Friday, August 6, 2021

Donald Pippin (1925-2021)

Donald Pippin's contributions to San Francisco's musical life are so great that they deserve a stand-alone blog.  In addition to being a consummate musician, he was also an author and impresario.  After Pippin's passing away on July 7, 2021, Janos Gereben wrote a fine tribute and short biography of Pippin for the San Francisco Classical Voice.  Joshua Kosman's appreciative memorial in the San Francisco Chronicle includes photographs from across Pippin's career.

Donald Pippin's most notable creation was The Pocket Opera -- a musical theater company presenting operatic performances stripped to their essentials using libretti translated by Pippin into English. Opera is usually an opulent and very expensive spectacle. In 1987 he opined, "I think that the grandeur has been overemphasized at the expense of the human element." Pippin sought to bring the widest possible range of opera down to earth, available to everyone.  

Pippen: "I'm interested in what I'm doing, I love opera. I love music. I love words." (source: photo by Rob Cardin, Image March 29, 1987. Musicians and Performing Artists File)

The San Francisco Public Library has many of Donald Pippin's translated libretti in our collection. Many of his libretti have also been archived by Stanford University and are available online. A Pocketful of Wry is a delightful oral history where Pippin recounts his various musical adventures is also available online through the Online Archive of California.

Donald Pippin's musical activities were documented frequently in San Francisco newspapers. A search of the San Francisco Chronicle Current and Historical database produces 2,648 results and search of the San Francisco Examiner Historical databases produces another 1,820 results.  A large number of these are concert announcements.

One of the earliest mentions of Donald Pippin in the Chronicle is the story of how the legendary Arthur Fiedler (conductor of the Boston Pops and the San Francisco Symphony Pops summer concerts) discovered Pippin at the famed hungry i nightclub. The critic describes Pippin emerging from the milieu of a murky basement bar "which caters to many different kinds of bohemians and also to many different kinds of tourists who are anxious to seem how many different kinds of bohemians there are."

source: San Francisco Chronicle August 10, 1953

He played at the club five nights a week, constantly working up more and more classical repertoire. In his oral history he described the San Francisco Symphony Pops concert sneaking up on him, still unprepared.
The performance was set for early August, and here it was the middle of June and I had not even started learning the Rhapsody. Now, this is insane. Looking back, I can still get cold shudders. This is the recurrent nightmare of any performer: you're unprepared but you've still got a week to get ready, then a single day, then you're on the way to the auditorium, and you've still not had time to look at the music.

He added - and this underlies the daring behind all of his creative endeavors: 

Listen, there's nothing like ignorance. Ignorance is invaluable, irreplaceable. Yes, I was just stupid and ignorant enough to think I could. And so I did. 
Pippin is rightfully acclaimed for creating the Pocket Opera, but there may be no impresario who presented a wider range and repertoire of chamber music in San Francisco than him.  At the outset he was supported by his employer at the hungry i -- Enrico Banducci, a classical music lover himself.  Pippin remembered that he "always tried for quiet attentive audiences. Enrico Banducci was very helpful and used to rap knuckles when his patrons became too noisy."

His performance series started with him as a soloist, but he gradually added vocalists and instrumentalists that he accompanied. He moved through a number of North Beach venues after the hungry i -- the Purple Onion, Opus One, The New Broadway Theater, and for his longest run, The Old Spaghetti.  Pippin described the scene of that time:
At that time, nightlife was ebullient, and North Beach was the center of it. There were many places of interest, and people tended to make a night of it, hopping from one barroom to another--from the hungry i to The Purple Onion, from Vesuvio's to The Black Cat. Conversation flourished and interest in classical music was rampant. It was this lively carnival atmosphere of people out exploring that spilled over into our new venture.
Donald Pippin Presents Sunday Night Concerts (December 1971) - source: Musicians and Performing Artists File

The Pocket Opera group out of the chamber music of his Sunday Night Concerts at The Old Spaghetti Factory. A December 1971 performance that featured a piano four hands Sonata by Mozart also included a rendition of the one act opera The Marriage Broker (Женитьба / Zhenit'ba) by Modest Moussorgsky.  

