Coming Up: Brahms and Schütz

Tonight begins our four-concert run of Brahms’ A German Requiem with the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. The soloists Jane Archibald and Kyle Ketelsen have sounded fabulous in rehearsal. The program opens with the Chorus singing one of Heinrich Schütz’s a cappella six-part motets, Ich bin ein rechter Weinstock, conducted by Ragnar Bohlin. In between is Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra. So there’s German music from the 17th, 19th, and 20th centuries all in one concert! Performances are Thursday the 17th through Saturday the 19th at 8:00 pm, and Sunday the 20th at 2:00 pm, all at Davies Symphony Hall.

Tickets are available online or at the box office. The San Francisco Symphony is running an amazing sale until 6:00 pm Pacific Time tonight, where nearly all seats are just $20! Use the SALE20 promotion code to get the special pricing online. The sale includes all our Brahms concerts, plus several other November and December programs.

I’ve sung the Brahms before, but it’s been a whole different experience than the Verdi Requiem. With the Verdi, the music pretty much came back into my voice instantly. When we started the Brahms, my voice was asking “Have you really sung this before?” There is a lot more for the chorus to sing in the Brahms than the Verdi. It’s pretty much continuous, with just a few passages for the soloists or the orchestra alone. It took more time to relearn the Brahms, but now it’s going very well.

The Schütz is a whole new world to me, having never sung any of his music before. Once it was added to the program, I purchased Emmanuel Music’s CD of six-part motets on the Koch International label – now out of print, but available from used stores at Amazon and elsewhere. What a beautiful recording, conducted by the late Craig Smith. It includes several motets composed to texts that Brahms also used in A German Requiem. It’s a fun challenge to combine the very different vocal and choral styles needed by Schütz and Brahms in the same concert.

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Moving to MakeMusic

MakeMusic logo

Yesterday was a big day for me. MakeMusic and Recordare announced that MakeMusic will be purchasing selected assets from Recordare LLC, including the MusicXML format and Dolet plug-ins for Finale and Sibelius. I will be joining MakeMusic as Director of Digital Sheet Music, staying in Silicon Valley. Closing is expected later this quarter.

You can read lots more about this at Recordare’s web site. This page includes my letter about the acquisition to the Recordare and MusicXML communities, plus links to the press release and frequently asked questions:

When I started Recordare 12 years ago, the goal was to create better digital sheet music and Internet music publishing through a standard notation format. MusicXML is now that standard notation format, used by over 150 applications. However, to succeed in digital sheet music applications, Recordare clearly needed to get bigger – either organically or through an acquisition. From day one MakeMusic was the leading candidate, as MusicXML’s leading supporter outside of Recordare. I am thrilled about what we will be able to create working together more directly.

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Coming Up: Verdi Requiem

When you work on music notation software for a living and you sing in choruses, the two tend to intersect. I’m rehearsing for the San Francisco Symphony Chorus’s performances of the Verdi Requiem, coming up next week. The Verdi Requiem turns out to be one of music notation’s record holders. No other work in common Western music notation has more augmentation dots on a note than the 4 dots Verdi uses in setting “Salva me” in the Rex tremendae portion of the Sequence:

Example of 4 augmentation dots on a half note in Verdi Requiem

This is one of many cases of a stuttering rhythm in the Sequence, helping to convey a sense of fear and foreboding – in this case, the desperation in the plea to be saved. In this week’s rehearsals we have worked on making sure these stuttering sections are still sung with ensemble, line, and emotion.

Don Byrd’s wonderful Extremes of Conventional Music Notation site notes that several other works share this record, including Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Franck’s Prelude, Chorale and Fugue, Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler Symphony, and Bartók’s Music for Strings, Percussion, and Celesta. Like the Verdi, all of these works have the four dots on a half note.

This should be a fabulous set of concerts. James Conlon is conducting, and the soloists are soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, mezzo Dolora Zajick, tenor Frank Lopardo, and bass Ain Anger. I sang the Verdi Requiem with Masterworks Chorale in San Mateo about 15 years ago and Ms. Radvanovsky was our soprano soloist then, before her fame. I’ve never heard the Libera me sung any better!

The concerts are Wednesday, October 19 through Saturday, October 22 at Davies Symphony Hall. All concerts start at 8:00 pm. Tickets are available online and at the box office. When I checked yesterday there were still good seats available for all performances.

