Michelle Dulak Thomson
Michelle Dulak Thomson is a violinist and violist who has written about music for Strings, Stagebill, Early Music America, and The New York Times.
Articles by this Author
Admirers of the Takács Quartet have had it good these past several years, due to the ensemble's two-concerts-a-season relationship with Cal Performances. The quartet's first Bay Area visit in 2009, though, wasn't to Berkeley's Hertz Hall but to Mill Valley's Mount Tamalpais United Methodist Church.
It's not often that anyone gets to salute a major composer's centenary while he's still there to appreciate it. That Elliott Carter's 100th birthday this week didn't get so much as a nod from any of the Bay Area's many orchestras is understandable, if disappointing. But San Francisco Performances stepped into the breach with a weekend's worth of Carter at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, covering nearly the whole of the man's still-active career.
It was a grand design for a concert: two string quartets, one relatively young and the other making its farewell tour, playing three new works (one quartet for each, an octet for the two together), with Mendelssohn's beloved Octet to close.
Music Director Nicholas McGegan began Sunday night's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra concert at Berkeley's First Congregational Church with a theatricality that, for longtime PBO fans, now seems paradoxically "homey." He crept to the podium and put his finger to his lips, urging silence.
Someone at San Francisco Performances is keen on completeness. After last season's three big Brahms recitals, the all-Stravinsky program that violinist Anthony Marwood and pianist Thomas Adès presented at Herbst Theatre Saturday night seemed almost an intermezzo, particularly with Pacifica Quartet's three solid hours of Elliott Carter just over the horizon next month.
There are times when it seems to me that you could drop a pail anywhere in the 17th century and find when you brought it back up that it contained enough first-rate (and, for the most part, completely unfamiliar) music for a season's worth of concerts. Needless to say, it's not quite so simple as that. Still, a couple of decades' worth of trolling those waters by Bay Area early music ensembles seems scarcely to have made a dent in the supply. There are yet more fish in that sea than ever came out of it.
Some "regional orchestras" settle down to the comfort levels of their audiences and their all too often exhausted players. During Jeffrey Kahane's tenure as music director, the Santa Rosa Symphony distinguished itself repeatedly as the one stop on the "Freeway Philharmonic" circuit where players and audience alike were encouraged, or rather commanded, to stretch their ears. It appears that Bruno Ferrandis, in his second year as Kahane's successor, is determined to do likewise.
Once a year or so, it's well to remember what we really owe the San Francisco Early Music Society. These aren't the early days of the early music movement, when “mainstream” presenters were leery of this faddish, old-instruments business, and it took the grassroots efforts of devotees to organize concerts by top-flight visiting “early musicians.” And the likes of Philharmonia Baroque, Chanticleer, Magnificat, and the American Bach Soloists are familiar institutions in their own right.
If you had been in the audience for Saturday's Michael Tilson Thomas–led San Francisco Symphony concert, and had opened the printed program at random, more likely than not you would have hit the page of bios for the soloists in Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, which are just at the midpoint of the booklet. You might, on the other hand, have landed a few pages further on, with your eye lighting on the bolded phrase "abnormal thoughts and behavior." Part of the Ninth's program note? No, silly; that's the four-page bound-in pharmaceutical circular for Ambien© and AmbienCR©.
It was a hot and sticky night, and the gut strings weren't staying where they were supposed to. "With luck, there'll be more music than tuning on this concert," quipped violinist Elizabeth Blumenstock after an opening couple of minutes' struggle with her instrument's pegbox.
Early Sunday morning, a visitor to Atherton's Menlo School might have seen a smallish crowd of eager-looking people congregating around the steps of Stent Family Hall. A number of these folks might further be seen to be carrying copies of a small, bright-red, hardbound volume. The hymnal of an esoteric sect? The Sayings of Chairman Mao? No, silly, the Boosey & Hawkes score of the complete Bartók string quartets.
The didactic imperative runs deep, if gentle, at [email protected]. Every season and indeed every program boasts a design, one calculated to make the audience hear anew, or differently, or both. But throw a roster of musicians of the [email protected] caliber together on programs, and the lessons you planned for your listeners might not be the only ones they learn.
The American Bach Soloists began, 20 years ago, as an ensemble formed by tenor and conductor Jeffrey Thomas specifically to perform the Bach choral/vocal works. If the group branched out rather rapidly in other directions (including, most famously, a Beethoven Ninth Symphony at the 1994 Berkeley Early Music Festival, recorded live and subsequently issued on CD), still it has tended not to stray far from home in more than one direction at once.
The New Century Chamber Orchestra's next season will see the orchestra with a regular music director again, in the person of the newly hired Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg. Still, the ensemble's two-year run of guest-directed concerts, a running adventure that has resulted in far more hits than misses, is ending on a high note.
The Left Coast Chamber Ensemble is unique among the Bay Area's new-music-focused ensembles in spending a fair amount of time outside the 21st or even 20th centuries. LCCE programs typically juxtapose new, 20th-century, and yet older works playable with a particular clutch of four or five instrumentalists, the instrumentarium changing from program to program as each of the ensemble's 12 players gets a lick in.
There's a certain satisfaction to be derived from designing a program that combines a narrow focus with enough variety to work as an actual concert, and I imagine that San Francisco Symphony Associate Conductor James Gaffigan was modestly proud of the one he and the orchestra brought off Thursday afternoon. On paper the focus was, in one way, laser-tight: three works of Russian composers, all dating from within a few years of one another in the 1940s.
An entire program's worth of Haydn is not something the San Francisco Symphony is apt to serve up every year, so thanks are due up front to guest conductor Bernard Labadie for Friday night's generous helping. The program, which also featured the Symphony Chorus and an excellent quartet of vocal soloists, had a martial theme, bringing together the Missa in tempore belli (Mass in time of war) of 1796 and the “Military” Symphony (No. 100) of 1794, with Haydn's second, late setting of the Te Deum as opener.