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!
Berkeley Opera boasts that its new Romeo and Juliet, which opened on Saturday night at the Julia Morgan Theatre, is by William Shakespeare and Charles Gounod. And while that’s not entirely true, Artistic Director Jonathan Khuner and his fellow Bardolaters, Lyricist Amanda Moody and Stage Director John McMullen, have succeeded in shoving the work of the 16th-century English poet-dramatist and the 19th-century French musician onto the stage at the same time.
Christopher Maltman is a spellbinder — a British baritone with a voice at times honeyed, assertive, suave, dramatic, ethereal, and gutsy. Along with pianist Julius Drake, an appealingly muscular presence with superb fingers and a musical imagination equal to that of the singer, Maltman charmed continually. The duo wooed and won their audience in a well-chosen, artfully arranged San Francisco Performances program at Herbst Theatre on Sunday evening.
It was a special afternoon, delivering more musical delights, revelations, and unadulterated joy than you might expect from the recital format. Why such an unusual event that united two of today's most talked-about composers — men whose versatility successfully bridges the gap between opera and modern musical theater, and who ably accompanied the likes of Frederica von Stade and a cast of younger, highly gifted artists — was not attended by more people is a puzzlement better addressed by the I Ching than yours truly.
No matter how often you've heard a piece of music, once it fails to surprise it's past its sell date. Perpetual surprises are what separates merely well-made and original music from masterpieces. The refreshing level of discovery on last week's San Francisco Symphony presentations of Berlioz' La Damnation de Faust, Op. 24, under guest conductor Charles Dutoit, beautifully achieved that. Berlioz' great choral-orchestral composition remained as fresh last week as if it had seen its premiere performance.
On Friday evening, the UC Davis-based Empyrean Ensemble made a guest appearance on San Francisco's respectable Old First Concert series, presenting a reprise of its program "Double Trouble," first performed one month ago at the Mondavi Center in Davis. The concert's title comes from the final work on the program, Kurt Rohde's chamber concerto Double Trouble (2002), composed for the Empyrean Ensemble and performed by them several times since its premiere.
The Russian-born, British-based pianist Nikolai Demidenko made an impressive Bay Area debut on Saturday afternoon. His recital at the Florence Gould Theater, under the aegis of Chamber Music San Francisco, showed him to be a serious, sincere, intense, and engaging pianist of diverse repertoire. In the first half of the program, Bach's ebullient Italian Concerto was bookended by Bach's G-Minor Fantasy and Fugue (transcribed by Liszt) and by Liszt's colossal Variations on a Theme From Bach's Cantata Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen.
The end of the concert season always brings a spate of big, symphonic showpieces, as orchestras go into summer with a bang (and goose their audiences into subscriptions for next year). The Marin Symphony chose Strauss' symphonic poem Ein Heldenleben (A Hero's Life, Op. 40) as its grand finale, and you don't get much showier than that. The score has more audition excerpts per square inch than almost any piece in the repertory, and it packs a wallop.
A couple of merry wives took possession of the Florence Gould Theater on Sunday afternoon at the Palace of the Legion of Honor. The occasion was Pocket Opera’s performance of The Merry Wives of Windsor, by Otto Nicolai, who died two months after its 1849 premiere, at the age of 38.
Noted UCLA musicologist Robert Winter and guest conductor George Thomson joined forces on Saturday night with the Santa Rosa Symphony to produce a Symphonie fantastique in its native habitat: the golden age of literature and the arts that was Paris in 1830, the year the restored Bourbon monarchy ended in revolution.
J.S. Bach's Mass in B Minor of 1747-49 (BWV 232) is a curious creature. This late vocal masterpiece was conceived as a series of independent Mass sections, rather than as a unified whole. Bach wrote its component parts over the course of some two decades, in widely divergent circumstances and for various audiences. Owing to this hybrid heritage, the piece contains a multiplicity of musical styles — everything from traditional fugue and counterpoint to more startling chromaticism and stark homophony.