Sunday, December 27, 2015
Classical Music Top 10 for 2015
San Francisco boosters overuse the phrase "world-class," but the Bay Area's classical music scene deserves the description. This is true for most of its manifestations, high and low, from the San Francisco Opera to the Tenderloin storefront of the Center for New Music. So let's have a Top 10 List for 2015 (in sorta chronological order), even though I have cheated and put up multiple performances in one category because there was so much good music last year. (Pictured above at a March concert by Wild Rumpus at The Center for New Music, soprano Vanessa Langer vocalised and played digitally interactive metal sheets in Oakland composer David Coll's Position, Influence.)
1. New Music Gathering at the SF Conservatory of Music
Langer gave a bravura performance of the same David Coll composition in January at the first annual New Music Gathering. This was a long weekend organized by four Brooklyn friends (left to right above: Daniel Felsenfeld, Mary Kouyoumdjian, Lainie Fefferman, and Matt Marks) at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, combining East Coast and West Coast performers and composers in a remarkable cross-pollination that included performances by everyone from the ICE flautist Claire Chase to pianist Sarah Cahill playing Terry Riley with the composer in attendance. The Gathering seemed to be more about artists meeting each other rather than putting on a show for an audience, but the concerts were still extraordinary. A second edition of the Gathering is scheduled for the Peabody Conservatory at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in a couple of weeks, and if you are in the area, check it out.
2. American Bach Soloists
The early music ensemble headed by Music Director Jeffrey Thomas gave a number of wonderful performances around the Bay Area in 2015. My favorite was Handel's pastoral oratorio, Acis and Galatea, with soloists Kyle Stegall and Nola Richardson as the doomed young lovers. Both singers were originally discovered/nurtured at the ABS Festival Academy in the summer for young professionals, which was particularly rich this year in performances from the French Baroque.
3. Berio's "Sinfonia" at UC Davis
Every two years the Music Department at UC Davis puts on a New Music Festival, and this year's edition included a rare performance of Luciano Berio's 1968 Sinfonia for large orchestra and eight amplified singers that was mind-blowingly good. The soloists were recruited from San Francisco's Volti chorus and the piece was conducted by Christian Baldini, posing in front of his soloists at a reception after the concert.
4. San Francisco Symphony
There are so many concerts over the course of a season at the San Francisco Symphony, ranging from dull to thrilling and everywhere in between, that it is tricky deciding which to attend. One nearly fail-proof strategy is to go to any concert featuring the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, under director Ragnar Bohlin, who can sing anything from Bach to John Adams superbly. My two favorite performances from them this year were in the Brahms German Requiem conducted by Herbert Blomstedt and Haydn's Lord Nelson Mass conducted by Andras Schiff, above right.
Another good bet at the SF Symphony is any music by 20th century Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. A series of guest conductors and soloists have performed with the orchestra over the last decade with breathtaking musicianship and skill, and the latest examples were Vasily Petrenko (above left) conducting the Technicolor Symphony #12, The Year 1917 in March and violinist Christian Tetzlaff (above right) playing the Violin Concerto #1 in October with conductor Susanna Mälkki.
5. Left Coast Chamber Ensemble
The musicians at Left Coast Chamber Ensemble seem to play whatever amuses them, mixing up 19th century chamber works with modernist world premieres. 2015 was an ambitious, successful year, with concerts in Mill Valley and San Francisco, including the world premiere in March of violist/composer Kurt Rohde's first opera, Death With Interruptions, and a visit from composer Kaija Saariaho. (Pictured above are Daniel Cilli and Nikki Einfeld as Death, and cellist Leighton Fong with Saariaho before he played her Papillons.)
