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 best chamber music performances often convey the impression of a conversation among friends. Sometimes one party commands the discussion, at other times someone else takes charge, but everyone seems fully engaged no matter who has the floor. Hearing the Baroque chamber ensemble La Monica in performance Saturday at Berkeley's St. John's Presbyterian Church was like witnessing an extended dialogue, one whose subject matter might be unfamiliar but that nonetheless left you enthralled.
Chora Nova, which celebrates its first anniversary this month, continued its quest to present rarely performed works with Saturday's "Homage to St. Nicholas" concert at the First Congregational Church of Berkeley. The program consisted of an early Haydn work, Missa Sancti Nicolai, and Benjamin Britten's cantata Saint Nicholas. Although billed as a concert to launch the holiday season, these pieces had little connection but name to Christmas traditions or to each other.
The business of art is to communicate. If it doesn't, what's the point? And though modernist music has sometimes adopted a "high art" indifference to its audiences, as with Schoeberg's Society for Private Musical Performances, which forbade vocal expressions either pro or con and critics as well, it has paid a high price. Most people like music that connects with them on a deeply personal level.
A piano exhibits grand qualities: a sizable range, effortless intonation, and an immense harmonic palette. Yet the instrument has always been impaired by a tragic flaw — for all the discrete steps of its glorious black and white facade, it cannot produce sounds that glide smoothly and sweetly between any two of its 88 tempered tones. The cracks between the keys belie this solitary character, and for every key struck, whether by virtuoso fingertips or your cat's paw, the sounding note hopelessly decays toward infinity without ever truly connecting with another.
The New Century Chamber Orchestra's search for a new music director has had the side benefit of allowing its audiences to hear not just a slew of interesting violinist/leaders, but also the diversity of the orchestra’s musical personality. Last Wednesday at San Rafael's Osher Marin Jewish Community Center, the leader-of-the-month was the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra's Margaret Batjer. Batjer is not, as I understand it, in the running for the directorship (the results of the search are to be announced on November 29).
American Ballet Theatre, fresh from its fall season in New York City, brought two programs of mixed repertory to Zellerbach Hall last week, presented by Cal Performances. This was in itself reason for celebration. That the ballets were set to richly varied music proved to be the icing on the cake. The Berkeley Symphony Orchestra played for both programs.
Playing string quartets once was no one's full-time job. The professional string quartet whose players spend essentially all their professional time concertizing, recording, or teaching as a quartet is a historically recent development. All the same, it's now so firmly established a pattern that such part-time ensembles as there are look almost like second-rate substitutes for the "real thing."
San Francisco Opera has described this as “A Season of Glamour,” and that boast was certainly fulfilled with the company's new and exuberant production of Puccini’s La Rondine. It was long overdue, the last having been in the War Memorial Opera House House in 1934, with Lucrezia Bori and Dino Borgioli in the leading roles and S.F. Opera founder Gaetano Merola conducting.
All photos by Terrence McCarthy
Ah, the tunes! People were singing them in the subway on Saturday, humming them home in the BART seats behind me. There are at least a dozen Dvořák gifts to humanity in his "New World" symphony, memory-permanent melodies that bring renewable pleasures for years to those to whom they speak — all presented on a silver platter by Roberto Minczuk's spirited conducting of the San Francisco Symphony.
Mix equal parts youthful joie de vivre with mature warmth and you have an idea of what the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra accomplished Sunday afternoon in Davies Symphony Hall. The ensemble's sheer warmth of timbre, under Conductor Benjamin Shwartz, highlighted a program of essentially lush Romanticism, from first note to last. The afternoon even included a literal encore: a repeat of its finale ginger. The program also included an important talent discovery in 14-year-old cellist Tessa Seymour.