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!
Igor Stravinsky was a constantly changing artist. He's also the most Janus-like of all musicians — always looking forward and back at once. His work, when it was new, puzzled and challenged in equal measures. And though Cocteau virtually wrote him off early in the game, Erik Satie came to his defense in a 1922 Vanity Fair article.
Opera audiences the world over live under the dominion of stage directors and dramaturges who relocate classic works to places and times remote from the originals and even rewrite major plot events. Such attempts at innovation too often reveal more about the creative desperation of their authors than their cleverness.
The dapper St. Petersburg Philharmonic was in town last week for two concerts in Davies Symphony Hall with a more intriguing break with the world's music than expected. Whereas Russian touring orchestras usually devote themselves to presenting music exclusively from their homeland, Conductor Yuri Temirkanov went for the larger view by including Austrian, German, and (in the encores) English music. Beside all that, he presented two monumental compositions of Prokofiev.
A year of research. Over 100 works by Swedish composers examined. Only four chosen. For the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players' "Shimmers and Thrills" concert, the anticipation generated by Executive Director Adam Frey's Swedish quest was similar to that found in Beth E. Levy's wonderful program notes on one of the four finds, Truffle Hymn: "The ground itself gives way when, at the last, the long-sought treasure is unearthed: Is it an aroma? A taste? A transfiguration?"
Even though it revolves around a love triangle, Goethe's Sorrows of Young Werther would not have appealed to Verdi because of its lack of a higher moral or sociopolitical conflict. But for Jules Massenet, making a stage work of such a personal, barely dramatic dilemma was just his musical meat. Massenet's Werther, heard and seen Sunday afternoon at San Jose's California Theatre, gives Opera San José a new high-water mark.
Yo-Yo Ma is certainly one of the most genial and gifted soloists to grace international concert stages in recent memory. The ambitious range of his concert programming is an appealing reflection of postmodern aesthetics. He has also demonstrated an admirable commitment to bringing wider public awareness to a diverse spectrum of important musical subcultures.
Sometimes, a story is so universal that it can be updated without affecting the integrity of the drama. San Francisco Opera’s deeply problematic production of Verdi’s Macbeth, which debuted last Wednesday, proved to be one of the exceptions. Shakespeare’s tale of greed and ambition leading to ruin can stand up to changes of setting and time, but David Pountney’s staging, directed here by Nicola Raab, left the opening-night audience troubled and confused.
Nineteenth-century composers were not generous contributors to the flute’s solo repertory. Granted, many French composers wrote morceaux de concours, or contest pieces to be performed by students during competitive examinations at the Paris Conservatory. Aside from those, though, there are surprisingly few Romantic solo pieces for flute. German composers were particularly stingy. Schubert wrote only one big work, a theme and variations for flute and piano. Beethoven did not write even one. Neither did Schumann, Brahms, Mendelssohn, or Richard Strauss.
The great luxury of the San Francisco Symphony’s Chamber Music Series lies in the fact that having the entire orchestra to call upon affords multiple combinations per program. Sunday’s matinee in Davies Symphony Hall offered a prime example: There were musicians to accommodate a surprise program change, and to take part in two masterpieces all too rarely encountered in live performances.