Gemma New Conducts SF Symphony Brilliantly

Conductor Gemma New brought her musical brilliance and personable presence to Davies Symphony Hall, May 10 & 12. On May 11th, she led the SFS in the same program at UC, Davis. It was a program of music with distant origins. Overture, was created in Poland by Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz while Poland was occupied by Germany, 1943. Englishman Edward Elgar wrote his beautiful, tragic ‘Cello Concerto in E minor, Opus 85, in 1919. Where did that music come from? Elgar had suspended his composing from the beginning of World War I. The horrors of the war kept his writing to brief, minor pieces. This music came from England but also from the fields and trenches of Belgium. Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Opus 56, Scottish, 1842. While Mendelssohn’s music was inspired by his visit to Scotland, its history, impressions of its dramatic seascape, and dances, Mendelssohn’s music was about music. It is a great symphony.

Gemma New, Principal Conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conductor Gemma New was called to replace Conductor Marta Gardolinska who had to withdraw due to a serious family illness.

A successful Polish conductor, Ms Gardolinska champions Polish composers. For that reason, Grazyna Bacewicz’s Overture opened the program. The music did not have its premiere until 1945. Bacewicz began as a violinist at the Warsaw Conservatory. In the 1930s she studied with the famous teacher, Nadia Boulanger, in Paris. This overture has so much great music in such a short time; it runs only 6 minutes. It is stunning to realize this and other works came forth from a terrible historic time. Warsaw began its rebellion to try to shake off the German hold, August 1, 1944. The Soviet Union’s Red Army did not bring the expected aide. The soldiers parked outside Warsaw, allowing the Germans to kill another quarter of a million Poles. As they left, the Germans set off the dynamite and wiring to explode and destroy all of Warsaw. In the midst of this, Bacewicz’s mind was active. The timpani opens and playful strings join in. She uses dissonance and some abrasive sounds, but it is always a musical language that one believes. There is a lovely and strong flute and then an exciting, delightful forward charge for the orchestra. I hope we may hear more of Grazyna Bacewicz

Sir Edward Elgar, 1857-1934

Pablo Ferrandez, ‘cellist

Elgar’s ‘Cello Concerto in E minor is one of my favorite pieces of music. I am a choreographer and chose the last two movements of this work to choreograph and perform as part of a dance concert on the program of Britain Meets the Bay, sponsored by the British Council. To choreograph this music, I listened to it maybe more often than the composer and also studied the war. On this program, the ‘cellist was Pablo Ferrandez. He has a unique approach to the music, playing it in his own interpretation. He occasionally bows very slowly across the ‘cello producing a disappearing sound. His touring this season includes major orchestras across the US: Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Seattle. In Europe he will perform in London, Rotterdam, Dusseldorf and more. Conductor Gemma New led Ferrandez and the SFS engaging them in the strength and agony of the music.

Felix Mendelssohn, 1809-1847, composer and accomplished painter, linguist, poet. This is a watercolor of Lucerne by Mendelssohn.

Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony #3 was dedicated to Queen Victoria. Mendelssohn, the Queen, and Prince Albert would gather and play new pieces by Mendelssohn. They formed a true friendship. In his program note, Larry Rothe mentions that Mendelssohn dropped the “Scottish” part of the title. There are sounds that can remind one of the winds sweeping around the islands and the mist that clings to buildings and people walking. The opening of the Symphony may recall the murder of Mary, Queen of Scots’ probable lover. However, no story line appears. One may identify sounds that could be developed from the wind itself. This is also about relationships between disparate sounds, how they oppose other sounds, and demonstrate they are alive by the motion of the rhythms. The music travels through moments when one could imagine folk dancers out doors, but an adagio appears after that mode to a contemplative, mysterious movement beyond specific thoughts. Once more, the music leads ahead of any “ideas” to label it. The quiet of the symphony changes to a sense of victory leaving behind any mysteries or cold winds. It reassembles itself and carries on. This is a great symphony. Oh, I wrote that at the beginning. It bears repetition. Listen to Mendelssohn’s Symphony #3, again.

Please note: A post about conductors who are women will follow this tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

MAGNIFICENT DANCING: SF BALLET’S SWAN LAKE

You still have time to get tickets. Swan Lake, as choreographed by Helgi Tomasson, will be performed at the SF War Memorial Opera House through May 5. This review of last night’s extraordinary performance is still playing in front of my eyes. There was gorgeous dancing by everyone on stage. The casts change night by night. I was thrilled by Principal Dancers Misa Kuranaga, as Odette/Odile, and Angelo Greco, as Prince Siegfried. Each danced with emotion and technique that took my breath away. Swan Lake IS ballet and ballet music. Thank you, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, where would ballet be without you? The SF Ballet Orchestra, led by Music Director & Principal Conductor Martin West, played the beautiful music flawlessly. The day before I went to this Swan Lake, I heard music in my head as soon as I got up. What was it? That amazing Swan Lake music. Apparently it has a special bunk in a corner of my brain. Without telling me what it was doing, it turned on these glorious sounds.

Jasmine Jimison and Isaac Hernández in Tomasson’s Swan Lake // © San Francisco Ballet, photo by Lindsey Rallo

Helgi Tomasson’s choreography, premiered in 2009, for the Swan Lake story makes a difference. The ballet begins with the evil Von Rothbart trying to kidnap Princess Odette. They struggle, she runs away, but Von Rothbart does not like to lose. Odette is seen behind a curtain, Von Rothbart stretches out his arm pointing at Odette, and her shadow changes to the shadow of a swan. Her predicament is explained through the movement, a great way to go.

