Tuesday, December 30, 2014

14 Musical Moments from 2014 (Part 1)

2014 was probably the richest year in my experience for the breadth, depth and great performances of both old and new music all over the Bay Area, by institutions grand and small. Here are 14 moments that were exceptional.

1. Cahill Plays Cowell at San Quentin
In January the Berkeley pianist Sarah Cahill produced and performed a brave, visionary program of music by California composer Henry Cowell, written while he was imprisoned for four years during the 1930s at San Quentin on a spurious "morals charge." The two performances took place over a morning and evening at the chapel of San Quentin Prison itself in front of an audience of inmates. If you believe in spirits, it was obvious that Cowell's was presiding over the concerts that day.

2. Magik*Magic Orchestra at the Fox
The freelance orchestra of young conservatory-trained musicians who back up everyone from Death Cab for Cutie to Zoe Keating threw themselves a five year anniversary concert party at Oakland's downtown Fox Theatre in February. It was beautifully produced and the long roll call of collaborators performing onstage was fun and impressive.

3. Joan La Barbara
The New York composer/singer and pioneer of extended vocal techniques visited the Bay Area in March, collaborating with young improvisational performers at the Center for New Music in the Tenderloin (click here). Later in the week, she gave a solo performance at the UC Berkeley Art Museum that only confirmed her divinity (click here).

4. BluePrint of The Soul
As an instructor, Nicole Paiement above selects the cream of the crop at the SF Conservatory every year and presents performances of contemporary music that are some of the finest concerts in the Bay Area under the BluePrint imprint. In April, she gave a concert that included music by Lou Harrison, John Adams, Terry Riley and a wonderful world premiere called The Exact Location of The Soul by local boy Ryan Brown, one of the founders of the Switchboard Festival and a new Conservatory instructor himself.

5. Herbert Blomstedt
The 86-year-old former SF Symphony Music Director certainly makes a good case for the healthy lifestyle of the Seventh-day Adventist church because he hasn't seemed to age physically over the last 30 years, and his conducting just gets better. In April he guest conducted SF Symphony in the Clarinet Concerto of Carl Nielsen with Carey Bell (the tall dude) as the soloist, but the shocker was Schubert's Symphony in C Major, The Great, which I had always considered a very dull hour of music until this performance where it sounded supremely beautiful.

6. Mahagonny Songspiel/Les Mamelles de Tiresias
Under the music direction of Nicole Paiement and the dystopian mashup conception/direction of Brian Staufenbiel, Opera Parallele pulled off a tricky, brilliant operatic double bill of Kurt Weill's Mahagonny Songspiel and Francois Poulenc's Les Mamelles de Tiresias in April. Poulenc's music was a revelation, and being a supernumerary guard onstage allowed me the pleasure of hearing it over a period of weeks. The baritones above are Gabriel Pressler and Hadleigh Adams, members of an exceptionally good ensemble cast with no weaknesses.

7. Ted Hearne and Volti
In May, the Center for New Music hosted an open rehearsal by the choral group Volti of Ted Hearne's cantata Sound from the Bench for electric guitar, percussion and chamber chorus with the young composer leading the affair. Hearing the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling on corporate citizenship translated into hard-edged music turned out to be perversely thrilling.

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