Boris Godunov: San Francisco Symphony Triumphs

The San Francisco Symphony’s presentation of Boris Godunov, Modest Mussorgsky’s magnificent opera, was sensational. On Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas’ long list of semi-staged productions, this one may be the best, which is saying a lot. Mussorgsky, composer and librettist, based the opera on Alexander Pushkin’s play, written, in 1827. The Russian censors kept the play off the stage until 1866 portrayals of a czar were not allowed. Mussorgsky had to obtain a special license for his opera which he finished it in 1869.  If the plot seems tangled it’s because the historical subject, set in 1598-1605, is impossible to clarify.

. Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

When Ivan the Terrible died, his son, Fyodor, became Czar. He was truly too good to rule and allowed his brother-in-law and head minister, Boris Gudonov, to take charge. Boris was not troubled by ethics. Fyodor’s half-brother and true heir, Dmitri, died in mysterious circumstances. Ironically, the Hedgehogs saw the opera on Father’s Day. Pushkin decided Boris was the murderer. Maybe he was, and maybe he wasn’t. Think of Shakespeare blaming it all on Richard III and the evidence that even if he was a rotten guy, he wasn’t the murderer of the little princes in the Tower. The power of a good story always, shall we say, trumps the facts. In the opera, Boris is tortured by guilt, but it is not plainly revealed for what. He knows that the public blames him for bad crops, bad weather, and the death of Dmitri. He sings that he poisoned his family, but he says that just after complaining that the public blames him for everything. So, the comment may be part of the list of things he didn’t do. Mussorgsky does not give anything away. In fact, there are no facts except that everyone is plotting, lying, and when possible, killing. The San Francisco Symphony Chorus, representing the long suffering Russian people, suffers and, short of bread, devours what ever rumors come to it, even when they contradict the last set of rumors they devoured. This opera is about the evils of Fake News.

Stanislav Trofimov sang the role of Boris Godunov

The cast was impressive both for brilliant voices and for portrayals of the rascally, deceiving, greedy for power characters. Mr. Trofimov’s every movement and expression revealed Boris’ deep emotions. What a voice! His powerful bass was resilient at every note. He was fearful for himself, his son and daughter and, he was right to be. Soon after Boris’ death, strangers appear to capture the czar’s heirs. The daughter has a blindfold over her face and is manhandled off the stage. They are not playing pin the tail on the donkey. Yvegeny Akimov played Prince Shuisky. Isn’t it great to have a tenor be a bad guy? He was a manipulative liar, like Iago in Othello, and like Charles Boyer in the movie Gaslight, he worked to drive Boris mad. He appeared to support Boris, but flipped allegiances quickly. Shuisky belonged to no side except his side. His strong, flexible voice fascinated the audience. When the Czar and Shuisky physically assault each other, it is over for the Russians.

Yevgeny Akimov portrayed Prince Shuisky

They were all bad guys, as it turns out, but as singers they were over the top fantastic. It is a huge cast and more than this writer can fit into a Hedghog entry, though each deserves bouquets. All but two of the male roles were taken by Russian singers. The solemn friar, Pemin, was played by Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev. He seems dedicated to religion and writing Chronicles of his era. It’s good to remember that the historian, especially when he is the only historian, is in the best position to make sure it is his party which wins–in the very long run. It will be his Fake News handed down through centuries, or at least until more people become literate and record their own favorite lies. Sergei Skorokhodov sang the role of Grigory, the Pretender. He first appears as a monk longing for contact with the real world of armies and adventure. He manages to elude those sent to capture him and survives to present himself, all cleaned up, as Dmitri, believed to be dead but now back to claim his throne. Baritone Aleksey Bogdanov sang Andrei Shchelkalov, the Secretary of the Duma (Russia’s “parliament” of aristocratic advisors). In history, Shchelkalov was a greatly feared “diplomat;” in the opera, Bogdanov gave him a calming presence. He speaks for Russia itself. Bogdanov’s appearances provide brief feelings of certainty in the midst of chaos. The presence of a Holy Fool extends the sense of Shakespearean theater that courses through Mussorgsky’s libretto. In Shakespeare, the Fool is there to speak the truth, even if in riddles and songs. This being set in Russia in the last years of the 16th and first few of the 17th century, he is Holy. Tenor Stanislav Mostovoy turned this small role into a powerful light in the midst of darkness. The American tenor, Ben Jones, played Missal, and American bass-baritone Philip Skinner was Niktich. Each left his mark embodying the characters with voice and stage presence.

Catherine Cook appeared as the Innkeeper.

