiency and practicality isn’t to say that Verdi wrote what was necessary and nothing more. There’s a mesmerizing double fugue in the “Sanctus” and some of his best writing for soprano and mezzo-soprano.

“There isn’t even one wasted moment,” says Di Giacomo. “It’s just so cleverly and brilliantly written. In a full opera you have a lot of recitative to connect things together, but in this piece it just flows. In the opening ‘Kyrie,’ the chorus really draws everyone in and quiets everyone down. Each soloist comes in one by one by one and sets the tone for the whole night.”

Gracious enough to mention that she thinks the mezzo gets the best music, Di Giacomo is clearly happy with her allotment. “I always feel like I’m the icing on the cake because I get to float above everybody through the whole thing — especially in the ‘Lacrimosa.’ It’s one of those moments that I really get overwhelmed. I don’t think I could ever get tired of singing this.”

First published in the Los Angeles Times. Piece also included a video list of other pieces that could possibly challenge Verdi for the best requiem ever crown.


Happy 30th Supertitles

“Celluloid condoms between the audience and the immediate gratification of understanding.”

“More like watching Playboy TV than having sex.”

Hyperbolic outbursts are not uncommon in opera, but rarely were they so concentrated or, um, vivid.

What riled opera so?

Supertitles. Translations usually projected above the stage have driven directors to issue bomb threats. No less than James Levine rashly stated he would rather die than acquiesce.

Three decades after they were invented by the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto, what was once an anathema’s anathema is now recognized, even if grudgingly by purists, as the most important change in opera in years.

The motivation for introducing the titles was to make opera more accessible for audiences beyond the usual suspects. Before supertitles, opera houses could pretend in good faith that their audiences were au fait with enough Italian and German to follow along with such standards as “Il Barbiere Di Siviglia” or “Die Zauberflöte.” Something like Janacek’s “From the House of the Dead,” with its libretto adapted from a Dostoevski novel and then translated into Czech, however, was something else entirely.

Before the 1960s, composers expected to change the language of the text to match the language of the audience. Performers either stayed in their native country or sang the role in the language they learned it. Imagine what would happen today if Tosca replied to Cavaradossi in French? It’s not as ridiculous as it sounds.

In 1781, Mozart wrote to his father, “the poetry must be altogether the obedient daughter of the music. Why are Italian comic operas popular everywhere in spite of the miserable libretti? … Because the music reigns supreme, and when one listens to it all else is forgotten.”

Recordings pushed classical music into a new orthodoxy in the 1960s and most operas were sung in their original language. In the English-speaking world, only English National Opera and the Opera Theatre of St. Louis routinely produce all their shows in their audience’s native language. For everyone else, the sanctity of the score is it.

One of the biggest obstacles in the development of supertitles was working out exactly how to display the text. The light bulb went on when John Leberg, the Canadian Opera Company’s director of operations in the ’80s, saw an Italian musical with projected scenery. On Jan. 21, 1983, using a typewriter, 1,000 glass slides and three projectors, the COC’s production of Strauss’ opera “Elektra” became the first in history to be titled.

The opera house trademarked the invention as “surtitles” to honor Canada’s bilingual heritage (sur means “on top of” in French).

“Surtitles caught on like wildfire, and within six months over 100 companies adopted it,” said Gunta Dreifelds, a member of the COC title development team. The titles spread first in North America, then to other English-speaking countries, such as England and Australia, and then across Europe.

“Now it’s expected. You can’t put on an opera without surtitles.”

David Smythe of Perth, Scotland, has been going to the opera for nearly 45 years and remembers well what it was like before title ubiquity.

“If the opera was not in English, you really had to do some homework — characters and story before setting foot in the opera house. Nowadays, anyone can turn up and follow the story. I feel that any distraction is more than made up for in a greater understanding of what is happening onstage.”

