Classical Music Reviews
Every week, our professional critics attend concerts throughout the Bay Area to let you know what went well...and occasionally what didn't. Let their insights enrich your musical experiences, and feel free to share your own views!
At nearly every turn there was something crazy about the Berkeley Symphony concert on Thursday, making it one of the most stimulating but maddening musical events of the year. To begin with, however, give kudos to the orchestra for scheduling itself two dates in Berkeley’s First Congregational Church, instead of Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus, barely a stone’s throw away. The sanctuary gave the orchestra’s sound a welcome bloom but equal clarity to all the instrumental sections. The ensemble seemed commensurately assured, coordinated, and energetic.
Even in the early-music-saturated Bay Area, scant attention is paid to the "high-art" portions of the medieval musical repertory. Listeners interested in hearing much of it professionally performed must rely on visiting ensembles. We are lucky, though, to have around us several daring presenters that seek out and invite the best musicians working in areas that are specialized even for early music aficionados.
Last Wednesday, violinist Graeme Jennings treated a Berkeley audience to a thrilling performance of unaccompanied violin music from three of the towering figures of Italian music of the second half of the 20th century — Luciano Berio, Franco Donatoni, and Salvatore Sciarrino.
On the centenary of Sir Michael Tippett's birth two years ago, critical curmudgeon Norman Lebrecht wrote that Tippett was a nonentity of a composer who deserves to be forgotten. But even he made an exception for Tippett's 1941 oratorio A Child of Our Time. For most listeners, even if Tippett had written nothing else, A Child of Our Time justifies his existence on our planet.
F-A-E, or Froh Aber Einsam (Free but lonely), was the motto of the legendary violinist Joseph Joachim (1831-1907), who collaborated with both Schumann and Brahms. The two composers wrote a pair of violin-piano pieces for the virtuoso, based on the notes of the initials F-A-E. On Sunday evening, on the San Francisco Symphony's Great Performers Series, violinist Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg and piano accompanist Anne-Marie McDermott played the two uncommonly heard F-A-E movements (Schumann's Intermezzo and Brahms' Scherzo).
Achieving the right balance of sound in Debussy’s music is a challenge because of the composer’s sense of timbre. Sometimes he uses a single instrument to provide an imperceptible nuance of color, which requires the conductor to make the effect audible enough to matter but subtle enough to avoid undue attention. This is where many Debussy performances fail — accompaniment figures are given too much emphasis and sound arbitrary.
During her recent Merola and Adler years, Melody Moore developed a reputation and an avid fan base. Her operatic and song cycle performances well earned her both. High esteem and fans followed her on Sunday into the Martin Meyer Sanctuary of Temple Emanu-El and she received an ovation as she first appeared.
Those of us in the Bay Area with travel budgets in the high two figures are particularly grateful to Nicholas McGegan and the Philharmonia Baroque for their floating Handel festival. We don't have to make the scene at Göttingen or Halle, or even London, to hear vivid, world-class performances of that great composer. To this marvelous group I owe my introduction to Susanna and Theodora — and now, my first live performance of Belshazzar.
Last week’s San Francisco Symphony concert was an instance of Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas’ brilliantly daring programming. It offered three austere works by Stravinsky plus one super beauty by Toru Takemitsu. Alongside the orchestra there was the Symphony Chorus and the world’s leading clarinetist, Richard Stoltzman, who played what amounts to Takemitsu’s clarinet concerto. I don’t believe the music could have been better performed, but Friday’s concert also suffered from a serious case of gab pollution.
You could tell, from the moment she took the stage, that soprano Laura Aikin is accustomed to much larger venues than the 333-seat Florence Gould Theater in San Francisco's Legion of Honor. A quick glance at her bio confirms that she has performed at most of the world's major opera houses, from La Scala to the Opéra Bastille to the Metropolitan Opera. On Saturday afternoon she offered a modestly proportioned recital program, featuring song cycles by Richard Strauss and Ned Rorem, yet presented with all the bravura of an operatic coloratura.