There are only a few female roles. Each one was sung by singers who can hold the stage. Soprano Jennifer Zetlan portrayed Boris’ daughter. A delicate woman who lost her fiance to political murder, she is sad and needs the comfort of her Nurse, sung by mezzo-soprano Sylvie Jensen. Catherine Cook played the Innkeeper with a robust mezzo-soprano voice and a canny way with government guards as well as outlaws. The Czar’s son was a trouser role for mezzo-soprano Eliza Bonet. She projected the defiance, fear, and confusion of the young man who was the legitimate heir of the not exactly legitimate Czar.

Left: Wiliam Shakespeare (1564-1616; Right: Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)

In the Elizabethan world view, the ruler is truly the head of the nation. If the head is lost, ill, displaced by someone who does not belong on the throne, the body of the country will suffer civil wars, famines, plagues, foreign invasions until the rightful ruler is in place. Pushkin admired Shakespeare and, from his vantage point in Russia, would have understood that the metaphor played out in horrible chaos in the real world. If the head of the nation has no interest in the health of the people, their works, the country’s forests and rivers, it is also a case of the head being sick and infecting the body of the country. Nothing will be right until that one is removed. Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and a long series of successors had to be removed. It’s the trick of great art: it lets one experience chaos, the dissolution of civilization, while sitting safely in a chair believing it couldn’t happen here.

 

 

AMADEUS: Movie of Mozart with SF Symphony

Near the end of Amadeus, the award winning movie from 1984 which was presented by the San Francisco Symphony, April 6 & 7, with the SF Symphony present playing the film’s score and the SFS Chorus present performing the vocal music, there is a moment when a coffin is lifted out of a coach. As men walk forward carrying the coffin, the viewer noticed the coffin’s smaller end flap open and shut. Something was wrong with this picture. The coffin is tipped, a bundle covered in white cloth slides out; it lands on a pile of other bundles in a big ditch. That bundle was the body of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Mozart (1756-1791) painted by Johann Nepomuk della Croce

Dead at age 35, Mozart’s celestial music goes on.

This is a painful, gorgeous movie. Seeing it with live music accompaniment was a great benefit as hearing the music created in the  moment made Mozart’s life’s work all the more real. The SFS Chorus had provided the vocal music in the film, another plus to the movie/live music experience. Conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos, the Symphony, Chorus, Choral Director Ragnar Bohlin all deserved the continuing cheers of the audience. “Wolfie,” as his wife Constanze calls him in the movie, wrote more than 600 works. That’s right, 600 works of perfect beauty; turn off the computer, now ( when you finish this short article is ok, too.)

Tom Hulce enacted Mozart in Amadeus

Tom Hulce’s performance as the “loved by God” composer is breathtaking. He has the outrageous giggle, bawdiness, conscience-free, child-like behavior and the focused concentration of a true genius when at work. F. Murray Abraham as Antonio Salieri, the competitive, court composer devoured by jealousy, captures the many sides of a man capable of appreciating how extraordinary Mozart’s music is and still wanting to destroy him. Both actors were nominated for Best Actor Academy Awards; that time Salieri won.

F. Murray Abraham as Salieri in Amadeus

The movie is so powerful that it is difficult to remind oneself that this is fiction based on some historical fact and a lot of historical rumor. No one can know what caused Mozart’s death. His grave was not marked; there is no hope for posthumous analysis. Renal failure is one interpretation, but more than one hundred explanations have been given. The rumor that Salieri poisoned Mozart was alive and well long after both composers were gone. In 1830, Alexander Pushkin, the great Russian author, wrote a play based on the rumor. The movie is based on the play by Peter Shaffer who drew on Pushkin’s work.

The movie plus live music phenomenon is made possible by a fancy computer rig. One  could see the laptop on the Conductor’s podium. There was a pulsing, large, white dot and different lines which seemed to coordinate the entrances for music and chorus. Timing is everything. The live participants must not be even a nano-second early or late as the dialogue and some on-the-film music go on. It is a wonder. The 2018-2019 season offers films such as Jurassic Park and Mary Poppins with live music.

The problem with the rumor is that it is so believable. Artistic rivalry and deadly jealousy, not so surprising as one might wish. The audience experiences the suffering of a man who was, as the play’s Salieri sees, composing as though angels dictated to him. The loss of what more music he might have created is impossible to measure. Redwoods killed by drought, right whales going extinct, children made asthmatic by air pollution: all those losses of life and liveliness and the loss of Mozart himself. Humans got lucky that he was here at all. What if, after its few productions Don Giovanni had simply disappeared? We would all be less than we could be and not know it.

