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!
Although Johannes Brahms carried great pain over his apparently unconsummated relationship with Clara Schumann, the heartfelt beauty of his most popular music speaks far more of resolution and transcendence rather than enslavement to suffering. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the great German Requiem, Op. 45, with which Michael Tilson Thomas has chosen to close San Francisco Symphony’s three-week Brahms Festival. Ein Deutsches Requiem is huge and monumental, if not as heaven-shaking as Verdi's masterpiece.
Nothing about cellist Lynn Harrell's two all-Bach recitals last week in Grace Cathedral could be called ordinary, except for his insightful virtuosity. First and most strikingly, those performances of J.S. Bach's six highbrow Suites for unaccompanied cello, BWV 1007-1012, were presented as part of the four-month jazz festival, titled the 9th Annual SFJAZZ Spring Season. Then too, the vast space of the cathedral atop Nob Hill seemed an unlikely venue for solo cello music. To my surprise, this worked.
The Left Coast Chamber Ensemble is unique among the Bay Area's new-music-focused ensembles in spending a fair amount of time outside the 21st or even 20th centuries. LCCE programs typically juxtapose new, 20th-century, and yet older works playable with a particular clutch of four or five instrumentalists, the instrumentarium changing from program to program as each of the ensemble's 12 players gets a lick in.
Judging by the programming choices of many of our major musical institutions, choral music belongs strictly to the past. Fortunately, forward-thinking music lovers can always turn to Volti. Under founder and Music Director Robert Geary, the San Francisco-based ensemble is one of the Bay Area's most consistent musical treasures, one that maintains high standards of excellence in the present while vigorously developing the repertoire of the future.
On paper, American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard reads like a filly breaking free from the pack. At 25, she has already debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in Roméo et Juliette, singing Stéphano alongside Anna Netrebko and Roberto Alagna. Other star turns include her recent Zerlina with Chicago Opera Theater, a forthcoming Cherubino in Santa Fe, and a gig at the Cincinnati May Festival. Orchestral appearances past and future include the Saint Louis Symphony, Chicago Symphony, Los Angeles Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, and Boston Symphony.
Old First Concerts played host on Sunday to a varied and exhilarating program of chamber music by Stefano Scodanibbio, performed by sfSoundGroup and the composer himself. The concert, sponsored by the Istituto Italiano di Cultura of San Francisco, was part of Primavera Italiana: The Spring Festival of Italian New Music, now in its second year.
One of the finer aspects of the San Francisco Symphony's current Brahms Festival is that in only three programs it manages to give a pretty complete view of what he stood for. The second of those three programs Thursday evening in Davies Symphony Hall featured one of his most lighthearted orchestral works, the Serenade No. 2 in A Major, Op. 16, the dramatically tragic Piano Concerto No. 1 in D Minor, Op. 15, and one of his displays of sheer compositional technique, the Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op. 56a.
When a concert is titled "Sound the Trumpet," and features music of Bach and Handel, listeners naturally expect to get their ears blasted off with the Second "Brandenburg" and the Royal Fireworks Music. But nary a kettledrum was in sight as the American Bach Soloists and natural-trumpeter John Thiessen showed the more lyrical side of the trumpet in Saturday's concert at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley, repeated Sunday in San Francisco and Monday in Davis.
As if to mirror the state of bitterness attributed to some citizens of our country in these days, baritone Matthias Goerne and his excellent accompanist Alexander Schmalcz presented a vocal recital Saturday at Herbst Theatre that was a study in bitterness. Yet there were flashes, too, of triumph over the forces of malevolence, of the redemptive power of love, of the fierce joy in the artistic act of creation.
Maria Billingsley's Martinez Opera has done a great deal of community outreach and educational programming over the six years of its existence. That has given her company an identity and strong local support. Ultimately, though, an opera company is valued and judged by the quality of the work it puts on the stage. And with its latest production, Madama Butterfly, seen Saturday at the Alhambra Arts Center, the company has met, even exceeded, reasonable standards for a local, regional opera company.