The San Francisco Symphony's new winter and spring nightclub in a large rehearsal space at the back of Davies Hall has been a serendipitous success, where everything works when it could have so easily gone wrong. The mixture of symphony players with great local musicians like pianist Sarah Cahill and composer Nathaniel Stookey (above left) and guest artists like Meow Meow (above right) has been invigorating for all. The programming of short pieces from the entire spectrum of classical music history has been inventive and adventurous. The Meyer sound system is a perfect fit for the acoustically dead space. The projections by Adam Larsen are consistently absorbing and unobtrusive, a tricky balancing act. Best of all, the audiences tend to be one of the quietest, most concentrated groups I've experienced at SF Symphony concerts. Plus, everyone gets to talk to each other during the frequent intermissions from their adjoining black divans while sipping cocktails. What's not to like? Congratulations to everyone involved, and a special shout-out to Symphony PR goddesses Louisa Spier and Amelisa Kusar who were part of the planning.
7. The Trojans at the San Francisco Opera
The grandest of French Grand Operas was finally given its full due at the San Francisco Opera in June. The casting, headed by Bryan Hymel and Susan Graham, was luxurious, and every role exquisitely sung. Donald Runnicles conducting the Opera Orchestra was some of the best Berlioz ever heard, and the chorus was outstanding in demanding stretches of music. The five hour Trojans felt shorter than many operas half that length, and it was exciting to realize how stageworthy this gargantuan piece can be. I stood in the balcony for four performances, joined by many of the hardcore music lovers of the Bay Area, including Charlise Tiee and Terence Shek above. This was one of the top ten productions I have experienced in five decades of attending the San Francisco Opera. Kudos to everyone involved. Now, will some enterprising musical group please program Berlioz's L'Enfance du Christ next Christmas instead of another Messiah? I have still never heard the delicate Berlioz oratorio live.
8. West Edge Opera
The spunky, produced-on-a-shoestring, East Bay opera company newly branded as West Edge Opera produced an insanely ambitious season of three concert operas in the spring and three staged operas in a summer festival at various locations in Oakland that included a punk rock club and an abandoned train station. The result was an astonishing success. The concert operas, rare works by famous composers, had their highs and lows in terms of casting and chamber orchestra reduction, but hearing Rossini's Zelmira, Donizetti's Poliuto, and Verdi's I Due Foscari at low prices in odd venues (Rossmoor's new social hall and Berkeley's Freight & Salvage) was a treat.
I didn't see the universally lauded production of Berg's Lulu with the breakout performance by Emma Lynn McNairy because I was too busy playing half a dozen supernumerary characters in Laura Kaminsky's recent transgender opera, As One. This was given a sensitive, committed performance by Dan Kempson and Brenda Patterson as two sides of the same person, with exquisite musical accompaniment by the Friction String Quartet. I did make it to Monteverdi's Il Ritorno d'Ulisse in Patria staged in a large Burning Man warehouse space in West Oakland, and it was a delight in every way. It was led by conductor Gilbert Martinez and a beautiful original instruments orchestra, with witty staging by company director Mark Streshinsky of a uniformly strong cast.
9. More Monteverdi with Gardner and Stewart
In April, the venerable British early music pioneer John Eliot Gardner brought his Monteverdi Choir and English Baroque Soloists to Davies Hall for an intermissionless, semi-staged concert of Monteverdi's first proto-opera, L'Orfeo, and it was enchanting in every way. In September at St. Mark's Lutheran Church, Berkeley-based Warren Stewart and his early music group Magnificat performed an all-Monteverdi madrigals concert that was just about perfect. Pictured above right are Christine Brandes and Jennifer Paulino.
10. Savitri and River of Light at Festival Opera
Festival Opera, which used to perform in Walnut Creek's downtown music center, has imploded like many other small opera companies, but there is a group trying to keep the organization alive. In November, they presented a double bill at the Asian Cultural Center in downtown Oakland of Gustav Holst's Hindu religious mythical one-act, Savitri, in a double bill with River of Light, Oakland composer Jack Perla's recent one-act opera about cultural alienation/assimilation after emigration to the U.S. The music in both operas was wondrous, and the performances by a small female chorus, Western and Indian instrumentalists, and a handful of vocal soloists was superb. Pictured above are Daniel Cilli and Maya Kherani as the mixed-race couple trying to figure it out in Oakland.