Retirement Day

"Happy Retirement Michael" cake
Cake from my MakeMusic retirement party

Today is the day. After 44 years as a software engineer, this is my last day as an employee at MakeMusic. I will still be a member of the W3C Music Notation Community Group, but I stepped down as co-chair and MusicXML specification editor earlier this week.

People have asked me what’s next, and my answer is that I want to finally not have a plan. For now, the only schedule I’ll be on will be West Bay Opera chorus schedules. I’ll also be traveling more, including my first trip outside the USA since 2019.

One of my retirement projects will likely be to redo this blog. This includes updating its decade-old design, and also expanding beyond music and software to other topics that interest me. You may see more genealogy and family history posts in the future.

In my career I have always gone straight from one thing to the next, with maybe just a week or two off in between jobs. And why not? I was always excited about what was next and couldn’t wait to get started.

This will be the longest unstructured time I’ll have had since I was 14 years old. I am very much looking forward to making space for discovering what’s next, without knowing what it is and rushing into it.

My software engineering career has been so much fun. The first half was spent making computer systems more usable for people. The second half was spent bringing music notation into the digital age with the MusicXML format and application software. I’ve had the great good fortune to work with wonderful teams and communities over the years at Digital Equipment Corporation, Xtensory, SAP, Recordare, and MakeMusic.

Of everything that I worked on, I’m pretty sure that MusicXML will have the most lasting impact. Not only can people to share files between programs much more easily, but developers are emboldened to create innovative new apps because they have a standard interchange format to rely on. I can’t wait to see how things continue to develop over time. But I can wait to see what’s next for me.

Posted in Music Business, MusicXML | 1 Comment

Ten Years at MakeMusic

MakeMusic logoThis week marks my tenth anniversary at MakeMusic. It was ten years ago when MakeMusic announced it had completed the acquisition of Recordare’s assets, and I joined the company as Director of Digital Sheet Music.

Five years ago I took a look back at my first five years with MakeMusic. It was a tumultuous time for the company, with two changes of ownership, three CEOs, and a move from Minnesota to Colorado. During that same time MakeMusic put together the pieces that would guide the next five years. Acquiring Weezic led to the launch of a web-based version of SmartMusic. Finale v25 was released as a modernized 64-bit application with a forward- and backward-compatible file format. MusicXML development was transferred to a standards organization at the W3C Music Notation Community Group. Alfred Music also joined Peaksware during this time, bringing music publishing and music notation software under the same ownership.

What have I been doing the past five years? For the most part, it’s been spent building on the structures put in place the previous five years. I’ve kept the same title as Vice President of MusicXML Technologies, and the company moved just nine miles south, from Boulder to a larger building in Louisville, Colorado. I have been working at home in California since starting Recordare in 2000, so the pandemic has affected my work much less than many other people.

Most of my focus has been on getting repertoire into SmartMusic as quickly and accurately as possible. Bringing tens of thousands of pieces of educational and concert music into SmartMusic has required improvements everywhere: in our Finale software, in the MusicXML format itself, and in our SmartMusic software and tools. 


During the past five years, MakeMusic released two major versions of Finale: versions 26 and 27. Finale v27 was especially significant with its support for the SMuFL Standard Music Font Layout, with thousands more notation symbols available than ever before.

Having these symbols easily available means that customers need to use Finale’s Shape Designer much less often. When transferring digital sheet music from notation editors like Finale to interactive applications like SmartMusic, shapes and graphics are notoriously problematic. They are defined in the program as a set of instructions for how to draw the shape. There is nothing that indicates semantically what the meaning of the symbol is. This limits the accuracy with which music transfers from one application to the other.

With SMuFL support built-in, together with greatly expanded music notation fonts, the Shape Designer can be saved for special-purpose graphics that do not have standardized musical semantics. This takes care of one of the major problems in transferring music from Finale to other applications.

In addition, since SMuFL is a standardized layout for music fonts, it makes it much easier to switch fonts in your document and have everything work right – including MusicXML export. With older music notation fonts, custom fonts were difficult to support because you didn’t know what symbol a particular character represented. SMuFL fonts all have the same layout, and also let apps know that they conform to the SMuFL standard.

Naturally, MusicXML support improved with each Finale major and maintenance release. Version 25.4 added MusicXML 3.1 support and Version 27 introduced MusicXML 4.0 support, but each release has come with noticeable improvements. The cumulative effect of all these small improvements over the years becomes really significant. The care taken in our MusicXML export is one reason why Finale is the notation editor of choice for so many companies developing content for their own interactive sheet music apps.

W3C Music Notation Community Group

W3C Community Groups logoFive years ago, the W3c Music Notation Community Group was about one year old and had not released any Community Group Reports. Things have really picked up since then! In the past five years the group has released four reports:

I have served as editor for both the MusicXML 3.1 and 4.0 Community Group Reports. Both releases were big steps forward for MusicXML. MusicXML 3.1 added much better support for SMuFL fonts and changed the standard file extension from the generic .xml to the easily identifiable .musicxml.

I am particularly happy with the MusicXML 4.0 release. It addresses many longstanding issues, including standardizing the connections between scores and parts, and fully supporting concert scores with transposed parts.

However the most significant improvement in version 4.0 may be having the entire specification available as a W3C Community Group Report on the W3C site. This includes examples for every single element in the MusicXML 4.0 format. When MakeMusic acquired Recordare, we finally had the technical writers to put together an online specification at the MakeMusic site. But this was based on proprietary software that could not be easily moved over to the W3C site, nor was it easily updated when our writers changed. When MusicXML 3.1 was released, the MakeMusic documentation did not update with it, causing many developers to miss out on the new 3.1 features.

Adrian Holovaty, one of the Community Group co-chairs, developed an open source Django-based app for creating both the MusicXML and the MNX specifications. While this system automatically generated much of the text content from the MusicXML 4.0 schema definition, the examples had to be transferred manually. We also had to create new examples for all the new features from versions 3.1 and 4.0. The documentation system made this as easy to do as we could, and MakeMusic gave me the time needed to transfer everything over and make it complete.

