The 'Doctor' is in
The best of this season's classical and operatic offerings promises to sidestep the predictable.

By Alex K. Fong

LAST YEAR CLASSICAL music enthusiasts in San Francisco saw and heard a number of fresh approaches to repertoire and performance that illustrate the vitality of the local scene. San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas conducted a dark and powerful version of Jean Sibelius's Symphony No. 2 in D Major, effectively turning the Allegretto into the semantic equivalent of icy, dark waters. Thomas also programmed pieces out of the standard Beethoven or Haydn canon, including William Kraft's second timpani concerto, XIII/The Grand Encounter, and a part of Steve Reich's The Four Sections. At San Francisco Opera, renowned mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade performed as the riotously funny Despina in Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte, and rising tenor Rolando Villazon starred in La Traviata. A stirring Billy Budd added to the season with its stark sets, and powerful music by Benjamin Britten.

The fall programming planned by both these institutions and various smaller groups indicates the Bay Area will continue to make daring choices. Chief among them is the world premiere of Doctor Atomic (Oct. 1-22, www.sfopera.com), the newest opera by acclaimed composer John Adams and director and librettist Peter Sellars. It's a work that promises to put the uses of power into perspective – and provide an opportunity to witness a great living composer examine events that still clearly resonate in the present. Debuting in the 60th anniversary year of Hiroshima and in the shadow of possible nuclear-weapon proliferation in Iran and North Korea, Doctor Atomic obviously resides in the liminal space between the cultural and the political and reunites Adams and Sellars for their third opera following Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer.

The libretto explores the final hours before the first atomic bomb test in the New Mexico desert and the moral crises undergone by the brilliant scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer and his handpicked group of physicists as they race to build an atomic bomb. Dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki may have led to Japan's defeat in World War II, but its cost to the dead, the survivors, and the rest of the world shows the failure of power to ensure security. Doctor Atomic, the first San Francisco Opera world premiere since Dead Man Walking, in 2000, also serves as a pointed hurrah for soon-to-be-departed general director Pamela Rosenberg, who will be replaced by the Houston Grand Opera's David Gockley in January.

Other notable productions at the opera include Handel's Rodelinda (Sept. 17-Oct. 8), which features a film noir set design and Catherine Naglestad in the title role. Naglestad also performs the lead in Vincenzo Bellini's Norma (Oct. 23-Nov. 21). Watching Naglestad take on the challenge of the part will be a stunning draw.

Thomas and the symphony return this season with more of their critically acclaimed Gustav Mahler performances. This year includes Symphony No. 5 paired with Morton Feldman's I Met Heine on the Rue Furstenberg (Sept. 28-Oct. 2, www.sfsymphony.org), and the Adagio from the unfinished Symphony No. 10 (Sept. 21-24). Mahler wrote the Adagio after learning of his wife's infidelity. His inscriptions in the original manuscript include notes to his wife as the arc of the movement proceeds, drawing a correlation between his heartbreak and his music. Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4, featuring Jonathan Bliss, and two other works round out the program that night. Also, composer and conductor Oliver Knussen visits with a varied evening of the difficult and child-inspired (Nov. 3-5): The program includes Igor Stravinsky's Piano Concerto, featuring pianist Peter Serkin as soloist; Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra; and Knussen's own The Way to Castle Yonder, an orchestral work derived from his opera Higglety Pigglety Pop! and based on the work of Where the Wild Things Are author Maurice Sendak.

The new chamber music ensemble Earplay opens its season with a pair of concerts titled "All American Program" (www.earplay.org). The first, on Sept. 26, features a guest appearance by classically trained vocalist and Great American Songbook interpreter Wesla Whitfield and compositions by Bruce Christian Bennett and Frances White. Bennett's From the Ashes, an Earplay commission, draws its inspiration from the myth of the phoenix as violent moments give way to peace and serenity. A Veil Barely Seen, by White, equates the Valley Spirit, an eternal female element from the Tao Te Ching, to water. The piece incorporates viola and electronics.

Those interested in historically minded performances of works from the baroque, classical, and early romantic periods should tune in to the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra (www.philharmonia.org). One of the most recorded period-instrument ensembles, it will play a concert version of Handel's Atalanta (Sept. 10-17) and Boccherini and Arriaga pieces (Oct. 14-21) at venues throughout the Bay Area.