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Finale 2012 Released With MusicXML 3.0 Support

Photo of Finale 2012 boxLast Friday, MakeMusic announced the release of Finale 2012. This is the first music notation editor with full support for the reading and writing MusicXML 3.0 files.

MusicXML 3.0’s new taxonomy of standard instrument sounds works together with Finale 2012’s Score Manager, making it easier to transfer playback setups between applications. Finale 2012 will set playback to VST or Audio Units automatically when importing a MusicXML 3.0 file that includes a virtual instrument. Finale 2012 is available at the Recordare Online Store to customers in the USA.

Recordare has also released an updated version of Dolet 6.1 for Finale plug-in that adds Finale 2012 support. This is a free maintenance update for Dolet 6 for Finale customers.

Finale 2012 takes advantage of MusicXML 3.0’s new instrument taxonomy when moving files from Sibelius to Finale. For example, an instrument set up to sound like a trumpet in Sibelius will now be set up to sound like a trumpet when imported into Finale 2012. You will need Recordare’s Dolet 6 for Sibelius plug-in to do this, as Sibelius 7’s built-in MusicXML export supports MusicXML 2.0, not MusicXML 3.0.

The past few weeks have also seen some notable additions to MusicXML application support:

  • Antares has added MusicXML support to their Auto-Tune EFX 2 plug-in. How does MusicXML work with a pitch correction and vocal effect plug-in? There is a new vocal pattern generation feature in EFX 2. The available patterns are specified with a user-editable MusicXML file. It’s great to see MusicXML being used in such different ways in new applications!
  • Cakewalk has added MusicXML export to their SONAR digital audio workstation, as part of the SONAR X1 Producer Expanded release.
  • The Mozart notation editor has added MusicXML import in its version 11 release.

I am hoping that Finale 2012’s support of many of MusicXML 3.0’s key features will lead more applications to update their MusicXML support to version 3.0 as well. You can keep up to date with what applications offer MusicXML support at Recordare’s web site:

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Steve Jobs 1955 – 2011

Photo of Steve Jobs holding a white iPhone from WWDC 2010Although I knew it was coming sooner than later, it was still a real kick in the stomach to read that Steve Jobs died today. I was at WWDC in June, one of his last public appearances, and I immediately saw how much his health had declined since the previous year. Yet there he was, leading us into the wonders of Apple’s next set of innovations involving iCloud and iOS 5.

Steve was unique in both being devoted to beauty in computing and being able to sell that beauty to a mass market. It really started with the Mac, but the iPhone and iPad were even more profound.

In the late 80s and early 90s there was a lot of experimentation about better ways to interact with computers than via a keyboard and mouse. I was involved in virtual reality, 3D graphics, sonification, and force feedback. Others were working on pen-based systems and speech recognition. None of it made it to the mass market at the time. Hardware manufacturers were fixated on Moore’s law and its application to CPUs, memory, and storage. Many other parts of what make up a computer system were neglected, including the key area of display technology.

I’ve never seen anyone in the area of computer design with Steve Jobs’s sense of timing. The ability to know just when a particular innovation will be commercially viable, and when all the stars are aligned to turn something new into a big hit, is very rare. Some people get lucky once and invent something at the right place and the right time. With the iPod, iTunes, iPhone, and iPad, Steve Jobs led Apple to be in the right place at the right time for four major new product categories over a decade. This was on top of his earlier successes with the Mac and Pixar. What an amazing, astounding track record.

When I started Recordare, the idea was to create a standard format to enable the growth of Internet music publishing and digital sheet music. We now have the standard MusicXML format in place and its surrounding application infrastructure. And now, thanks to Steve’s leadership and Apple’s work, we now have the iPad as a hardware platform for digital sheet music – the first mass market tablet good enough to criticize. FreeHand did pioneering work with the MusicPad Pro, but you need a mass market device like the iPad to be able to reach musicians everywhere.

Pancreatic Cancer. Know it. Fight it. End it.While the cause of Steve’s death is not known at this time, we do know that he suffered from pancreatic cancer several years ago. Pancreatic cancer is a quick and relentless killer with no pre-screening, no cure, and no effective treatment in the vast majority of cases. No matter how rich you are, you can’t beat it. One reason for this deadliness is that pancreatic cancer research is vastly underfunded. Please consider making a donation to the Pancreatic Cancer Action Network in Steve’s memory. This remarkable group works to increase pancreatic cancer research and awareness: to know it, fight it, and end it.