The easier it is for developers to implement MusicXML, the better their exchange software will be, and the easier it will be for MakeMusic to get music from all sorts of different applications into SmartMusic. Ten years ago there were over 150 applications supporting MusicXML; now that number stands at over 260. One of the main reasons I joined MakeMusic was that the company really understood how standards can improve business, and that remains true today.

Scoring Notes podcast screenshot

Last March I was invited to talk about MusicXML on the Scoring Notes podcast with Philip Rothman and David MacDonald. Tune in there to hear more about MusicXML’s history, and the state of development as we were finishing up work on MusicXML 4.0.


SmartMusic LogoMusicXML import improvements in SmartMusic were largely handled by my colleagues. My SmartMusic projects included adding MusicXML export to SmartMusic’s Compose and Sight Reading Builder apps, and automating part of the production process for our Repertoire Development team.

As we made the transition from classic SmartMusic – the original version of SmartMusic for desktop and mobile platforms – to our new web-based SmartMusic, repertoire needed to be developed for both versions. The repertoire was developed first for classic SmartMusic and then transferred over to the web. Given the speed with which we launched web-based SmartMusic for the 2016-2017 school year, the tools for this transfer were not as good as they could have been.

Speeding up this process for our team gave me a chance to use Contextual Inquiry for the first time in years. It also gave me my first chance to develop in Python – probably the world’s most popular programming language these days. The team estimated that these Python scripts reduced average transfer time from 1 hour to 5 minutes. This allowed them to get more content into new SmartMusic, and also made it much easier to improve existing content.

With last year’s retirement of classic SmartMusic, the team no longer uses these scripts and instead uses new tools for creating content directly for the web. It was well worth it though for the improvements to our repertoire library they made possible over the previous few years.

My main focus now is making it easier to get music from Sibelius into SmartMusic. We are doing that by updating our Dolet for Sibelius plug-in for the first time in five years. Beta test for this version began yesterday! The new version exports MusicXML 4.0 files and takes advantage of features added to Sibelius’s ManuScript plug-in language over the years.

Even though Sibelius has its own built-in MusicXML export, many musicians have told us that the Dolet plug-in provides better results. We believe those results are significantly better in this new version, and look forward to what our beta testers have to say as they test the exported MusicXML files in many different applications.

So the past five years have been busy! These ten years at MakeMusic have really gone like I had hoped. I have been able to work with great teams to push forward the state of the art in digital sheet music, both with our apps at MakeMusic and with the standards developed by the open, inclusive community at the W3C Music Notation Community Group. I can’t wait to see what comes next!

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Looking Back at Macbeth

West Bay Opera Chorus singing Patria oppressa - Macbeth Act IV.
West Bay Opera Chorus singing Patria oppressa – Macbeth Act IV. Photo by Otak Jump.

It has been a year since pretty much everything shut down in the USA due to the COVID-19 pandemic. For those of us who are performers, whether professional or amateur, our memories go back to that last performance or last rehearsal before it all went away.

I have never been an athletic type and tend to be physically risk-averse. It is quite the cosmic irony that my favorite hobby, singing in opera choruses, turns out to be one of the most daredevil things you can do in a pandemic. I have seen studies that say, “oh, singing is not that dangerous,” but come on! I’ve been on the opera stage a lot, and seen lots of spit fly for a heck of a lot farther than six feet.

When it became clear how dangerous this pandemic was, we knew that opera was going to be one of the last things coming back. Some companies like Michigan Opera Theatre have done creative things with drive-in productions. Others like Opera San José have done smaller-scale video productions.

I appreciate this creativity, but I must say that I am happy with West Bay Opera‘s approach. The spontaneity and communion between performers and audience in live performance is so essential to what we do. Drive-ins and video don’t get to the heart of the live performance. Video in particular is another form of TV. There is nothing wrong with TV, especially in this golden age of creative television production, but it’s a different experience than live performance. There is nothing wrong with a company like West Bay Opera saying that we will wait things out until we can do the live performances that are the heart of our art form.

For now, that leaves us with our memories. Those of us performing with West Bay Opera have had the great good fortune that our last performances have likely been in a wonderful Verdi production. The pandemic struck as we were about to complete our Verdi pentathlon: five straight Verdi operas over two seasons. The 2018-2019 season ended with I due Foscari and Falstaff, and the all-Verdi 2019-2020 season was Nabucco, Macbeth, and La traviata.

I was accepted into the chorus of all five operas and got to sing in four of them before the pandemic scuttled La traviata, at least for time being. I want to focus now on our last production, Macbeth from February 2020, which was perhaps the most amazing of the set.

When our general director and conductor, José Luis Moscovich, told us that we were going to include the complete ballet in Macbeth, I thought he was crazy. Hardly anybody does the ballet these days, especially a small, low-budget regional opera company without a dedicated ballet or dance group!

I had severely underestimated the creativity of José Luis, our director Ragnar Conde, and our choreographer Kara Davis. They came up with a scheme where we had three dancers totally integrated with the drama. They were the dancing witches, complementing our women’s chorus of witches. When the women’s chorus were other characters, the dancing witches could still be present moving the plot along. It is one of the witches who places the dagger in Macbeth’s hand before he kills Duncan. In this video from the Act II Finale, where Macbeth sees Banquo’s ghost, you can see the witches – Pauline Mosley, Alejandra Preciado, and Leyna Swoboda – come in at the end of the act to feast off of the abandoned banquet table.

This scene also lets you hear the splendor of the West Bay Opera Chorus. It has been such a joy to be in the chorus as it has improved by leaps and bounds over the years. Bruce Olstad has been our chorus director for the past several seasons and our sound is a great tribute to his wonderful leadership. His cheerful relentlessness in search of artistic excellence makes rehearsals so much fun, as we keep improving with each production.

Macbeth also gave me my first solo singing role at West Bay Opera! I got to sing the role of the Herald in Act III. It’s two words, four syllables, all eighth notes on one pitch – “La regina!” The difficulty is in the tricky entrance right after a tempo change. Fortunately my MIT Concert Band days have given me plenty of experience with tricky entrances! It was great fun to briefly be the person mediating between Krassen Karagiozov‘s Macbeth and Christina Major‘s Lady Macbeth.