SF Symphony: Transcendent Concert of Berg & Mahler

Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director

It is rare to hear a concert by the San Francisco Symphony that is not superb, gorgeous, interesting, entertaining. One can easily run out of fresh adjectives and re-use the same ones that are useful to describe the experience of a beautiful performance of beautiful music. The concert on March 24, 2018, however, soared into another realm. Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the program of Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto (1935) with violinist Gil Shaham as guest artist and Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor (1902). The performance surpassed any expectations.

Albano Maria Johannes (Alban) Berg (1885-1935)

Berg’s Concerto for Violin and Orchestra is doubly tragic. Berg died the day before Christmas the year he wrote the concerto; the concerto was his last completed work. It was written to commemorate Manon Gropius, daughter of Alma Mahler Werfel, Mahler’s widow, and architect Walter Gropius. At age eighteen, Manon died from polio. Berg had known her since her childhood. He wrote “To the Memory of an Angel.” on the manuscript. He dedicated the work to Louis Krasner, a violinist based in Boston who had asked Berg early in 1935  to write a concerto for him. Krasner played the premiere, 1936, in Barcelona. The concerto sums up the passages of the life lost so young. It has two two-part movements. The first is Andante-Allegretto; the second Allegro-Adagio. The Andante has an ethereal, daydreaming atmosphere: a girl watching clouds scud through the sky. The Allegretto is playful and dancing. In the last part, the drama of the girl almost growing up and then twisted with pain grabs the listener physically just below the ribs. The structure of the music in the Adagio refers to a chorale of the Lutheran church that prays “It is enough! Lord, if it pleases You.” The terror of Manon and for her; the need for resignation in the face of inevitable death; the struggle of life to remain alive is reenacted in the soloist striving over the other strings. In the end, the solo violin seems to resolve the pain. There can be acceptance and a fitting harmony with loss.

Gil Shaham, Violinist

Gil Shaham is an extraordinary violinist. His gifts are of the heart as well as in his hands. He plays with verve and power and also tenderness and anguish. His presence as a performer lights up all of Davies Hall.

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 travels from sounds of a funeral to renewal of life. There is so much variety of emotion, experience, exaltation on the way that the listener’s senses rocket from depths to heights and back again. Holding one’s breath, afraid to miss any single event in this music it is as though by living with the music one can experience multitudes of lives from the inside rather than from observation. Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas is justly renown for conducting, teaching, expanding Mahler’s audience. The SF Symphony met every challenge of the music and fulfilled their Maestro’s vision. This is the Mahler symphony with the Adagietto, now so famous that it is often played as a separate piece on classical radio. This quiet, very slow movement could be “Mahler’s heartache” as described by the late music writer, Michael Steinberg, or it could be the most purely sensuous classical music ever written. The symphony ends with raucous, joyful music shouting with exuberance. The listener lived in the music as Michael Tilson Thomas seems to have every phrase and its musical meaning in every cell of himself.

Conducting without a score, the Maestro reminded me of Charles Dickens traveling the world, taking all the parts to enact scenes from his novels. Now, imagine someone else, not the writer of Tolstoy’s War and Peace or Dickens’ Bleak House being able to recite and act the whole of one of those enormous books with nearly countless characters, events, plots, subplots, descriptions of landscapes and ballrooms. That’s what Michael Tilson Thomas does conducting Mahler. It was a transcendent performance.

Hedgehog Highlight on Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, livelyfoundation.org/wordpress/?p=669     Hedgehog Highlight on Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, livelyfoundation.org/wordpress/?p=1585

www.sfsymphony.com, gilshaham.com, michaeltilsonthomas.com

photo of Michael Tilson Thomas courtesy the San Francisco Symphony

 

 

 

San Francisco Symphony’s “American Optimism” March 17

The San Francisco Symphony, led by Michael Tilson Thomas, presented a brilliant, diverse program, March 17, 2018, at Davies Symphony Hall. Given the title, “American Optimism,” the program offered the works of three very different composers: Charles Wuorinen’s world premiere, Sudden Changes, Sergei Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 3 in C Major for Piano and Orchestra, Op. 26, and Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony. Wuorinen and Copland are both American composers. Prokofiev’s Concerto was premiered in Chicago with Prokofiev as the soloist.