Julia Rowe and Cavan Conley in Tomasson’s Swan Lake // © Reneff-Olson Productions

All the dancers were wonderful to watch. Helgi Tomasson, former Artistic Director of the SF Ballet for 37 seasons, 1985-2022, makes full use of his company. In the first act there are trios, duets, larger groups dancing. The princesses are there for Prince Siegfried to choose one to marry, but Prince Siegfried did not want to choose from this group. He had received a crossbow and took it to go swan hunting. As I recall now, past Swan Lakes that I have seen begin with the Prince and his friends going hunting together. i enjoyed Tomasson’s way of opening the story and demonstrating his dances.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s Swan Lake // © Lindsay Thomas *** Local Caption *** Swan: V. Wright

Act II is at The Lakeside. Odette and Siegfried meet. He has his crossbow ready to shoot a  swan, but one becomes a beautiful woman, the Queen of all of the swans. I appreciated the way Tomasson used the arms of the dancer-swans. They were in line formation and use just one arm up high on a slight diagonal. As they all did this together, the arms looked like wings. A great dancer himself, Tomasson knew how this one movement would capture the audience’s eyes.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s Swan Lake // © Reneff-Olson Productions

Ms Kuranaga is elegant, precise with perfectly shaped movements, and astonishing extensions. Her turns and leaps were brilliant. There is a detail that caught my eye: her hands. She was able to make her arms and hands so supple, so like flying wings, but there is something else. I confess I do not like the way the hands are used in much of current classical ballet. The fingers are parted and, to me, they appear stiff and pointy. Ms Kuranaga’s hands were gently curved with out sticking out the fingers. Thank you, Ms Kuranaga. Your technique is a wonder right down to your finger tips.  Furthermore, she was a very nasty Odile, the bad daughter of Von Rothbart. She is in total control, holding back from accepting the Prince’s desire to marry her. While that powerful dance between them goes on, the audience sees an Odette figure trying to warn Siegfried. That is another innovation in this classic ballet. Did Odile do the famous 32 fouettes? She did them all. I saw Ms Kuranaga do double turns in the midst of this pinnacle of strength and beauty. I wanted to jump up and cheer.

Nikisha Fogo in Tomasson’s Swan Lake // © Lindsay Thomas

Mr. Angelo Greco certainly received the right name because he flies like an angel. I saw him leap and stay in the air. There were also unusual leaps.  For example, en face (facing the audience), one leg would take him in the air into second position. Second position: the dancer stands with legs apart, toes pointing to the sides. Mr. Greco’s leg would go high in the air and then the other leg would come up, too, just before the first leg began to come down. It was as though he were flying over a mountain top. In addition, Mr. Greco was the perfect partner to Ms Kuranaga. Always there for her, a true cavalier, gracious to Odette with exact timing.

Nikisha Fogo and Aaron Robison in Tomasson’s Swan Lake // © Lindsay Thomas

What would happen at the end of the ballet? Will the lovers be killed by Von Rothbart? Would they fly into heaven as I have seen years ago?  Von Rothbart and Siegfried fight. Odette throws herself off the mountain that is back of the lake. Siegfried tries to kill Von Rothbart and then climbs the mountain, letting himself fall into the unseen lake. Then, we see the lovers standing at the top of the mountain, backs to the audience, looking at the enormous moon which always has been in the lakeside scenes. She has on a longer skirt or maybe it was a cape. Are they OK? Did they die together? Love conquered Von Rothbart, I am sure of that, but I cannot tell what their future would be.

Now, buy the tickets! I am thrilled that I was able to see these dancers and grateful for their performances. Hooray for the San Francisco Ballet dancers and a Swan Lake to embrace and keep.

Photos courtesy of the San Francisco Ballet. The performances had three different lead dancers. No photos of Misa Kuranaga and Mr. Greco were available. All the more reason to look for them in every season.

A Perfect Dream of a Ballet: A Midsummer Night’s Dream in San Francisco

The San Francisco Ballet presented a perfect dream of this ballet, March 12-23 at the SF War Memorial Opera House. It was choreographed by George Balanchine in the US, in 1962. It was his second full-length story ballet, first was his Nutcracker, but the Dream was the first he choreographed in America. The dancing by the whole company could not have been better. The costumes and sets were beautiful. The designs are original with trees lifting up to change scenes and to return to the forest. Huge and lovely pansy flowers on the scrims also went up and down. The design had to change from fairy world to human world, so changing the scale of the set was necessary. The delicate pansy faces were enormous next to the dancers who were supposed to be very small. Every detail added to the life of the Dream.

George Balanchine Choreographer (1904-1983)

The Music  In addition to the choreography, the brilliant dancers, the costumes and sets, remember the music. Felix Mendelssohn read Shakespeare’s play and was so inspired by it that he wrote the sublime concert overture when he was seventeen. King Frederick William IV of Prussia commissioned Mendelssohn to add to that overture. Ludwig Tieck was producing the play; it needed more music. Clearly, it had to be more from Mendelssohn.

Felix Mendelssohn, Composer (1809-1847)
He composed songs and the Wedding March which naturally introduces the triple wedding that opens Act II. Balanchine knew music. He spent time selecting more Mendelssohn in order to “weave the ballet together musically,” said Sandra Jennings, repetiteur of the Balanchine Trust, the person who knows the work so intimately that she can come to San Francisco and teach steps, timing, character, drama and humor.

Pandemic Interruption There is a timely back story about the Dream’s relationship with the SF Ballet. The company was to premiere their Dream on March 6, 2020. The performance began, then, in the middle, the Office of the Mayor announced the entire performing arts center had to close. The uninvited virus had moved in. SF Ballet brought the dancers back to the Opera House and filmed the Dream for the evacuated ticket holders. The version to be performed in 2020 had come from the Pacific Northwest Ballet, a fine company known for Balanchine dancers and choreography. The sets were designed for the plants and animals on the Pacific Coast.

“Extravagant things” The sets and costumes we saw this year were commissioned by the Paris Opera Ballet, in 2017. Every costume was gorgeous. Each costume was different from every other one. Even the Bugs, danced so well by young students of the SF Ballet School, had very special colors, designs, and antennae. Every courtier, butterfly, royalty of the human or of the fairy world was original. The sets and costumes were designed by Christian Lacroix who stated, “I love extravagant things. Tutu is one of them.” Were you hoping to find something sparkling with Swarovski crystals maybe to wear to an SF Ballet performance? Forget about it. Swarovski crystals by the million, hundreds of yards of lace by Sophie Hallette; it has all gone on to these costumes. (Please note: these photos, courtesy of the SFB, were taken in dress rehearsal and do not show all the casts.)