Herald's apperance in Macbeth Act III.
My appearance as the Herald in Macbeth Act III, with Krassen Karagiozov as Macbeth and Christina Major as Lady Macbeth. Photo by Otak Jump.

I can’t possibly write about Macbeth without mentioning the witches’ chorus and the remarkable work of our costumer designer, Callie Floor. Her faceless masks for the witches were extremely creepy, yet still practical for the singers. They were set off well by Peter Crompton’s set design and Steve Mannshardt’s lighting design. Here they are in the opening Act I chorus:

West Bay Opera Witches' Chorus, Macbeth Act I.
West Bay Opera Witches’ Chorus, Macbeth Act I. Photo by Otak Jump.

This production played to sold out houses and received rave reviews. If you ever have to go without performances for a year or more, I highly recommend having your last performances be as rewarding as our Macbeth production. Joshua Kosman’s review in the San Francisco Chronicle was particularly good, loving the whole cast and crew, but especially Christina Major’s Lady Macbeth.

While we have been locked down I have kept on singing in short daily practice sessions, keeping my voice ready for the next time it is safe to sing in a chorus and appear on stage. My two constant aria companions have been Macduff’s Act IV aria, sung magnificently in our production by Dane Suarez, and the Chant d’Iopas from Berlioz’s Les Troyens. The despair of Macduff’s aria has been easier to connect with emotionally during the pandemic. Last night, after listening to President Biden’s speech detailing our vaccination progress, I was finally able to connect with the feeling of renewal and rebirth in the Berlioz. At last I realized why I have kept these two arias close to me during the past year.

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Leonard Bernstein at 100 – Mass

Today is Leonard Bernstein‘s 100th birthday. Bernstein is one of my favorite composers so I have really enjoyed the attention to his music during his centennial. In the past year I’ve heard two performances of Candide in San Francisco and Santa Fe, my first-ever experience of Trouble in Tahiti at Opera Parallèle, and a splendid version of Arias and Barcarolles which has just been released as a digital recording from the San Francisco Symphony.

My favorite work of Bernstein’s – yes, even more so than West Side Story – is his Mass: A Theatre Piece for Singers, Players, and Dancers. Seeing the recent commentary about Mass and other Bernstein compositions during the centennial struck me as very interesting. It has been a great way to see what writers share my sense of what is important in art and music, and which writers have a perspective totally opposite to that.

I had a somewhat unusual introduction to this piece. Gordon Hallberg, the director of the MIT Brass Ensemble when I was a graduate student, made a brass ensemble arrangement of excerpts from the piece that we performed at a concert. Hearing the music divorced from the words and staging, I wondered what was this beautiful music and why hadn’t I heard it before?

I eventually heard the original cast recording but it didn’t move me as much as I had hoped. Things changed when I got to see two performances in the course of six months. The first was the Indiana University Opera Theater performance with Douglas Webster as the Celebrant, done at Tanglewood in August 1988 as part of the Bernstein at 70 celebration.

Program for Mass performed at Tanglewood on August 27, 1988

The second was Sarah Caldwell’s fully staged production at the Opera Company of Boston in January 1989, with Richard Morris as the Celebrant.

Program for Mass at Opera Company of Boston performed in January 1989.

After seeing those two performances I was absolutely and completely hooked on this marvelous work.

When I saw the article in the San Jose Mercury News that the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music was doing Mass in August 1999 and auditioning for a chorus – the day before I left for a business trip – I made sure to call them from the road so I had an audition waiting when I got back. I got the gig and sang in the Choir for 3 performances conducted by Marin Alsop, The production was directed by Douglas Webster who again played the Celebrant. The Street Chorus was packed with amazing local singers, including Lori “Bob” Rivera (singing World Without End) and William Neely (singing Easy). I purchased the vocal score to Mass in advance of our rehearsals and it remains one of my most cherished scores, even though the Celebrant is a baritone role and I’m a tenor.

Here’s a picture from the San Jose Mercury News showing the chorus in rehearsal in Santa Cruz, with me in the upper left corner:

Mass chorus rehearsal at Cabrillo Festival for Contemporary Music, August 1999.

This is a small stage shot of the bows, taken from a refrigerator magnet that the Festival distributed to supporters after that season:

Cabrillo magnet picture of Bernstein Mass bows, August 1999.

So why do I love the Mass so much? Let me count three main ways.

Musical Eclecticism

If there’s a type of Western music that you could write in 1970, it’s probably in Mass. You have traditional classical / opera / musical theater writing, electronic music broadcast over a quadrophonic system, pop music, rock music, gospel, blues, jazz, marching bands, and twelve-tone music all side by side. All are filtered through Bernstein’s sensibilities. Some perceive this as watered-down or pallid. I see it as a brilliant composer integrating as many different sources as possible into the ultimate statement of breaking down musical barriers between high and low, classical and pop. This is far from the only Bernstein piece to do this, but nothing I know of takes it out there as far as Mass.

This was not a popular thing to do in 1971. Classical music in academia was still largely beholden to serialism and not friendly to tonality. Rock music was still viewed at odds with classical music, a year or two before the progressive classically influenced bands became really popular. Producing this type of work for such a high profile commission was an act of artistic bravery.

The Questioning Spirit

The questioning, Jewish spirit behind the Mass is especially seen in the additional texts by Stephen Schwartz and Leonard Bernstein. Some of the more overt Jewish-ness comes out in a joke about the Trinity, a sceptical take on confession, or changing into Hebrew for the Kaddish.

For me, the ever-increasing challenging of the Celebrant by the Street Chorus seems to come straight out of the ever-questioning, interpretive spirit of Judaism. It naturally also reflects the confusion and searching of a tumultuous time in United States history, with a country intensely divided over the war in Vietnam and hippie youth culture.