Titles aren’t just for those new to opera. Beverly Sills, the soprano, was director of New York City Opera in 1983 when it became the first American house to use titles. She told the New York Times, “I must have seen ‘Boheme’ 600 times, but I got the biggest kick the first time I saw it with supertitles and learned that Marcello was painting the Red Sea.”

In the ’80s, the big rush was on for companies to have equipment installed and get some text — any text — projected. As a relatively young company, 27-year-old Los Angeles Opera has always had them.

At some companies, poor translations and technical glitches led to unintentional laughs. In the early days, a Houston Opera production of “Tosca” had Tosca’s line “Ma falle gli occhi neri! (But make the eyes black!)” translated as “Give her black eyes.” Even the most committed soprano would find it difficult to fly into an indignant rage while the audience is howling with laughter.

The Met was late to the titling party partly out of stubbornness (Metropolitan Opera’s music director Levine and general manager Joe Volpe hated them) and partly because the 3,800-seat theater was too big for projections to work properly. The $1.25-million solution was to install individual screens with the dialogue projected (or turned off for purists). Seat back titling premiered in the 1995 season-opening production of “Otello” featuring Plàcido Domingo. Santa Fe Opera and La Scala also use seat back titling.

Whatever the projection method, space is limited and what the translation leaves out is as important as what remains. In act finales, when the principal characters are all singing as well as the chorus, providing titles for everything would be massively confusing, not to mention unnecessary. At that point, everyone is usually just restating their feelings in capital letters.

Said Dreifelds, “In the case of [multiple lines] I like to highlight whoever’s prominent. Usually the chorus. Often it’s repeated for emphasis, so you don’t want to be beat over the head with ‘I’m leaving, I’m leaving. I’m leaving. I’m leaving.’”

Now that titles are standard, there is room for more philosophical considerations, the most inflammatory of which has been: Should native-language productions also be titled? In the beginning, most houses titled only foreign-language productions, including native-language operas as audiences demanded them.

When English National Opera surveyed its audience in the early 2000s, 80% wanted titles. The announcement of their introduction was vehemently opposed by critics, directors and conductors. English National Opera, perhaps aware that critics weren’t the ones buying tickets, introduced titles anyway in 2006. Director Graham Vickers seems to have at least postponed his bomb threat. For the moment, the Coliseum stands.

The main bone of contention for native-language titles was that if singers knew the audience could read what they were singing, they wouldn’t work so hard on their diction. Dreifelds, who has titled more than 200 operas, explained, “Even if you comprehend the diction, there’s a delay factor. The idea [with titles] is that you take in the words and return to the stage as kind of a fluid operation. You don’t realize you’re understanding, but you are.”

An unintended consequence of titles is that now that the audience can read all the details, including them or not is an additional stylistic decision for a director. Does a hat or eye patch in the libretto mean the character is obligated to wear one? “Sometimes I think directors wish [the titles] would say something else. You want to put your own stamp on [the opera] and sometimes surtitles can constrain you,” said Dreifelds.

After 30 years, the Canadian Opera Company’s original goal of expanding the standard opera repertoire, particularly in North America, has been achieved. Presenting operas originally written in Czech, Hungarian, Polish or Russian is as easy as one in Italian. Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” now considered a repertoire staple, premiered in 1901, but wasn’t heard outside of Eastern Europe until the ’80s. Since 2011, it has had 49 productions, 12 of them new.

It seems unthinkable now to attend an opera without titles. For those who view them as the devil’s handiwork, there is a place to go for title respite: Bayreuth, Wagner’s shrine to opera in Germany, where they also don’t believe in armrests or air conditioning.

First printed in the Los Angeles Times


Ukulele Orchesta of GB

DORTMUND, Germany — At 5:30 p.m. backstage at a concert hall here a few weeks ago, a security guard delivers a small brown bag from a chocolate shop in Paris. Devouring the contents is not a folk-rock pixie and her gang of bearded sidemen but eight mostly middle-aged ukulele players. Still, they are rock stars of a certain kind.

In 2 1/2 hours, 1,500 Germans of all ages and social classes will lose their minds when the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain takes the stage.