Photo of Steve Jobs from WWDC 2010 by Matthew Yohe.

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Heart of a Soldier

Photo from Act II of Heart of a SoldierI attended Sunday’s performance of the new Christopher Theofanidis opera Heart of a Soldier in its premiere run at San Francisco Opera, and found it to be a very moving and powerful piece. The cast was excellent, especially the three leads: Thomas Hampson as Rick Rescorla, William Burden as Dan Hill, and Melody Moore as Susan Rescorla. The score was nicely lyrical and singable, not the nearly-all-recitative music that burdens a lot of contemporary opera. I recommend it to anyone interested in new operatic works, or who are interested in operatic responses to dramatic events like 9/11.

The opera is controversial for two obvious reasons – the subject matter and the issue of operatic quality. Nearly any opera premiere that’s interesting will be controversial for the latter reason. However, when you make an opera that ends with the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center, you’re going to have more controversy than usual. I wanted to weigh in on both aspects with some initial thoughts.

I think some people misunderstand when they hear people involved with the production say that it’s not about 9/11. The 9/11 attack only happens in the last scene of the opera. The opera itself is a character study of Rick Rescorla viewed through his relationships with Dan Hill and Susan Rescorla. I found this to be a fascinating and deeply thought-provoking portrayal of someone who couldn’t be much more different from me. What was it that drew Rescorla and Hill to the military life? What kept them there or drove them away? What did they take from their military experience into civilian life? This culminates in 9/11, but as the title says, the focus is on what Rescorla believes is the heart of a soldier. It is not at all about what 9/11 meant to the USA and the world, though of course your perspective on that will affect your response to the opera.

Operas usually don’t live and die on their subject matter or their libretto (Donna Di Novelli is the librettist here). It’s the music that matters most. Naturally it’s hard to assimilate a new opera in one performance. My initial impression is that the music is very strong and nicely written for voices. My main criticism is that it seems a bit short of breath at times; there are arias and other moments that could be extended or repeated more. What Puccini did in terms of repetition to make his melodies memorable in operas like Madama Butterfly, without being too obvious about it, might be a helpful model to follow. Jeff Dunn makes much the same point in his San Francisco Classical Voice review.

Joshua Kosman’s review in the San Francisco Chronicle faulted the dramatic structure while generally praising the music and many of the individual elements in the opera. I disagree with his negative assessment. Character studies that lead to a climactic ending can pack a powerful emotional response even when there is minimal conflict between the characters on stage. I was indeed not convinced by Act I’s dramatic structure at intermission, but it made great sense when the opera was complete. This was a great example of Keith Jarrett’s dictum that “Until the whole appears, the parts should not be criticized.”

Other critics have accused the opera of “emotional manipulation” as if that were a bad thing. Music’s ability to manipulate emotions is what makes it such a prominent part of human existence. Scientists like David Huron and Daniel Levitin have helped explain why. Are you skeptical about the role that music plays in Rescorla’s professional life in this opera? It’s practically a dramatization of portions of Chapter 2 in Levitin’s The World in Six Songs. Good opera increases emotional communication even more with its combination of music and theater. The fact that I was profoundly moved at the end of the opera is a good thing. The ending was exceedingly well staged by director Francesca Zambello, falling neither into the trap of vague understatement that I thought plagued the Doctor Atomic premiere, nor the more obvious trap of vulgar overstatement.

Heart of a Soldier is not for everybody. I don’t know if the opera will survive in the repertoire or not. If you love opera and view it as a living, breathing, relevant art form in today’s world, and you’re in the San Francisco Bay area, please go see it and judge for yourself. There are three more performances on September 24, 27, and 30.

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A Chorister’s Preview of the SFS Centennial

The centennial season of the San Francisco Symphony has begun! Orchestra fans in the Bay Area are excited about the great programming throughout the season, the wonderful soloists coming our way, and the ability to hear the other 6 of the USA’s “Big 7” orchestras here in San Francisco in a single season.

What does the centennial season mean for the SFS Chorus? First, there are several of the most well-loved classics for chorus and orchestra in the repertoire, including the Verdi Requiem, Brahms’ German Requiem, and Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. James Conlon will be conducting the Verdi, while MTT will conduct the Brahms and Beethoven.