The questioning starts off internally, during the Confiteor:

If I could, I’d confess
Good and loud, nice and slow
Get this load off my chest
Yes, but how Lord, I don’t know

It intensifies during the Gloria:

And now, it’s strange
Somehow, though nothing much has really changed
I miss the Gloria
I don’t sing Gratias Deo
I can’t say quite when it happened
But gone is the… thank you…

It first becomes accusatory in the Gospel-Sermon:

God made us the boss
God gave us the cross
We turned it into a sword
To spread the Word of the Lord
We use his holy decrees
To do whatever we please.

We then see rejection in the Credo:

I’ll never say credo
How can anybody say credo
I want to say credo…

It all comes to a head in the Agnus Dei. While the Choir sings the Latin text to tremendously swinging music, with great emphasis on the “Dona nobis” of “Dona nobis pacem,” the Street Chorus directly confronts the Celebrant:

We’re fed up with your heavenly silence
And we only get action with violence
So if we can’t have the world we desire
Lord, we’ll have to set this one on fire.

In our Cabrillo production, Douglas Webster had several members of the Choir join in this confrontation by stepping out of the choir at the back of the stage and joining in the gyrations of the Street Chorus on the main stage. I was one of those Choir members and it was an incredibly intense experience. We then had to freeze for 13 minutes while the Celebrant goes through his “Things Get Broken” mad scene, until the Communion finale which offers some hope – maybe – of reconciliation.

Bringing Musical and Lyrical Message Together in Theatre

The way that the music and lyrical messages reinforce each other would take something much longer than a blog post to illustrate. Bernstein does this in a theatrical context and you really do need to do this as a theatre piece to pull it off completely. A stand-up-and-sing concert version just isn’t going to make the full impact. Neither will a recording, but for most people that is the best opportunity available to experience this music. I think Marin Alsop’s recording with Jubilant Sykes and the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra is the finest I have heard.

I’ve had the great privilege of having sung Bernstein’s vocal music with two of the conductors most associated with Bernstein and today: with Marin Alsop for Mass and Michael Tilson Thomas for Chichester Psalms. I am filled with gratitude for being in the right place at the right time to have that happen.

Thank you so much, Leonard Bernstein, for all you have given us. Your compositions, your recordings, your videos, lectures, and books, and your progeny both biological and cultural have all enriched us in immeasurable ways over the years. I am confident they will continue to do so for long into the future.

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A Look Back at Musical 2017

Although I haven’t been posting here lately, 2017 has been a busy year for music – both as a performer and audience member. Here are some of my musical highlights from the past year as we head into 2018.


Backstage at Suor AngelicaMy first performances of 2017 were in West Bay Opera‘s production of Puccini’s Il trittico. The men’s chorus sings offstage at the start of Il tabarro and at the end of Suor Angelica, and not at all in Gianni Schicchi. Even though we had very little music to sing, it was fantastic to be part of this production and learn how these operas work. Here I am backstage with my wife JoAnn Close who sang Lay Sister 2 as part of the Suor Angelica chorus.

February also marked the San Francisco premiere of John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary, performed by the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus under the direction of Grant Gershon. Kelley O’Connor, Tamara Mumford, and Jay Hunter Morris headed a stellar cast in this provocative and moving work.


Jennifer KimballAvocet album cover released her fabulous album Avocet on March 3. Jennifer was one half of The Story, but in those days she sang without writing any of the songs. Avocet is her third full-length solo singer/songwriter album, her first in over 10 years, and probably her best yet. Will Layman’s Pop Matters review describes some of the background and musical choices that led to the fresh sound and performances.


U2 in Santa ClaraI finally got to hear U2 in concert! The 30th Anniversary tour for The Joshua Tree came to Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara. It was everything that all my friends who had attended U2 concerts told me it would be; a real rock and roll revival meeting. Mumford & Sons opened, so I got to hear another of my favorite groups in concert for the first time.

Michael Good singing Walter in ChessMay also marked my debut with South Bay Musical Theatre in a concert production of Chess. The cast split up all the songs, with everyone singing chorus in songs where we were not soloists. Our performance was based on the licensed London version, but we secured the rights to interpolate some songs from the Broadway version. Those additions led to another debut for me – singing two solos in Hungarian! The photo above shows my other solo, singing some of Walter’s lines. Thanks to László Sigrai for helping me through the Hungarian diction while we were both attending Musikmesse, and to Walter Mayes, Asa Stern, and Anita Hsiung Carey for casting me in the show.


Royal Opera House in LondonJune saw us visit London where we saw several great performances: the Ensemble Intercontemporain at Wigmore Hall, L’elisir d’amore at the Royal Opera House, and The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre.

L’elisir was the most memorable. I love this work, having been in a magical production at West Bay a few seasons ago. The continued popularity of this Royal Opera House production is no surprise as it is wonderfully well staged. Ivan Magri gave an especially courageous performance as Nemorino. He appeared to have lost a battle with a hay bale at the end of Act I and pull some muscles near his rib cage, yet he continued to sing and act beautifully throughout Act II. The other principals and chorus were alert to the staging changes needed to accommodate a Nemorino who couldn’t stand up for very long, or climb stairs up to a platform without a helping hand.


Posing in front of the Hamilton posterJuly brought the San Francisco touring production of Hamilton. I was fortunate enough to see this on Broadway with the original cast. The San Francisco performance was just as great, with different voices and interpretations that brought out additional facets of the piece.

I don’t think I’ve raved about Hamilton on this blog, so let me do that now. This is one of the greatest pieces of theater – greatest works of art – that I have ever seen and heard. It is a spectacularly creative work, the first in a long time to incorporate contemporary popular music into a Broadway idiom in a show intended for all ages. Lin-Manuel Miranda brilliantly uses rap to serve the same function as recitative in opera and dialogue or melodrama in other musical theater work: as a way to communicate larger amounts of verbal information in a smaller amount of time than you can do with singing. The score is not just hip-hop music; it’s a brilliant combination of all sorts of R&B, Broadway, pop, and hip-hop styles. To do this in the service of a book that treats American history in a serious and highly entertaining way is simply stunning. Anyone who cares about opera or musical theater in any of its forms should see Hamilton.