Bugs take a nap in the forest. The students of the SF Ballet School danced flawlessly.

Do you know the story? It may be impossible to narrate it briefly. The King of the Fairies, Oberon, and his Queen, Titania, have a quarrel. Titania has a darling young boy as her favorite Page. Oberon wants the Page on his side of the forest. Puck, an ingenious, flying, trouble-making elf, promises to do Oberon’s assignment. He will find the flower “pierced by Cupid’s arrow” which has the power to make anyone dusted with its pollen fall in love with the first animal, vegetable or mineral she or he sees. Puck succeeds in this mission. Meanwhile, Puck turns a rustic worker named Bottom into a Donkey, and he is the first person Titania sees.

While this happens in the fairy world, there are four humans wandering into the forest. Helena loves Demetrius, but Demetrius does not love Helena. Hermia loves Lysander and Lysander loves Hermia, but they lose each other in the forest. Oberon observes the course of true love running off the rails and tells Puck to use the flower’s power to make Demetrius love Helena. However, Puck makes Lysander love Helena instead. Now Hermia is at a loss. Puck redoes his magic and makes Demetrius fall in love with Helena. That works, except that now both men are after Helena and fight over her.

Cavan Conley as Puck. The performance on March 21 featured Alexis Francisco Valdes as Puck.. He was spectacular. On the 21st, Cavan Conley danced Oberon, also terrific.

Russian style leaps  It interests me that Balanchine choreographed this ballet early in his life in America. Puck performs fabulous leaps. They turn in the air sometimes with both legs tucked up or kicking one or changing directions in mid-air. There is a great Russian tradition of male dancers who specialize in jumps and leaps as though they are able to climb and tumble or just stay still in space. A marvelous example of this was the late Valery Panov. There is a film of him dancing as a Jester which will make anyone watching gasp.

Bugs: S-Vallejo, Widjaja, Maldonado, Allaire, Paul, Yin, Denman, O’Leary-Herreras, Pickert, Whiteley, Trias
Titania’s Page: Ganaden, see him at the far left in a turban. Oberon and Titania have trouble negotiating.

Beats  Another movement theme in Balanchine’s choreography are the difficult repeated beats.  A beat: standing with legs crossed, one foot in front, jump up keeping legs straight in the air, change the front one to the back and then cross it again to the front, and land. Mr. B has everyone doing multiple beats at every possible chance. Kick a leg straight to the front, jump off it to kick it to the back but do not let that back kick happen without bringing the legs together for some gratuitous beats. The foot work is sparkling more than the million crystals. Although the human couples get mixed up, and the men are fighting, Puck lets them tire themselves out. They fall asleep. Puck arranges Helena beside Demetrius and Lysander sleeps near Hermia. These final spells will just have to stay.

Elizabeth Mateer and Steven Morse as Helena and Demetrius. He is reaching for his new attraction: Hermia. On March 21, these roles were danced by Jasmine jimison and Daniel Deivison-Oliveira. The dancing was superb throughout the entire performance.

Oberon sees his beautiful Queen embracing Bottom. He cools his anger, allows Bottom to go back to being himself, and restores Bottom to his friends; this is Oberon’s way to restore Tatiana to himself.

Sasha De Sola and Alexis Francisco Valdes dance as Titania and Bottom. She’s in love with a Donkey. The cast on March 21 was Nikisha Fogo, Titania, and Joshua Jack Price as Bottom.

Casts The company switched roles throughout the long run of this ballet. That is a challenging arrangement, but it worked. The dancers I saw were wonderful as though that one character and choreography was their one and only to perform. However, Nikisha Fogo danced Tatiana and also The Queen of the Amazons. On different nights, of course. For example, The Butterfly, a solo part, was performed beautifully on the 21st by Isabella Devivo.

Julia Rowe in the picture above as the Solo Butterfly. On the 21st, Isabella Devivo was light as a butterfly and managed to fly as well. She has her own Corps de Butterflies.

The Royalty, Theseus, Duke of Athens and Hippolyta were pleased that the humans had made peace.

Nikisha Fogo danced the Amazon Queen. On March 21, Jennifer Stahl performed this role. She executed in perfect technique what I think was 20 fouette turns. I counted, but when  I got to about 18 I was too impressed to keep counting.

They decided to have a glorious triple wedding with the two couples who had found happiness and with their Royal Selves. Act II brings the vast cast together in splendid white wedding costumes accompanied by the Wedding March. It is said that of the music for weddings, the Mendelssohn brings the best of luck. Act II brought opportunities for more truly great dancing. It started as an ordinary Thursday night, but everyone in the Opera House was smiling and happy and a little bit reluctantly dancing away.

Photos by Lindsay Thomas, courtesy of the San Francisco Ballet.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ALL SIBELIUS: ESA-PEKKA SALONEN

The All Sibelius performance, March 14, was certainly one of the greatest concert programs I have ever heard. Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, presented a program of Finlandia, Opus 26 (1899); Violin Concerto in D minor, Opus 47 (1905), with violinist Lisa Batiashvili; and Symphony No.1 in E minor, Opus 39 (1899). Each piece offered unique musicality. In the Violin Concerto, it seemed that Sibelius had discovered new notes which made sounds we had not heard before.