It’s not just the Germans. On Sunday, the Ukulele Orchestra plays the first of six shows in California as part of an 11-date tour of the western United States. Not bad for something that started as a joke nearly 30 years ago.

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“At the time when we started, we were all doing other things musically,” says George Hinchliffe, the band’s spokesman. His South Yorkshire lilt has been flattened somewhat by years in London, but the pragmatism and subtly wicked humor typical of Northern England remain.

“I’d been in a soul band backing aging Motown artists visiting England. Everyone had different histories,” he says.

“The ukulele was an outsider instrument in the ’80s and we thought playing was just going to be amusement for us. We put a poster up and lots of people came and then a couple weeks later we did another gig and then we were on BBC Radio 1 within a month of starting. Not long after that we were on live television.”

Knowing a good thing when he saw it, Hinchliffe suggested the group use its fee from the television appearance to make an album. A Japanese television station licensed the material and that was that.

The ukulele is often thought of as a novelty instrument. There is comedy to be mined from its size, it doesn’t sustain well and is limited harmonically to simple chords. Performers either have to dazzle with super quick playing (the “Wizard of String” Roy Smeck) or some sort of trick (Tiny Tim), both strategies the Ukulele Orchestra is not especially interested in.

Having eight players solves the texture problem and gives the band a hugely deep well of skill and personality to draw from.

Said Hinchliffe, “If Peter sings a song, it becomes this over-the-top Mario Lanza thing. If Dave sings it, it is a sort of proto-punk thing and if Kitty sings it, the song is a dark Bertold Brecht/Hans Eisler kind of thing.

The Ukulele Orchestra does some original material, but most of its numbers are covers. One of its most often requested re-interpretations is Kate Bush’s “Wuthering Heights” and the theme from “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly,” both of which are retired from the regular rotation. Finding the right balance between the old stuff and new material is something all bands struggle with, but having eight members who each have an equal say can be complicated.

“It’s a sort of benign fascism enforcing the spirit of communism,” says Hinchliffe with a laugh. “Kitty and I are the owners of the brand since we were founder members, but because we’ve been together for such a long time and we’re all friends, it’s rare for someone to come up with a stupid idea. When [a stupid idea] does [appear], it’s usually mine.”

Group ukulele playing is now an international phenomenon, something the Ukulele Orchestra is at least partially responsible for. The group has grown so popular in Germany, there is even an impostor group that tours the country aping the Ukulele Orchestra as much as it can without being sued.

“The term ukulele orchestra was a bit of an oxymoron like a Sahara Sub-Aqua Club [when the band started], says Hinchliffe, “but it’s really exploded. It’s great.”

After the concert, the groupies gathered — mostly middle-aged men with ukes waiting to be autographed. The band sat around the table, carrot juice, beer and Jube Jubes at the ready. Despite all the time they spend together, the musicians genuinely enjoy each others’ company. After a couple hours of storytelling and belly laughs, the band slopes off to its hotel. Another day of plucking awaits.

BONUS: Ukulele Primer – all you need to know and whole lot more than you don’t – with videos.

First published in the Los Angeles Times


6 Valentine’s Day Dates

Valentine’s Day: a symbol of the eros-industrial complex created by a cabal of rose growers, chocolatiers, jewelers and calligraphers or the perfect time for true romantics to show the rest of us how it is done?

Culture Monster has analyzed the situation and determined that because music has been getting people busy since long before St. Valentine came on the scene, taking your love to a concert is foolproof no matter what your V-Day philosophy.

