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!
At one time, Italian music meant throbbing voices soaring unashamedly through ornate melodies, propelled by the pulsating oom-pah-pah of an orchestra masquerading as a massive guitar. In its latest concert, last Monday at the Green Room of San Francisco’s Veterans War Memorial, the Left Coast Ensemble took stock of recent Italian music. The results could not have been further from the distinctively tuneful opulence of Bellini and Verdi. Yet somehow the pulse is still thriving.
It makes a neat, string-quartet Rorschach test. You've just played all three Brahms quartets at a single sitting. Quick: What do you do for an encore? A conventionally minded, reasonably sane quartet would pick something light and attractive from around the same time — the finale of Dvořák’s "American" Quartet, say, or a transcription of one of the Brahms Hungarian Dances. A more offbeat one might go for something goofy from farther afield (the polka from Shostakovich's Age of Gold?), or something counterintuitively slow and sustained (Puccini's Crisantemi?
Edward Villella was new to the New York City Ballet when Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine were in the studio with the dancers, making Agon. It was 1957. "Neither of them talked much to us — it wasn't what they did,” Villella said Sunday, after Miami City Ballet, where he's artistic director, ended its visit to Cal Performances at Zellerbach Hall. “They just rolled up their sleeves, and the energy permeated the room. They had such a deep regard and respect for each other."
Mark-André Hamelin’s appearances have become a regular feature in San Francisco’s concert life. Moreover, it seems that the Canadian-born, Philadelphia-based pianist is building some continuity into his San Francisco concert series. Last year’s winning encore (four pieces from Debussy’s second book of Preludes) became the glorious second half of the program presented by San Francisco Performances last Tuesday at Herbst Theatre.
Gluck's masterpiece, Iphigénie en Tauride, is getting the production it deserves. Seen at the Seattle Opera on Friday, in the next to last performance of its run before going to the Metropolitan Opera next month (with Susan Graham, Placido Domingo, and Paul Groves), this was an exemplar of how to revive a masterwork with integrity.
When Philippe Jordan conducted the Gustav Mahler Youth Orchestra at the Proms in London last year, a critic wrote that Jordan and his ensemble could "whip up musical Viagra." With all that testosterone, the Swiss conductor seemed certainly capable of striding effortlessly to the summits of Richard Strauss' gargantuan Eine Alpensinfonie at Davies Symphony Hall Friday, and he did so admirably. Even more commendable, however, was his reinvigoration of a warhorse brought in from pasture after 15 years, Beethoven's "Egmont" Overture.
Everyone knows organists play their instrument with their feet as well as their hands. Pedals have long been a hallmark of the organ's sound and of the organist's skill — so much so that on most organs nowadays, a recital of music with little or no pedal could sound at best unimpressive, at worst a poor reflection on the performer. Such, however, was not the case at Davitt Moroney's latest Bay Area recital, at St. John's Presbyterian Church in Berkeley on Sunday.
Musicality, discipline, and good programming were much in evidence Friday evening as the San Francisco Girls Chorus presented "Music Fit for a Queen," consisting entirely of music from the British Isles, all sung from memory. The first half was devoted to rarely heard music, the second half to more familiar works. On top of that, Director Susan McMane added a little theatricality, taking advantage of Calvary Presbyterian Church's interior architecture.
Liturgical reconstructions usually do not make for successful concerts. So it has been a relief to see this trend in early music performance diminish over the past two decades. The main problems, as performers learned through experience, are length and entertainment value. Polyphonic music was often reserved for the most important feasts of the year, which could last an ungodly number of hours. People who enjoy hearing early music live already spend a lot of time in churches, whether they like it or not.
I first discovered the Russian Patriarchate Choir of Moscow through a series of recordings released on the early music label Opus 111 in the 1990s. It may be surprising to associate a Russian religious choir with early music, but in this case, the label is apt. Friday night’s appearance of this unique ensemble under Cal Performances at Berkeley's First Congregational church was one of the most thrilling choral music events of the fall season.