Jean Sibelius, Composer (1865 – 1857), Finland

Finlandia may be the most familiar of all national anthems (with some apologies to France’s La Marseillaise*) Finnish history was about continual resistance while unable to fend off Sweden’s dominance since the 12thc. or the relentless interference of Russia. In 1894, Nicholas II became the Tsar.  He demanded the February Manifesto that curtailed civil rights. In 1899, the Russians closed newspapers. An innovative way of announcing Finnish identity developed. A public show demonstrated Finnish history through tableaux and accompanying music and spoken narration. The tableaux started with beginnings of Finland, moved through the 17thc. in the Thirty Years War, and a short Russian hegemony in the 18th c. The ending was “Finland Awakes!” The program was supposed to gather charity for suppressed journalists, but the proclamation of Finnish nationalism was obvious. Sibelius and others were asked to contribute music. At first, Sibelius seemed not to recognize what he had made. Once he knew its strength, he rewrote it. In its first years, it was banned. Other countries gave it different names. In the Baltic countries, also dominated by Russia, it was just called Impromptu. It is a magnificent announcement of freedom and Finnish identity. While it is great music to hear, its power calls out to the  listener whether Finnish or  not.  Seeing Esa-Pekka Salonen conduct it was thrilling. Sibelius answered his own question: “Why does this tone poem catch on with the public?…The themes on which it is built came to me directly. Pure inspiration.”

Violinist Lisa Batiashvili, soloist in Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D minor, Opus 47, with the San Francisco Symphony.

Music scholars and commentators will state that Sibelius composes with “profundity.” I experience the music as a profound look at life and the language of music. However, I cannot decide what Sibelius discovers and measures and understands in the music he creates. I have had teachers who liked to say that if that picture could be written, the artist would have written it instead of making it a painting. I think that is true except that most of us are only able to tell what we want to express in one art. For me, this Violin Concerto possesses mysteries of life and of music. Sibelius gradually reveals its musical truths. In the first movement, Allegro moderato, he provides a cadenza that is in the middle of the movement as a significant part of the concerto. The Adagio di molti, second movement, expands itself across a lake and seems to fly over a forest, but slowly. It is a vast presence which is the mystery. It does not pretend to communicate the mystery. One can only live it. The final movement, Allegro ma non tanto, has an emphatic but not overly quick dance stomping and turning. The rough dance movement creates the rhythm. The thing that is profound is easy to know. If we stop looking under every rock or examining every person, pine tree, or squirrel, it comes to us. Maestro Salonen brought out the delicate yet enveloping truth of this great concerto. He knows about Sibelius. Ms Batiashvili lifted the whole audience into the music’s life. The SFS played with profundity. This was a brilliant performance.

Sibelius’ Symphony No.1 in E Minor, Opus 39 was the second half of the concert. The audience was on its feet cheering Sibelius, Salonen, and the SF Symphony. The program notes by James M. Keller describe how close Helsinki is to St. Petersburg both geographically and musically. Sibelius surely was familiar with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6. Keller also points toward influences from Berlioz. As I read the information after hearing the Symphony, I thought that Sibelius may have admired their works but at most they were a jumping off point. I was relieved to read that Keller ended by acknowledging Sibelius’ “distinct language.” This symphony is uniquely Sibelius. As led by Esa-Pekka Salonen, who called Sibelius perhaps the greatest Finn, I felt I was hearing the music as Sibelius would want it to sound. The music begins with Andante, ma non troppo-Allegro energico. There is a long, winding solo clarinet which attracts the timpani to play under the imaginative circles of the clarinet’s sound. This movement introduces the main themes and motifs of the symphony. That is what happens, but, of course, the audience does not hear the 4th movement rediscover these themes simultaneously with the 1st movement. Writers writing about music they have heard many times forget that the music can be new or seldom heard to the audience. It is a lucky surprise to charm us, turn the clarinet and timpani into the instruments of a snake charmer. We are hooked into this particular world of sound, all new.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director of the SF Sympony, conducts the All Sibelius program, March q4, 2024
The 2nd movement, Andante (ma non troppo lento) does begin quietly and slowly but not too slowly, as the description advises. There are moments that sound tragic; then, it expands into a large and angry message. There are references to recall the original themes, and this time it ends calmly. The 3rd movement, calls itself Scherzo: Allegro, but there is not a note implying a joke or lighthearted moment. It sounds more like a struggle; there are questions that cannot be answered. It ends without finishing the violent questions and suddenly, it stops. It leads to a wail of protest in the 4th movement. The strings bring in the 4th  movement, Finale (Quasi una Fantasia): Andante-Allegro molto. The music is serious and deeply emotional. It returns to the themes introduced in the 1st movement, only this time they are fortissimo in strings with winds and bass accompanying as the form of a giant kite made of the individual parts of the orchestra and Maestro Salonen breaks free and flies. The audience was on its feet, staring ahead, looking like something completely surprising had happened to them, cheering Sibelius, Salonen, and the SF Symphony. An experience. A marvel.

The SF Symphony stands to applaud Maestro Salonen at the end of the Sibelius Symphony No. 1. Maestro Salonen bows to the musicians.

Photos by Brandon Patoc courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

Scriabin & Bartok; Prometheus & Bluebeard- San Francisco Symphony

Part I:  A Happening at the SF Symphony – Prometheus, Poem of Fire

The SF Symphony presented extraordinary works by Alexander Scriabin and Bela Bartok at Davies Symphony Hall, March 1-3. Prometheus, the giant Titan in Greek mythic history, was a rebel. He stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans. He was punished by being imprisoned on a rock where a scavenging bird would forever tear out bits of Prometheus’ liver.

Scriabin’s Prometheus, the Poem of Fire, Op. 60 (1911) is the product of Scriabin’s belief that music could call forth visible colors, lights, and aromas. He wanted all those arts to be present in a grand Mysterium. Yes, it anticipated Happenings of 1968. He bought land in Darjeeling, India, and planned to have his ecstatic performances take place there. In the era of Scriabin’s work, there was exploration of spirituality, fabulous contact with unknown forces; Scriabin’s theater would enhance it all with “lights and mists.” His plans for the Mystery were never fulfilled.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director of San Francisco Symphony, Conducts Prometheus, Poem of Fire; Jean-Ives Thibaudet at the Piano, photo by Brandon Patoc

The project at Davies Symphony Hall was the result of collaboration among Esa-Pekka Salonen, composer and Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, Jean-Ives Thibaudet, acclaimed pianist, and Mathilde Laurent, in–house perfumer of Cartier. The SF Symphony Chorus added human voices to the music. This threesome of all-star leading artists must have enjoyed creating a grand performance from the mystery which Scriabin had left in tantalizing suggestions. In recent years, the concept of Synesthesia has found proof that about 3%-5% of the population does see colors matching sounds. Scriabin believed it was within everyone, but that has not been shown, not yet. The performance was fascinating. The music, sometimes light or intermittent, was interesting and able to weave the lights, colors, and scent into unified senses.

