January 8, 2008
As we begin the new year, San Francisco Classical Voice takes a look back at the performances of 2007 that some of our reviewers most enjoyed. As with any such list, the choices are entirely subjective. Each of these critics attended a large number of performances in their areas of specialization throughout the year, and so was able to choose from a broad range of music (in some cases, listing events they attended but that another SFCV critic reviewed). With each item, we list the performer or presenter, and the performance date our critic attended, in chronological order.
This year, we also spotlight the best of the best: SFCV's top performances of 2007. Full details and the runners-up are listed below:
- Artemis Quartet, Feb. 1
- Temirzhan Yerzhanov, Feb. 2
- Trio Mediæval, March 25
- Belshazzar, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, April 14
- Santa Cruz County Symphony and Cabrillo Symphonic Chorus, April 22
- Mozart Dances, Mark Morris Dance Group, Sept. 20
- La Rondine, San Francisco Opera, Nov. 29
- Madama Butterfly, San Francisco Opera, Dec. 1
Mickey Butts' Picks
Photo by Asa M. Mikkelsen
These three hip women from Scandinavia are an earthier version of the stop-and-start women's ensemble Anonymous 4, who similarly specialize in the medieval Marian devotional works so well-suited to female voices. To this repertoire the singers add Norwegian medieval songs, as well as modern-day commissions like Sungji Hong's spectral 2002 Missa Lumen de Lumine. In a standout San Francisco Performances concert that re-created large portions of the ensemble's 2005 Stella Maria album (listen online), Trio Mediæval took up positions around Herbst Theatre, easily filling the hall with ethereal intertwining voices. Too bad they won't be back on the fall 2008 tour of their fascinating, just-released album titled Folk Songs (listen online).
Runner-up to Clerestory for best "new" Bay Area chorus this year was the San Francisco version of Schola Cantorum (not to be confused with the South Bay's much larger volunteer chorus of the same name). The professional group is now independent of its previous longtime home at the National Shrine of Saint Francis of Assisi. As its high-profile San Francisco Early Music Society concert showed, this is a chorus to watch. (Listen to music samples at its Web site.)
The all-male professional chamber chorus channels the spirit of early Chanticleer (many of the members were long-time members). Clerestory's masterful summer concert mixed early music gems from Josquin des Prez, Thomas Morley, and Claudin de Semisy with fine 20th-century works from Edward Elgar and Ralph Vaughan Williams. The powerful Funeral Ikos from John Tavener was exceptional, and the mysteriously titled Three Tenebrae Responsories on Songs by Bob Dylan by Oakland composer Paul Crabtree was a find. You can listen for yourself at the group's Web site.
Following up on the exhilarating year of Steve Reich around the world in 2006 (the Carnegie Hall concert was a personal best for the ages), 2007 was the year of Philip Glass around the Bay Area, and the resulting torrent of 70th-birthday music (Appomattox most notably in its predictable dullness) was too frequently a bust. A happy exception was Glass' intimate San Francisco Performances concert of chamber music, a restaging of a New York concert that featured Glass on Glass, with the composer sometimes less than fluently playing oscillating works like Metamorphosis and Tissues on the piano. The main event, however, was the cellist Wendy Sutter's singing, soaring loveliness in Songs and Poems for Cello, a work of Bachian proportions.
Magnificat is a local treasure. Director Warren Stewart has his finger on the pulse of early music, regularly digging up and revivifying the most interesting music around, from Schütz and Rosenmüller to Cozzolani and Stradella. The season isn't over, but already Stewart has delivered a well-crafted reconstruction of a Mass for the 1607 rededication of St. Gertrude's Chapel in Hamburg, spotlighting the glorious music of Hieronymous Praetorius and Jacob Handl and cladding it all in the trappings of the period's Lutheran rite, sung German sermon and all. No one relocates the liturgical to the concert hall any better. (Listen at its Web site.)
