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!
What if you programmed an orchestral concert and then proceeded to ignore the orchestra? Hearing Philharmonia Baroque's concert set "The Majesty of Christmas" Saturday at Berkeley's First Congregational Church, I got the sense that conductor Konrad Junghänel had somehow managed this dubious achievement. Seeking to unearth the music of 17th-century German composers whose reputations have wilted under J.S. Bach's long shadow, Junghänel offered a largely lackluster program that gave the orchestra precious little to wrap its bows around.
Every so often there's an ideal confluence of conductor, orchestra, and city that produces historic results. San Francisco is currently enjoying such a boon, as was evident at Thursday's all-Berlioz program in Davies Symphony Hall. It was a purely Michael Tilson Thomas performance all the way — which is to say, a marvel.
When, in the winter of our discontent, carols are pressed into the service of commerce in stores and TV commercials, it is refreshing to hear a concert focused on peace, the core of the original Christmas story. Such a concert was provided Saturday by Voci Women's Vocal Ensemble, at St. Mary Magdalen Parish in Berkeley. Titled "Voices in Peace VII: Winter Stillness," the program made many references to the darkness, cold, and stillness of winter.
A music teacher returned to his old school on Saturday night, three decades after writing his breakout piece there, and the brilliant concert that took place exceeded all expectations of such an occasion. More than a sentimental reunion or dutiful observance of the passage of time, this was a poignant and powerful musical lovefest, some of the teacher's finest and most complex music, performed with startling excellence by a new generation of students.
Continuing a long-standing tradition, the San Francisco Bach Choir presented a joyful holiday program on Saturday night. The large sanctuary of Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco resounded with Renaissance and early Baroque works, as well as traditional music of the season. SFBC's program, titled "Psallite! A Candlelight Christmas," featured the 60-plus member choir, as well as four soloists from the Pacific Boychoir, accompanied by strings and keyboards.
Programming contemporary works with standard repertoire seems tricky: The danger is that the new, unfamiliar piece might easily sound like commentary on the towering masterwork. (Imagine if a writer were forced to publish a novel as a foreword to Joyce’s Ulysses.)
The Takács Quartet favored the Bay Area with fairly regular visits even before our own Geraldine Walther became a member in 2005, but in these last two years we have, gratifyingly, heard a lot of them. Sunday's visit to Berkeley's Hertz Hall, courtesy as usual of the indispensable Cal Performances, was nonetheless a departure.
One thing’s for certain: Alarm Will Sound wants its audience to have a good time. Committed to what the group describes as "innovative performances of today’s music,” the former artists-in-residence at Dickinson College (Carlisle, Penn.) often indulge in a host of choreographed visual effects more associated with rock and pop ensembles than with classical music.
With Thanksgiving a hazy memory, the first few weekends of December arrive with a whiteout blizzard of Christmas concerts from choruses large and small, professional and amateur. The air is still and chill all of a sudden, and you can feel genuine euphoria about town as the sounds of familiar carols deck the halls — even Bing Crosby's White Christmas sounds novel and cheery. Several long weeks later, it will be another, less cheerful story.