Example of lights which changed with connections to music. Photo by Brandon Patoc

There is a circular design of colored lights above the stage. The program shows that six of them are directly connected to musical notes. For example, F sharp and G flat are both in one dark purple circle. A flat is alone in red. The six notes that do not have designated notes are different colors: dark brown, orange, light brown, light green, and two dark green circle lights. Luke Kritzeck is Lighting Designer.

Three perfumes whirled into the hall. Mathilde Laurent created perfumes specifically for moments of the Prometheus story. At the beginning, “Avant/Before,” expresses earthy existence: rain, thunder, ice, vegetation. The second perfume, “XIII Heure/ The 13th hour,” represents the climax of the story and the music: Prometheus gives the gift of fire to humans. The three collaborating artists consider that gift is the source of human creativity, the origin of the arts. The final scent, “L’Apres/After,” shows the creatures now fully human and must be masters of their destiny. Ms Laurent chose bergamot, verbena, fresh grass conveying light and warmth. Various arts become the whole art: Jean-Ives Thibaudet making music by playing the piano, Mathilde Laurent creating scents to express the developing character of human life, Esa-Pekka  Salonen to conduct and combine the arts and their artistry. Ms Laurent felt the scents sent forth the “joy and hope” Scriabin and his present collaborators hoped would move us all in a grand union.

Photos by Brandon Patoc courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony.

A WORLD’S GREATEST NUTCRACKER

Let’s get to the main point right away: The Nutcracker run ends on Dec. 30th. Do not delay! Get tickets for it now. This is an experience you do not want to miss. The dancers are world-class wonderful. The Tchaikovsky score is full of beautiful music that makes everyone feel a lift like the ballerina in one of the astonishing lifts with her partner. The scenery will pop your eyes out. The costumes are breath-taking. Pick up the phone, dive into the SF Ballet web site, get the tickets!

No, I do not work for the Ballet, and this is the first Nutcracker I have seen for over 20 years.

The San Francisco Ballet is rightfully proud of being the first ballet company to produce and perform the Nutcracker ballet in the USA. That was in 1944. Through the decades, the SFB has presented several new versions made with respect for the original. The current, extravagant, amazing performance is Helgi Tomasson’s production, premiered in 2004. He was the artistic director and main choreographer for SFB beginning in 1985 and just retired in 2022. Tomasson decided that the tradition of having this Russian ballet take place in Germany did not make sense for today’s audience. Originally, it was choreographed by the great classical choreographer, Lev Ivanova, with a libretto by Marius Petipa, another great, classical choreographer.

Tomasson keeps an historical setting, but it is San Francisco in 1915. The opening scene is on a street with Painted Ladies, fantastic houses of Victorian styles. It is after the 1906 Earthquake, at the time of the Pan American Exposition, and before the US entered World War I. The at-home costumes are era appropriate. The family celebrating Christmas together sees the adult ladies and girls in timely but dance-able dresses.

Are you a person who does not know the “plot” of the story? A foggy night in San Francisco. Drosselmeyer is in his shop finishing his gift for the Stahlbaum family. It is a magic nutcracker. People on the street hustle this way and that. Drosselmeyer (Val Caniparoli) enters the Victorian home.

Val Caniparoli – Drosselmeyer

Inside, a Christmas party is happening. Children and adults dance. Drosselmeyer’s gifts are a life size jack-in-the-box who does fabulous leaps and turns until his wind up key runs down. There is also a ballerina doll wearing a magnificent tutu of pinks and white. She dances en pointe until she is carried back into her box. Clara (Emily Yin, an excellent student of the SFB school) the daughter, receives the Nutcracker and loves it. Her brother, Fritz (Santiago Stack-Lozano) pulls the Nutcracker away. It breaks. Drosselmeyer mends it. Everyone leaves except Clara who comes down stairs to look for her Nutcracker. In her dreams, Drosselmeyer makes the Christmas tree grow. It really happens: the tree grows on stage to 30 feet tall.# He also makes the house grow bigger: Clara now looks tiny.

Enter the Mice. Clara is scared of the mice. She has no table to jump onto. She does not scream, as I might, but the Nutcracker comes to defend her. He now has a sword. The mice are not ordinary mice; they wear wonderful costumes and the King of the Mice (danced by Sean Bennett) has an impressive head piece.

Sean Bennett – King of the Mice

They battle; the Nutcracker wins. He removes his big nutcracker head piece and becomes the Nutcracker Prince (Wei Wang). The Nutcracker offers exquisite solo dance roles for ballerinas. The Queen of the Snow, the Sugar Plum Fairy, and the Grand Pas de Deux. Through these beautiful, technically challenging roles, there is a male dancer partner. Wei Wang performs as Nutcracker Prince and the Grand Pas de Deux. He is an engine that keeps the two acts humming along. His partnering is superb. His leaps and spins are superb. Watch for him in other leading roles; his dancing is absolutely…just right.

Wei Wang – Nutcracker Prince, Grand Pas de Deux

The Nutcracker is exhausted from the fight. Clara looks to Drosselmeyer. Using his magic skills, Drosselmeyer turns the Nutcracker into a handsome Prince. They go to the Land of Snow. In each performance, and there are 31 performances!, 150 pounds of “snow” falls from the top of the opera house stage.#

Frances Chung – Queen of the Snow  Cavan Conley – King of the Snow

This creates an amazing vision of falling snow while the Queen of the Snow (Frances Chung) and the King of the Snow (Cavan Conley) dance with ballerina Snowflakes. It is beautiful: the dance, dancers, atmosphere, costumes. The Snow Queen’s tutu is decorated with 300-500 Swarovski crystals and took about 80 hours to construct by hand.#

The Sugar Plum Fairy (Sasha Mukhamedov) appears in the Second Act. This lovely dancer introduces Clara and the Prince to her realm.