Charles Wuorinen ( New York, 1938–)

Sudden Changes, Short Fantasy for Orchestra (2017), Charles Wuorinen’s premiere commissioned by the SF Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas, was a serious delight. It was serious as Wuorinen’s music is always serious: complex, varied, intellectually and musically challenging. It was a delight in its sprightly temperament, witty changes of rhythm and mood, and the way his music rewards one’s close attention. This listener especially appreciated the rhythmic changes: a break into jazzy sounds, a walking rhythm. There was also surprising and welcome lyricism. Wuorinen was Composer in Residence for the SFS, 1985-1989. He also directed the programs of New and Unusual Music, the SFS’s forum for contemporary music. He received a Pulitzer Prize in Music and a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. His work in multiple forms–chamber music, opera, ballet, orchestral works–is performed worldwide. Michael Tilson Thomas, introducing Sudden Changes, reminded the audience of the composer’s deep ties to SFS. The Maestro lowered his voice when he mentioned that Wuorinen explores “new dimensions” of (whisper) twelve tone writing. Michael Tilson Thomas knew that news could be scary. However, everyone in the fully packed hall stayed put and heard something fresh and engaging.

Sergei Prokofiev (Russia, 1891-1953)

Prokofiev, while vacationing on the Brittany coast of France, 1921, wrote his Piano Concerto No. 3 (Easter break is coming; what are you going to do?). It is the most popular and critically acclaimed of his five piano concerti. It combines great musical variety with steel trap focus and unity. Prokofiev’s gifts as a pianist must have matched his genius as a composer; the soloist’s part is absolutely stunning. Pianist Behzod Abduraimov’s performance was astonishing. He has virtuoso, knock your socks off skills but also embodies profound understanding and connection to the music. One characteristic of this concerto is the balance between piano and orchestra. The orchestra is an equal player in what Prokofiev referred to as an “argument.” The first movement, Andante-Allegro, opens with a clarinet solo in lyrical melody. The orchestra joins in and then, almost as a surprise, the piano enters with energy and elan.

Behzod Abduraimov ( Uzbekistan, 1990–)

The dialogue between orchestra and piano begins. A new theme is introduced; the orchestra returns to the clarinet’s theme while the piano projects a variation evoking wisps of memory.  The movement ends with the two forces in a dissonant harmony. The middle movement is Theme (Andantino) with five variations. These include one with jazzy syncopation, one with an airy, celestial feeling. At the movement’s end, the partners’ contest has the orchestra playing the original theme in the original rhythm–which is half time of the variation that preceded it– while the soloist plays double time. Bassoons and strings begin the closing movement, Allegro ma non troppo. The piano enters with a contrasting theme. Slow woodwinds are singing. The piano makes an ironic reply. The eye opening, virtuosic Coda seems to explode as the pianist, moving so fast that his hands were a blur, plays “double note arpeggi.” Let’s just say incredibly difficult and incredibly fast. The Concerto ends in fortissimo splendor.

Aaron Copland (New York, 1900 – 1990)

Copland’s Third Symphony (1946) contains the theme of his famous Fanfare for the Common Man. Even now, hearing the trumpets taking their time to announce and salute the Common American Citizen, it makes me sit up straighter and remember being a mid-western child saying the Pledge of Allegiance, late in the 1950s. The Fanfare came about because, in 1942, Eugene Goossens, Conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony, commissioned eighteen composers to write fanfares for brass and percussion. All were prominent composers; most wrote fanfares celebrating a US ally or military unit. Copland stated later that “It was the common man, after all, who was doing all the dirty work in the war and the army. He deserved a fanfare.” Working on the Third Symphony from 1944 to its premiere in 1946, Copland wanted it to have “an affirmative tone…it was a wartime piece–or more accurately, an end-of-war piece–intended to reflect the euphoric spirit of the country at the time.” It does. While it has no specific, recognizable program or narrative, the symphony as a whole is a magical ride from the first movement, Molto moderato, with simple expression, to the fourth, Molto deliberato (Fanfare)–Allegro risoluto. A very deliberate and resolute Allegro. This writer uses the word “magical” which would not have been appropriate in 1946 when so much blood, hard work, and dedication had brought American society to a peak of optimism. Copland is the composer most able to express the essence of America’s best idea of itself and faith that the country could become just that.

Photograph of Charles Wuorinen by Susan Johann courtesy of www.charleswuorinen.com

PhotoFairs: Pictures Tell a Tale

PhotoFairs returned to San Francisco, February 22 – 24. The vast exhibition at San Francisco’s Fort Mason included works from 40 galleries from 15 countries and 26 cities. With offices in Shanghai, London, and San Francisco, PhotoFairs shows photography and moving image work it considers “cutting edge.” For this viewer, wandering through the almost endless display of photographs, the work that most attracted my attention included images which suggested stories. These were not specific narratives, but the onlooker could imagine, was even invited to imagine, what had happened.