To make it even easier, we’ve matched relationship types to an ideally suited show

With the fire of a thousand suns
Your connection is so intense, language alone cannot truly capture the essence of your beloved. The words of the great poets illustrate the impossibility of the task with their inadequacy. Byron and Shakespeare don’t know the half of it. Handily, Cafe Sevilla in Long Beach has the answer: a flamenco dinner show. There’s food, live music and some very intense tap dancing. (6:30 p.m. Saturdays, Cafe Sevilla, Long Beach cafesevilla.com)

I hate you. Don’t leave me
One minute you’re convinced you’ll be together forever, the next it seems even one more second in the presence of your darling is a fate worse than death. For you two, lifetime riders on that most addicting of roller coasters, the choice is clear: “Jekyll & Hyde” the musical. Because nothing says I love you like epic mood swings and late Victorian power ballads. (Through March 3, Pantages Theater, Hollywood, broadwayla.org)

Hello? Is it me you’re looking for?
Your thing is new and you don’t want to crush that delicate flower with something super sappy. On the other hand, ignoring the day will probably result in an express ticket back to Singletown. Play it cool with Marin Mazzie and Jason Danieley and all sorts of delovely cabaret in their show “He Said/She Said.” And who knows, after a tour of classic songs, sweethearts might just find themselves in love with their joy delirious. (7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Friday, Samueli Theater, Costa Mesa, scfta.org

I will hug him and squeeze him and call him George
The idea of spending two hours separated from your adored one by a seat divider is simply inconceivable. This makes going to the theater, opera, ballet or symphony difficult. In public, at least. The Berliner Philharmoniker is an orchestra sensitive to your smooching needs. Dial up a live concert on the orchestra’s Digital Concert Hall, put the lights on low and enjoy some of the greatest playing in the world for just $12. The best part? If you find yourself needing a post-codal cigarette before the recapitulation, there’s no one around to give you a withering stare. (Any time. Anywhere. DigitalConcertHall.com)

All by yourself
Your love life is a barren desert with a tumbleweed the only activity. How about a little schadenfreude? The main character in “The Flying Dutchman” is the ghost of a sea captain cursed to wander the seas until he gets married, but can come ashore to find a girl only once every seven years. Spoiler alert: It turns out some girls are into ghosts (or have dads willing to trade them for the ghost’s treasure). So if that guy can get the girl, there’s hope for you yet. (“The Flying Dutchman” March 9 to 30, Los Angeles Opera, Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, laopera.com)

When I’m 64
You’ve done the Valentine’s thing enough times to know that sometimes understated is better. Rather than arranging for a skywriter, why not take your honey to hear the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra play Bach. The music is calm, absolute and surprisingly charming. Everything you need and not a note more. Bach isn’t terribly romantic, you say? Hogwash. Eighteen children don’t make themselves. (7 p.m. Thursday, Zipper Hall, Colburn School, downtown L.A., laco.org)

First published in the Los Angeles Times.


Beck: Song Reader

“Not so long ago,” writes Beck Hansen in the introduction to his new collection of tunes, “Song Reader,” “a song was only a piece of paper until it was played by someone.”

Indeed, as far back as “Pride and Prejudice,” all card-carrying members of the middle class had a piano in the parlor and a daughter or five with skills to play it. (Poor Mary. She did try.)

It’s been generations since gathering around the piano to sing the latest hits was a popular way to pass an evening, so why then are Beck’s latest available only as sheet music?

After all, it requires someone to read music to realize the songs, therefore rendering them inaccessible to a large percentage of fans. But it is a genius way to make sure people really engage with the material rather than having it be just another 100 MB on their hard drive.

Each of the 20 tunes in “Song Reader” are individually printed with high-contrast illustrations and detailed faux adverts straight from the first half of the 20th century. Amazon carries it for $22, while publisher McSweeney’s offers “Song Reader” for $34.

Often assumed to be ironic when he is making a genuine joke, Beck has obviously taken great delight in playing with the era’s over-the-top tone of voice. “Now That Your Dollar Bills Have Sprouted Wings” suggests you duet with a bill collector. “Mutilation Rag,” one of the two instrumentals, is conceptual ragtime performance art. The soon-to-be emo classic “Why Did You Make Me Care?” captures all the melodrama of a teenage breakup in shades of blue and yellow.

