Yesterday I saw my first “Top 10” article of the month (in the San Francisco Chronicle). Those who have been following this site for at least a year probably know my aversion to rank ordering and citing anything as being “best.” As a result I shall continue a habit that began when I was writing for Examiner.com, in which I review what I have written over the year and see which events still resonate in memory. By doing this on a month-by-month basis, I punt on having to declare any one event as “most memorable,” which some (many?) would take as synonymous with “best.” With that in mind, here are the results of my retrospection:
January: Quartetto di Cremona’s Beethoven recital at the Italian Cultural Institute (IIC). This Italian string quartet made its San Francisco debut at a San Francisco Performances (SFP) recital in April of 2016. They gave a compellingly impressive account of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Opus 131 quartet in C-sharp minor, viewed by many as the most difficult of the composer’s “late period” quartets. The one competitor for that distinction would be the Opus 132 quartet in A minor, and that is what the group played when IIC invited them to return to San Francisco. They brought so much clarity to their performance that those unfamiliar with other readings might have wondered why this piece had a reputation for being so difficult. Could there be a better way to praise such an event?
February: Other Minds’ double centennial celebration. Lou Harrison’s 100th birthday took place this past May 14. The Other Minds 22 festival of new music honored the occasion by offering two programs under the collective title Just 100: Homage to Lou Harrison. However, the first of the two concerts was entitled Pacific Rim Centennials; and the program was divided between Harrison’s music and compositions by Isang Yun, who was born on September 17, 1917. This made for a program memorable for its variety; but, from a personal point of view, I was particularly delighted with the opportunity to hear Harrison’s 1951 suite for violin and piano accompanied by a very small orchestra, because, until that concert, I knew this music only through the recording made by Composers Recordings, Inc. during the Fifties. There was so much more to be perceived through an actual performance; and conductor Dennis Russell Davies did a first-rate job of making reinforcing those perceptions.
March: Schiff’s Schubert recital at Davies Symphony Hall. There are only a few performers that leave me longing for a return visit and the conclusion of a concert. Among them, András Schiff is probably the only pianist. Similarly, where repertoire is concerned, there are only a few composers holding can’t-get-enough status. It would be foolish to try to rank-order them; but Franz Schubert is definitely on the list. As a result, an all-Schubert recital by Schiff is the best possible “perfect storm” in my book. This particular recital included the D. 894 sonata in G major, which I still fondly remember as my first listening experience that really got me to pay close attention to Schubert. That experience took place about half a century ago; and Schiff’s performance made it feel just as fresh as it had been at the time of my “first encounter.”
April: Prescription Drug Nation. Uniqueness often has a lot to to with what makes an experience memorable. However, there are any number of cases in which the novelty of uniqueness is quickly undermined by a performance that never really does justice to the anticipated impact of the vision. Prescription Drug Nation began as a six-movement suite composed by Aaron Gervais on a commission from the Mobius Trio of guitarists Mason Fish, Matt Linder, and Robert Nance. However, after the score was completed, Gervais teamed up with Michelle Fletcher, founder of the Here Now Dance Collective. As a result, the first performance of the suite in its entirety was supplemented with a full evening of choreography; and the symbiotic relationship between music and staging could not have been more effective. Bright ideas like this one probably come up frequently, but very rarely do they lead to such results that are musically and theatrically compelling in equal measure.
May: La Koro Sutro. This was the featured composition by Lou Harrison performed in the second Other Minds 22 festival. This is probably the grandest work that Lou Harrison created for the American Gamelan instruments that were created for him by his partner William Colvig. The full ensemble included not only Colvig’s instruments, played by the William Winant Percussion Group, but also a large mixed chorus, organ, and harp. This could easily have been little more than spectacle; but, by virtue of the skilled conducting of Nicole Paiement, the attentive listener could appreciate the rich musical qualities of the score that Harrison had conceived.
June: Susanna Mälkki’s return visit to SFS. If Schiff is the pianist that consistently leaves me anticipating his next visit, the same can be said of conductor Mälkki’s appearances on the podium of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). In this case her soloist was pianist Garrick Ohlsson, playing Beethoven’s Opus 15 concerto in C major. Mälkki imaginatively (and, perhaps, a bit pranksome) decided to frame this late eighteenth-century concerto with two pieces by Igor Stravinsky. The program began with the very early (Opus 3) “Scherzo fantastique,” with strong influences by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov interrupted from time to time by Richard Wagner. The second half of the program was then a full-bore treatment of the score for Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet “The Rite of Spring,” which well accounted for the shock value that led to the riot when this music was first performed on May 29, 1913. Few conductors can cause that shock value to resonate in our jaded present, and Mälkki is definitely one of them.