Amikam Toren’s works, Replacing No. 1, 1975(bottom photo) and Replacing No. 2, 1975 (top) engaged my eye and thoughts. In each photograph, on the left there are broken pieces and on the right there is an object that has been made by putting the pieces together. One sees the cracks in the “finished” product and also some flaws which might mean that a piece is missing. Why was it broken? Why was it mended? Is the broken thing still the same thing it was before it was broken?

Replacing No. 1, 1975, Amikam Toren

Replacing No. 2, 1975, Amikam Toren

In these closer views does the title “Replacing,” mean that all the pieces have been put back in  place or that the broken thing now replaces what was once whole? Can Humpty Dumpty be put together again and still be what he was?

Robert Mapplethorpe’s work, Apartment Windows, 1977, invites as many stories as there are windows; actually, there are more possibilities than windows.

Apartment Windows, Robert Mapplethorpe, 1977.

Some windows are open, others completely closed. Some have just the drapes pulled together, some have shades and drapes. What is happening on the other side of the windows? The various approaches to open, closed, covered, partly covered invites speculation about the stories within each apartment. Who closed the drapes or pulled the shades all the way or part of the way down? Why was the choice made to cover the window rather than leave it open? When the window is open, it’s not just that someone outside could look in, but also that someone inside could look out.

Tang Feng Gallery of Miaoli City, Taiwan, presented photographs by two artists, one working in classic black and white and the other in color in a smaller format. The images are evocative, seemingly straightforward, suggestive of mystery. A man sits in a decorated cart; a pedicab driver, he is taking time to relax.  The photographer captures the moment from above, showing the man momentarily at rest.

The Native Gaze 0005, by Chang-Ling, 2016The Native Gaze 0006, by Chang-Ling, 2016

In Chang-Ling’s The Native Gaze 0006, something photographic is happening. A young woman turns to talk with someone we don’t see. Everyone else is focused on something happening beneath the arc of balloons. Its intense color, the light coming from at least three different sources, and the young woman looking a different way play with the onlooker’s ability to know what is happening.

The Old Man and the House He Built, 2014, Wei-ming Yuan

In The Old Man and the House He Built, the Old Man walks past a house that appears to be built of mismatched materials. How did he build something that could stay standing with these objects? There is a story behind that house, that man, and the equally old dog which might be following him. The onlooker cannot know the whole story or all the stories, but it is fascinating to wonder about it.

Tai Chi, by Wei-ming Yuan, 2005

The artist also shows images which become nearly abstract due to his closeness to the subject or the movement in the subject. In Tai Chi, he looks up through the rock of a slot canyon in the American West.

These selections are not the most “experimental” of the works shown, but they held my interest for the stories they might tell.

Photographs of the photographs by Jonathan Clark, Mountain View, CA

See www.livelyfoundation.org/wordpress/?s=photofairs  Hedgehog Highlights article about PhotoFairs, January 29, 2017

Notes on photos: Amikam Toren (Israeli, b. 1945), Replacing No. 1, 1975; Replacing No. 2, 1975;  Jessica Silverman Gallery, San Francisco; Robert Mapplethorpe (American, 1948-1989), Apartment Windows, 1977; Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation Estate; Weinstein Hammons Gallery, Minneapolis; Chang-Ling (Taiwan, 1975) and Wei-ming Yuan (China, 1948), Tang Feng Gallery, Miaoli City, Taiwan.

 

 

 

SF Symphony & Boyreko: Entertaining and Enlightening

The San Francisco Symphony, led by Guest Conductor, Andrey Boyreko, February 24, created a world of exciting, entertaining music and deep, desperate music exposing the reality of Stalinist Russia. Boyreko showed that he was the master of the lyrical, dynamic, and challenging Bernstein works as well as Shostakovich’s Symphony. The program included Divertimento (1980) and Serenade (1954) by Leonard Bernstein. These great pieces were performed with verve, enthusiasm and tremendous musicality by the SF Symphony. Part of the salute to Bernstein in the year of his 100th Birthday, the performance proved that the artists of the SFS have wholeheartedly embraced Bernstein’s music and do a brilliant job of communicating it to their audiences. Divertimento has eight movements, each one completely different: from the Waltz and Mazurka to the Samba and Turkey Trot, and because it is Bernstein, the Blues. Sometimes fun or funny, always totally original, was a terrific example of Leonard Bernstein’s inventiveness and ability to make music of every kind.