These Sunday Night Concerts introduced a wide and eclectic range of chamber, vocal and operatic music.  The performances ranged from Medieval and Renaissance music (with period instruments), through the classics, to newly premiered compositions with composer in attendance.  James Cleghorn, the head of the Music Department and later the Art and Music Department of the San Francisco Public Library in the 1950s and 1960s, had a few compositions debut on a Saturday Night Concert at the Old Spaghetti Factory.

For those interested in further exploring the mark that Donald Pippin made upon San Francisco musical life we have files on Pippin himself, The Pocket Opera and The Old Spaghetti Factory. Ask at the Art, Music and Recreation Center reference desk.


"Diva Talks To Donald Pippin," Diva: A Publication For Bay Area Operaphiles vol. 3, no. 8 (August 1975). [Art, Music and Recreation Center Musicians and Performing Artists Vertical File].

Hagan, R.H., "Fiedler Finds A Pianist In North Beach," San Francisco Chronicle (August 12, 1953).

Gereben, Janos, "RIP Donald Pippin: Pocket Opera Mourns The Death of Its Founder," San Francisco Classical Voice (July 12, 2021).

Kosman, Joshua, "Donald Pippin, Witty Populist on Behalf of Opera Dies at 95," San Francisco Chronicle (July 9, 2021).

Pippin, Donald. European Operetta in English, Volume 2 (Pocket Opera Press, 2017).

Pippin, Donald. French Opera in English, Volume 1 (Pocket Opera Press, 2017).

Pippin, Donald. Opera in English [4 volumes] (Pocket Opera Press, 2007-2008).

Pippin, Donald. A Pocketful of Wry: An Impresario's Life in San Francisco and the History of the Pocket Opera, 1950s-2001, interviews conducted by Caroline C. Crawford (Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, 2001).

Pippin, Donald. A Pocketful of Wry: An Oral History of Donald Pippin and Pocket Opera, based on tell-all interviews with Caroline Crawford (Pocket Opera, 2001?).

Reynolds, Richard, "Pocket of Talent: Donald Pippin Presents Grand Opera on a Small Scale," Image (March 29, 1987), 9-10. [Art, Music and Recreation Center Musicians and Performing Artists Vertical File].

Wednesday, July 14, 2021

The Most Circulated Books - Fiscal Year 2020-2021

Often the lists of most circulated titles in the Art, Music & Recreation Center are dominated by celebrity artists and entertainers. Topping the list of the past twelve months we still have Trevor Noah's memoir Born A Crime -- a consistently very popular read for the past five years.  Other celebrity memoirs by the late Alex Trebek, embattled director Woody Allen and actor Matthew McConaughey also appear on this list of the 15 top circulating books in our department.

In this year of lock-down and limited library services our borrowers have made some other interesting reading choices.  The 99% Invisible City proved to be almost as popular as Noah's book. This volume is a companion to the 400+ episode podcast that originated in 2010 as 5 minute segments on KALW produced in collaboration with the American Institute of Architects. The series revealed design decisions embedded in the buildings and infrastructure all around us.  (One of our department's librarians was interviewed for episode #354).

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction, published in 1977, complements The 99% Invisible City.  Instead of exploring an existing infrastructure, the authors of this work propose ways to make the constructed environment more livable. It covers elements of city planning, architecture plus interior design and decoration. 

Interior Design Master Class continues in this vein, collecting the thinking of one hundred designers who explore a multitude of topics and viewpoints to help the reader arrive at their own interior decorating solutions.  Further reflecting a focus on interiority brought on by our shelter in place, A Frame For Life from 2014 also explores a "human centered" approach to constructing and decorating a space.

Although it was published six years ago, the narrative art book Tales From The Loop has consistently circulated well, undoubtedly owing to the science fiction television series that it spawned.  Solutions And Other Problems is the companion Allie Brosh's 2013 humorous graphic memoir, Hyperbole And A Half.

