Monthly Archives: February 2010

Tonight: Respond to the call…

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Cypress String Quartet celebrates the 11th year of  their Call and Response program tonight at the Herbst theater.  They’re one of a handful of San Francisco performing arts organizations that actually commissions new work. For this unique program they commission a composer to write a piece in response to their “call” (i.e. an existing piece in their repertoire.)  This is particularly fitting for a quartet that spends equal amounts of time with new music and established classics, possessing an ear for both.

This time around they break a bit from their established m.o. and add a level of indirection. They’ve commissioned a piece inspired by literature, similar to the way two pieces in their repertoire have been inspired by the written word.  Elena Ruehr‘s Bel Canto is a response to Ann Patchett’s best selling novel of the same name, and will share the program with Schubert’s Death and the Maiden (inspired by the lyrics to a song that Schubert wrote himself) and  (which apparently was inspired by the written word, but I haven’t yet figured out how).

The Cypress String Quartet’s latest album “How She Danced” consists of three of Elena Ruehr’s other works for string quartet and has been in heavy rotation since I purchased it last month.  (I was kinda hoping to have a more in depth review/analysis of it to post in time for the concert, but I’ve got a solo opera to prepare for this Sunday and my time has managed to slip away from me.)

Tickets are available at the City Box Office and are cheaper if you buy them in advance.

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Music vs. Film (Music wins. Not even close.)

Imagine a company that dubs old super 8 films onto VHS.  If you like, they’ll even dub a nice soundtrack of classical music in the background for your listening pleasure. Well, looks like they didn’t always listen to the entire album before dubbing it.  And what we have here is a great example of theContinue Reading

One Response to Music vs. Film (Music wins. Not even close.)

  1. gerald rosen says:

    Alfred Hitchcock would be proud.

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Hilary Hahn vs. The Richter Scales

Hilary Hahn is one of the most successful classical music artists alive.  Debuted with Baltimore Symphony Orchestra at the age of 12, finished her bachelor requirements at Curtis at 16, signed with Sony at 17, and was named “America’s Best” young classical musician by Time Magazine at 22.  She recently turned 30, and like anyContinue Reading

2 Responses to Hilary Hahn vs. The Richter Scales

  1. Brian Rosen says:


    Just don’t let my wife know that Hilary Hahn is “my gal”.

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So… why Music vs Theater?

Music vs Theater. What the heck do I mean by that? Is it a lawsuit? A wrestling match? A fight to the death? When I was pitching potential blog titles to my friends, some were confused by the implications of this particular one. After all, I’m trying to make works of music and theater, whyContinue Reading

4 Responses to So… why Music vs Theater?

  1. Carol Rosen says:

    I got here from FB today! I’m really enjoying this. Reminds of the few and far between chats we have when we’re together. Now, I’ll be able to hear more from you on a regular basis!
    I had a little bit of a clue about what you meant by music vs. theater, based on what I’ve heard from you before.
    Keep it going, Bri!

  2. Sean Gugler says:

    What I like about your choice to use “vs.” is how it illuminates two ancient, epic forces locked in opposition. Unlike street scuffles or betting bouts, the spectators are drawn by the conflict itself rather than the outcome. We cherish the eternal stalemate, drawing us again and again to eagerly witness the passionate struggle for dominance. No animosity required, either; even Sam and Ralph enjoy lunch together when they’ve punched off the clock. (

    Great use of chromaspectography, too. (Watch as I ruin the solitude of Google’s lone hit for that word!)