Murmuration Nation album coverAugust marked the release of Emily Saliers‘ album Murmuration Nation. Of the new albums I’ve heard this year, this is the one that best captures American life in 2017, especially in songs like “Fly” and “OK Corral.” Some of the songs have a production similar to the Indigo Girls albums, especially in the latter half of the album, while others go in new and delightful directions. This is a wonderful debut for Ms. Saliers as a solo artist.


Bows after The (R)evolution of Steve JobsAugust also took us to Santa Fe Opera for three productions: Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Golden Cockerel, Mason Bates’ The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, and Handel’s Alcina. All three were excellent performances. Alcina in particular was extraordinarily well-sung by a cast headed by Elza van den Heever in the title role.

It was the premiere production of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs that was the most newsworthy, of course. It was very well received – the photo above comes from the bows. While I also enjoyed it, it also felt like a terribly missed opportunity. I am a huge fan of Mason Bates’ music and he seemed like the ideal composer to tackle the subject matter. I enjoyed his music but found two main problems with the work – its length and libretto.

The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs lasts only 90 minutes, which is an unfortunate length for an opera unless the composer’s name is Richard Strauss. It is too short for a full-length opera and too long to be paired with another one-act. Yes, it is difficult to imagine an opera like Salome being any longer or shorter than it is. This opera though seems rushed, and that contributes to the problems in the libretto. I think those could be resolved without a whole lot of extra length, keeping well within 2 hours.

My main concern is the libretto by Mark Campbell. In The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, the only reason to care about the title character is what we know from real life. Coming into the theater, we already know how Jobs changed our world: through a series of beautiful computing devices that have profoundly affected and enriched so many lives.

None of this is shown in this opera. The closest we get is the iPhone product launch, but that scene’s celebratory nature is undercut in many ways. The chorus subverts the launch with critical questions (which is true to life – the iPhone initially had many naysayers). The graphics accompanying the scene are not real iPhone graphics, but something else much uglier than anything that Steve Jobs would have ever allowed on a stage in 2007. A little “wrong, all wrong” might have made this better. Later on, the Kobun character ridicules the product launches, even though they are Steve Jobs’ greatest works of performance art, and the way he introduced so many life-changing inventions to the world.

The Steve Jobs shown in the opera is pretty much reduced to being a jerk. Everyone I know who worked for or with Steve Jobs confirms that he was extremely demanding and could indeed be a real jerk. But he was demanding in relentless pursuit of a humanistic vision of technology that transformed the world.

When this opera shows Steve being demanding in the workplace, is it during development of the Mac? The iPod? iTunes? The iPhone? The iPad? Any of Steve Jobs’ great successes that changed our lives? No – it’s during development of the Lisa! The Lisa is interesting from a historical perspective (we had one for competitive evaluation at our DEC usability lab) but it was a commercial flop and never transformed the world. With so many hit products, why show the hero of the opera being a jerk in the pursuit of a failed product? Is the librettist scared to death of ever showing the title character in a favorable light?

The reason is likely due to the plot line with Chrisann Brennan and his disowning their daughter Lisa. If the opera were longer than 90 minutes, perhaps both the technology and Lisa aspects could have been covered in separate scenes, rather than trying to have one scene do double duty and failing. With only 90 minutes available, the libretto discards the humanistic technology visionary and leaves us with the unlikeable jerk.

Fortunately Mr. Campbell appears to have much more sympathy for Laurene Powell Jobs. She has beautiful words and music to sing and was given an absolute dream performance by Sasha Cooke. Laurene’s “Humans are messy” aria just ripped my heart out. Even with all the missed opportunity, this opera currently packs an emotional punch which resonates well with audiences.

Soon afterwards we come to the gravely disappointing final scene. The opera ends with the character of Laurene hectoring the audience not to look at their phones “after this is over” but that “Version 2.0” of Steve Jobs would want you instead to “Look up, look out, look around”. This rings entirely false to both the real-life people and to the characters of Laurene and Steve created in the opera. The program book tells us this was based on a request from Charles MacKay, general director of Santa Fe Opera. Mr. MacKay has done a lot of great things at Santa Fe Opera, but sabotaging the finale of this opera will not be remembered as his finest hour.

Mark Campbell’s cynicism about technology in general and Steve Jobs in particular is a real problem for the librettist of an opera about Steve Jobs. This isn’t just my perception. Mr. Campbell himself admits in the program notes that Mason Bates “often balanced my more cynical perception of the story with his more emotional view and urge me to find more humanity in the roles.” Unfortunately Mr. Bates’ entreaties do not seem to have succeeded, especially in conveying in words the emotion behind working in technology.

My disappointment is so great because this opera seems so antithetical to what Mason Bates has composed in the past. Mr. Bates has been our leading composer of how technology affects us as people, a deeply important topic for artists and composers to address in the early 21st century. Sometimes he emphasizes the positive, as in Mass Transmission. Sometimes he portrays both the good and the bad, as in Alternative Energy. What a shock to see him composing an opera to a libretto that so completely misses the mark as to the human value of the technology being created, and of the person who guided it to fruition in an unprecedented series of technological, commercial, and cultural successes.

In December I found that I really enjoyed Girls of the Golden West while many critics disliked it. I am trying not to fall into the trap of critiquing the opera the creators chose to write, versus how the opera succeeds or fails on its own terms. Mr. Campbell says he was trying to “neither deify nor demonize Steve Jobs.” So I think it’s fair to point out that I believe he missed the mark in that regard. The opera is not full-on demonization, but it comes pretty close.

Opera is a deeply collaborative art. I dearly hope that Mason Bates will write more operas in the future, but that he will take more care in his choice of collaborators, especially librettists. Don’t choose a librettist who is cynical about the subject of your story. Stand up to meddling general directors when a well-meaning suggestion will sabotage your work. Opera is hard enough when everyone is fully invested in the story; it is far harder when your collaborators are subverting it.

I have heard that Mr. Bates is revising the opera in preparation for later performance in San Francisco and elsewhere. I hope that libretto changes are part of this process. If I did not love Mason Bates’ music so much, it would not be worth the effort to critique the opera in its current state. I am looking forward to the upcoming recording so that I can get more familiar with the many delights in his wonderful score.