Sasha Mukhamedov – Sugar Plum Fairy

She also presents entertainments of wonderful variations in dance styles: Spanish, Arabian, Chinese, French, Russian, and Madame Du Cirque with her Buffoons. The Buffoons are very young SFB school dancers with Davide Occhipinti as a charming trained bear. Each of the variations are exciting to watch. The Russian dance begins with an explosion of energy as the dancers jump through pictures breaking the paper as they fly through the frames.

The Sugar Plum Fairy  leads the Waltz of the Flowers, one of Tchaikovsky’s great, romantic waltzes.

There are so many great moments in all of the dances, I regret not being able to picture every dancer. However, this is the largest production ever presented by the SFB. That means there are 83 company dancers and 110 SFB students.# The Sugar Plum Fairy gives Clara a special Christmas gift: she makes Clara a ballerina to dance with her Prince.

Wona Park – Grand Pas de Deux

The Grand Pas de Deux, danced by Wona Park and Wei Wang was thrilling. They performed every difficult step as though they were walking on a garden path – easy – but it was impressive and beautiful. Brava, Bravo. Extra bows for them and for the entire cast. Your audience loved you.

# Courtesy of the San Francisco Ballet: these numbers are taken from the Nutcracker program book. Dancers’ head shots are from the SF Ballet Nutcracker program book.

 

 

SPECTACULAR CHAMBER MUSIC @ The Legion of Honor Museum

SPECTACULAR CHAMBER CONCERT @ THE LEGION

The Gunn Theater in the Palace of the Legion of Honor Museum was the site for a magnificent performance, Dec. 3. 2023. Gunn Theater holds three hundred and sixteen in a jewel box setting. The San Francisco Symphony presents chamber music concerts there through the season always featuring outstanding musicians. The music selections are usually something different, something new even if, as in this program, the music is very old.

The program was all trios; two by Bach and one by Schubert. Anton Nel was the harpsichordist for the Sonata No. 3 in E major for Violin and Harpsichord, BWV 1016 and the Sonata No. 3 in G minor for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, BWV 1029. Alexander Barantschik, Concertmaster of the SF Symphony, was the violinist who leads the music in this Sonata. It was an audio treat to hear the harpsichord, especially as the Gunn Theater is far smaller than the Davies Hall. It awakens a different way to listen for the notes. In the Sonata No. 3 in E major the violin opens the experience with an expressive sound that seems to reach across broad vistas. It is followed by a delightful, light Allegro as though accessible to young people or even presented for the folk instead of the elite. Bach goes back to an Adagio – ma non tanto (but not too much)– which opens into keys unusual in a Bach sonata; that’s the new in the old. At the end, Bach allows the sound more energy and, as though on the brink of cliff, the music sweeps through the air on a lift off of counterpoint. Barantschik presented a marvelous touch from the elegance of the first Adagio to the delicacy of the second movement to the energy and reach of the finale.

Johann Sebastian Bach, composer (1685-1750)

In the Sonata No. 3 in G minor for Viola da Gamba and Harpsichord, BWV. Peter Wyrick played the cello, and demonstrated that the Viola da Gamba has a higher pitched string than the cello so he added a string to his cello. It gave the audience the feeling that they could notice how he bowed diagonally to make the higher sound. This trio was livelier than the one in E major. The playing of the harpsichord and cello was a pleasing sound as the two sound sources found places to alternate or reach over each other’s music. The three movements ranged from Vivace to Adagio to an exciting Allegro conclusion. Did you think that Bach could not be exciting? Listen to these elegant and totally innovative pieces; you will have an exciting surprise.

The trio included Alexander Barantschik, Concertmaster of the SF Symphony, on the Naoum Blinder Chair, Violin. He has been concertmaster of the London and Bamberg Symphony Orchestras, the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic. He was concertmaster for major symphonic cycles with Michael Tilson Thomas, Rostropovich, and Bernard Haitink.

Peter Wyrick, ’cellist on the Lyman & Carol Casey Second Century Chair, served as Associate Principal Cello, 2022-2023. Previously, he was principal cello of New York’s Mostly Mozart Orchestra and associate principal cello of the New York City Opera. His chamber music collaborations include Yo -Yo Ma, Joshua Bell, Yefim Bronfman, Jean-Yves Thibaudet.

Anton Nel, pianist, has an active performing life having performed with the Cleveland, Orchestra, Chicago , Dallas, and Seattle Symphonies as well as international venues such as Wigmore Hall, the Concertgebouw, Suntory Hall, and in China, Korea, and South Africa, his home. He holds the Joe R. and Teresa Lozano Long Endowed Chair at the University of Texas at Austin. In summers he is at the Aspen Festival and School and the Ravinia Festival and its Steans Institute.

Franz Schubert, composer, 1797-1828) (posthumous painting by Rieder, 1875)

Franz Schubert’s remarkable Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat major, D. 898 is a soaring, gorgeous forty minute long sail to happiness. I know that art connoisseurs are suspicious of happiness and beauty, but this is art of a different species. Schubert’s genius is above it all. When he wrote this music, he was thirty years old. He had only one year more to live and to create music that is essential for us, two hundred and twenty-six years later.

From the opening Allegro moderato, Schubert shows his originality by playing with the sonata form. He writes in “wrong keys” several times. It is a gentle wake up call to the listeners, “do not let the beauty lull you so much that you will miss the floating sensation and the changing scenery of sound. The composer, Robert Schumann, was especially taken by the first movement as “graceful and virginal.” The second movement, Andante, is slower, and this writer must use the term that pops up in others’ descriptions; it is dreamlike. And yet, this dream is not one for sleep or inactivity. It carries us along on a breath as though riding on a kite through a forest. The Scherzo offers surprise musical changes keeping the listeners just enough off balance to laugh at ourselves. Schubert closes with a Rondo: Allegro vivace. It leads our imaginations and memories to cherish the moment, so lovely but never lasting. Schubert was aware that he was terribly ill. He still shared joy.