Andrey Boyreko (Left), Leonard Bernstein (Right)

Vadim Gluzman, the Guest Artist, solo violinist, demonstrated why he is celebrated world wide. In his comments online, quoted from the music journal, Strad, he says that Serenade is about love. That sums it up. Bernstein uses the theme of Plato’s Symposium with each philosopher in attendance choosing to express a different kind of love: physical, mythic, dancing, dedicated. Mr. Gluzman truly captures the high spirited and loving feelings of what is actually complex music. His whole presence played with the characters of the music and the visions of Bernstein. If you have any chance to hear him perform, do not miss it.

Vadim Gluzman

The second half of the program was Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Opus 47 (1937) by Dmitri Shostakovich. It is interesting to me that I heard several times before the concert the “official” response from an unnamed, Soviet critic*, saying that the Symphony No. 5 was “a Soviet artist’s reply to just criticism.”

Dmitri Shostakovich

The problem is more with those who hear or read that without knowing what Shostakovich faced in his life or cannot imagine living in a totalitarian state. There were those who took that comment to mean that this enormous work by one of the greatest composers was somehow a step back from his true art. I cannot accept that idea. To hear this music is to hear protest in the rapid, almost rasping repetitions by the violins and the nearly ear splitting high notes that come again and again. It is a symphony of beauty and rage. Its militaristic sound comes to the audience as irony, making bitter fun of the militaristic regime which put poets and artists in the gulags to die and persecuted Shostakovich to the point that he would stand outside his house late at night so that when “They” came to take him away, “They” would not disturb his family. This brilliant, heart wrenching symphony is no step backward. It is a blatant, powerful act of resistance available to all who will listen. Guest Conductor Boreyko and the SF Symphony propelled this alert to all humans into alarming, moving, completely unique music. Lengthy, standing applause for Vadim Gluzman, Boreyko, and the Symphony demonstrated that the San Francisco audience got it.

*There are various theories of the identity of the critic. some believe Shostakovich himself put it out. If it did come from him, the irony runs deep.

SF Symphony Tonight! Boreyko, Bernstein, Shostakovich

The Hedgehogs are very excited about tonight’s performance at the San Francisco Symphony. Andrey Boreyko will conduct two exquisite pieces by Leonard Bernstein, Divertimento and Serenade, and the Symphony No. 5 of Shostakovich. Featured artist is Vadim Gluzman, violin.

Just a week ago, we heard Maestro Boreyko conduct his orchestra, the Naples Philharmonic, in Naples, FL. It was a memorable, outstanding performance. There he conducted Bernstein’s Serenade and Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. As both Hedgehogs had never before heard the Serenade, we were delighted by the beauty, wit, and inventiveness of this work. Our wish to hear it again comes true tonight. The Naples Philharmonic, under Boreyko’s direction, presented a deeply moving, triumphant performance of the Mahler. Even Mahler lovers brought up by Michael Tilson Thomas could stand with hats off for this musical journey from pain to glory. Shostakovich’s Symphony No.5 is an enormous work which may present deeply coded messages about the Stalinist regime which often persecuted Russian artists, including Shostakovich. Though he won some approval for this symphony, his art was always a passionate resistance.

Pictures: Top: Leonard Bernstein, Middle: Shostakovich

CASANOVA: The Seduction of Europe at San Francisco’s Legion of Honor

If you have ever wondered about time travel, the ability to wake up and live in an entirely different era, the exhibition CASANOVA: The Seduction of Europe comes very close to letting you live surrounded by the greatest luxury in 18th century Europe. On view in the Legion of Honor Museum, San Francisco, February 10-May 28, the paintings, decorative art pieces, furniture, period costumes, sculptures, plus your imagination may whisk you back to a luxurious era which may have seemed – to those who lived at the top tier of their societies – to promise to continue in an unchanging bubble of perfection forever. It did not, of course, as the century ended before its due date with violent revolutions in England’s American colonies (1776) and France (1789). However, it was gorgeous fun for those on top while it lasted.

Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798)

Giacomo Casanova was born in Venice to a family of actors. He left home when young to study in Padua and received his doctorate in law at age sixteen. He was an avid reader with a gift for witty conversation and the ability to fit in to ever higher classes of society. He became an autobiographer, writing an enormous multi-volume work that is as much an autobiography of the 18th century as it is of him;  spy; world traveler; gambler; and, most certainly, every bit the seducer-womanizer extraordinaire as he is most remembered. The exhibition is less about Casanova than it is about the world through his eyes. Max Hollein, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of SF said, “The cosmopolitan Casanova is a fitting guide to lead our tour of the glittering art capitals of eighteenth century Europe…” Casanova lived a quarter of his life in Venice, but he also traveled extensively in an era when getting around the globe took serious efforts. Casanova traveled to the Ottoman Empire, Russia, what is now the Czech Republic, and lived in Italy, France, and England. The idea of creating an exhibition through Casanova’s eyes originated with the Kimbell Art Museum, Ft. Worth, TX. The Legion of Honor and the Fine Arts Museum of Boston collaborated in creating the exhibition which features works on loan from many great museums.

