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!
Symphony Silicon Valley began its sixth season on Saturday evening at the California Theatre in San Jose by hosting a major premiere. Symphonic Variations on a Song by Woody Guthrie, by David Amram, is no whimsical notion quickly tossed off, but rather a major, serious work over half an hour long. Played alongside two other major compositions, both well-known works, it made for an unusually large and weighty program.
Pianist Jon Nakamatsu sparkled, and some of the Bay Area’s top freelance players also were in fine form as the Vallejo Symphony Orchestra opened its 2007-2008 season. Inaugurating his 25th year on the podium, the affable and engaging David Ramadanoff led an all-Russian program of familiar but rewarding fare. Nakamatsu, a true star in the classical music firmament, was spectacular in Rachmaninov’s devilishly difficult Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.
Mozart Dances, which finally arrived here via Cal Performances last Thursday, achieved the impossible by exceeding its rapturous reviews. Jane Glover, conducting the Berkeley Symphony Orchestra and joined by Garrick Ohlsson and Yoko Nazaki on piano, gave a performance of warm dynamics and perfect unity. Ohlsson played each of the three Mozart works as if he and the dancers had spent their entire lives together, instead of rehearsing days before.
Sometimes a creative artist produces a work that releases more energy and inspiration than it costs, and suggests paths to the future, as well. Mozart's Il rè pastore (The shepherd king) is a case in point. The 1775 serenata, or modestly sized serious opera, is filled with glorious music from beginning to end, particularly in the second act. It contains percursors to Mozart's penultimate opera, La clemenza di Tito (The clemency of Titus, 1791), and some of its ideas were recycled into Idomeneo (1781).
For those who can't (or won't) see the forest of an opera for the trees of performance minutiae, here's the word about the San Francisco Opera's new production of Wagner's Tannhäuser that opened on Tuesday night: Donald Runnicles' Opera Orchestra and Ian Robertson's Opera Chorus give a magnificent account of the music, which is among Wagner's most sweeping and bewitching.
The death of Jacques Offenbach before the 1881 premiere of Tales of Hoffmann left opera companies with a confusing mass of performance choices. In the end though, the textual decisions matter far less than whether a company succeeds musically with the piece. San Francisco Lyric Opera's new production, heard on Saturday at the second performance, succeeds wildly, with splendid singing and playing, effective stage direction, clever sets, and fine conducting.
"It is only the modern that ever becomes old-fashioned."
— Oscar Wilde
In a radio interview almost 30 years ago, the Bay Area composer Wayne Peterson spoke about a new piece of his for violin and piano, remarking that "problems of line, of melody, and the relationship of the piano counterpoint and so forth are concepts that are rather old-fashioned, I'm afraid."
Judging by the small audience in attendance, you probably weren't in Old First Church on Friday evening as mezzo-soprano Miriam Abramowitsch and pianist George Barth presented a program of early 20th-century art songs. If you were, you witnessed one of the major intellectual events of the season. Both as programming and performance, it made a number of idealistic demands on the artists as well as their audience.
Every so often, a Russian performing group rides through town and brings out what seems to be the entire Russian émigré community, filling one of the largest halls to capacity. Its program typically offers a serious or traditional first half followed by arrangements of favorite tunes from the war years or Soviet cinema. As the tunes grow more familiar, culminating in ever-popular bonbons such as Moscow Nights or Ochi Chornaya, the audience becomes ever more enthusiastic.
One of the downsides of living and listening in a place so attractive to visiting artists as the Bay Area is that even the best musicians who actually live here have a hard time attracting notice among the touring stars. It takes attention to lower-profile recital series, faculty recitals, and the like even to realize how good we have it.