Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 12 / 22 March 2018

2012 at the
opera & the symphony


Baritone Brian Mulligan as Richard Nixon touching down in Peking, in San Francisco Opera's Nixon in China. Photo: Cory Weaver
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We made it through the Mayan calendar, and it looks like we will narrowly miss falling off the fiscal cliff, but one thing we can't avoid is year-end best (and worst) lists. For music-lovers in the city, the San Francisco Opera and Symphony rarely come up with any flagrant stinkers, so worst offerings are not in review. We are roughly at half-time for the San Francisco Symphony's 101st season, and the Opera has already completed big summer and fall seasons.

Perhaps the biggest single triumph at the SFO came early in the summer with the Bay Area premiere of Nixon in China by John Adams and Alice Goodman. I thought the staging was a little congested at times, and as the notorious Madame Mao, SFO debutante Hye Jung Lee screeched her way through the role's crazy coloratura with enough scary accuracy to make my eardrums dread her every appearance. Small complaints were completely eclipsed by the sheer energy and inventiveness of the show. The once-controversial piece was finally at the War Memorial after 25 successful years on the road, and the belated premiere coincided with the 40th anniversary of Tricky Dick's bold diplomatic visit in February 1972.

Brian Mulligan was brilliant in the title role, and soprano Maria Kanyova made a star turn of wife Pat's lengthy aria. Their complex and sympathetic performances set the seal on a stunning and historic musical event. Nixon is still relevant after all these years, and a reminder that great works don't need a whole lot of re-working to impress.

We are glad the SFO is making the most of state-of-the-art stage technology. The use of awesome visual projections in the opening scenes of Nixon and later in the fall season with Moby-Dick had appreciative crowds gasping in admiration.

The SFO company premiere of Moby-Dick by composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer finally opened at the War Memorial Opera House two years and three productions after its world premiere at the Dallas Opera in 2010. Maybe not as groundbreaking as Adams' seminal score, but still a crowd-pleaser and satisfying to critics, Heggie's beautiful music and Sheer's wondrously condensed book made a smashing success of musicalizing Melville's Great American Novel. Director and dramaturg Leonard Foglia teamed with cleverly inventive set designer Robert Brill, evocative lighting designer Gavan Swift and amazing projection designer Elaine J. McCarthy to make a show that wowed the audience without overwhelming the performers.

Jay Hunter Morris portrayed the agonized Captain Ahab with uncommon subtlety, and tenor Stephen Costello as Greenhorn (Ishmael) also made a strong impression. His scenes with the mystical harpooner Queequeg (a wonderful performance by New Zealand-born Samoan bass Jonathan Lemalu) were especially good.

Mention must also be made of director Daniel Slater's sophisticated and generally exciting update of Wagner's medieval legend Lohengrin, with tenor Brandon Jovanovich in his role debut as the hero. Jovanovich looked like the kind of guy who might arrive on a swan to save a damsel, and his hunky stage presence lent gravitas to a beautifully nuanced portrayal.


Pianist Yuja Wang was a highlight of the San Francisco Symphony season.

Dates at Davies

The biggest surprise of the San Francisco Symphony season to date (well, at least for me) was the absolutely blistering performance of Dmitri Shostakovich's Symphony No. 11 with guest conductor Semyon Bychkov (a reliable local favorite) on the podium. The monumental and deeply moving 11th was a last-minute substitution for the previously scheduled Symphony No. 7, and while the 7th is a notoriously second-rate score in the Shostakovich canon, I was still all geared up for an evening devoted to a rarely performed 20th-century artifact. Serendipity struck big-time. Bychkov made my confusion and disappointment disappear with a reading that had listeners utterly riveted.

The 101st season was a little slow out of the gate (small wonder after the hugely successful centennial celebration), but it has steadily gained momentum, and the build-up to the orchestra's tour of Asia provided more than a few incendiary moments. Chinese pianists Yuja Wang and Lang Lang, each one an international star, appeared with Michael Tilson Thomas and the SFS as focal points in a bon voyage week of concerts that featured repertoire scheduled for the six-city tour.

It was a revelation to find the usually rather overbearing Lang Lang on his best behavior in a beautiful interpretation of the dazzling Prokofiev Third Piano Concerto. He impressed us with a gratifying degree of subtlety. Wang's remarkable dynamism also served her well in a detailed and deeply felt (not to mention bravura) account of the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 2.

The best is yet to come in 2013 with some major events on the horizon. First is the MTT Beethoven Project: Beethoven Before and After in May. A series of concerts, in the best festival style that Fearless Leader has proved so adept at, will cover most aspects of the power and glory of the genius composer's career. The monumental Missa solemnis should make a fitting finale to the series, and some well-loved vocalists at SFS will be involved. Soprano Laura Claycomb and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke are on the bill.

MTT and Stravinsky is another miniseries event coming in June, and believe me, it should be on your radar, but the big, no make that huge attraction of the season is coming in late June. MTT, the SFS and the SFS Chorus will be presenting five performances of West Side Story in concert. Leonard Bernstein's ultimate musical masterpiece and (despite his own grumpy disavowals) some of Stephen Sondheim's greatest lyrics will be heard in the first complete reading of the Great American Musical in concert performance.

No dancers in one of the most choreographically memorable works of the 20th century? No individual soloists listed? Who cares? It's Bernstein, Sondheim and MTT. Get in touch with the box office before it is too late, and Happy New Year!


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