This threesome will perform again at the Gunn on Jan. 28. That concert is sold out, but it is worth it to see if someone seeking snow goes to Tahoe. There is another concert on June 2 with the same noble artists, music by Mozart, R. Strauss, and Smetana. It is too good to miss.

 

 

Daniil Trifonov Lights Up Davies Symphony Hall

Daniil Trifonov lit up Davies Symphony Hall, Nov. 19, San Francisco. The audience was fascinated by his playing and only a few minutes into Rameau’s Suite in A minor, RCT 5 (1729/30), we were all transfixed. The program itself was a jewel: Rameau, Mozart’s Piano Sonata No.12 in F major, K.332 (300k) (ca. 1783), Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses, Opus 54 (1841), Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 29 in-B flat major, Opus 106, Hammerklavier (1818).

The selections were not random choices from famous composers. Each piece had special challenges for the pianist and brought unique charm and glory for the listeners.

The program was not only about the majestic music. All of these great composers were also great musicians, especially as pianists. Daniil Trifonov was playing the music which was made by and played by the best. He meets their music and brings his understanding to its complex beauties. He also plays on their level. He is there with the top seeded players. They know their game. Each one in his own way recreated playing. The program is an encounter of great pianists through nearly four centuries.

Jean-Philippe Rameau, Composer (1683-1764)

Jean-Philippe Rameau, Suite in A minor, RCT 5 (1729/30) has seven parts: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Les Trois Mains, Fanfarinette, La Triomphante, Gavotte et ses Doubles. The first three are named for the dances popular for 17th century composers, like JS Bach. They create a serious environment. This is for harpsichord virtuosi ready to play the multiple sounds of their tradition. However, with Trifonov at the keyboard, these have an enchanting delicacy. The next four parts are “character” music rather than from the dance forms. Les Trois Mains calls upon the pianist to move arms and hands as though he has a third hand, at least a third hand. Fanfarinette, a “small braggart,” teases the listener to follow the music. La Triomphate is bolder. The Gavotte conclusion branches into six complex variations all with transparent sounds of the main theme. James M. Keller writes that this piece may show that Rameau kept up with Handel’s developments and plays can-you-top-this. Handel had five variations, but Rameau has six. The fast, occasionally explosive, thoughtful music ends by drifting away. Other selections on the program also end with sound disappearing, gently, but in the outskirts of sadness.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart wrote three piano sonatas between July and November, 1783, all published in Vienna. The Piano Sonata in F-major apparently is the last of the group. While it begins with a relatively quiet, inward facing Allegro, it grows and puts forth melodies that have dramatic qualities. The second movement, an Adagio, also begins in an understated way which becomes full of expression without abandoning Classical restraint. The closing movement, Allegro assai tosses its hat and flings surprises to the audience. Just when the listener thinks she knows how the composer is feeling about music and life, he turns on a dime and releases astonishing changes of direction. The fascination stops short of hypnotic due to the excitement which Mozart creates and delivers without any hints or preparation. Despite the energy of the movement, this music also quietly evaporates.

Felix Mendelssohn, composer (1809-1847)

Felix Mendelssohn’s Variations Serieuses, Opus 54, is mind opening music. One may not take a break from listening; so much is happening in the brilliant piece. Yosemite Falls is a wonder. After rain or snow melt, the unbelievable happens: Yosemite Falls becomes even more impressive and inspiring. Mendelssohn’s twelve minute work is the musical Falls at its greatest. The fast rhythms become faster, daring the pianist and challenging the listener’s attention to sound. From sixteenth notes in the first variation, he moves to sextuplets, (Un poco piu animato –a little more animated)). Next there are staccato notes (Piu animato). More variations all filled by not one marvel of variation but it seems at least two at a time He finds syncopation, expressive passages; how many variations? eighteen. Each one is deeper in musical life developed and bursting with fire. Imagination on top of rhythm is woven into Time escaping, shaped by the composer’s call for poco a poco piu animato (little by little livelier and livelier). The super liveliness has seized Time, wound it higher into spirals of musical life which the composer, being an honest genius, then allows us to hear Time die away. It is another ending which drifts away like smoke, untraceable as life.

Daniil Trifonov, pianist

Through out the concert, Trifonov played with power, finesse, astounding speed, and still has ,heart left for expression. Part demon, part angel. He delicately caressed the keys in the Rameau as though he was bringing an inanimate thing to life. He may have channeled Mozart himself in the sonata. Trifonov did not shy away from taking Mozart’s Piano Sonata in F major that begins quietly into soaring, airborne changes of direction or altitude. As Rameau’s music was first for the harpsichord, could one state he was a master of the keyboards? I can imagine he was or he would not have written the Suite in A Minor. Both Mozart and Mendelssohn were known as master pianists, perhaps at a level above mere masters. Clara Schumann, renown as the star pianist of Europe before her marriage, wrote about Mendelssohn: “When all is said and done, he remains, for me, the most cherished pianist of all.”

Ludwig Van Beethoven, composer (1770-1827)

Now, there is the Hammerklavier. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 29 in B-flat major is a world of mystery. Many consider it the most technically challenging of Beethoven’s piano sonatas; it is the longest, too. Its emotional life extends so far as one hears and feels in King Lear or experiences in an entire life. This writer/listener waited to write this brief account until she could listen to it again. The first movement, Allegro, is troubled, seems to dive into knots of thick ropes, climbs out, and then falls into more impediments: quick sand, rocky rubble, water that is deeper than it looks. Then, he, maybe it, stands up. The music finds him in a Scherzo which brightens the mood. It tries to play tricks on him, makes him jump over fallen branches, but he makes his way. It is not a jolly Scherzo, but it is Assai vivace (lively, vivacious enough) and travels away from the trials of the first movement Allegro. The third movement is a bleak ending though in the middle of the sonata’s life. Beethoven describes it Adagio sostenuto: Appassionato e con molto sentimento. It is sustained grieving, deeply felt and sounds like it cannot move forward, though this is the longest movement of any in Beethoven’s sonatas. It is nearly hopeless. It is nearly a prison cell without a window. It is beautiful but does not allow physical movement as imagined in the preceding movements. Feeling the passion of the Adagio, Beethoven will not abandon us, his listeners, or the spirit of his music. The final movement, Largo—Allegro risoluto (Fugo a tre voci) breaks away from the struggles, tricks, and grief of the other movements. Without an introduction we could notice, it leaps before us. Now there are windows and even a way into a garden. The music pays no more attention to the rigid ties it has left. How did it escape? It just took a step and, elated, revels in freedom.