Michelle Dulak Thomson's Picks
David Aaron Carpenter, Jan. 9
We violists are ever on the lookout for new champions, and last year sent us a humdinger. The young Naumberg Award winner David Aaron Carpenter ushered in 2007 with a jaw-dropping recital at Herbst Theatre, courtesy of San Francisco Performances. On familiar violists' ground he did well, with a meaty Brahms sonata, fluent Vieuxtemps, and a Hindemith Op. 25/4 that proved that the piece needn't sound ugly and effortful to work. But what I remember best is the end of the concert: a guilty-pleasures extravaganza during which Carpenter strode boldly onto violinists' turf (Paganini, Sarasate) and proceeded to kick some serious butt. Silly stuff, yes, but, oh, what sweet fun.
There are major pieces so notoriously difficult to spark into life that you can go decades without an opportunity to hear them played live. The upside of this is that the few musicians willing to tackle them tend to be an unusually dedicated and intelligent lot. The Artemis Quartet, exercising awe-inspiring control and resolve, bent the seething stuff of Arnold Schoenberg's 45-minute-long First Quartet into a single colossal span, on a program in which Beethoven's Op. 59/2 represented a point of comparative repose.
Even in an early-music hotbed like the Bay Area, excursions into the Italian trecento don't come along every day, or indeed every year. The admirable vocal trio Liber UnUsualis served up a tightly constructed and flawlessly sung program, proving in the process that program notes and design can genuinely illuminate unfamiliar music rather than obscuring it.
If there is a worrisome aspect to today's glut of fearsomely accomplished string quartets, it's that, in balancing the benefits and dangers of interpretive risks, nearly all of them lean perceptibly toward the side of greater security. The Zehetmair Quartet tilts decidedly, not to say alarmingly, the other way, as its Cal Performances-sponsored Hertz Hall recital made clear. Not everything came off — and when the Zehetmairs were wrong, they were preposterously, inconceivably wrong — but in quartets of Hindemith and Schumann, they gave us two of the most vivid quartet performances I heard all year. A world full of Zehetmair Quartets would be a frightening prospect, but I'm grateful indeed that we've got at least one of them.
This was the year we got to hear the Takács quartet — with its new violist, longtime San Francisco Symphony principal Geraldine Walther — branch out beyond the Beethoven quartets of the new lineup's first three Bay Area visits. Brawny and rustic Haydn, daringly inflected, exotically colored Bartók, and alternately eager and sweet (occasionally oversweet) Schumann demonstrated the newly reintegrated Takács' range and confirmed my longstanding impression of them as possibly the finest all-round quartet playing today.
Janice Berman's Picks
The Sleeping Beauty, San Francisco Ballet, Feb. 24
San Francisco Ballet's production of The Sleeping Beauty returned this season in all its dazzlement. Tchaikovsky, Petipa, Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, Conductor Martin West — you just can't do any better for a marriage of music and dance. When we're talking about the San Francisco Ballet orchestra's Vision Scene glissandos, or the violins weaving their own bouquets in the Garland Dance, or Yuan Yuan Tan's Aurora, triumphant and fresh, saluted by brass as she holds pose after timeless pose in arabesque in the Rose Adagio, well, there's nothing left to say. Beauty's wide awake.
There's only one reason Mark Morris is so often singled out as the most musical of choreographers: He is. Like George Balanchine before him, Morris is active in hunting down composers, dead or alive, and making their music breathe anew, or even for the very first time (see interview). With music by the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jane Glover, Mozart Dances, an abstract, extroverted yet inward journey toward a kind of mature resolution, used music rarely danced to: the Piano Concertos No. 11 and No. 27, and between them, the Sonata in D for Two Pianos, with Garrick Ohlsson giving an amazing account on the keyboard. Since these choices come without expectations, they succeed beyond all expectation. That's because of Morris, but it's also because of his company, particularly, Lauren Grant — drifty yet spot-on, a tiny, enormous dancer — and Joe Bowie, sort of Wolfgang on steroids. I look forward eagerly to his next piece, set to John Adams' new Son of Chamber Symphony and premiering during San Francisco Ballet's New Works Festival, April 22-May 6.
