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!
Two masterpieces graced Thursday's program of the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas, aided and abetted by violinist Gil Shaham. Only two works were on offer, but that was enough to provoke the audience to standing ovations. And, for a change, those reactions were no exaggeration.
Davis Symphony Hall resounded with the sound of William Schuman's big, bravura Violin Concerto (1947-59), and, following intermission, Beethoven's even larger, bravura Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55, the "Eroica" (1802-1804).
In his poem "The Soup," U.S. Poet Laureate Charles Simic concocted a mordant, macabre "soup of the world." Cockroaches, dirty feet, Stalin's moustache, Hiroshima, and bloody sausages number among the incendiary images in the poem. Can you even dare imagine musical analogs for them?
With Easter just around the corner, the timing seems about right for a performance of a passion by J.S. Bach, one of the genre’s great masters. But while Bach’s St. Matthew Passion might spring immediately to mind, the San Francisco Bach Choir opted for the shorter, less grandiose Johannes-Passion.
It's hard to dislike the San Francisco Chamber Orchestra's stated mission of "bring[ing] the immediacy and intimacy of music for small orchestra and chamber ensemble to audiences of all ages." It's even harder to dislike its motto of "fresh, fun, first-class, and free" — talk that they walk by presenting professional-caliber concerts at an admission charge of $0. Listeners are simply invited to become paying members. The rewards include preferred seating, and the inherent satisfaction of underwriting a great operation.
When Jacques Offenbach's Orpheus in the Underworld was first performed in Paris, in 1858, the famed critic Jules Noriac, of mighty Le Figaro, stammered with delight: "Unheard-of. Splendid. Outrageous. Graceful. Charming. Witty. Amusing. Successful. Perfect ..."
Viewed against the more robust concert scenes in San Francisco, the East Bay, and the Peninsula, the classical-music pickings in Marin County can seem slender. But alongside the programs of the county's indigenous ensembles (the Marin Symphony and the American Bach Soloists chief among them), plus the regular visits of musicians from the rest of the Bay Area, the county proffers established concert series that approach the other counties' larger presenters in quality, if not in scale.