Melissa Buron, Director, Art Division for Fine Arts Museums, San Francisco, and Museum Director Max Hollein discuss the approximately 200 art works of the exhibition.

The significant painters whose works are featured include Francois Boucher, Jean-Honore Fragonard, Canaletto, Tiepolo and William Hogarth. Canaletto’s works place the viewer within Venice’s unique city-scape of light and water.  As Melissa Buron pointed out, indoors, the world was lit by candlelight. Candles were expensive; one way to show wealth was to be extravagant with candles. In addition to the imprecise glow of the candles, an air of mystery characterized Venice. The Venetians, known for  masks and masquerades, often wore their masks from October to Mardi Gras. This enhanced their ability to change or hide their identity, a useful ruse for seduction.

(Left) Franceso Guardi (Italian, 1712-1793) The Ridotto of Palazzo Dandolo at San Moise with Masked Figures Conversing ca. 1750. The ridotti were state sponsored gambling rooms, sometimes places of music and dancing. Everyone was required to wear masks which made it easier for thieves and prostitutes to mix with the elite. (Right) 18th c. Sedan chair which belonged to Alma Spreckles, founder of San Francisco’s Legion of Honor

CASANOVA: The Seduction of Europe offers a look at the intimate, erotic and sensual arts which stirred passions in 18th century nobles as well as the opportunity to see the grandeur of porcelains, silver objects, fanciful and exquisite snuff boxes which were all part of the matchless luxury of palaces from St. Petersburg to London. Especially useful for those visiting the exhibition to aid time travel are three tableaux vivants — displays of life size mannequins dressed in richly embellished period costumes. The one representing Venice shows a man visiting a convent where he will have an assignation with a young woman he desires. The Parisian tableau, described by Martin Chapman, Curator-in-Charge of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture, presents an aristocratic woman sitting by a small table covered with vessels to “make her toilette,” cleanse and make up her face and hair. Nearby a male caller who faces the lady is holding hands with the lady’s maid. In London, there are elite gentlemen gambling; one has just discovered the other is cheating.

(Left) Parisian tableau. (Right) Nathaniel Hone (Irish, 1718-1781) Kitty Fisher, 1763. Kitty Fisher was London’s famous courtesan. Outrageous accounts or her life appeared in the 1750s. She was determined not to be an ordinary prostitute. She secured her fame when she posed more than twenty times for three portraits by Joshua Reynolds.

Visiting this exhibit is a rare opportunity to enter another world through its art. The last gallery has paintings and sculptures of great individuals Casanova met: Catherine the Great, George III, Benjamin Franklin, Voltaire. Walking through the door on the far end of that gallery, one might feel the balance of the 18th century slip.

See famsf.org for more information.

All photographs by Jonathan Clark

BEETHOVEN & STENHAMMAR: BLOMSTEDT & OHLSSON, FEB.8-10

The San Francisco Symphony has a great program coming up, February 8, 9, & 10, Davies Symphony Hall. Herbert Blomstedt, Conductor Laureate of the SF Symphony, will lead the SFS and pianist Garrick Ohlsson in Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto and the SFS in Stenhammar’s Symphony No. 2. The concerto is so exciting, one sometimes feels not just on the edge of one’s seat but on the edge of one’s seat on a roller coaster. There is an exultant, thrilling sense to it which makes audiences embrace it. Ohlsson is well known for his mastery of Chopin’s perfect piano jewels; the Emperor concerto will reveal him in Beethoven’s expansive energy.

from left: Beethoven, Herbert Blomstedt, Garrick Ohlsson

Wilhelm Stenhammar (1871-1927) is considered by many to be Sweden’s greatest composer. He was also widely admired as a great pianist.

Wilhelm Stenhammar

Herbert Blomstedt, Music Director and Conductor of the SFS from 1985-1995, has led San Francisco audiences to discover and love the works of other Scandinavian composers, Carl Nielsen and Jean Sibelius. While Stenhammar began his music studies in Stockholm, he continued in Berlin and became attached to the works of Richard Wagner and Anton Bruckner. After writing his Symphony No. 1, Stenhammar decided to “free” himself from late Romantic German music. His later work, such as Symphony No. 2, leans toward a more classical style. He was Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Gothenburg Symphony, Sweden’s first, full time, professional Symphony. He died very young, age 56, of a stroke. However, February 7 is his birthday. This is a great opportunity to hear his work and celebrate this great Swedish artist.