The program began with Rameau’s Suite in A minor which includes Les Trois Mains and ends with Beethoven’s Fugo a tre voci, a fugue with three voices. The movement of hands and arms is so quick, crossing over, fingers flying that is looks like there must be more than two hands. The music is different, but supreme artists of the keyboard meet in their technique in this program. Rameau’s father was an organist; our composer, Rameau, was a music theorist and a professional organist until he was 49.

Mozart’s father was a violinist and “minor” composer. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart began to compose at age 5, beginning with the harpsichord. He was acknowledged to be one of the best pianists in Europe. Mendelssohn was a child prodigy, similar to Mozart. He showed ability very early and took his first piano lessons from his mother, Lea Solomon Mendelssohn. His intellectual achievements in language and drawing led to the twelve year old Felix meeting Goethe; they became friends. In this program, Daniil Trifonov has had an intimate conversation with great pianists. The audience has heard and seen a very great artist of our time.

The performance could not end. The audience, amazed by all it had heard, would not stop applauding until Trifonov gave them more. There were two encores, each a splendidly original choice, and each one by a uniquely great pianist. The first was I Cover the Waterfront, written by Johnny Green & Edward Heyman, and as played by Art Tatum.

Art Tatum, pianist

Art Tatum was an astonishing pianist. His improvisations do everything; they will insert a new chord on each beat within one or two measures. Great pianists like Oscar Peterson and Bud Powell acknowledge Tatum’s influence. Few modern pianists would not adopt at least one of his “embellishments,” cascades of notes, rhythmic spurts, or weaving in and out of tempo. His “re-harmonization” of pop tunes became a regular practice among jazz musicians. This listener’s ears perked up when hearing the jazz sound of pop music from America’s ‘30s and 40s. Trifonov elegantly put on Art Tatum’s mantle. Fascination with the jazz chords and piling on of sounds took over.

Alexander Scriabin, composer (1872-1914)

More applause by the thrilled and greedy audience brought Trifonov back to play Scriabin’s Piano Sonata #3, the slow movement. Scriabin is known for his unique composition style now, but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries he was equally known as a virtuoso pianist. He performed in every important hall through Europe. One of his innovations was novel pedal effects. Trifonov brought Scriabin back as one of the greatest virtuoso pianists. Cheers for Trifonov’s presentation of the works of the towering pianists who came before him. The encores were a fitting homage to Tatum and Scriabin. Trifonov’s playing honored them all.

FULBRIGHT ASSOCIATON FEATURES LESLIE

Congratulations to Leslie Friedman, The Lively Foundation’s Artistic Director and the Founder of the International Dance Festival@Silicon Valley. The Fulbright Association selected her paper, Dance: The Universal Language (or is it?) to be featured at the Fulbright Association’s annual conference, October 21, 2023. This is the second time the Fulbright Association has selected her to speak to the whole conference about Dance. The first time was in 2000 when Leslie received the first Selma Jeanne Cohen Award for Excellence in International Dance Scholarship. The late Dr. Selma Jeanne Cohen was the founder of Dance History as a scholarly subject. Leslie’s winning paper was, Expression in Dance.

Leslie received two Fulbrights: the Lectureship to India, 1983-84, and the Senior Lectureship to Bulgaria, 2006. In India, ’83-’84, she traveled throughout the country performing concerts of her work and presenting lecture-demonstrations about American Modern Dance. In Sofia, Bulgaria, she was asked to create a new work for Bulgaria’s National Academy for Theater and Film. The American Institute of Indian Studies/Smithsonian awarded her a Fellowship for research in India; she interviewed gurus of several classical Indian dance styles. Her work in India in 1983-84 and the Fellowship from AIIS/Smithsonian gave her the information and understanding for her award winning presentation.

At the October conference, Leslie will present her talk, lead a discussion, and ask the audience to join her in a short, easy dance. The audience is open to non-members of the Fulbright Association. This year the conference takes place in Denver. The talk begins at 11:15 a.m., come by for an interesting, entertaining hour!

Lively Readers: How to Find Their Work

There have been many requests to find out how to purchase the works of the readers on the Lively Reading, July 25, 2023. Here are the details.

Lively Readers: How to find more of their work.

Randall Nicholas: Will send the poem he read (concerning Chaos) to anyone who contacts him. That work is part of an epic, 120 page poem which is not yet in book form. He will also send Plague Journal, his collection of poems written during the height of the pandemic. He will send these free of charge. Neither is in book form. Contact: corasue@frontier.com

Judith Offer: Says “you can find several of the poems from each of my books on the web site. “ The poems she read are not available now in book form. She suggests you contact her directly. joffer@juno.com   web: judithoffer.com

Joy Passanante: All of her books are available on Amazon. This includes a novel, short stories, and Through a Long Absence: Words from My Father’s Wars. She will offer the essay she read free of charge. Contact her at: joycathey@gmail.com

David Shepard: His two poetry books are available on Amazon. Contact: prisndoc@gmail.com

Leslie Friedman: The poems she read are not in book form. The two books from which she read, The Dancer’s Garden (read at the beginning of her reading) and The Story of Our Butterflies (read at the end of the reading) are available from The Lively Foundation. Contact: livelyfoundation@sbcglobal.net or  find purchase information for The Story of Our Butterflies http://www.livelyfoundation.org/wordpress/?p=3477   and for The Dancer’s Garden   http://www.livelyfoundation.org/wordpress/?p=3270