It's been quite a year.
If you've read this blog steadily over the last four years, and especially between the lines, I imagine you can't help but notice that this was the year when people and things started disappearing. Penelope, the Femme Fatale, Isabella, the Manhattans, most of the known associates,The Little Chinese Man, and the frequency of posts- where did they go? I've decided not to reveal all of the reasons behind this just yet, but eventually I probably will when I feel enough distance exists. Amidst all of this carnage (and believe me, it was carnage), I didn't even get around to writing posts about two performances listed below, and really didn't do the justice I intended to a third. Having spent most of the last twelve months changing some things and attempting to right others, I can only tell you it is my full intention to remedy this in the new year.
Looking back, it was also a different year for what made the list. Opera, which was nearly absent last time, came back to dominate this year's model, and even though my Number 1 isn't an opera it truly felt like one, so add one more for a total of six of the ten slots being taken by operas. It was also a good year for Cal Performances, which presented three of the top ten performances and three of the honorable mentions. San Francisco Opera returned to the list after being absent last year, thank goodness, because let's face it- there is nothing better than opera and when SFO is putting junk on the stage life becomes a bit dull. However, it wasn't a great year for theater- at least the theater I saw, though there were some good things going on at Berkeley Rep which got honorable mentions.
I also saw fewer recitals, attended less dance, films, pop, and jazz performances and little of what I did attend in these areas impressed me this year, so there hasn't been much mention of these. It's not that I'm getting lazy, at least I hope it's not that, but this has been a year of change and transition and I needed to take some time away from attending performances and writing about them to actually sort some things out. So without any further blather on my part, though reserving my right to elaborate further on any or all of the items mentioned above or below at a future time, here are the best performances I experienced as an audience member during the last year:
Rarely, if ever, have I had the pleasure of experiencing something so completely immersing and engaging on every level of artistry. Abel Gance's 5 and 1/2 hour silent film from 1927 is more than a masterpiece- it's visionary, epic in the truest sense of the word, and fascinates from beginning to end. But the experience was really made sublime by the accompanying performance of the Oakland East bay Orchestra under the baton of Carl Davis conducting his own heroic score. To experience it all inside the exquisitely restored art deco Paramount Theatre was just icing on the cake. This not only lived up to the "once in lifetime" hype- it exceeded it by every measure. I really regret not writing a post about this- maybe one day.
2. Nixon in China
Nixon was the best thing San Francisco Opera has put on the stage of the War Memorial since The Makropulos Affair, and easily stands as the highlight of David Gockley's (who commissioned the John Adams work while he was with the Houston Opera) tenure. Superb casting and a production which really brought the opera's nuances to the fore made for one of the most compelling experiences I've experienced in the house. I was lucky to see it twice during the run, and could have easily enjoyed a third viewing. I regret never going back to write about this in-depth because there is so much to say about it, especially the third act, which many observers seemed to view as a throw-away, but I felt was the heart and soul of the work, a beautifully executed denouement where the main characters gather and internally ask themselves "What do we now after we've changed the world?" and can only respond with "What is left to do?"
3. Certitude and Joy
Erling Wold's chamber opera based on the real events surrounding a woman who sacrificed her own children to God by drowning them in the San Francisco Bay stuck in my head for weeks afterward. Wold's compelling score, played by the recently Grammy-nominated Zofo Duet and the earnest commitment of everyone on the small stage to make this work created something which deeply moved me. I'll never forget how I felt when it ended.
4. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra's Mahler's 9th
As I mentioned in the original post, this performance brought me to tears. Thinking about its effect still makes my eyes swell.
5. Einstein on the Beach
Cal Performances was instrumental in making this revival of the original production happen and as promised, it was something every opera fan should have seen. Like Napoleon, Einstein lived up to the hype. How lucky are we in the Bay Area to live in a place where not one, but two rarely experienced major works of art appear on local stages in the same year?
6. Lohengrin (no post)
If only every production offered by San Francisco Opera were this good. Brandon Jovanovich was perfect in the title role, with an excellent supporting cast, a thoughtful production, and extraordinary conducting from Luisotti as he popped his Wagner cherry. Magnificent on every level- the company should be quite proud of it.
7. Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Philharmonia Orchestra's Wozzeck
Had this been a fully staged production and taken place at the War Memorial Opera House it would have easily been number two on this list.
8. Joyce DiDonato and the Alexander String Quartet: Camille Claudel: Into the Fire
While I admired Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer's Moby Dick in its San Francisco debut this past fall, I ultimately felt the second act didn't live up to the artistic level and expectations created in its first. It left me wondering what the team could have done with more time to work on the opera, which felt like it was lacking something at its core. On the other hand, this smaller scale work arrived onstage so fully realized in its conception and execution it made me yearn for a larger, full-blown opera to be developed from the material. DiDonato just had what was probably the best year of her career (so far) and in retrospect this concert performance seemed like a harbinger for what was to follow.
9. Christian Tetzlaff and the San Francisco Symphony
The epitome of a rock star performance by a classical musician, and a perfect combination of piece and performer.
10. The San Francisco Symphony's American Mavericks Festival
Last season's Centennial celebration by the San Francisco Symphony had no shortage of highlights, but the return of the American Mavericks festival highlighted so many elements of what makes this organization and orchestra under Michael Tilson Thomas so great. Not every moment worked, but the sum of every concert worked extremely well, with each featuring at least one truly memorable and exciting performance, often much more. Criticized by some for not being mavericky enough in its programming, those who actually attended were thrilled to be a part of it- I certainly was, and the next version can't arrive soon enough.
Honorable mentions (in no particular order): An Iliad, Keith Jarrett, Ojai North!, Nameless Forest, You Killed Hamlet, The Mariinsky Ballet and Orchestra, Hilary Hahn, and Khatia Buniashvili's dress.
On a personal note, I want to thank Isabella- for everything you've given both from a distance and up close. Thank you Sheila, for being a wonderful listener in many ways. And thank you Thaïs, for killing the Femme Fatale and in doing so forcing me to figure out what's next.
And finally, I'd like to thank you, whoever you are, for reading this. See you next year.