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!
Ernest Bloch has an important part in the history of music in San Francisco. The Swiss-born composer was director of the San Francisco Conservatory of Music when he was commissioned in 1929 by Temple Emanu-El to write a major choral-orchestral work based on Reform Jewish liturgy. After several years of gestation, and then further delays and some performances elsewhere, Sacred Service (Avodath Hakodesh) finally received its local premiere in Emanu-El's sanctuary in March 1938.
Last weekend saw one of the most unusual events of the piano world, in San Francisco. This was the second Milton and Peggy Salkind International Piano Duo Festival. The three-day festival at the San Francisco Conservatory was packed with five programs devoted to unusual as well as standard works for two pianos, piano duos, and a variety of music for chamber combinations. Then too, there was the strangest looking piano I've ever seen: a double piano invented by Germany's distinguished Grotrian piano company.
Russian music is internationally popular and much programmed. But for last week's San Francisco Symphony concerts under guest conductor David Robertson, we got three masterpieces by Slavic composers born west of Russia: a Pole, a Slovak, and a Czech. Robertson opened with Witold Lutoslawski's Mi-Parti (1976), then conducted Leoš Janáček's Taras Bulba (1918), and as his closing work presented Antonin Dvořák's Cello Concerto in B Minor, Op. 104 (1895). The cellist in the concerto was a young American, Alisa Weilerstein.
The last quarter-century has seen musical talent bursting out of Finland, a country of only 5.3 million that, owing to ample public funding of music education, has produced a steady stream of great conductors, performers, and composers. Among the prominent composers are Aulis Sallinen, Kaija Saariaho, Esa-Pekka Salonen (who also conducts), and Magnus Lindberg. This week, conductor Sakari Oramo — another Finn — brought to the San Francisco Symphony a program that included Lindberg's 2007 tone poem Seht die Sonne (Behold the sun).
It’s been a great month for Donizetti aficionados in the Bay Area. Even as the San Francisco Opera was mounting its revival of the composer’s Lucia di Lammermoor with the incandescent Natalie Dessay in the title role (see review), Pocket Opera revisited Roberto Devereux in three performances at the Palace of the Legion of Honor.
Lucia di Lammermoor went crazy last Tuesday night at the San Francisco Opera House, and the audience went crazy for her. Natalie Dessay was magnificent in the title role of Donizetti's opera. Not only does she possess the range and technical command needed for the famously demanding Mad Scene, but she also is an actress capable of expressing a wide range of emotions. Her beautiful sound is never forced and ranges easily from soft to loud, from sustained legato to bursts of coloratura.
For the 12th year running, New Music Bay Area and Lifemark Group Arts sponsored the Garden of Memory, an annual celebration of the summer solstice through new music and sound installations. For four hours on Sunday, more than three dozen artists took over the labyrinthine Chapel of Chimes, a mausoleum on the edge of Oakland's Rockridge district.
A bit quixotically, the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra's "Bon Voyage" program, offered Sunday in Davies Symphony Hall, took on three demanding symphonic monsters from early last century. Conductor Benjamin Shwartz's program turned out to be a little less than I had hoped for, but better than I had feared. Still, it left me amazed that these youthful players could manage so well in repertory where even experienced professionals normally fear to tread.
In the last decade of his life, Haydn entertained a number of visits from Georg August Griesinger, who transcribed their conversations and published them as a series of biographical notices. One of the most famous and controversial statements to appear in Griesinger's biography was one in which Haydn describes being cut off from the world at Esterháza, with no critics around to confuse or annoy him.
On an old episode of the irreverent animated series South Park, the Colorado boys' parents force the gang into a children's choir called, not so subtly, "Getting Gay With Kids." I think the character Cartman best summed up many Americans' attitude: "Dude man, choirs are gay."