Klimt & Rodin: Gold & Bronze at the Legion of Honor

In a few weeks it will be the 100th anniversary of Gustav Klimt’s death. He died aged 53, in 1918, due to the deadly influenza of that year.* Gustav Klimt’s work never really went away. Posters bearing the images he created were popular throughout the 1960s, for example, and a movie about the remarkable painting, Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, an image unmistakably Klimt’s, brought back his art for a vast audience.  San Francisco’s Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum is the perfect place for the gorgeous Klimt exhibition which will be on view through January 28. Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer (1907) (not part of this exhibition)

The Legion of Honor was built to honor the California “boys” who died in World War I. It is a site which will always be in harmony with early 20th century visions.

Gustav Klimt and his Cat (Katze), photo by Moritz Nahr

The Legion’s exhibition has paired Viennese Gustav Klimt’s work with that of Parisian Auguste Rodin (1840-1917), great master of early 20th century sculpture. At first, it might seem an unusual pairing, but it turns out that the artists met each other, in 1902. Their meeting was at an exhibition organized by the Vienna Secession movement. Rodin gave the exhibition his enthusiastic response. Klimt was a leader of the Secession which he helped establish, in 1897. He stayed with the movement to 1908. The movement’s goals were to provide exhibitions for young, unconventional artists and bring the best foreign artists to work in Vienna. It was an inclusive movement which did not limit itself to a narrowly defined style.

On left, Klimt, The Kiss (1907-1908); right, Rodin, The Kiss (1881-1882)

The Legion of Honor has one of the best, most extensive Rodin collections. Roaming through the galleries of this exhibition, seeing the paintings and sculptures close together, can give a feeling of being a time traveler suddenly able to see even familiar art works as gloriously new. In a gallery corner, there is a letter from Loie Fuller, the groundbreaking, creative dancer whose combination of light, timing, and movement opened the eyes of artists and scientists. Ms Fuller’s contacts with Rodin and Alma Spreckles, museum founder, were responsible for the beginnings of San Francisco’s great Rodin collection.

Left: Klimt: Portrait of Ria Munk III, (1917) detail; Right: Rodin: The Age of Bronze, (1877)

A relationship between the works of Rodin and Klimt can be found in the insightful portraits that are so important to each, the attraction they each felt for allegory, and especially the expressive representation of the human body. There is no self-censorship in approaching the erotic. Klimt’s Nuda Veritas (Naked Truth) shows that the naked woman’s body, not just her face, is her portrait. Klimt’s portraits involve overall designs of shapes, colors, and gold. Does the person emerge from this dense, colorful aura or is the overall patterning expressive of the personage? Or is it all design? His landscapes themselves become overall patterning whether a stand of narrow trees growing so closely together or a distant house seemingly overwhelmed by exuberant, thick growths of flowers. Rodin’s work always has drama in the power of the individual’s presence in The Age of Bronze;  the physical strain visible in the Burghers’ of Calais, or the eroticism of The Kiss. This is a Must-See exhibition. The Legion of Honor has added hours for Jan. 27 & 28, the last weekend. Experience Klimt & Rodin soon.

Klimt, The Virgin, 1913

Klimt & Rodin: An Artistic Encounter, Legion of Honor Museum, San Francisco, through Jan. 28, 2018. Legion’s hours: 9:30 a.m. – 5:15 p.m., Tues – Sun; SPECIAL KLIMT & RODIN HOURS: 9;30 a.m. – 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 27 & 28. Timed entry tickets needed (also for members but no charge to members). Tickets to the Legion include same day entrance for the de Young Museum and vice versa. 24/7 Call 888/901-6645 or, for members, 800/777-9996.

photo credits for pictures of Klimt’s The Kiss, Rodin’s The Kiss, Klimt’s Portrait of Ria Munk III, Rodin’s The Age of Bronze, Klimt’s The Virgin all courtesy Klimt & Rodin: A Pictorial, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco: Legion of Honor

  • The Department of The More Things Change (The More They Stay The Same) Klimt was born, 1862, in town just outside of Vienna. While I have read that Klimt became interested in using gold leaf from the art he observed while visiting Venice and Ravenna, it must have also been important to him that his father, who came from Bohemia, was a gold engraver. Gustav grew up in poverty as his father did not find much work, and it was an economically difficult era for immigrants.
  • Here we are in 2018 with another influenza sweeping the world. Can we know which artists we might lose from North America, Africa, Asia, anywhere?