Twyla Tharp in the last quarter of the year dominated dance at Cal Performances, her works presented in visits to Zellerbach Hall by both American Ballet Theatre and Miami City Ballet. The genius herself was not officially present. The genius onstage, however, was undeniable, in Miami City's renditions of Nine Sinatra Songs, in all the Chairman's moods, and In the Upper Room, set to Philip Glass. Then there was ABT's account of the pas de deux Sinatra Suite, choreographed by Tharp originally for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Elaine Kudo, and, in an especially miraculous ABT revival, Baker's Dozen, the 13th participant the pianist Barbara Bilach, playing, from the pit, the brilliant tunes of Willie the Lion Smith as transcribed by Dick Hyman. If you're going to get the reason dance needs live music, there is no better illustration than this one, where the body and the resonances have a glue all their own that cannot be replicated by electronic means.
ABT gets extra points for venturing into new music in From Here on Out, a smart and witty adventure choreographed by Bach-loving Benjamin Millepied to music by Nico Muhly, who used Bach-like repeated chords that sent the dancers spiraling outward, this way and that. The Berkeley Symphony Orchestra, playing throughout the ABT visit, was superbly led by Ormsby Wilkins and David La Marche. Although as usual, Miami City Ballet's In the Upper Room was danced to recorded music, it deserves special mention by dint of its staying power as a composition (1986) as much as being perhaps the ultimate indication of what makes Tharp matchless. As staged by Kudo, who indeed staged all the mentioned Tharps, the piece, with its two platoons, sneakered and point-shoed in red, togged in black and white striped Norma Kamali jailbait pajamas, emerged from the fog with the sense of constant surprise, the vigor and precision and energy, for which Tharp, Glass and Miami, led by Founding Artistic Director Edward Villella, are renowned.
Michael Zwiebach's Picks
My live-performance introduction to one of Handel’s most dramatic, colorful, and musically adventurous oratorios could not have been better. The orchestra played with precision and panache, the Philharmonia Chorale delivered the great choruses with weight and style, and Nic McGegan, in his element, commanded a propulsive performance that could have translated to the opera stage quite easily. Dominique Labelle was unforgettable as Nitocris, the prescient, tragic queen of Babylon, and James Gilchrist chewed the scenery with enjoyable ferocity, as her negligent son, Belshazzar. The supporting cast lived up to the challenge, and the audience gave several standing ovations. Even they knew what they were doing on a perfect evening.
Some people hated Robert Carsen’s modernized, physical production of this opera. I loved it, but then, I probably would not have cared if he had set it in Guantanamo, complete with animatronic rats. I just wanted to see this unbelievably wonderful and neglected masterpiece staged. Susan Graham was magnetic in the title role, the rest of the cast was excellent, and the orchestra and chorus were magnificent. Gluck’s opera — let me say it again — is fully deserving of such treatment, even if it lacks the elaborate, Italianate arias we are used to from that whippersnapper Mozart. As for Carsen, he understood the intimate connection between music, drama, and gesture that Gluck aimed at, and delivered a well-considered, dramatic, contemporary version of that vision.
Jeff Dunn’s Picks
A Flowering Tree, San Francisco Symphony, March 2
My favorite work of his since Nixon in China, John Adams’ A Flowering Tree received a splendid semistaged performance conducted by the composer. Probably his most sensuous score to date, Tree is tinged with a heady mix of Scando-Franco-Indo-Balinese chords, melodies, and textures that turns the Tamil folktale into a total delight for the ear. The singing was great, but Peter Sellars should have kept his staging concepts locked up in his gamelan.
Vying with Ronald Stevenson’s monumental DSCH variations for the greatest set for piano of the 20th century, Frederic Rzewski’s The People United Will Never Be Defeated, marvelously performed by its dedicatee, Ursula Oppens, was an unforgettable treat, one I would tell my grandchildren about — if they or any other future generation by some rare miracle took an interest in classical music.
Earlier in the season, John Corigliano disappointed with his Circus Maximus, cited by many mainly as being the loudest piece ever written. But it failed even that when the shotgun failed to go off at the end (see "With Music Loud," July 15). On the other hand, Mr. Tambourine Man: Seven Poems of Bob Dylan, beautifully sung by soprano Amy Burton, is a flat-out masterpiece. The all-too-well-known words of the third movement, "Blowing in the Wind," set to a descending passacaglia in the trombones, blew the aforesaid right out of my mind.
