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!
How to program something novel for the holidays is a challenge almost every choral conductor faces at year's end. Fortunately, there always seems to be an endless supply of untapped or little-heard repertory from which to draw and innumerable ways to combine music from a diverse cross section of centuries or cultures into a satisfying whole.
Of the great Christian holidays, Christmas affords composers perhaps the greatest range between grandeur and simplicity. At one end, the whole of Creation rejoices; at the other, a tiny infant in a hovel is the linchpin of all things. The Christmas music we are most likely to encounter in concert this time of year is of the resplendently rejoicing sort, yet some ensembles have given thought to music of a more intimate kind.
How many singers have chosen to center their Bay Area recitals around Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe (Poet's love)? Last year, baritones Gerald Finley, Daniel Cilli, and Thomas Hampson, as well as tenor Rolando Villazón, gave this defining cycle of 16 songs a shot. Gazing back as far as 2001, the list is swelled by baritones Wolfgang Holzmair, Matthias Goerne, Christópheren Nomura, Randall Scarlata, Brad Alexander, Wolfgang Brendel, and Jonathan Lemalu, tenor Ian Bostridge, and lyric sopranos Christine Schäfer and Barbara Bonney.
Strangely enough, listening to achingly poignant music can be pleasantly addictive at times. Rather than making you disheartened, sometimes such music seems to uplift. Pieces with wide emotional contrasts can heighten the boost, as moments of blitheness offer easy respite from the solemnity. Heavy contrasts, though, require musicians who can move from lugubrious to lighthearted without missing a beat.
What if you programmed an orchestral concert and then proceeded to ignore the orchestra? Hearing Philharmonia Baroque's concert set "The Majesty of Christmas" Saturday at Berkeley's First Congregational Church, I got the sense that conductor Konrad Junghänel had somehow managed this dubious achievement. Seeking to unearth the music of 17th-century German composers whose reputations have wilted under J.S. Bach's long shadow, Junghänel offered a largely lackluster program that gave the orchestra precious little to wrap its bows around.
Every so often there's an ideal confluence of conductor, orchestra, and city that produces historic results. San Francisco is currently enjoying such a boon, as was evident at Thursday's all-Berlioz program in Davies Symphony Hall. It was a purely Michael Tilson Thomas performance all the way — which is to say, a marvel.
When, in the winter of our discontent, carols are pressed into the service of commerce in stores and TV commercials, it is refreshing to hear a concert focused on peace, the core of the original Christmas story. Such a concert was provided Saturday by Voci Women's Vocal Ensemble, at St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Berkeley. Titled "Voices in Peace VII: Winter Stillness," the program made many references to the darkness, cold, and stillness of winter.
A music teacher returned to his old school on Saturday night, three decades after writing his breakout piece there, and the brilliant concert that took place exceeded all expectations of such an occasion. More than a sentimental reunion or dutiful observance of the passage of time, this was a poignant and powerful musical lovefest, some of the teacher's finest and most complex music, performed with startling excellence by a new generation of students.
Continuing a long-standing tradition, the San Francisco Bach Choir presented a joyful holiday program on Saturday night. The large sanctuary of Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco resounded with Renaissance and early Baroque works, as well as traditional music of the season. SFBC's program, titled "Psallite! A Candlelight Christmas," featured the 60-plus member choir, as well as four soloists from the Pacific Boychoir, accompanied by strings and keyboards.
Programming contemporary works with standard repertoire seems tricky: The danger is that the new, unfamiliar piece might easily sound like commentary on the towering masterwork. (Imagine if a writer were forced to publish a novel as a foreword to Joyce’s Ulysses.)