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!
One of the most satisfying experiences you can have at a concert consists of being forced to reexamine your own attitude toward a piece of music. I had just such an experience on Friday, at the San Francisco Symphony's performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's Fifth Symphony. Before heading into Davies Symphony Hall, I was convinced that I knew a great deal about this piece, from having performed it, studied it, read about it, and even taught it.
Avoiding the obvious, the California Bach Society offered a delightfully refreshing program of Christmas music Friday evening in St. Mark's Lutheran Church in San Francisco. Director-scholar Paul Flight chose a program largely devoted to the neglected Baroque master Marc-Antoine Charpentier, plus a few traditional French noëls and brief visits to the music of Hector Berlioz and Antoine Brumel. That, plus the excellence of performances, added up to one of the most delightful programs of Christmas music in my memory.
Concerts full of 20th-century music are not always appealing to audiences. And when concerts are unappealing, they risk being unappreciated, if not avoided. Similarly, if recital spaces as modest as local churches seem unappealing to world-class performers, then such performers might shun performing in them. Such recoiling is dangerous. It can threaten the very existence of concerts.
The Tallis Scholars, 10 singers this year, brought their beautifully matched voices to Grace Cathedral for Sunday's concert, titled "Poetry in Music for the Virgin Mary." At first glance, the choice of a Mass based on a motet text from the Song of Solomon might seem to have little to do with the Virgin Mary.
For a change, a Handel oratorio other than Messiah sounded seasonally sweet at UC Santa Cruz — with an added performance in San Francisco — this past weekend. Jephtha, the composer’s last major work, flowered into a satisfying evening in Nicole Paiement’s first production of the work since she studied it with acclaimed conductor John Elliot Gardiner years ago.
Igor Stravinsky was a constantly changing artist. He's also the most Janus-like of all musicians — always looking forward and back at once. His work, when it was new, puzzled and challenged in equal measures. And though Cocteau virtually wrote him off early in the game, Erik Satie came to his defense in a 1922 Vanity Fair article.
Opera audiences the world over live under the dominion of stage directors and dramaturges who relocate classic works to places and times remote from the originals and even rewrite major plot events. Such attempts at innovation too often reveal more about the creative desperation of their authors than their cleverness.
The dapper St. Petersburg Philharmonic was in town last week for two concerts in Davies Symphony Hall with a more intriguing break with the world's music than expected. Whereas Russian touring orchestras usually devote themselves to presenting music exclusively from their homeland, Conductor Yuri Temirkanov went for the larger view by including Austrian, German, and (in the encores) English music. Beside all that, he presented two monumental compositions of Prokofiev.
A year of research. Over 100 works by Swedish composers examined. Only four chosen. For the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players' "Shimmers and Thrills" concert, the anticipation generated by Executive Director Adam Frey's Swedish quest was similar to that found in Beth E. Levy's wonderful program notes on one of the four finds, Truffle Hymn: "The ground itself gives way when, at the last, the long-sought treasure is unearthed: Is it an aroma? A taste? A transfiguration?"