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!
A fairly standard lineup: Wagner, Bach, Mendelssohn, and a new work having its first West Coast performance. A predictable response: moderate applause for the Wagner, a loyal standing ovation for the concertmaster soloist in the Bach, an enthusiastic reception for the Mendelssohn — and a tepid "So what?" for the new piece. And a systemic shame: The new work, a great work, a work that should have a chance to sneak up and possess its listeners, is left in the dust due to insufficient exposure.
Last week the San Francisco Symphony offered up two quite different versions of what the ascent to heaven sounds like. Under the direction of guest conductor Myung-Whun Chung, the orchestra performed an innovative program that featured Olivier Messiaen's L'Ascension and Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 1 ("Titan"). While the pieces were performed with virtuosity by both conductor and orchestra, the performance on Saturday fell just this side of the pearly gates.
In a recital by tenor Ian Bostridge and pianist Julius Drake devoted entirely to Schubert songs, it was, strangely, the piano that shone. Not strange, of course, that the piano was a vital part of the performance of the songs: Schubert's accompaniments, after all, are full partners, sometimes offering comment, or warning or sympathizing with the protagonist, along the lines of a Greek chorus, or even at times revealing things the protagonist is unaware of.
It's one of the quirks of the music business that star players tend to get locked into playing and recording only the most familiar repertoire, at least early in stardom. Look at the trajectory of any young violinist signed by a major label (if, that is, you can find one). The new star's first order of business is getting the Mendelssohn and the Tchaikovsky and Tzigane and Symphonie espagnole and the like safely to bed; then — providing they’re still around, 10 years or so on — they can think about exploring less-played music, if so inclined.
As he neared the end of his life, Marc-Antoine Charpentier, a composer active in Paris from ca. 1670 to 1704, wrote:I am he who was born long ago and was widely known in this century, but now I am naked and nothing, dust in a tomb, at an end, and food for worms. … I was a musician, considered good by the good musicians, and ignorant by the ignorant ones. And since those who scorned me were more numerous than those who praised me, music brought me small honor and great burdens. And just as I at birth brought nothing into this world, thus when I died I took nothing away.
Music from three centuries was featured on last week's San Francisco Symphony programs in Davies Symphony Hall. But on Thursday even the inestimable Michael Tilson Thomas couldn't fully pull off his non sequitur program of Bach, Xenakis, and Schubert, highlighted by a bizarrely dressed harpsichord soloist, Elisabeth Chojnacka, for the Xenakis.