People who can’t read music shouldn’t feel left out. “Song Reader” is meant to be an objet d’art as much as music maker. Beck wrote the arrangements but collaborated with various orchestrators and graphic artist Jessica Hische to assemble the project.

“The way the whole package was put together and presented was more along the lines of a coffee table book,” said Beck. “It’s something that can actually be read [as well as] something that starts a conversation about our relationship with music now in comparison to how we interacted with music in the past.”

The biggest difference between then and now is that before records, there was no version-in-common of a popular song. If your Aunt Mamie played a wrong note every time in the third bar of “I Love My Wife, But Oh! You Kid!” (real title!) then unless you read music yourself or sang the song at a friend’s house, her version was the one you knew.

The other difference, and perhaps the more difficult one to conceptualize, is the sheer ubiquity of printed music. Nowadays, if you want to learn your favorite music, you either figure it out by ear from the record, sort through hundreds of dodgy tabs online or venture into an old-school music shop on the off chance that what you want is actually in stock.

In the 150 years before World War II, the sheet music market was so lucrative that even composers we consider highbrow today (Brahms, Beethoven and Mozart) wrote pieces in a popular style specifically for amateur, at-home playing. Selling out wasn’t really a thing until the 1970s.

The sheet music for Bing Crosby’s song “Sweet Leilani” sold 54 million copies in 1937. That works out to roughly one copy for every three Americans or, put another way, 14 million more units than “Thriller” has sold since its release.

In the record age, buying sheet music is often disappointing because so much of what we come to recognize as characteristic of the sound is outside of melody and harmony. It’s the quality of the singer’s voice, the ornamentation, improvisation and the layers of texture from the band that make the song what it is.

Finding a way around this required a whole new approach to songwriting and was one of the major challenges of the “Song Reader” project.

“In modern songwriting, you understate things a lot. You go in layers and those layers define the song, often. Stripping it back to the sort of minimal bare bones state, you really get to see what the song is made out of. It made me get rid of things that might be too obscure or were too clever.”

Beck has been collecting sheet music from libraries and thrift stores since childhood and has been toying with songs written in the early 20th century novelty style since 1996. “In 2004 I called McSweeney. We were going to do a book [of songs] that year, but I then got busy. Then, around the third year I was working on it, I started to get cold feet. If you are going to ask people to play your songs, you’d better have some good songs! I put it away for a few years thinking, ‘Oh, someday some really good songs will come along.’ Then I realized that in the last couple of years that it’s more about the idea. You can’t will it to have great songs.”

It may seem that by writing the songs down, Beck is creating the one true version usually represented by the record. While religious devotion to the text and arguments about the intentions of a long-dead composer are the norm in classical music, Beck has another scenario in mind.

“I really feel the songs should be basic blueprints and the people can dress them any way how they want. It was fairly arbitrary what the piano arrangements ended up being, and in a way I felt concerned that if we made something stylistically too much of a jazz swing thing or Dixieland or Burt Bacharach then it skews the song in a certain direction.”

Allowing the performer so much freedom is actually a very old-fashioned idea. Pre-Beethoven, composers regularly left stylistic decisions (slurs, dynamics, accents, etc.) up to the performer and, going even further back, often didn’t even specify which instruments would play which parts. It was assumed that if you could read the music, you would know what to do to make it sound good.

Although he hasn’t ruled out playing a few of the songs himself, “Song Reader” is primarily meant for other people. “I felt I had a lot more leeway to write things that other voices could manage. I hope people record them and they find homes. I could hear things for a female voice to sing or a much more rough, more country voice. All these things open up when you’re not writing for yourself.”

While Beck’s fans will certainly make up the lion’s share of contributions, he hopes some more established artists will take an interest as well. If “I Will Always Love You” has taught us anything it’s that sometimes all a song needs is an iconic performance and it’s a hit forever.

“I’m not sure there are any hits here, [but] occasionally when we were working on the notation and hearing it being played back, I could hear people’s voices in certain things.”

Like Adele, maybe?

“I mean, you know, that would be great,” he said, laughing. “The invitation is open!”