July: John Luther Adams’ presentation of “Inuksuit” at Lands End. Adams is a composer strongly influenced by environment in the music he creates. Unfortunately, environment does not always figure when his compositions are performed. When “Inuksuit” was first presented in New York, the venue was the Park Avenue Armory, a vast space but definitely not an outdoor one. Fortunately, thanks to the good graces of the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, “Inuksuit” was given a performance that filled a generous amount of the space set aside for Lands End. As might be imagined, this required the audience to hike around that area, rather than sit dutifully in chairs set aside for an audience. However, if one was willing to accept the “ground rules” (so to speak), the occasion was highly rewarding (not to mention indelibly etched into memory).
August: Jazz Herstory Collective. All of the events in the Yerba Buena Gardens Festival also take place out of doors, but these require the members of the audience to take their seats. This was a bit of a problem for the Jazz Herstory Collective, since both their repertoire and their approach to performance tend to get the listener’s body moving. I may not have always agreed with their “historical perspective;” but there was no faulting either the discipline or the spirit behind their delivery of their selections. This was the best possible reminder that things do not quiet down in the summer here.
September: San Francisco Opera’s new production of “Elektra.” The only thing disappointing about this dramatically imaginative and musically riveting performance of Richard Strauss’ one-act opera is that it was given only six times! Keith Warner’s decision to set the opera in a museum exhibit about the Elektra myth was a daring one that easily could have devolved into the confusing or the pretentious; but it was neither. Henrik Nánási gave the score all of the full-bore intensity that Strauss had specified, and all of the vocalists kept up with him with an almost frightening focus on endurance. This was opera firing on all cylinders, and the production is unlikely to fade from memory.
October: “Echoes.” This marked the launch of a new concert series presented by SFP called Here Now and Then. The program consisted of a one-hour spoken-word chamber opera that brought an impressive array of new voices to the stage of Herbst Theatre. Most prominent were the five poet-performers of Youth Speaks, an organization that encourages pre-college students to get actively involved in writing and performing poetry. Their original texts were combined with Archibald MacLeish’s “The Young Dead Soldiers” to constitute the opera’s libretto. That libretto was set to music by Danny Clay and performed by the Kronos Quartet and The Living Earth duo of guitarist Travis Andrews and percussionist Andy Meyerson. The entire work was staged by Sean San José. Those who found that the libretto was reflecting on prevailing social conditions in a country that had one month to go before Election Day clearly got the message.
November: Benjamin Beilman’s visit to NCCO. I am not sure if I was the only one to feel that Artistic Partner Daniel Hope’s first concert with the New Century Chamber Orchestra (NCCO) was never more than lukewarm. However, I am definitely not the only one who felt that, with the arrival of violinist Benjamin Beilman serving as both Guest Concertmaster and soloist, everyone started cookin’ with gas (as they say in the jazz world). The scope of his program reached from the seventeenth century into the twentieth; and, if the earlier works on the program were not “historically authentic,” they were still true to putting all emphasis on the acts of making music, rather than just following scores. Beilman had performed in the SFP Young Masters Series back in February. There is definitely no questioning his capacity for mastery, and he was as much at home as a leader as he was when playing as a soloist.
December: Telegraph Quartet’s Schoenberg program at SFCM. The Telegraph Quartet is currently Quartet-in-Residence at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (SFCM). (Three of them are SFCM alumni.) They prepared an imaginative program that included Arnold Schoenberg’s 1921 “Weinachtsmusik” (Christmas music) and the much earlier (1905) Opus 7 (first) string quartet in D minor. Both of these pieces offered imaginative perspectives on how the future grows from the past. “Weinachtsmusik” is an imaginative take on the traditional chorale prelude, spiced up by superposing two different carol themes on top of each other. (No, in 1921, Schoenberg probably had not yet heard of Charles Ives.) We then learned that Schoenberg’s structural skills could be traced back to that Opus 7 quartet. By way of contrast, the program opened with the imaginative structural techniques encountered in the fifth (in A major) of Beethoven’s Opus 18 quartets.