Art critic Jerry Saltz's How To Be An Artist delivers on its title providing ideas for promoting and creating ones creative work. Maria Konnikova's memoir The Biggest Bluff describes her process of learning to master poker and through the process provide insights into achieving greater focus and self-mastery.

Happy reading.

Born A Crime: Stories From A South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (Spiegel & Grau, 2016).

The 99% Invisible City: A Field Guide To The Hidden World Of Everyday Design by Roman Mars and Kurt Kohlstedt (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2020).

Greenlights by Matthew McConaughey (Crown, 2020).

A Very Punchable Face: A Memoir by Colin Jost (Crown, 2020).

Tales From The Loop, Simon Stålenhag editor (Design Studio Press, 2015).

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, with Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, Shlomo Angel (Oxford University Press, 1977).

Solutions And Other Problems by Allie Brosh (Gallery Books, 2020).

Interior Design Master Class: 100 Lessons From America's Finest Designers On The Art Of Decoration, edited by Carl Dellatorre (Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 2016).

The Answer Is ..: Reflections On My Life by Alex Trebek (Simon & Schuster, 2020).

How To Be An Artist by Jerry Saltz (Riverhead Books, 2020).

Sing Backwards And Weep: A Memoir by Mark Lanegan (Hachette Books, 2020).

Apropos Of Nothing: Autobiography by Woody Allen (Arcade Publishing, 2020).

A Frame For Life: The Designs Of Studioilse by Ilse Crawford (Rizzoli, 2014).

Friday, February 26, 2021

Music & Society Since 1815

In person live music making has suffered greatly during the pandemic. It's been especially hard on classical concert music which depends on musicians working closely together and reacting to each other. All the major concert institutions have shut down or have had to invent radically new ways of making and creating music together.

Henry Raynor's 1976 book, Music & Society Since 1815, is a telling of the ways that the traditional concert institutions came to be.  Almost all of the elements of classical music and the roles of classical musicians came arose in the 19th century.  Raynor chooses 1815 as a starting point because it represents an approximate year when concert music changed from being supported by rich and powerful royal families and nobility to being supported by a combination of government support and the marketplace (the public purchasing tickets and music).

The conductor as we know it only began to exist during the early to mid-1800s. Originally the first chair violinist or a piano soloist might start a work and try to hold it together, but an actual musician who rehearses and directs an ensemble only started to become a norm in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Piano recitals are a normal part of concert life, but the earliest such performances only began in the 1830s. A virtuoso like Franz Liszt popularized such concerts, but they were not the formal events we expect today; Liszt would take breaks from playing to mingle with his audience. String quartets -- a chamber ensemble consisting of two violinists, a violist and cellist -- had existed since the eighteenth century, but the first permanent professional string quartet only came into being in 1869.  

Raynor describes the difficulties of founding and maintaining symphony orchestras in Europe and the United States. The best instrumentalists were often engaged in the theater and opera orchestras and it was not economically advantageous for them to work on "serious" concert music.  The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra formed in 1911 at first depended on musicians who had several other gigs.

Choral societies became popular in Germany because they were democratically run organizations in an autocratic society. In Great Britain brass bands became widespread through the sponsorship of factory owners. Engagement with music, it was hopedm would help promote temperance among the factory hands.

Women do not play a big role in Raynor's account; almost all of the musical action in this history was contributed by men. Women are mentioned as the occasional diva, concert virtuoso, or as part of a "women's auxiliary" for an orchestra. This is a shortcoming.

In a chapter entitled "The Great Schism," Raynor also address he calls "light" music -- a category of music that he does not take lightly.  As concert music became more specialized and rarified there continued to be a strong audience for music that was easier on the ears. Waltzes by the Strauss family and operettas by the likes of Offenbach and Gilbert and Sullivan are given serious treatment.  While not given much space, American vernacular forms like ragtime and jazz are also shown respect in Raynor's account.  He has far less use for rock and roll which he finds rhythmically monotonous.

Music & Society Since 1815 is a very worthwhile read for those interested learning how the classical music tradition came to be.

Music And Society Since 1815 by Henry Raynor (Barrie and Jenkins, 1976). - also available to borrow from the Internet Archive.