Second, the chorus will premiere Mass Transmission for chorus, organ and electronics by Mason Bates during the American Mavericks concerts. Bates’s music has been performed frequently both at the San Francisco Symphony and the Cabrillo Festival, and I’ve been a big fan of the works I’ve heard to date. This will be the first time I’ve performed any of his music and I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve been in many premieres over the years, as a trumpeter and a singer, but there’s no doubt that this will be the highest-visibility premiere that I’ve ever performed in.

Third, there are several rarely done works where this might be the “once in a lifetime” chance to sing it. This category includes Debussy’s Le martyre de Saint Sébastien and Schoenberg’s A Survivor from Warsaw – the latter serving as a curtain raiser for the Beethoven 9th. It also includes the MTT-curated semi-staged extravaganza Barbary Coast and Beyond, featuring music from the Gold Rush through the Symphony’s founding in 1911. I have no idea what we’ll be singing in that concert, but trust in these MTT programs is usually amply rewarded.

That covers the works that I’ll be singing in. As a tenor I can’t sing the Mahler 3rd that the women of the chorus will perform this weekend, and my schedule didn’t permit me to volunteer for Messiah or the holiday concerts.

So the SFS Centennial should provide a lot of great music for the chorus and the audience! I’ll be blogging more about the different programs as they happen. Our first rehearsal for the Verdi is this Monday.

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MusicXML 3.0 and Dolet 6 Plug-ins Released

Yesterday was the big day! Recordare released version 3.0 of the MusicXML format, providing 76 new features since MusicXML 2.0 was released four years ago. We simultaneously released version 6.0 of our Dolet plug-ins for Finale and Sibelius. Both plug-ins support the MusicXML 3.0 format, so musicians and music software developers can take advantage of these new features right away.

We’re still in the process of updating the web site so that everything is discussing MusicXML 3.0 information, but the new 3.0 version is downloadable from:

You can get the new Dolet 6 plug-ins at our online store:

If you want to see all the new features in this release, check out the version history at:

We also have an easily searchable and sortable alphabetical index of all the features in MusicXML 3.0, sortable by name, type, DTD module, and the version in which it was added to the MusicXML format:

There was another very important MusicXML event the week before version 3.0 was released. Sibelius 7 was announced, and one of its new features is built-in MusicXML export. Our initial trials of this support are very promising. There’s a nice level of support for MusicXML 2.0 formatting features, which is so important for transfer to the new generation of digital sheet music applications, especially those being built for iPads and other tablets.

Given the high quality of the MusicXML export built into Sibelius 7, and the high quality of MusicXML import and export built into Finale 2011, we have reduced the price of our Dolet plug-ins by 50% from the previous versions. A new license is US $99.95, and an upgrade from the previous Dolet 5 version is $69.95. This makes Dolet 6 for Sibelius less expensive than a Sibelius 7 upgrade. We expect Dolet 6 to appeal both to people who want the latest MusicXML 3.0 features, and those who want to stick with their current Sibelius 5 or Sibelius 6 software – yet still exchange files with people using Finale and other programs.

All these events – the release of MusicXML 3.0, the Dolet 6 plug-ins, and Sibelius 7 – really have brought some closure to Recordare’s work of the past 11 years. Back then the only way you could exchange files between music notation applications was through MIDI files, which lost nearly all notation-specific information. Prior standardization efforts such as SMDL and NIFF had failed for both technical and social reasons. In January 2000 we were still in the Internet boom days, and digital sheet music was just starting with pioneers like Marlin Eller at Sunhawk.

It was clear that having a standard format for music notation and digital sheet music that any application could read and write would be essential to fulfill the potential for Internet sheet music. We’ve finally arrived there! Every major notation software program can read and write MusicXML files. Every major music scanning program can save MusicXML files. Many of the new digital sheet music apps use MusicXML to move files back and forth from their own specialized formats. MusicXML still doesn’t have a lot of market share in sequencers – Cubase supports it, but not Logic, Digital Performer, or Sonar. But all of those programs are playback-oriented with notation as a secondary feature.

A standard notation format combined with mass-market tablet platforms like iOS and Android makes for a bright future for digital sheet music. FreeHand pioneered the digital sheet music device area long ago, but the opportunities are so much bigger when you can use mass-market hardware rather than something specific for musicians. It’s similar to the way we leveraged the huge computer industry investment in XML to create a standard MusicXML format.

For Recordare, MusicXML has always been a means to an end, not the end itself. The past two weeks have brought a remarkable maturation to the MusicXML software world. I expect that we can now start working more on innovative digital sheet music applications, rather than having to focus so much on software infrastructure. There are exciting times ahead!

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