Grab bag: Tosca at the Met and other fiascos

Double-header: Symphony of Psalms and Mozart Requiem

3952753911_08c85589d0_oIt’s been a few days since I posted anything, but I have good reason. Not only did we push a big release at work at the end of last week, but it’s season opening time at Symphony Hall. This week’s concerts feature two choral masterworks, Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and the Mozart Requiem.

Both works have particular demands on the singer. The Stravinsky is challenging because of the combination of rhythmic precision and intensely fervent power, not only in the loud passages but in the quieter fugues of the second movement. Theologically, Stravinsky’s re-imagining of the Psalms reclaims both the desperation of Psalms 39 and 40 (“Hear my prayer, O LORD, and give ear unto my cry”…”I waited patiently for the LORD”) and the ecstasy of Psalm 150 from their normal status as platitudes. The texts are made over into cantica nova, new songs, and the singer’s challenge is to bring those songs to life against the structural challenges of the work, which include unusual harmonic modes and slow tempi that can either transport the listener or bog the work down into the mire.

When those challenges are surmounted, the work can be amazing, a deft 25 minute masterpiece. I felt good about our Saturday performance but am keeping my wits about me for the final show tomorrow night.

The Mozart Requiem has a different set of challenges. The harmonic language is more familiar, though certainly Mozart’s writing was breaking new ground at the time. But the real challenge is breathing a distinctive life into a work that by turns flirts with overuse (the first movement was used as background music for a mock tragedy on “30 Rock” last season) and obscurity (the little homaged “Hostias” movement). I’ve written about the work before, in my performance on September 11, 2002 and my Tanglewood performance in 2006. This time, the major difference was that I knew the work from memory, mostly, already, and that I knew my vocal instrument well enough to keep from blowing it out in the early movements. (Interestingly, this, the beginning of my fifth season with the chorus, was the first performance that repeated repertoire I had already sung with the choir.)

At the end, the big unifying factor in the two works was the expression of deeply personal faith in two very different times and styles. The Stravinsky grabs new life out of old psalm texts, while the Mozart breathes a very real personal terror of death into the mass for the departed. It’s perhaps no surprise that singing both in the same concert wrings one out like an old washcloth.

The food court model of capacity planning


I just got back from the craziness that is the opening week of the new H Mart in Burlington, MA. It was instructive on several levels, not least of which was the personal (note to self: wait three weeks after the opening of a new highly hyped destination before attempting to visit). But there were also some business lessons in capacity planning to learn.

I was curious about the supermarket’s general offerings — always happy to find a new place to get specialty vegetables like galangal and lime leaves, and the prospect of picking up a carryout pint of kimchee fills me with something like culinary concupiscence (Korean takeout being thin on the ground in the northwest Boston burbs). But this visit, at noon on Monday, was about the other big letters on the sign out front: Food Court.

Takeout options are thin on the ground in this part of Burlington, with only a handful of places (Ginger Pad, Fresh City) within walking distance of my office, and only one or two more (Panera) within a reasonable drive. So I was excited that a new prospect was available. And I wasn’t the only one. When I parked (and the amount of time it took to do that should have been a warning flag) and got inside, I saw the big food court, about six counters in all covering various Asian cuisines, packed full of people. I parked myself in the line at the end for Korean food and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

There were some real operations problems happening behind the counter. The wait time to place the order was about twenty minutes, and when I got to the counter I found that about half the selections were marked as unavailable (“No pork,” the harried cashier explained). Average order fulfillment start to finish was on the order of thirty minutes or more, with about ten of that cooking time. The rest was consumed with waiting for someone to pack the order and get it out, a problem exacerbated by un-bussed trays and dishes, only two visible line cooks, and short supplies.

H Mart had, famously, months to get ready for the launch. How’d they goof it up? Chalk part of it up to opening week snafus, perhaps. But easy things like staffing the counters should have been solved problems by four days into the process. I think the real operational lesson is that H Mart neglected to anticipate all the potential sources of demand for its offerings. They didn’t have visible staff problems or lines elsewhere in the supermarket, and even had fully staffed demonstration tables nearby. What they didn’t count on was a large number of office workers eager for a new lunch option. That left-field demand spike apparently swamped their available capacity of workers and their foodstocks.

The general lesson? When doing capacity planning, consider all the possible uses of your service and think day by day and hour by hour how they will be consumed. Then ask: am I ready?