Sunday, December 11, 2016

Favorites of 2016: Music

It's that time of year again, when I offer a brief survey of my favorite opera and other music, books, Indian and other movies, television, etc. experienced in the past year.

Favorite live performances

Marissa Simmons as Nerone and Danielle Cheiken as Poppea in Opera Theater Unlimited's production of Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea. Photo by Valentina Sadiul

This was an amazing year for performances by local musical groups, often inventively staged in nontraditional venues. I can only hope that as housing in the Bay Area gets priced out of the reach of everyone who doesn't work at Facebook, Google or Twitter, local musical groups can continue to produce programs of such artistic adventurousness and high quality.

In more-or-less-chronological order, my favorite live performances by local musicians this year included:
  • The "Opera Medium Rare" series at West Edge Opera: The other Barber of Seville and the other Bohème, in semi-staged concert performances with excellent young casts accompanied by WEO's indefatigable music director Jonathan Khuner, performed at the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse
  • Three superb Baroque operas: Black Box Baroque's production of Handel's Alcina at Exit Theatre, Ars Minerva's modern premiere of The Amazons in the Fortunate Isles at the Marines Memorial Theater, and Opera Theater Unlimited's production of Monteverdi's L'incoronazione di Poppea at Exit Theatre (which unfortunately I didn't have a chance to write about; you can see photos and reviews of the production at OTU's website)
  • The Haydn Project's continuing series of informal performances of Haydn string quartets at the Freight and Salvage
  • The Berkeley Early Music Festival and Festival Fringe, including performances by soprano Danielle Sampson (with four different groups!), soprano Jennifer Paulino, and the chamber orchestra Voices of Music (with Rachel Podger and Elizabeth Blumenstock), sponsored by the SF Early Music Society
  • American Bach Soloists' Summer Festival concert version of Handel's brilliant Parnasso in Festa (Celebration on Parnassus), a North American premiere at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music
  • The programs of German lieder stunningly performed by Kindra Scharich at SF Music Day and the Noe Valley Ministry to open the recital season of Lieder Alive!

Jenn Weddel, Stacy Martorana and Rita Donahue in L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. Photo by Kevin Yatarola.

Other favorite concerts included:
  • Mark Morris Dance Group's reprise of the delightful L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato accompanied by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra and Chorus at Cal Performances
  • Mark Morris Dance Group's world premiere of Layla & Majnun, with Azerbaijani mugham vocalists Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova together with the Silk Road Ensemble, commissioned by Cal Performances
  • Philippe Jaroussky's recital of chansons setting the poetry of Paul Verlaine at Cal Performances
  • The Takács Quartet's first two installments in their survey of the complete Beethoven string quartets, made even more engaging by the host of accompanying demonstrations, interviews, talks, master classes, and other events surrounding the concerts at Cal Performances

Favorite recordings
  • Gustave Charpentier: Louise. Ninon Vallin, Georges Thill, Les Choeurs Raugel and Orchestra conducted by Eugene Bigot (recorded 1935; Nimbus Records)
    If in La Bohème Puccini and his librettists depicted bohemian life in Paris, Charpentier lived it—and out of his experience produced this masterpiece. As I wrote in my post on the opera, this 1935 recording "despite the substantial abridgment and the limits of the mono sound is still perhaps the greatest recording of the opera that has ever been made."

  • Handel: Partenope. Karina Gauvin, Philippe Jaroussky, Il Pomo d'Oro directed by Riccardo Minasi (Erato)
    Queen Partenope must choose among three suitors, one of whom is challenged by an impetuous young warrior—who turns out to be his rejected fiancée in disguise. This recording captures the full range of comedy and pathos in Handel's music, and the cast couldn't be bettered. 
  • Cavalli: La Didone. Anna Bonitatibus, Kresimir Spicer, Les Arts Florissants conducted by William Christie (Opus Arte DVD)
    Cavalli was a protégé of Monteverdi's, and composed in similar flowing arioso. This retelling of Aeneas's abandonment of Queen Dido of Carthage, taken from Virgil's Aeneid, changes its source by tacking on a happy ending in place of Dido's death. But although it would have been dramatically stronger as a tragedy, the opera is here given a striking production (directed by Clément Hervieu-Léger) with an excellent cast, and the music is brilliantly realized by Christie and his group.
  • Joyce DiDonato: In War & Peace, with Il Pomo d'Oro directed by Maxim Emelyanychev (Erato)
    On CD, this is a striking recital of Baroque arias—including three world premiere recordings—on themes of conflict (both internal and external) and resolution. In concert (seen December 4 at Zellerbach Hall, produced by Cal Performances) DiDonato is an exceptionally vivid and emotionally communicative performer. So much so that I found a good deal of the staging (a bare-chested male dancer and in-your-face lighting) unnecessary; the music and DiDonato's expressive voice conveyed everything that was needed.
  • Philippe Jaroussky: Bach - Telemann: Sacred Cantatas, with Freiburger Barockorchester directed by Petra Müllejans (Erato)
    The Bach cantatas on this disc, "Vergnügte Ruh" and "Ich habe genug," have been recorded many times before, but Jaroussky's beauty of tone and musical intelligence are always welcome. If you already own Andreas Scholl's performance of "Vergnügte Ruh" with the Orchestre du Collegium Vocale directed by Philippe Herreweghe (Harmonia Mundi) and Lorraine Hunt Lieberson's searing version of "Ich habe genug" with the Orchestra of Emmanuel Music directed by Craig Smith (Nonesuch), Jaroussky's first recording of German-language Baroque music may not feel essential. Essential, perhaps not, but Jaroussky's artistry is always highly rewarding.

Other posts in the series: 
Favorite books of 2016
Favorite movies and television of 2016

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