Friday, December 28, 2012
Twelve Great Musical Moments of 2012
1. Tetzlaff and the Ligeti Violin Concerto at SF Symphony
2012 got off to a sizzling start with Christian Tetzlaff above playing the bejesus out of Ligeti's fabulous and insanely difficult 1992 Violin Concerto with the San Francisco Symphony, including a cadenza he was improvising himself. It was one of those performances where it would have felt appropriate at the end to bow as an audience a la Wayne and Garth to indicate that we were not worthy.
2. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival
In March, the four nine-hour performances of the Abel Gance silent film epic Napoleon at the Paramount in Oakland accompanied by a full symphony orchestra with Carl Davis conducting his own pastiche of Beethoven, etc. was one of the greatest live events imaginable, never to be repeated.
The Festival managed to top itself, however, during its four-day run in July, when it opened with a new, reconstructed print of Wings, accompanied by an entire family of Foley sound artists creating the World War One dogfight effects in conjunction with a local chamber orchestra. It was an amazing live performance at the Castro Theatre, and a nice preview for a whole host of other live performing groups who accompanied silent films both famous and obscure. The semi-improvised soundtracks by British pianist/accordionist Stephen Shore were also a highlight. Paradoxically, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival has become one of the more interesting live music venues around.
3. The American Mavericks Festival at the SF Symphony
As part of its centenary season, the San Francisco Symphony reprised their festival of American modernist composers from twelve years previous, and it surpassed all expectations. One of the many highlights were the three divas above: Jessye Norman, Joan LaBarbara and Meredith Monk performing together in a selection from John Cage's Song Books. Additionally, a selection of programs from the festival toured the country and conquered New York, making them wonder why their symphony didn't play such cool stuff.
4. Hot Greeks at The Hypnodrome
Also in March, there were performances by the Thrillpeddlers theatre troupe of an expanded version of the early 1970s Cockettes musical, Hot Greeks, with director Russell Blackwood performing as Mata Dildoes above. The composer of the musical, Scrumbly Koldewyn, is San Francisco's answer to Noel Coward, Cole Porter, and George Gershwin rolled into one. Plus, he hung out with every cool San Francisco hippie when there was such a thing. Koldewyn is still writing music and performing his work, and he's still something of an undiscovered national treasure.
5. Menahem Pressler at the San Francisco Conservatory
The San Francisco Conservatory of Music has started to invite famous old musicians who specialized in chamber music to engage in teaching residencies that culminate in a concert with faculty and students. Menahem Pressler, the 89-year-old pianist who performed with the Beaux Arts Trio for decades, gave a concert with Conservatory faculty of Brahms and Dvorak warhorses in April that made the music sound so fresh and poetic that it was another, unexpected "we are not worthy" moment.
6. Susanna Malkki and Horacio Gutierrez at the SF Symphony
Also in April, the Finnish female guest conductor Susanna Malkki above played French avant-garde spectral music, Modulations from Les Espaces acoustiques by Gérard Grisey, that was extraordinary. This was followed by Horacio Gutierrez playing Prokofiev's Second Piano Concerto in a brilliant, eccentric performance. I wanted to hear both of them again, playing pretty much anything they wanted.
7. John Luther Adams' Inuksuit at UC Berkeley
The early June Ojai Music Festival has started to repeat much of its programming a week later at UC Berkeley through Cal Performances, and the opener this year was a free late afternoon performance of a percussion piece by John Luther Adams, Inuksuit. It was recently written for his friend Steven Schick's wedding, and is meant to be played outdoors by an indeterminate number of instrumentalists for an indeterminate amount of time, depending on the space. Schick himself was semi-conducting the piece, with players ranged around a large lawn surrounded by oak trees, and with audience roaming around at will. For an hour, the place was simply magical.
8. John Coolidge Adams's Nixon in China at SF Opera
The first John Adams opera, about President Richard Nixon's early 1970s trip to "open" China, waited 25 years before it debuted in San Francisco and happily it was a complete triumph. This was thanks to a great production from Vancouver, a brilliant Canadian director (Michael Cavanaugh), a fiendishly good Dutch conductor (Lawrence Renes), a skilled hometown chorus, and an international principal cast that was probably the best that has ever been assembled for this opera. Best of all, I was immersed in this production for a month of rehearsals and a month of performances as a supernumerary along with my buddies Charlie and Michael above.
Honorable mentions for the rest of the SF Opera season: Serbian baritone Željko Lučić as Rigoletto and Polish soprano Aleksandra Kurzak as Gilda; Brandon Jovanovich as Lohengrin, Nicole Cabell and Joyce DiDonato as Juliet & Romeo in Bellini's I Capuleti, along with the entire cast and production designers of Moby Dick.
9. Shostakovich The Year 1905 at the SF Symphony
The originally scheduled program in early September was Shostakovich's Seventh Symphony, the Leningrad, which for some reason was changed suddenly to the same composer's Eleventh Symphony, The Year 1905. The performance by the SF Symphony under Bychkov above, not usually one of my favorites, was extremely powerful and moving. Let's hear the Seventh next year, and all the rest of Shostakovich's symphonies while we're at it. This music is aging beautifully.
10. Mahler Fifth at the SF Symphony
Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas has stuffed us to the gills with Mahler over the last fifteen years, and his performances have ranged all the way from dull and deliberate to inspired and awesome, sometimes with the same piece within the same couple of years. Late September featured one of the Inspired/Awesome renditions, this time of Mahler's Fifth Symphony, and it was very, very good.
11. Prokofiev's Ivan The Terrible at the SF Symphony
A newly discovered choral cantata by Prokofiev of his movie music for the Eisenstein Ivan The Terrible films is being debuted around the world by the conductor Vladimir Jurowski above. It's a sensationally successful work, and Jurowski is a superb, exciting conductor. Plus, the huge Symphony chorus and Russian soloists were just about perfection.
12. Pal Joey at 42nd Street Moon
42nd Street Moon, the semi-pro, semi-amateur theater troupe that specializes in obscure musicals pulled off a small miracle in December with their production of Richard Rodgers/Lorenz Hart/John O'Hara's musical from 1940, Pal Joey. There have been attempts over the decades to rewrite the problematic work, but this production reproduced the original. It was easy to see why the musical is both legendary and seldom produced, because it's dark as coal, about social class and human relations, a naturalistic Brecht/Weill. It also has tacky female chorus lines, crooks, a charming young con artist wannabe celebrity as its hero, and a rich, hardboiled Chicago society woman as its heroine. Johnny Orenberg and Deborah Del Mastro above (photo by David Allen) were exceptional in the lead roles, and Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered with its unbowdlerized lyrics is the music I can't get out of my head as the year ends.