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!
The glamour and accolades that go along with being royalty are apparently difficult to enjoy when your throne is being directly challenged. That is made enjoyably clear in Oakland Opera Theater's production of Duke Ellington's comic opera Queenie Pie (playing through May 25), in which Harlem's preeminent beauty queen faces formidable competition for her title, for her romantic interest, and, perhaps most important, for the patronage of her enticing assortment of beauty products.
There are several pianists today who have built their repertoire around the music of a particular composer. I can think of a number of prominent artists specializing in Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, or Chopin. But I would hesitate to name a foremost “Rachmaninovist.”
Symphony aficionados seldom get a chance to hear two performances of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto so close to each other. Last month it was performed in Oakland. And now, to celebrate the 175th anniversary of Brahms' birth, the San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas decided to do things right and put on a festival that offered both piano concertos along with two other major works, including the Fourth Symphony and the Requiem. Together with various chamber works prefacing some of the concerts, it promises to be a rich feast indeed.
Saturday's programming for the Gold Coast Chamber Players was so delightful that it brought smiles to the face of many an attendee. I don't know whether artistic director and violist Pamela Freund-Striplen came up with the concept on her own, but it was pure inspiration to pair Roland Kato's piano quintet arrangement of Maurice Ravel's Mother Goose (Ma Mère l'oye) with William Bolcom's droll Fairy Tales, Eric Whitacre's 5 Hebrew Love Songs, and Robert Schumann's rousing Piano Quintet, Op. 44.
There apparently aren't a lot of moms who enjoy virtuoso chamber music, for although the Legion of Honor was packed for Mother's Day, the festive program of the Avedis Chamber Music Series ensemble downstairs in the Florence Gould Theater drew only half a hall's worth of listeners. The program featured unusual works, to be sure, but all were of the smilingly breezy type that's easily assimilated — nothing remotely troublesome in the way of repertory or the performances of it.
Even before Polish piano virtuoso Rafal Blechacz struck the first chord in his San Francisco debut recital Sunday at Herbst Theatre, the hall was brimming with anticipation. A former student of mine, a Polish-born young woman, came up to me with her mother, who said excitedly, "We are so proud of him!" Polish was spoken everywhere, of course. Then Daniel Levenstein, director of Chamber Music San Francisco, came onstage and thanked the concert sponsors, James and Arlene Sullivan.
The Finnish musician Magnus Lindberg is a man of many talents. He performs professionally as a pianist and as a percussionist. Moreover, he is a decorated composer whose compositional honors include the Prix Italia, the Nordic Music Prize, and the Royal Philharmonic Society Prize. On Monday he made his local recital debut with a concert for San Francisco Performances at San Francisco Conservatory's recital hall. But this recital seemed special not merely because it was Lindberg's first in the area.
There's a certain satisfaction to be derived from designing a program that combines a narrow focus with enough variety to work as an actual concert, and I imagine that San Francisco Symphony Associate Conductor James Gaffigan was modestly proud of the one he and the orchestra brought off Thursday afternoon. On paper the focus was, in one way, laser-tight: three works of Russian composers, all dating from within a few years of one another in the 1940s.
Audiences jumped to their feet for standing ovations after performances by the Philharmonia on both Sunday and Monday at Davies Symphony Hall, presented by the San Francisco Symphony. The venerable orchestra was in town for a set of concerts under Christoph von Dohnányi, the ensemble's principal conductor. Consistently rated as one of the top 10 orchestras of Europe, the Philharmonia delivered impeccable intonation, phrasing, dynamics, and virtuosity, just as it has done on countless recordings. But therein lay the problem.