A handsome, earnest, and audience-pleasing composer Kevin Puts, despite evident skills in orchestration, seemed more destined to be a movie-music man than anything else in my previous auditions of his music. But for the first time, I detected significant depth in his Symphony No. 4, justifying the trust Marin Alsop has put in him over the years. I advise you not to miss his next premiere — he’s a comer.
Photo by Terrence McCarthy
By far the musical swoonfest of the year for me was the sumptuously sung, unremittingly tuneful, unjustly-ignored-for-73-years La Rondine of Puccini. So what if the plot’s as vaporous as a sea breeze wisping by a Monaco casino? Angela Gheorghiu’s heart-kidnapping performance left me wishing I’d brought a trunk full of handkerchiefs.
Lisa Hirsch’s Picks
San Francisco Symphony, Feb. 1
At the end of the first movement of Robin Holloway’s Fourth Concerto for Orchestra, my companion exhaled and whispered under his breath "Good heavens!" That was only 15 minutes into the work, a San Francisco Symphony commission that took about 75 minutes to perform — even though one movement had to be omitted, owing to the length and complexity of the huge piece. The Concerto is a sprawling monster seemingly stuffed with every last instrument and compositional technique in the book, including the Symphony's set of Kraft timpani. Fortunately, it's a delightful and often charming monster, based loosely on Piers Plowman. I hope to hear the entire thing some day. Rounding out the program was a magnificent, impassioned reading of the Brahms Violin Concerto by Christian Tetzlaff.
Mozart’s opera got an unusually brooding and demonic reading in David McVicar’s new production for San Francisco Opera. Strong direction by Leah Hausman, good to excellent singing, especially by baritone Mariusz Kwiecień and the other male leads, and subtly powerful conducted by Donald Runnicles made this a thoroughly memorable traversal of Don Giovanni.
This concert brought the first West Coast performances of Philip Glass’ recent Symphony No. 8 and Thomas Adès’ violin concert, Concentric Paths, plus Mason Bates’ Rusty Air in Carolina. Glass’ Eighth shows the composer’s mastery of large-scale form and ability to handle varied thematic materials, all the while reaching deeply into the heart of sorrow and desperation. Concentric Paths continues Adès’ highly individual exploration of complex structures and surfaces.
Photo by Terrence McCarthy
Against all expectations, San Francisco Opera's 2007 run of Puccini's overexposed warhorse produced a rare kind of greatness, the kind you hope for and rarely get. Patricia Racette’s gorgeously sung and intensely acted Cio-Cio-San led the way. Brandon Jovanovich’s Italianate vocal splendor and good looks made him the perfect Pinkerton. Zheng Cao returned with her loving and sweetly sung Sazuki, while Stephen Powell sang a noble, dignified Sharpless, with great beauty of tone. Donald Runnicles led this most Wagnerian of Italian operas brilliantly.
Heuwell Tircuit's Picks
Pianist Temirzhan Yerzhanov’s idealized recital in Old First Church was a beautifully balanced program of familiar (Schumann’s Symphonic Etudes) and unfamiliar works (Nicole Medtner’s Sonata-Reminiscenza), of simple pieces (Bach’s E-Minor Toccata) and the unplayable (Mily Balakirev’s Islamey, Oriental Fantasy). Or at any rate, I’d always thought it unplayable, the idea reinforced during interviews with famous piano virtuosos such as Vladimir Horowitz, Artur Rubinstein, and Emil Gilels, who assured me that it was inhuman in its demands on human hands. Well, Yerzhanov obviously hadn’t heard that, and proceed to play the devil out of it — in both senses. It was probably the most extreme example of piano virtuosity I have yet encountered.
With his innate feeling for Russian music, Michael Tilson Thomas held the San Francisco Symphony to its finest standards for his mini Stravinsky-Plus-One festival. Although it was not officially called a festival, it was. The first week we heard eye-opening performances of Stravinsky’s Divertimento from The Fairy’s Kiss and the violent Symphony in Three Movements, plus a velvety Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 1, Winter Daydreams. On the second week he added performances of the Symphony Chorus and clarinetist Richard Stoltzman. The moving program highlighted Stravinsky’s wide interests: Symphonies of Wind Instruments, the ballet score Apollo musagète for strings, plus the masterful Symphony of Psalms, also largely accompanied by winds. Between the last two, there was a Stoltzman sensation as soloist in Toru Takemitsu’s Fantasma Cantos, a piece written for him.
