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!
Ah, the tunes! People were singing them in the subway on Saturday, humming them home in the BART seats behind me. There are at least a dozen Dvořák gifts to humanity in his "New World" symphony, memory-permanent melodies that bring renewable pleasures for years to those to whom they speak — all presented on a silver platter by Roberto Minczuk's spirited conducting of the San Francisco Symphony.
Mix equal parts youthful joie de vivre with mature warmth and you have an idea of what the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra accomplished Sunday afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall. The ensemble's sheer warmth of timbre, under Conductor Benjamin Shwartz, highlighted a program of essentially lush Romanticism, from first note to last. The afternoon even included a literal encore: a repeat of its finale ginger. The program also included an important talent discovery in 14-year-old cellist Tessa Seymour.
Time for full disclosure. As much as I admire the Oakland East Bay Symphony, I asked to review its season opener, "A Grand Opening: Beethoven and Bernstein," for one specific reason: to have the opportunity to reassess the artistry of soprano Hope Briggs. In a striking departure from his usual opening-night format, which always includes music by a living composer, Music Director and Conductor Michael Morgan announced on August 3 that he had replaced composer Peteris Vasks’ Sala: Symphonic Elegy for Orchestra with Briggs singing arias by Wagner, Puccini, Verdi, and Cilea.
The unlikely Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela seemed to be having an even better time in Davies Symphony Hall Sunday evening than the audience, even while it drove the audience into something approaching a hysteria of enthusiasm.
In 50 years of covering orchestral concerts on four continents, I have never encountered anything even close to such unlikely musical splendor. Of course, having Conductor Gustavo Dudamel, conductor designate of the Los Angles Philharmonic, on the podium added much to the general excitement.
Amazing young string quartets seem to appear at a steady pace these days, and it was a great pleasure on Sunday to see another one added to the local crop. The Afiara String Quartet, four Canadians who came together through various positions at the San Francisco Conservatory, emerged in their Sunday recital on the Noe Valley Chamber Music series as a terrifically unified, versatile, idiomatic, and moving ensemble.
Watching Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra working with a guest director is always fascinating, but there's something special about the band's relationship with its own director, Nicholas McGegan, that makes his every appearance something to anticipate. Friday's concert at San Francisco's Herbst Theatre, the first of the 2007-2008 season's third set, held another attraction in the form of a healthy portion of McGegan's beloved Jean-Philippe Rameau. The entire program saw conductor and orchestra repeatedly bringing out each other's best.
My Russian grandmother and the daughter she taught the songs she knew (my mother), both long since gone, would have been unable to keep from dancing in the aisles and cheering at Dmitri Hvorostovsky's Cal Performances concert at Zellerbach Hall Sunday afternoon.
To some, John Cage is a joy guide, a trickster, a brilliant confounder of established expectations. To others he is a constantly vexing presence: an incontrovertibly original iconoclast who changed the course of modern composition by giving artists permission to do any one of a number of things at any given time. Thanks (or no thanks, as the case may be) to Cage, artists now feel free to create vastly different-sounding performances from the same score — sometimes harmonious, sometimes impossibly jarring — and call the disparate results music.