  3. Madley says:

    Hi there — I got here from Thomas Cott’s “You’ve Cott Mail” — how lucky am I?! I’m also a composer and playwright — I LOVE that I’ve found someone else in that combination category! It’s been awhile since I’ve blogged and/or written anything (health reasons), but bouncing around in here has inspired me again. Looking forward to reading more–

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Stravinsky the Comedian

Some really great theater can happen when opera composers play with the conventions of the genre. In the comment section of the “What’s Opera Doc” post, Eph brought up a great bit in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Pinkerton, the brash American lieutenant  interrupts his aria almost mid phrase to offer his guest a drink of  MilkContinue Reading

2 Responses to Stravinsky the Comedian

  1. You see interrupted songs more often, I think, in musical theater, which maybe lends itself to the device better than opera because song and speech are being juxtaposed all over the place already. For example, in My Fair Lady, Freddy is rhapsodizing about Eliza’s behavior at the race the day before, and just as he recalls her cry of “Move your bloomin’ …!” he’s interrupted by someone answering the door before he can complete the thought. (A particularly canny device, because the whole point of Freddy’s little bit of song there is to remind the audience where we last left that part of the story, and this gently nudges the audience to remember for themselves how the line ended and thus to remember the situation and Freddy’s foolish naivete.)

    A fairly common structural device in musicals is to sing a chorus or two of a song and then, without stopping for applause, have a short dialogue scene which wraps up the action of that scene and/or points ahead to what’s coming next. Meanwhile, the music of the song continues under the dialogue. That bit of dialogue business finished, we return to the song for one more chorus, or sometimes just a repeat of the last line or two. The reason for this: The end of a song gets applause, so it’s desirable to end the scene and the song at the same time so that the applause adds to the sense of conclusion of the scene and helps cover some of the transition to the next scene. Whereas the lamest way you can end a scene is to have the song end and then have maybe three or four lines of dialogue and then the scene ends. If your scene continues with more dialogue after the song, generally you need that dialogue to be substantial and significant, like a minute or more and containing some real plot, or it will come off as an anticlimax after the end of the song. So if the bit of dialogue you have isn’t important enough to stretch out to a minute or so, and you can’t cut it and you can’t place it before the song even starts, then what you can do is put it *within* the song.

    That’s not quite the same thing as what you’re talking about, as it’s not meant for comic effect — in fact, the writers are ardently hoping that it doesn’t call attention to itself as a device — but very similar in terms of structure.

    Another favorite interruption of mine from musical theater: In the act two opening number of The Most Happy Fella, the chorus number is abruptly interrupted in the middle of a phrase, the lights change, everybody on stage freezes except for two characters, and these two characters sing what they’re thinking about while everybody else is having a good time. Their music is completely different in mood, tempo, rhythm, everything — where the chorus is lively and joyful, their duet is brooding and anguished. Then they finish, the lighting changes back, and the chorus resumes its lively number in midphrase exactly where it left off.

    So what Loesser has there is a song actually being interrupted by a whole other song. And not for comedy, either — the effect is to make vivid these two people’s unhappiness in the middle of a crowd that’s celebrating. It’s a powerful moment.

  2. Here’s a favorite interruption of mine from opera: In the ORIGINAL version of Ariadne auf Naxos, in Zerbinetta’s big showpiece, at one point the orchestra crescendos to the point where it drowns her out, you can’t hear her singing her line. Zerbinetta gestures impatiently to the conductor in the pit to get him to quiet them down. The orchestra gets quieter, Zerbinetta gestures her approval, and she continues. Unfortunately when Strauss and von Hofmannsthal revised the opera, they shortened the showpiece and dropped this little moment of silliness.

    There’s a lovely joke of the same sort in Haydn’s 60th symphony: The last movement begins with a lively theme, but after a few measures there’s suddenly a terrible dissonance. The conductor stops the orchestra and has all the strings check their tuning. The pair of violins that is found to be incorrectly tuned then plays the offending note while tuning it, so you hear it slide up a half step. Then the movement starts over from the beginning and continues without further mishap. All this — the orchestra stopping, the tuning of the strings up a half step — is carefully written out in Haydn’s score.

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Brevity takes time

File this under “things I’m required to do when I really should be composing or at least practicing for the workshop.” I got an email last night asking me to supply some marketing material for the Solo Sundays gig, including a fifteen word description of  my piece for the ticketing website.  Fifteen words!  The fullContinue Reading

2 Responses to Brevity takes time

  1. Noah O. Rhys says:

    “a college student hallucinates his way through a final exam, encountering his inner demons, Einstein, and his ex-girlfriend.”

