The Bay Area has been a hotbed of concerts recently, and I’ve been out four nights in a row to something good. This would be a record of sorts even for New York, and in my part of California it’s almost unheard of.
On Wednesday, I went to Yoshi’s (our local Oakland jazz-club-cum-Japanese-restaurant) to hear the Billy Hart Quartet. What brought me there was the pianist, Ethan Iverson, whose career I’ve been following since before he helped found his other jazz group, The Bad Plus. Ethan was, as usual, superb. Billy Hart himself is still a terrific drummer (he has been famous in jazz circles for over forty years: the friends I went with had heard him in college in the early 1970s), and the bass player, Ben Street, was also great. But the surprise of the evening, for me, was the persistently dour, beanpole thin, brilliantly thoughtful saxophonist, Mark Turner. Not only is Turner a wonderful saxophone player; he is also a very unusual jazz composer, at least to judge by the one piece of his that the Quartet played.
Thursday was the Northern California premiere, at Cal Performances‘ Ojai North, of Jeremy Denk and Steven Stucky’s opera The Classical Style, based on Charles Rosen’s book of the same name. (The actual premiere was in Ojai the week before. Ojai North is an outgrowth of Tom Morris’s original Ojai Festival, bringing the best of their events up to Berkeley, and Denk was this year’s guest artistic director.) No one I knew believed you could really write an opera based on a book of music criticism, and we all showed up just to be supportive—of Matías Tarnopolsky, of Jeremy Denk, of The Knights and everyone else involved in the show. To our collective surprise, it was not only a lot of fun; it was also rather entrancing musically, and the music (by Stucky) went perfectly with every word of the libretto (by Denk) in a way that seemed quite hard to do. My favorite section was the long middle part, where the characters Dominant, Tonic, and Subdominant (you had to be there) met up at a bar and then got intruded upon by a pretentious musicologist who claimed to be a PhD student of Richard Taruskin’s at UC Berkeley. This last line brought the house down, but so did all the performances, which were at once witty and pleasing, with good acting to match the good voices. The short opera was preceded, incidentally, by Brooklyn Rider‘s stunning rendition of Haydn’s “Rider” quartet—a suitable match in every way.
Friday night I went to the San Francisco Symphony, where I heard Michael Tilson Thomas conduct the orchestra in beautiful performances of, first, Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn and Strings and then, after the intermission, Shostakovich’s Fifteenth Symphony. (Aaron Copland’s brief Danzón Cubano preceded the Britten. I would have cut this Hollywoodish period piece from the program, myself, but I guess they felt they needed to round out the length of the evening.) The tenor in the Britten was Toby Spence, whom I have loved ever since I saw him do a star turn in Alcina years ago; the horn player was the symphony’s own excellent Robert Ward. Britten brilliantly combined these two voices, brass and human, to evoke a kind of gentle, haunting feeling that modulated between pleasure and melancholy. It was interesting to compare that emotion to the gripping, moving anxiety that was then produced by Shostakovich’s final symphony. Britten and Shostakovich were friends and mutual admirers, and this program, in addition to showcasing that relationship, also pointed out the differences between them in a very satisfying way.
Finally, on Saturday, came the culmination of Ojai North, the final concert of the festival. (Earlier in the day there had been other Ojai gems — like Jeremy Denk’s astute combination of Janacek fragments and Schubert dances, or Timo Andres’s reimaginings of Mozart and Ives pieces — but I am limiting myself to nights here.) First Denk played both Book I and Book II of Ligeti’s Piano Études, an astonishing feat of pure virtuosity that in his hands became much more. It was really a wonder, an event, the kind of thing that made you feel privileged to be present. At the intermission, I said to a pianist friend who had been in the audience, “I was thinking it must be strange to be a pianist watching him do that,” and she said, “You mean, a mortal pianist?”
And then, in the second half of the show, after a nicely presented Ives Psalm, came the powerhouse conclusion: Beethoven’s Fantasy for Piano, Chorus and Orchestra, performed by The Knights and the Ojai Festival Chorus, with Jeremy Denk on the piano and Eric Jacobsen conducting. That the festival started with Haydn, featured Mozart in the middle, and ended with Beethoven seemed only fitting, since these were the three chief characters in The Classical Style (both the opera and, I gathered, the book). But the Fantasy was more than just a nice conclusion to a good program: it was a thrilling Mini-Ninth, an outpouring of Beethoven’s most joyous side, made even more joyous by the way the exuberant, charmingly boyish Eric Jacobsen conducted his young musical companions. At the end they all gathered together in a scraggly line at the front of the stage—singers, musicians, famous and unknown—to take their final bows before us, and we Berkeleyites clapped our hearts out.