Big Musical Moments

by Philip Campbell

Bay Area Reporter

Sunday January 1, 2017

The past year in classical music and opera performances has been strong as ever in San Francisco. The shock of the election has created a certain background of anxiety, but the power of music is indomitable, and 2016 was marked especially by the many contributions of the singers and instrumentalists of the Bay Area.

Spanish conductor Pablo Heras-Casado made his annual visit to Davies Symphony Hall with a program featuring exciting young Alisa Weilerstein in Schumann's Cello Concerto in A minor. Their concerts gave the dynamic maestro a chance to show his ability in the core repertory. Dudamel may have been bringing coals to Newcastle when he appeared with the Los Angeles Philharmonic to lead a concert devoted to Mahler's emotional Symphony No. 9, but he also presented Tchaikovsky's Fourth. His reputation as a "rock star" of classical music was reinforced by the solid response of the visiting Angelinos.

Later in November, the Berlin Philharmonic conducted by Simon Rattle also dared to bring Mahler to SFS, with a revelatory reading of the composer's difficult Symphony No. 7. It was fabulous, and MTT, ever the generous host and musical colleague, would have been enthusiastic.

Evidence of our own maestro's equanimity was apparent throughout the first half of the 2016-17 season. His support of guest artists is always in service of their gifts and the composers they showcase. The astonishing pianist Yuja Wang set DSH afire with MTT aiding and abetting her. The Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 1 stood out boldly in a program that included some thrilling Stravinsky.

MTT's lifelong association with composer Steve Reich was warmly celebrated with SFS programs featuring the revolutionary maverick's "Three Movements." A separate concert had the composer and the maestro sitting side-by-side for an excerpt from "Clapping Music."

Reaching back to summertime, we make admiring mention of West Edge Opera and the knock-out punch of the company's Thomas Ades' "Powder Her Face" last July. The young cast was as notable for their sexy acting skills as for their amazing vocal talents.

The venerable San Francisco Opera must be more measured in its approach to unusual works. Its recent season was a solid representation of what a big institution must do to satisfy core patrons, donors, restless critics and potential fans. The gala opening was a well-cast re-staging of director David McVicar's vision of Umberto Giordano's one-hit-wonder "Andrea Chenier." Tenor Yonghoon Lee and Soprano Anna Pirozzi made memorable SFO debuts along with debut performances by baritone George Gagnidze and mezzo J'Nai Bridges.

More characteristic of the mighty capabilities of the SFO was the world premiere of "Dream of the Red Chamber." Commissioned by SFO, a co-production with the Hong Kong Arts Festival, with music by Bright Sheng, libretto by David Henry Hwang and Bright Sheng based on the book by Cao Xueqin, "Dream" was a spectacular pageant and intimate family history. The gorgeousness of the physical production is fresh in memory, as well as some nagging doubts about the surprisingly banal libretto.

The SFO returned to safer ground with a witty mounting of Donizetti's opera buffa "Don Pasquale." Director Laurent Pelly and costume designer Chantal Thomas set the stage with conductor Giuseppe Finzi for an evening of knockabout humor that had soprano Heidi Stober as the mean girl Norina, tenor Lawrence Brownlee making his SFO debut as her boyfriend, and Italian bass-baritone Maurizio Muraro ripping up the scenery as the beleaguered title character.

Janacek's "The Makropulos Case" brought soprano Nadja Michael on board to fill the high-heeled shoes of Karita Mattila, after her stunning appearances in the role of the 337-year-old diva in 2010. Michael's interpretation was more feral cat than Mattila's cool, jaded Emilia Marty, but it suited director Olivier Tambosi's inventive staging.

Two mountings of well-loved operatic hits brought 2016 to a close. The first was a confused if ambitious re-telling of Verdi's "Aida" by director Francesca Zambello. Zambello's font of ideas, in partnership with contemporary artist Retna, would have proved more comprehensible had the rest of the production team stayed on the same page. The cast couldn't be faulted. Tenor Brian Jagde was a full-voiced Radames, and soprano Leah Crocetto is becoming the best Verdian on the scene. Conductor Nicola Luisotti elicited wonderful response from the orchestra, and the Chorus added weight to crowd scenes.

Puccini's tragic heroine "Madama Butterfly" brought the season to a close with a revival of the colorful Jun Kaneko-designed production. It might have been too soon for soprano Lianna Haroutounian to take SFO favorite Patricia Racette's place, but she is fast becoming a favorite as well. If the audience on the night I attended (the day after the election) was subdued, it was due more to collective shock than to what was happening on stage. As long as singers of Haroutounian's talent are there to keep the tradition alive, we will survive.

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