Friday, December 30, 2016
A Bakers Dozen of Great Musical Moments in 2016
1. Daniel Hope and Ray Chen Leading the New Century Chamber Orchestra
The chamber string orchestra is losing their star Music Director, Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg, after this season but two guest violinist/conductors, the British Daniel Hope and the Australian Ray Chen, both offered invigorating concerts with the ensemble in 2016. Even better, Hope is returning as resident Guest Music Director for the next couple of years.
2. The American Bach Soloists performing Handel’s Alexander’s Feast
In February the American Bach Soloists gave a splendid performance at St. Marks Lutheran Church of one of my favorite Handel oratorios, interleaved with various concertos which was how the piece was originally performed. The greatest joy was the singing of the ABS Chorus who only seem to be getting better every year.
3. SoundBox at Davies Hall
All the SoundBox concerts in the pop-up nightclub rehearsal space at the back of Davies Symphony Hall have been very, very good, not to mention sold out. Two standouts were the Obsession and Creation concert in April curated by director James Darrah and the December concert devoted to the music of Lou Harrison led by SF Symphony Music director Michael Tilson Thomas. The marketing arm of the San Francisco Opera should study this experiment closely, because instead of dumbing down the art form in an attempt to bring in a younger crowd, the Symphony has instead presented sophisticated mixtures of old and new music for some of the most quiet, attentive audiences imaginable. Plus, you can drink and socialize wherever you happen to be sitting during the intermissions.
4. The Untamed Stage at the Hypnodrome
The Bay Area theatrical treasure Scrumbly Koldewyn, who has been writing songs for everyone from The Cockettes in the 1960s to The Thrillpeddlers today, wrote a new, Weimar Era influenced cabaret score for a surreal, disturbing show called The Untamed Stage. With the election of our new, All-American Dictator, the piece feels horribly prescient.
5. Opera Parallèle production of Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse
The Lighthouse is a thorny, one-act opera by the recently deceased Scottish composer Peter Maxwell Davies. Singers Thomas Glenn, Robert Orth and David Cushing along with a superb chamber orchestra led by conductor Nicole Paiement gave a magnificent performance in May with the Opera Parallèle company at Z Space.
6. Ars Minerva production of The Amazons in the Fortunate Isles
Mezzo-soprano Céline Ricci has started a company dedicated to presenting modern world premieres of 17th Century Venetian operas on an annual basis. The May production at the Marines Memorial Theater of Carlo Pallavicino’s The Amazons in the Fortunate Isles was a surprising wonder, with singers who negotiated the conversational style of the music with brilliance and humor.
7. Bernstein's On The Town with the SF Symphony
The combination of a recent Broadway cast of the 1940s musical On The Town, with a fully expanded orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas, along with the inspired direction of James Darrah and costumes/singing by Peabody Southwell and projections by Adam Larsen turned out to be unexpectedly magnificent. I saw a good Public Theatre production of this musical in New York's Central Park years ago but this was way better and deeper in its WWII shadings, and the score was a revelation.
8. Janacek's Jenufa at the SF Opera
Jenufa at the SF Opera this summer was about as close to perfection as it gets in a large opera house. Malin Byström and Karita Mattila were stupendous together and so was everyone else in the cast, including the SF Opera Chorus. The orchestra under conductor Jiří Bělohlávek sounded as good as any ensemble in the world. Also wonderful this year were the very good singers in Verdi's Don Carlo. I also enjoyed the gorgeous production of a world premiere in the fall from composer Bright Sheng, Dream of the Red Chamber.
9. West Edge Opera Summer Season
The East Bay opera company had another adventurous, wildly successful summer season at their new temporary home in the abandoned Oakland Train Station. The highlight for most people was Thomas Ades' first opera, Powder Her Face, headed by soprano Laura Bohn triumphing in a fiendishly difficult role, supported by a trio of beautiful young singers who enacted their often obscene antics with fearless aplomb. The Earplay chamber orchestra under Mary Chun was equally accomplished. I also liked the musicianship in Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen led by conductor Jonathan Khuner and just about everything in Handel's Agrippina directed by Mark Streshinsky.
10. Merola Opera production of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte
The "young professional" summer boot camp connected to SF Opera produced my favorite live production ever of what can be a long, boring, beautiful, mean-spirited Mozart masterpiece. The reason was simple. The young, unforced, perfectly pitched voices of tenor Amital Pati and soprano Yelena Dyachek as Ferrando and Fiordigli were breathtaking. I became an instant fan of both singers and look forward to hearing them again.
11. Erling Wold's UKSUS at the Oakland Metro Opera House
Speaking of becoming an instant fan, Laura Bohn (not pictured, photo above is of Nikola Printz and Timur) followed up her starring role in Powder Her Face with an amusing supporting turn to the wonderful tenor Timur Bekbosunov in local composer Erling Wold's UKSUS, an absurdist chamber opera about the surrealist Russian writer Daniil Kharms. It was difficult to make heads or tails of the piece, but that was part of the point, and the performances of the jazzy, minimalist score by the entire cast was courageous.
12. 2001 at the SF Symphony
The SF Symphony and Chorus supplied the soundtrack for a screening of Kubrick's film 2001, and it turned out to be a fabulous György Ligeti concert with additional music by various Strausses and Khatchaturian, accompanied by some of the most iconic images in the history of Art Film. The experience was so great I actually changed my mind about the film after having disparaged it for decades.
13. Simon Rattle conducts the Berlin Philharmonic
The Berlin Philharmonic had a two-night stand at Davies Symphony Hall under outgoing Music Director Simon Rattle. I heard the second concert, an hour of Schoenberg, Webern and Berg without interruption followed by a Brahms Symphony. In other hands, the program could have been deadly but it was one of the finest concerts I have experienced in my life, and the string section sounded like no other I have ever heard in Davies Symphony Hall. We were all transported.