First published in the LA Times

Culture Germany

German Xmas Markets

COLOGNE, Germany — On a street corner in the old part of Cologne, a boy of 9 or 10 approximates Christmas songs on his trumpet. Around him, the elaborate huts of the Altstadt Christmas market play a siren song audible only to ladies of a certain age and their long-suffering husbands.

Booths selling the usual beeswax candles, Russian dolls and kitchen utensils made of olive wood you can find at any market are interspersed with those offering Battenberg lace, lamps made of wood veneer and various other hand-crafted items. One booth sells only crèche figurines. Whatever your children broke last Christmas, no matter how obscure (elephant, $96) can be replaced.

Christmas markets in Germany date to the 15th century and although their original function was as a sort of medieval mall, over the years they have become an important part of the country’s social fabric.

During the daytime, the crowd is mostly tourists, hausfrauen and children on school trips. At night, when the market is at its most magical, couples of all ages stroll arm in arm, stopping to sample the Viennese coffee, chocolate from Belgium and Switzerland, and pork and marjoram sausage from the state of Thuringia.

An enormous Christmas tree rises up, towering above the booths. Strings of white lights running from its waist to the nearby rooftops resemble a giant, glowing hoop skirt. The hulking, gothic permanence of the cathedral, now visible only in silhouette, is almost menacing in the face of the temporary frivolity of the season.

The area around Cologne is heavily Catholic. Major church feast days are holidays here, but public displays aren’t really the done thing. The only nod to religion at the market is a Nativity scene of figures carved from logs with a chain saw — one way to make sure no one steals the baby Jesus.

The other thing that is missing is a place to visit Santa. In Germany, St. Nikolaus and his devilish counterpart Krampus come on Dec. 6. Any Santa paraphernalia for sale in the market is for English tourists.

In the spaces between the booths, people stand in groups of three or four, laughing and enjoying one another’s company, much like you would find at a neighborhood barbecue. “This is typical of Cologne and the Rhine area,” said Bernd Niemann, a local psychotherapist. “Everybody is very social. They love to come together and have a party. It’s not like that everywhere in Germany.”

The lubrication for all this conviviality is a mulled wine flavored with cinnamon, cloves and star aniseed called glühwein.

The market in Rudolfplatz, a square about a mile away, is not intended so much for tourists. Much of the Black Forest old worldly charm of the Altemarkt booths has been dispensed with in favor of what appear to be prefab garden sheds. Glühwein and the urge to socialize is bigger than any aesthetic objections, and even on a Monday night the place is packed. With men.

Engineer Fernando Pizer, 33, is meeting with friends. “Monday is unofficial gay night at the market, but only here in Rudolfplatz. You see people you see online in real life.”

The locals may keep the glühwein vendors in business, but they don’t tend to buy the rest of the goods on offer. “I’ve never shopped for a gift here,” said Peter Stamm. “Usually you only get something here if you are desperate for a last-minute gift.”

Pascal Raviol, 43, has been working in Christmas markets for years. A canny businessman, he knows exactly what the market is selling.

“People can access the modern world so easily,” he said outside his chocolate stall, “but what they really want is what is in their heart. What they remember from being a child. We give the people that come here a feeling. We are like actors on the stage.”

For the most part, the locals find tourists’ fascination with the city perplexing. “I don’t understand it because there are much better places in Germany [than Cologne] to visit,” said Niemann. “They bring in a lot of money though, so it’s fine.”

Germany, via Queen Victoria’s German husband, Prince Albert, is responsible for many American Christmas traditions (the tree, ornaments, lights, tinsel, Advent calendars, gingerbread houses and candy canes), and German immigrants have brought Christmas markets to places like Chicago, Cincinnati and Pennsylvania.

Peter Stamm has been to one and found it lacking in one important aspect, “It was very nice, but the glühwein was non-alcoholic. How can you have fun with that?”

First published in the Los Angeles Times

Words. And sometimes images. And sound.