Photo of Norma, Act IWest Bay Opera performed Norma in October to start the company’s 62nd season. After a season of operas with minimal or no chorus, this season’s operas all feature the chorus prominently. Somehow I had never seen or heard Norma before. So it was a great delight to both sing and learn this opera, directed by Igor Vieira and conducted by José Luis Moscovich. Christina Major sang the title role superbly, including wondrous duets with Veronica Jensen’s Adalgisa.

I have sung in many fine choruses at West Bay Opera over the years, but the Norma chorus was probably the best one yet for overall consistency across all singers and sections. It was noticed in John Orr’s review for the Bay Area News Group: “The chorus is powerful and beautiful, creating a tsunami of gorgeous sound that burst out over the audience at the Lucie Stern Theatre.” Thanks to Bruce Olstad for his fine direction of the Norma chorus, and all his work in directing and developing the West Bay Opera chorus over the years.


November included a trip to New Orleans for a reunion of first cousins on my Mom’s side of the family. The buskers around the city were all wonderful performers, with the most consistent excellence I can recall hearing in any city. We were fortunate enough to hear the Ellis Marsalis Quintet perform at Snug Harbor with an amazing lineup: Nicholas Payton on trumpet, Adonis Rose on drums, Derek Douget on Sax, and Jason Stewart on bass.

Girls of the Golden West photoNovember also marked the premiere of John Adams’ latest opera Girls of the Golden West at San Francisco Opera. This remarkable opera is the latest of the collaborations between composer John Adams and librettist/director Peter Sellars. Grant Gershon was back in San Francisco to conduct.

We have been watching Peter Sellars productions since his 1981 production of Handel’s Orlando at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He has directed many of my most profound opera and musical theater audience experiences. We’ve also seen many of John Adams operas and I’ve sung his oratorio El Niño in a semi-staged performance. I haven’t enjoyed everything from these two brilliant artists, but the hits have far outweighed the misses. So I am always ready for something new when these two are involved.

Girls of the Golden West is in two acts. The first act shows the coming together of a California gold rush community in 1851. The second act shows that community coming apart. To me, the opera came across as a cri de coeur for building a better community in our state, our nation, and the world.

I had a mixed reaction to Peter Sellars’ collage-style libretto in Doctor Atomic. On first hearing I felt the first act worked much better than the second act. In contrast, I found the Girls of the Golden West libretto effective throughout. I loved Dame Shirley’s language for the singers. It conveys such specific time, place, and individual personality, and therefore sounds like no other libretto I have ever heard or expect to ever hear again.

As with most new operas and other long-form works, I feel it will take repeated hearings to get the most out of the music. On first hearing the music seemed comparable in style and quality to other Adams operas. It seems a step back in musical complexity from some of the more recent orchestral pieces. That strikes me as a good thing for this visually, linguistically, and thematically complex language.

The opera received very mixed reviews in this premiere production, but even the reviews critical of the opera were full of praise for the singers. Julia Bullock was especially fabulous heading the cast as Dame Shirley, but there were no weak links anywhere. The interactions between Julia Bullock’s Dame Shirley and Ryan McKinny’s Clarence make me eagerly anticipate their upcoming appearance as Kitty and J. Robert Oppenheimer in next year’s Santa Fe Opera production of Doctor Atomic.

Many of the negative reviews seem to criticize the type of opera being written rather than trying to meet the opera on its own terms. Joshua Kosman for instance thinks that “this collage technique fails to produce a workable dramatic framework.” Mr. Sellars has forgotten more about theater than Mr. Kosman or I will ever know, and he is clearly not looking for a traditional dramatic framework here. I think it succeeds admirably in conveying great feeling with fine accumulation of detail, but I can see how others will disagree. My receptiveness to Sellars’ vision in this opera probably due in part to being in tune with so much of his theatrical vision in other operas over the past 36 years.

What’s Coming Up in 2018

January 6 marks the start of our chorus rehearsals for Fidelio at West Bay Opera, directed by Ragnar Conde and conducted by José Luis Moscovich. Performances are February 16, 18, 24, and 25 at the Lucie Stern Theatre in Palo Alto. The 62nd season will conclude with Carmen in May 2018. As an audience member, I am particularly looking forward to Candide at San Francisco Symphony, the Ring cycle at San Francisco Opera, and Doctor Atomic and Candide at Santa Fe Opera.

Have a happy, musical 2018!

Chess photo by Barbara Heninger. Norma photo by Otak Jump.

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Five Years at MakeMusic

makemusic-logoToday marks my fifth anniversary at MakeMusic. It was five years ago when MakeMusic closed its acquisition of selected Recordare assets and I attended my employee introduction in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. At the time I said “There will be so much more that I can do to make digital sheet music work better for people at a larger company.” MakeMusic said that “Recordare’s MusicXML format is a key element in the future of digital music notation.”

So how have things worked out since then? We have made great progress, and there is still much more work ahead of us.

MakeMusic Universal File Format

The initial project that started the Recordare acquisition discussions was modernizing Finale’s file format to be forward and backward compatible. Five years ago, a file created in a later version of Finale could not be opened by an older version of Finale. This also meant that SmartMusic accompaniment files created in a newer version of Finale could not be used in older versions of SmartMusic. This led to long periods where our customers could not use the latest version of Finale to create SmartMusic SMP files for the latest version of SmartMusic.

After two years of work, we delivered the new Finale .musx file format in November 2013 with Finale 2014. In July 2014, we updated our SmartMusic desktop and iOS applications to accept the new .smpx file format for SmartMusic accompaniments. The true test of the file format came this past August when we released a new Finale v25 update. People were able to open files created in Finale v25 in Finale 2014. There was no interruption in being able to create SmartMusic accompaniments for the existing SmartMusic desktop and iOS applications from Finale v25 – things just worked.

The New SmartMusic

While the file format project was the short-term goal for the acquisition, the strategic goal was longer range. MakeMusic realized that at some point it would likely need to modernize the SmartMusic application to better serve the needs of music practice. The modernized product would need to be able to use new web and mobile technologies, and most likely include a new music file format.