After having gone bottoms up, it seemed like the end for the Oakland Ballet. But phoenixlike, it arose from the dead last October. What startled me was just how well the company danced after over a year’s layoff. Then, too, it was an uncommonly fun program: founder Ron Guidi’s Carnival d’Aix and Trois Gymnopédies, Vaslav Nijinsky’s Afternoon of a Faun, plus Mark Wilde’s highly imaginative Bolero. All this was aided and abetted by the Oakland East Bay Symphony and conductor Michael Morgan in the Paramount Theatre. The entire experience was a charm machine in motion, and the most encouraging event of the year.
Nobody told Venezuela that kids simply cannot play that well, so the national government went ahead and sponsored an intense national music program, largely to encourage underprivileged children and help stem delinquency. Of course, the fact that the orchestra had Gustavo Dudamel, conductor designate of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, as leader amounted to a major trump card. And what professional level playing it was, up to the qualities of any world-famous orchestra. The fact that it was playing major virtuoso orchestral music, including Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony and Bernstein’s "Symphonic Dances" from West Side Story, made for a revelatory experience. I’ve heard fine youth orchestras, but had never dreamed anything like this was possible.
This orchestra has a long and honorable reputation as one of the world’s best, but it has largely been known for its big, sumptuous sonority when playing Russian classics. The first surprise on its San Francisco programs was conductor Yuri Temirkanov’s break with tradition through the addition of Austrian and German composers to his programs, then his move to cut back to the appropriate number of players for each work. The playing offered total elegance. Gone, for instance, was the vibrato-heavy horn playing of the old days, which made French horns sound like saxophones. For his first program Temirkanov offered sterling accounts of Schubert’s Act III Entr’acte from Rosamunde, the Schumann Piano Concerto with pianist Nelson Freire, and a generous set of excerpts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet. The second program presented the Overture to Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto with Julia Fischer as soloist — the one downer — and a knockout with Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony. The audience and I were duly wowed.
David Bratman's Picks
New Century Chamber Orchestra, Jan. 26
The conductorless string group under guest concertmaster Axel Strauss played at a nearly empty church in Palo Alto. The absent audience missed a good show: a suite by Telemann, both steely and witty; an awesome performance by soprano Melody Moore of Britten’s song cycle Les Illuminations; and Mahler’s orchestration of Schubert’s “Death and the Maiden” Quartet with a perfectly flowing version of the normally rather galumphing finale.
I’d put in a claim for Michael Tippett’s A Child of Our Time as arguably the greatest choral-orchestral work of the 20th century. Certainly this performance under John Larry Granger made a convincing case for it. Played in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, its message of somber hope for humanity, anchored by exquisitely tasteful settings of American spirituals, created the most emotionally moving concert experience of the year.
A potpourri program: one duo (for two violins) by Schnittke, one trio (piano and strings) by Tchaikovsky, one quartet (strings) by Mendelssohn, and one quintet (winds) by Ravel arranged by someone else. The works were all tied together under the label “Homage,” but the manner of each homage differed greatly. The performance styles varied as much as the theme: The Escher String Quartet was a tight-lipped machine, while the trio following them emoted all over the place. But both were fine examples of their kind, and anyone who can leave me happy with Tchaikovsky’s big sloppy trio must know what they’re doing.
San Jose’s local orchestra began its season with a major premiere. The work was Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie by David Amram, and I know what you’re thinking: He’s just going to orchestrate This Land Is Your Land, run a few thuddy variations on it, and leave it at that. Not at all, not at all. It’s a large suite of Americana through which the song, often mutated nearly to unrecognizability, recurs in unexpected forms. It was capably played by the orchestra under Paul Polivnick, and imaginatively paired with other works of scene painting by Beethoven and Janáček.