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!
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.
San Francisco Performances took an impressive leap of faith last week in presenting Italian pianist Marino Formenti’s local debut in not one, but three solo recitals at the DeYoung Museum’s new Koret Auditorium. In the two performances I heard, this adventurous move was rewarded with often extraordinary results. The pianist’s programs were opportunities to discover unfamiliar music played with total commitment and deep musicality, and offered a lens through which to view the relationships between contemporary composers and musical voices from the past.
At nearly every turn there was something crazy about the Berkeley Symphony concert on Thursday, making it one of the most stimulating but maddening musical events of the year. To begin with, however, give kudos to the orchestra for scheduling itself two dates in Berkeley’s First Congregational Church, instead of Zellerbach Hall on the UC Berkeley campus, barely a stone’s throw away. The sanctuary gave the orchestra’s sound a welcome bloom but equal clarity to all the instrumental sections. The ensemble seemed commensurately assured, coordinated, and energetic.
Even in the early-music-saturated Bay Area, scant attention is paid to the "high-art" portions of the medieval musical repertory. Listeners interested in hearing much of it professionally performed must rely on visiting ensembles. We are lucky, though, to have around us several daring presenters that seek out and invite the best musicians working in areas that are specialized even for early music aficionados.