To make that work, MakeMusic would need to be able to convert its existing SmartMusic subscription repertoire from the current Finale-based file format to whatever the new file format might be. MusicXML would be the way to do that. The Recordare asset acquisition would give MakeMusic full control over the MusicXML export from Finale as well as the MusicXML import into a new SmartMusic format.

This is exactly what happened with the launch of the new web-based SmartMusic earlier this year. In July 2015, MakeMusic acquired Weezic, establishing MakeMusic SAS in Paris. The Paris team worked together with Arpege Music to launch the new SmartMusic, running on Chromebooks and other web-based platforms. For most of the past year I have worked on improving the MusicXML export out of Finale to get the best possible repertoire conversion from desktop SmartMusic to the web-based SmartMusic. We also added one-step export of MusicXML files from all linked parts in a Finale file to ease the import of Finale-created MusicXML files into the new SmartMusic.

Creating the best possible music practice app in SmartMusic is a key part of the digital sheet music future. MusicXML has turned out to be a key part of this process, just as we anticipated five years ago.

MusicXML to the W3C Music Notation Community Group

The MusicXML format itself also received improved support with the greater resources of MakeMusic. We created a new MusicXML web site with easier-to-use MusicXML documentation, converted the old MusicXML mailing list to a forum, and held several successful meetings at the Musikmesse and NAMM trade shows.

However, the acquisition changed important dynamics within the MusicXML community. Many companies that had collaborated with Recordare became hesitant to collaborate with MakeMusic. Recordare was not a competitor, but MakeMusic was.

Joe Berkovitz from Noteflight recommended for many years that MusicXML move to a community group in the World Wide Web Consortium. MakeMusic management saw the advantages of this move, and Steinberg agreed to simultaneously transfer their Standard Music Font Layout (SMuFL). In July 2015 we started the W3C Music Notation Community Group. The group is currently working on new MusicXML 3.1 and SMuFL 1.2 updates, and is also investigating a more long-ranging update to web-based music notation standards.

MakeMusic to Peaksware

When I agreed to sell Recordare assets to MakeMusic, it was no secret that it could be an adventurous ride in the future. MakeMusic had been through numerous CEOs in the past several years, and was not showing the growth that public company shareholders wanted to see.

In 2013, MakeMusic was acquired and taken private by its largest shareholder, LaunchEquity. A year later, MakeMusic joined Peaksware and the company moved from Eden Prairie, Minnesota to Boulder, Colorado. A great core of people made the move from Minnesota to Colorado, bringing important continuity, but more people needed to be hired once the move was made to bring the teams back to full strength.

Throughout these moves I remained here in Silicon Valley with periodic trips to MakeMusic headquarters. My role within MakeMusic evolved throughout these organizational changes, and I have been serving as Vice President of MusicXML Technologies since last April.

In April we also announced that the educational music publisher Alfred Music would also join Peaksware. MakeMusic and Alfred operate independently, and SmartMusic continues to support and promote repertoire from all interested publishers. However, having MakeMusic and Alfred under one corporate umbrella offers tremendous possibilities for the digital sheet music future. It brings Peaksware ever closer to the vision that I had for Recordare when I started the company nearly 17 years ago.

To sum up, the last five years have been amazing. We have accomplished a tremendous amount at MakeMusic and are well-positioned to progress into the future. If I had to do the acquisition all over again, I would do it the same way in a heartbeat. I can’t wait to see what the next five years will hold. As my favorite Alan Kay quote goes, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”

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Coming Up – Sousa’s El Capitan

Lyric Theatre Presents John Philip Sousa's El CapitanMy next performances will be very special events. Lyric Theatre of San José is presenting the first performances of John Philip Sousa’s El Capitan in California since the original production’s nationwide tour 120 years ago. I will be playing the role of Señor Amabile Pozzo, Chamberlain of Peru.

This semi-staged concert production is directed by Paul Zawilski and conducted by Jeff Yaeger, with vocal direction by Neil Midkiff. Performances will be on Saturday, July 30 at 8:00 pm and Sunday, July 31 at 2:00 pm at Fremont High School’s Shannon Theatre in Sunnyvale, California. Tickets are only $26 for adults, $10 for children, and available online or by phone.

Wait a minute, you say. Wasn’t Sousa just a composer of marches? Really good marches, yes, but can an expert at 3-minute marches who railed against padding of musical material actually compose a really good 2-hour operetta? And are the tunes in the El Capitan march actually in the operetta?

The answer is yes, Sousa could compose a really good operetta. This was by far his biggest stage hit, running for 4 years in a row in New York and on national tours. The famous El Capitan march contains some of the best tunes from the show, of course, but there’s lots more top-notch music where that came from.

What about the book, you ask? Some of these late 19th-century shows have very musty books full of topical references that you need a bunch of footnotes to understand. Or they have a very sentimental quality that isn’t in tune with contemporary tastes. Or both.

I actually had no idea how good a show El Capitan was when I agreed to do it. I just knew it was a rare chance to perform a Sousa show, and given how much Sousa was a part of my youth as a band kid it was an opportunity I couldn’t refuse. I was delighted to see how contemporary and funny the show actually is.

The basic plot is that Don Errico Medigua, career politician, has been appointed to be the new Viceroy of Peru by King Philip of Spain. However, this new appointment means that the prior Viceroy, Don Luiz Cazarro, is being pushed out of office prematurely. Cazarro is understandably unhappy about this and leads an insurrection to force Don Medigua out of office. He has hired the noted mercenary El Capitan to lead his forces.

Don Medigua is well aware of this when he ships off to Peru. When he finds that El Capitan died in a brawl on the same ship, he decides to assume El Capitan’s identity and become an insurgent against himself. In the meantime he manipulates El Capitan’s reputation in Peru into something enormous. Medigua figures that if the requested Spanish reinforcements arrive in time, he will return as Viceroy. If they don’t, and the insurgents win, he will be on the right side there as well. Of course once he assumes the role of El Capitan, some people figure out pretty quickly that he’s more of a politician than a warrior.

