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
The Crowden Music Center's [email protected] concert series is by now a popular feature of the North Berkeley classical music scene, to judge by the eager audiences I see whenever I attend. One program a season goes to a Crowden School alumnus, and last Sunday that guest was Owen Dalby, now through with his studies at Yale and teamed up with fellow Yalie Alexander Rabin in a violin–piano duo.
A decade or so back, there was some talk of a planned, independent-label Beethoven symphony cycle from Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, all the recording to be done in concert. Since then, PBO has taken to issuing live recordings on its own label, and the Beethoven project appears to be taking slow shape. A disc coupling the "Eroica" and the Eighth Symphony appeared in 2005, and last year was joined by this Ninth.
Listen to the Music
By the time an erstwhile hot young virtuoso has lived through a couple decades of concertizing, whatever keeps you still listening is necessarily something other than hotness, youth, or virtuosity. Sometimes, to be sure, even the youth and the hotness persist longer than you would think possible. (Joshua Bell remains implausibly fresh and cute; I say nothing of the enchanted portrait obviously hidden in Ian Swensen's closet.)
Tastes in violin recitals have changed markedly over the years. At one time, the second half of a virtuoso's program generally consisted entirely of what we now think of as encore pieces. Nowadays, paradoxically, the only time you are likely to see a program like that is when the player is an "intellectual" musician making a historical point. The modern fashion leans more toward weighty, serious programs, often made up entirely of familiar sonatas, or at least of acknowledged masterpieces.
Listen to the Music
Competitions play a smaller role in jump-starting the careers of chamber ensembles than they typically do in launching instrumental soloists. Even so, if your ensemble is something as specialized as a string trio, it doesn't hurt to have a high-profile competition victory or two to your credit. The Janaki String Trio, formed at the Colburn School of Music only three years ago, won the Coleman Chamber Music Competition in 2005 and then the Concert Artists Guild Competition in 2006.
The primary strength of some string quartets lies in transparency, in making what they play sound as though it could only go this way. Others insist on making you aware that theirs is a point of view, that there is a medium as well as a message.
Viewed against the more robust concert scenes in San Francisco, the East Bay, and the Peninsula, the classical-music pickings in Marin County can seem slender. But alongside the programs of the county's indigenous ensembles (the Marin Symphony and the American Bach Soloists chief among them), plus the regular visits of musicians from the rest of the Bay Area, the county proffers established concert series that approach the other counties' larger presenters in quality, if not in scale.
Even Cal Performances' starrier guests don't routinely sell out Zellerbach Hall. But more than two decades into his high-profile career, Joshua Bell's name still deservedly wields an uncommon pull, and it was to a capacity audience that he and pianist Jeremy Denk played on Sunday afternoon. The duo's Berkeley recital represented the one Northern California blip in a taxing tour (tucked in between a Costa Mesa concert on Saturday night and a Palm Desert one Tuesday). I hope the blame for a vexingly uneven recital may be assigned at least partly to fatigue.
The Tokyo String Quartet's personality has shifted over time, but through the ensemble's nearly 40 years of existence its technical panache and its fondness for minutely thought-out interpretation have remained in consistently high repute. At Berkeley's Hertz Hall Sunday afternoon, under the auspices of Cal Performances, the Tokyos took on a juicy all-19th-century program with what it seems distressingly inadequate to call predictable excellence.
In the mid-1980s, when period-instrument bands began venturing out of the Baroque into music of first the late 18th and then the early 19th centuries, many had names at embarrassing variance with the sort of music they were playing. Some of them adopted different names depending on the repertoire on a given program, or reinvented themselves de novo under less period-specific monikers (the English Baroque Soloists renamed itself the Orchestre Révolutionnaire et Romantique, for example). Some, like the Bay Area's Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, simply shrugged off the mismatch.
There's concert programming as science, programming as art — and programming as pure, primal indulgence. I'm as fond of cleverly constructed, balanced, everything-relates-subtly-to-everything-else program design as the next girl, but the idea of hearing all the Brahms piano trios in an evening affects me at a gut level the way the prospect of a hot fudge sundae for supper affects the average 8-year-old. What can I say, except "Thank you, San Francisco Performances"?
Grateful though we must be for the continual flow of new, exciting young ensembles to Bay Area concert halls, it's another and possibly greater pleasure when the most impressive of them drop in a second time. The Belcea Quartet, whose first visit here was two years ago, made a most welcome repeat appearance Thursday night.
In a Bay Area music scene crammed full of resolute, relentless eclectics, the Del Sol Quartet stands out less for packing bewilderingly various elements into its programs than for doing it with such ease and stylishness. The Del Sols' grand mélange of a recital Tuesday night, courtesy of Berkeley Chamber Performances, reprised its Old First Concerts program of a couple months back.
It's one of the quirks of the music business that star players tend to get locked into playing and recording only the most familiar repertoire, at least early in stardom. Look at the trajectory of any young violinist signed by a major label (if, that is, you can find one). The new star's first order of business is getting the Mendelssohn and the Tchaikovsky and Tzigane and Symphonie espagnole and the like safely to bed; then — providing they’re still around, 10 years or so on — they can think about exploring less-played music, if so inclined.
One of the pleasures of working in the field of early music — really early music, that is, music from well outside the ordinary classical musician's realm of experience — must be the sense of having found a corner of the repertoire and built a relationship to it, minutely and intimately and genuinely from scratch. Dedicate yourself to knowing and loving Bach or Haydn or Brahms, and you are to some extent only taking a great common love a little farther than most, building on an appreciation that comes easily to many.
It's yet another measure of how good we, the listening public, have it in the Bay Area that while the seasons of our "major presenters" would keep a voracious concertgoer pretty happy by themselves, you could eliminate every one of them from consideration and still put together a full — nay, impossibly overfull — calendar of first-rate recitals out of the offerings of the smaller concert series.
Monday night saw the opening of the fifth season of Music at Meyer, the concert series at the lovely Martin Meyer Sanctuary
Brahms chamber music seems to be breaking out unnervingly in threes this season. First it was the three string quartets on a single program (the Emerson Quartet, in October). Coming up in February are the three piano trios (Nicholas Angelich and the brothers Capuçon, courtesy of San Francisco Performances).
Of the great Christian holidays, Christmas affords composers perhaps the greatest range between grandeur and simplicity. At one end, the whole of Creation rejoices; at the other, a tiny infant in a hovel is the linchpin of all things. The Christmas music we are most likely to encounter in concert this time of year is of the resplendently rejoicing sort, yet some ensembles have given thought to music of a more intimate kind.