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!
On a January morning a few years ago, I received a telephone call from an eminent professor of classical music. "Guess whose birthday it is!" he giggled. "No idea." His hint, "Your least favorite of the great composers!" caused me to reply, "Ah — it must be Mozart!"
The world of music has several types of 22-year-old composers — brash, confident ones; shy, talented ones; and painfully insecure ones who look to the past and worry that they were born several generations too late.
Last Thursday, the Carmel Bach Festival presented works by each of these types. The program, made up of pieces composed in 1707 by composers who were 22 during that year, highlighted not only the shifting trends in music at the time but also the personalities of the composers themselves.
Time was when piano recitals would end with a rousing performance of a Hungarian rhapsody, an etude, or the Mephisto Waltz by Franz Liszt as a surefire way to bring the audience to its feet. Christopher Taylor, who last year in Berkeley played all three books of etudes by another Hungarian, Györgi Ligeti, once again put himself to the test, this time in the Napa Valley Opera House last Thursday, playing all 12 of Liszt’s Transcendental Studies at the Festival del Sole.
I don't know how many Danielle de Nieses there are, but I have already heard two of them. The first was a terrific Cleopatra in a remarkable presentation of excerpts from Handel's Giulio Cesare in Calistoga's Castello di Amorosa on July 14. The second appeared a week later in an hour-long song recital, in the Napa Valley Opera House, accompanied by Royal Opera House Music Director Antonio Pappano. As the French say, Quel difference! But there was no Vive for this performance.
Although regional opera companies fulfill an important role in the American musical landscape, too often their limited resources and ambition cause them to cut corners and deliver cheap, amateurish productions. This is especially true of companies that try to mount reduced versions of monumental grand operas. Tosca with a student string quintet, a chorus without tenors, an 80-year-old Tosca who also founded the company, an audience of fawning voice teachers in 1980s attired in pastel pantsuits — none of these is Tosca, at least not the opera that Puccini wrote.
Jonathan Khuner, Berkeley Opera's artistic director, has long wanted to strip Verdi's Aïda of ancient Egyptian spectacle. Stage director Yuval Sharon was interested in making the composer’s story relevant to our times. In the opening performance of Aïda Saturday at the Julia Morgan Theatre, their successful collaboration was, in large part, fundamentally true to Verdi. The chorus sang entirely offstage, functioning more as a Greek chorus than as an exotic display of priests, slaves, soldiers, and animals.
The sfSoundGroup continued to carve out an exciting niche for itself in its concert Sunday night at ODC Theater. Among all the area’s new-music ensembles, this group has evolved an aesthetic that most vividly brings to mind the Bay Area’s long history of experimentation and boundary-crossing. As usual, the group offered a mix of composition and improvisation, acoustic and electronic sound, local and international voices, and a strong sense of connection to the audience in ODC’s black-box setting.
Friday evening’s concert by the Russian National Orchestra at the Lincoln Theater in Yountville was filled with pleasant surprises. Programming at summer festivals tends to be conservative, seldom straying from reliably popular, crowd-pleasing repertoire.
You'd think that nothing could steal the thunder from the likes of Frederica von Stade, Sir James and Lady Jeanne Galway, and the Russian National Orchestra. But Friday the 13th brought a decidedly unmusical close to Festival del Sole's opening night in Napa. That the potential fiasco was handled with copious amounts of charm and grace shone a much-deserved light on the evening's unjustifiably shadowed conductor, Stéphane Denève.
The current Festival del Sole in the Napa Valley took a stellar leap forward Saturday evening with both the talent it featured and the place in which that talent was showcased. The ever-impressive countertenor David Daniels, the dazzling young soprano Danielle de Niese, and the redoubtable Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra with Nicholas McGegan were the talent, while the imposing new Castello di Amorosa. a winery-cum-castle set amid the hills and vineyards of the upper Napa Valley near Calistoga, was the monumental site. It was a concert to be savored and long remembered.