    Dude, cuts like a knife.

  2. Brian Rosen says:

    Har! Noah, that storyline is taken more from my life than yours. Although I suppose universality is a good trait…

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Is opera kid’s stuff? Or just silly?

A friend of mine commented on Facebook that “the bulk of [his] generation’s exposure to classical music has been through Looney Toon cartoons.”  Upon reflection, I think he’s absolutely right. A quick search shows that listverse has already compiled the “Top Ten Uses of Classical Music in Classic Cartoons” list for us. And who doContinue Reading

5 Responses to Is opera kid’s stuff? Or just silly?

  1. Peter says:

    Wow, my daughter (and son now) watch Wonder Pets at the grandparents. At first it really annoyed me, because of what you mentioned. But now I sort of appreciate the style it uses to communicate to the youngins. So much so, that we borrowed the CD from the library. It’s a frequent request now.

  2. Natalie says:

    I used to use “What’s Opera Doc” as a teaching tool for the college music appreciation classes I taught. It was the easiest way to explain the form of Grand Opera in 6 minutes (instead of 4 hours). It is an absolute piece of genious, that little 6 minute cartoon.

    I wonder about this idea of the need to repeat oneself textually to go with music. Because certainly there is plenty of musical theater (including modern opera) that does NOT do this. It was, of course, the style in previous eras (good lord how many Handel arias have I sung that are 7 minutes long and only have 3 LINES of text????) — but did the music demand it or was that a stylistic choice, a convention? The arias were used as a vehicle for showing off the voice as an instrument, more than for progressing the plot of the opera, it would seem. Were they really TRYING to be theatrical in those moments?

  3. Brian Rosen says:

    I think you’re exactly right, and I’m starting to write out a post about how later styles of opera tried to get around this repetition thing. But the more I think about it, the repetition thing may not be endemic to the music. Did Mozart do a lot of it?

    It may just be that we’ve heard the “What’s Opera Doc” so often that the silly repetition has lodged into our collective minds as that “thing that opera does.” And since most Americans have never heard an opera in a language they understand, they have no idea whether or not opera actually does that.

  4. Eph says:

    I’m no expert on opera as a whole, but I don’t think Puccini repeats lines all that often. And he uses arias to advance the drama and develop characters. One of my favorite examples is “Dovunque al mondo” from Madama Butterfly. I particularly love the fact that Pinkerton interrupts his aria to offer his guest a drink (“Milk Punch, o Whisky?”)

  5. Brian Rosen says:

    Eph, absolutely. Puccini has a much more modern approach to theater. Remember, Madama Butterfly is a 20th century opera (1904)! Wagner composed over half of the Ring cycle in the 1850s, before Tristan even.

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A teensy bit freaking out

Sometimes I don’t have a great sense of how much time things really take.  I figure if it’s conceptually easy, it shouldn’t take much time to do.  I neglect to schedule the actual overhead involved with the mechanical tasks. Sometimes this gets me in trouble.  I’m a little bit worried that this might be oneContinue ReadingContinue Reading

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Upcoming Event: Failing That Workshop Presentation

Failing That: A Minor Tragedy (excerpt) 7pm February 28th Stagewerx Theater 533 Sutter St (at Powell) San Francisco, CA 94102   I’ll be performing a 25 minute excerpt from Failing That as part of the Stage Werx Solo Sunday festival on February 28th.  This excerpt will follow the arc of Steven Scafidi as he finds himselfContinue Reading

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I Got Mail!

Hey look!  It’s the latest animation from my a cappella group, The Richter Scales. I wrote it. And I sang the solo.  And my lovely wife animated it. I think it’s pretty cute. (Although perhaps a tad bit dated. It sure felt relevant when I wrote it back in 2003.)

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