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!
No music makes a bigger statement than the brassy sunrise of Richard Strauss' Also Sprach Zarathustra. Because tour programs are generally about making statements, the extravagant tone poem based on Nietzsche's extravagantly confident philosophy is music befitting the San Francisco Symphony's current itinerary. This week the orchestra heads to New York, Vienna, and Prague with the Strauss showpiece in the music folders, but on the basis of Saturday's concert at Davies Symphony Hall, its big statements will be made by the "little" moments.
"Lo, the winter is past ... and the time of the singing of birds is come," says the Song of Songs in the Bible. And lo, the singing of Schola Cantorum San Francisco came to St. Mark's Episcopal Church in Berkeley Saturday night, and yea, verily, the singing was good.
The Avedis Chamber Music Series at San Francisco's Legion of Honor has rarely drawn the kind of packed house it did on Friday evening, or more enthusiasm for the results. The occasion featured pianist Jon Nakamatsu with the Stanford Woodwind Quintet, who offered two light and popular French works embedded between a crossover Cuban work and a grand sextet by a forgotten Austro-German master. Paquito D'Rivera's Aries Tropicales (1994) opened the proceedings by the Stanford Quintet, followed by Francis Poulenc's zesty Sextet (1939) for piano and winds.
Maestro Kent Nagano led the Berkeley Symphony in a rousing season finale on Friday night at First Congregational Church in Berkeley. However exciting it turned out to be, the concert was nevertheless bittersweet, as that evening marked the beginning of the end of Nagano's full-time (and long-time) music directorship of the Symphony. Nagano will conduct only one concert during each of the next two seasons, and he will step down from his post as music director at the end of the 2008-2009 season.
With its concerts last weekend, the American Bach Soloists completed the fourth year of its Bach cycle, an elaborate multiseason project featuring a wide variety of the composer's most important works. The program on Saturday night at First Congregational Church in Berkeley was an exciting grab bag of instrumental music, featuring sinfonias from the cantatas BWV 174 and 42, the first Brandenburg Concerto (BWV 1046), the Concerto for Harpsichord and Two Recorders (BWV 1057), and the first Orchestral Suite (BWV 1066).
In a combination of community service and organizational preservation, on Sunday evening the San Francisco Academy Orchestra presented a concert in Calvary Presbyterian Church, to thunderous applause. Conductor Florin Parvulescu took on major repertoire with an orchestra made up of college students and recent graduates, infused with a few members of the San Francisco Symphony. The result was simply amazing.
Although Steven Isserlis had decided on his program long before hearing the sad news of Mstislav Rostropovich's death on April 27, his recital at Herbst Theatre on Thursday, which consisted entirely of Russian music for cello and piano, turned out to be a poignant and fitting homage to the great cellist and humanitarian. Isserlis had last been in town four years ago for performances with the San Francisco Symphony of Benjamin Britten's Cello Symphony, one of the many important 20th-century works written for and dedicated to Rostropovich.
There can be no denying that music plays a powerful role in inspiring political activism. But the marriage between social consciousness and music is more commonly associated these days with the protest songs of high-profile pop and folk artists like Joan Baez and the Dixie Chicks than the symphonies and improvisations of their counterparts from the classical and jazz worlds.
In his annual pilgrimage to the First Congregational Church in Berkeley last weekend, gambist extraordinaire Jordi Savall showed Berkeley a different side from his appearances of late. Friday night's Cal Performances program, titled "Marin Maris and Antoine Forqueray: L'Ange et le Diable," highlighted works by the two most famous viol players of the French Baroque. Minus the big band, and accompanied only by harpsichordist Pierre Hantaï and lutenist/guitarist Xavier Diaz-Latorre, the audience had the opportunity to experience the more intimate aspects of Savall's art.
Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades (Pikovaya Dama) delivers a decidedly mixed bag: a lush, gushingly romantic score, rich with gorgeous, often-sprawling arias and ensembles, married to a tryingly melodramatic and barely credible tale of love and obsession.