So yes, politicians were manipulating the media for their own ends way before contemporary times and movies like Wag the Dog. It is a very silly and funny plot setup that leads to a lot of comedy.

This is a show that lives and dies on who is cast as Don Medigua / El Capitan. You need an excellent, charismatic comic actor who is also a fine singer. We are fortunate to have Google’s own Dan Galpin as the star of our show. I enjoyed performing with Dan in Lyric Theatre’s Utopia, Limited, but El Capitan is a far greater showcase for his prodigious talents.

My role is Pozzo, Don Medigua’s loyal chamberlain. Pozzo is a comic tenor, and the first role I’ve had that combines dialog and solo singing – in this case, much more dialog than singing. It was created in New York by another short actor, Alfred Klein, brother of Charles Klein who wrote the El Capitan book. I am grateful to Paul, Jeff, and Neil for giving me this opportunity. Pozzo has some very funny lines which I hope the audience will enjoy as much as the cast has in rehearsals.

So don’t miss your chance to see and hear a whole different side of John Philip Sousa! We will have a full orchestra, a cast full of experienced and delightful Lyric Theatre performers, and fine artistic leadership. The last weekend in July will be Sousa time in Sunnyvale. In times like these we need comic opera more than ever.

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John Cage’s Renga at San Francisco Symphony

MTT conducts American Maverick John CageSaturday night was another example of the great golden age we are enjoying in San Francisco with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. For this one night only, there was an amazing all John Cage concert that was absolutely stunning.

The concert started with Cage’s early ballet The Seasons from 1947. This is a very pleasant piece, completely notated without chance procedures. But if this were the summit of Cage’s invention, he wouldn’t be remembered like he is today. MTT introduced it with an apt analogy – listening to The Seasons is like going to an art museum and seeing the early, more realistic, less abstract paintings by artists like Kandinsky and Mondrian.

After intermission came the main event: Cage’s Renga from 1976. In this piece the musicians are invited to interpret snippets of Henry David Thoreau line drawings musically, using whatever means they like, according to predetermined register, dynamics, and timeline. What comes from this tends to be what MTT described as a “rainforest” of sound.

By itself that might not be so interesting for an extended time. But Renga can be performed simultaneously with other works. As a US bicentennial commission, it was originally performed together with Apartment House 1776, a work for four vocalists performing in four different American musical traditions as part of a “musicircus.” It was MTT’s genius idea to instead pair Renga with a wide variety of Cage compositions from throughout his career, in addition to videos designed by Clyde Scott drawn from popular culture throughout Cage’s lifetime. The additional works were:

  • Lecture on Nothing (1950) performed by actor Tim Robbins
  • Sonata for Clarinet (1933) performed by Carey Bell
  • A Room (1943) performed by Marc Shapiro on prepared piano
  • Suite for Toy Piano (1948) performed by Peter Grunberg
  • In a Landscape (1948) performed by Douglas Rioth on harp
  • Cheap Imitation (1969) performed by Edwin Outwater on piano
  • Child of Tree (1975) performed by Tom Hemphill on amplified cactus (!)
  • Litany for the Whale (1980) performed by baritones Patrick Dupré Quigley and Christopher Dylan Herbert
  • Ryoanji (1983) performed by Tim Day, flute; John Engelkes, contrabass trombone; Stephen Tramontozzi, double bass; and Jacob Nissly, percussion
  • Hymnkus (1986) performed by Mariko Smiley, violin; Amos Yang, cello; and Stephen Paulson, bassoon
  • And a last-minute addition, Haiku, performed by Michael Tilson Thomas on piano from a manuscript left to him by Lou Harrison.

The contrasts and overlaps between these sources and the delightful musical and sonic material of both the parts and whole made for an exquisite performance. I couldn’t really distinguish the ensemble pieces so much from the overall Renga since the performers were seated together with the rest of the orchestra. The other soloists were distributed around the periphery of the orchestra and in the tier above the stage where the chorus sings, providing better spatial separation for both ear and eye. Screens above either side of the stage showed different videos. It was quite the musicircus indeed!

What really lifted it into genius was to perform Renga together with excerpts from the Lecture on Nothing, a key writing of John Cage’s musical philosophy included in his classic collection Silence. I read this book as a student and the Lecture contains some of my favorite Cage-isms:

I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it.

Noises, too, had been discriminated against; and being American, having been trained to be sentimental, I fought for noises.

Slowly, as the talk goes on, slowly, we have the feeling we are getting nowhere. That is a pleasure which will continue. If we are irritated it is not a pleasure. Nothing is not a pleasure if one is irritated, but suddenly it is a pleasure, and then more and more it is not irritating.

If anybody is sleepy, let him go to sleep.

Apparently, performances that include Lecture on Nothing often use John Cage’s taped voice. I’m sure that’s fine, but I really enjoyed hearing Tim Robbins read it. His actorly skills captured Cage’s wit and much of the vocal cadence without simple mimicry. It was a wonder to behold.

Whatever you want to call it – static, nonlinear, meditative, living in the moment – there is a whole range of Western music that doesn’t “go anywhere” but invites you to listen in the moment. This can be art music with Asian influences like that by Cage, Hovhaness, or Harrison; pop music like the long jams on songs by Stevie Wonder and Prince, or Van Morrison meditative songs like “In the Garden”; minimalist music; and whole swaths of jazz and new age music. Cage is a great celebrator and philosopher of this style of music. I very much like music with narrative and direction (I better, since I perform a lot of symphonic and opera music), but I like this music too.

I also like being able to listen to anything as music, like the typing of the keys as I write this post, accompanied by the quieter hums and sounds within the house, such as the refrigerator running in the kitchen next to the study. Cage really helped open my ears to that type of listening.

My introduction to John Cage was pretty unusual. Our local underground rock station, WABX in Detroit, played some excerpts from Indeterminacy one night, and I had to learn more. I found Silence in a library (at Interlochen? at MIT? I can’t remember) and things were never the same after reading it.

So thank you, thank you, thank you to Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony, Tim Robbins, and all the other great soloists for a wonderful celebration of John Cage’s work in a most memorable concert. The concert was so good it got me blogging again for the first time in eight months!

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