MARC-ANDRÉ HAMELIN: Phenomenal Pianist at San Francisco Symphony

The recital by pianist Marc-André Hamelin, Sunday, March 31, at Davies Symphony Hall was phenomenal. Mr. Hamelin is a great artist. Read this article, then get a ticket to fly somewhere soon to hear him. His technical brilliance is well matched by what appears to be his total immersion in the music; he understands it, he knows it, there is not a note that is not important to him. Not only can he play at warp speed, he can play slowly, even very, very quietly. I am tempted to call it playing “magically,” except it is not magic. The music is real. The musician is of this real world. The program knocked my sox off. Mr. Hamelin, however, is not a flamboyant presence. He is all about the music.

Marc-André Hamelin (photo by Fran Kaufman)

J.S. Bach’s Chaconne from Violin Partita in D minor, No. 2, BWV 1004 as arranged by stellar pianist-composer Ferruccio Busoni (1866-1924) opened the performance. It was representative of the now seldom performed 19th-early 20th century transcriptions of Bach’s monumental works. Whatever the historical instrument and performance style fans might think, it was fascinating musically. There was Bach but something different. It thoroughly engaged the listener’s attention. Written for the violin, translating it into piano language gave it different sounds, textures, and a different spirit. It was a wonderful introduction to Mr. Hamelin’s playing as he demonstrated his total mastery over the many dimensions of the piano.

Robert Schumann (1810-1856)

Robert Schumann’s Fantasy in C major, Opus 17 is a gigantic work conveying myriad emotions as it ventures into different rhythms and suggests images. Having seen Mr. Hamelin play it, one can barely think anyone else would approach its technical difficulty and multiple meanings. The music explodes with Romantic energy and ideals and, in its third movement, seems to hover in moon glow. It is sometimes closer to a symphony than a sonata and draws on all of the young Schumann’s piano knowledge and technique as well as imagination unbound. Schumann wrote part of it in 1838, during the time he was separated from Clara Wieck, his true love, by her father. He wrote to Clara telling her, “I think  it is more impassioned than anything I have ever written–a deep lament for you.” Yes, romantic in every sense. They were married in 1840: she recognized as one of the great if not greatest pianists in Europe and he as a leading composer. Let us leave their history there before the tragic story’s end.

Mr. Hamelin is known for exploring less well known composers as well as the most celebrated, classical masters. His program included Six Arrangements of Songs Sung by Charles Trénet. Mr. Hamelin found a recording, Mr. Nobody Plays Trénet, of Trénet’s songs which typify French cabaret in the era from 1930s-1950s. The pianist who recorded the songs was Alexis Weissenberg (1929-2012). Mr. Hamelin created a score from listening to the recording and then received arrangements of four of the six songs from Mr. Weissenberg’s granddaughter. The performance of the six very different songs was a delight: personal and intriguing music with a special lilt and character. A wonderful addition to the recital.

Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Cipressi (Cypresses), Opus 17 was a revelation to those of us unfamiliar with this composer. The music calls out visions of the cypress trees which were in the environment of the place in Italy where Castelnuovo-Tedesco spent summers in the 1920s. For this listener, the image of eucalyptus in the Bay Area mist immediately came to mind. It is a relatively brief, but beautiful and completely original work. The composer wrote extensively for the guitar as well as piano, symphony and voice. Like other artists who were fortunate to leave Europe in the 1930s, Castelnuovo escaped to Los Angeles in 1938. The beauty of this composition with its slightly mysterious sound impels me to look for his operatic work for Shakespeare’s All’s Well That Ends Well.

Frédéric Chopin (1810-1849)

One may often hear Chopin’s work described as “jewel like” meaning both brilliant and, especially in comparison to a symphony, small. The thing about Chopin’s work is that it is perfect. This was my rejoinder to a friend who thought Chopin’s lack of symphonies made him less a composer. No. His work is perfect, that is in addition to enchanting, beautiful, entirely only itself. The two pieces chosen by Mr. Hamelin, the Polonaise-Fantasy in A-flat major, Opus 61, and the Scherzo No. 4 in E major, Opus 54, were vigorous and large, full of invention. Chopin’s performances and compositions helped to enlarge the piano’s world in technique and sound. Mr. Hamelin seemed to revel in the bright, ebullient and continually challenging music, and so did the audience.

Standing and cheering for Marc-André Hamelin, the audience brought him back for bows and then received two encores. The first was his own composition, Toccata on L’homme armé. Fast, incredibly intricate, it had thirty premieres as all the contestants in the 2017 Van Cliburn contest had to play this work by Hamelin, one of their judges. Bowing to the insistence of music lovers greedy for more, Mr. Hamelin also played Herberge from Schumann’s Forest Scenes. It was played lovingly, and with careful attention to the unusual phrasing and a surprise rest before the delicate ending.

Mr. Hamelin performs all over the world, and he will be in Madison, WI, April 12- 14. The ice has probably melted. You will be glad to be there even if it has not.

FERLINGHETTI’S 100th BIRTHDAY! GET THE POSTER!

Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s birthday is March 24. Just a few days ago he turned 100. Celebrate this great life landmark with an exclusive poster designed by Jonathan Clark. His birthday is also March 24th! but not his 100th. Not yet. The poster is colorful with a strong image of Lawrence’s painting. Buy one now for yourself and another as a gift. It was a limited edition poster of which Jonathan is offering some of what he has in his own collection.  In 1994, Jonathan –Lively’s technical director as well as an internationally acclaimed photographer and fine art printer—was the Chair of the Visual Arts Committee for the City of Mountain View, CA. He organized and presented the first major exhibition of Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s paintings. Well known as a poet and publisher, Ferlinghetti’s visual art was not well known. Soon after the exhibition in the Mountain View City Hall, the exhibition moved to San Francisco to be shown in The Lively Foundation’s new studio at the corner of Grove and Gough Street, just a block from the SF Ballet and the SF Opera House. It was Lawrence’s 75th Birthday Party and our opening; a great day with a great crowd of art lovers and many who were devoted to Lawrence’s role in the cultural life of San Francisco.

Original poster. It is 18″ x 24″

Cost for one poster is $18. If we mail it to you, cost is $25; that includes mailing tube and postage. Yes, that really is the postage. This is a real deal. You will not find this anywhere else, and it is terrific. Email us at livelyfoundation.org   Let us know your name, address and how many posters you would like. This is first come, first served. Mail a check made out to Jonathan Clark to Jonathan Clark, 550 Mountain View Avenue, Mountain View, CA 94041-1941. You will love having this historic poster celebrating an individual who is a significant cultural force and who has done so much for many artists. Do it today!

Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey at de Young Museum, SF

The story of Paul Gauguin’s life (1848-1903) lends mystery and romance to the idea of an artist. He left the over developed, over civilized, expensive world of Paris to free himself and find his art in Tahiti. The exhibition at San Francisco’s de Young Museum, Gauguin: A Spiritual Journey, expands the reality of Paul Gauguin as artist and spiritual seeker. It is not so much denying the romance of a man working as a stockbroker, a humdrum job, and revolting against number crunching to seek primitive beauty as it is enriching our understanding of the complicated, thoughtful greatly talented individual. The works in the exhibition come from the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek , Copenhagen, and from works in the Fine Arts Museums of SF own collection.

Photograph of Paul Gauguin

In his early life in France’s Merchant Marine and Navy, he sailed around the world and completed his military service. When he returned home, he established a close relationship with Gustave Arosa, who became his legal guardian after the death of his mother. Arosa had a an art collection distinguished by works of Delacroix, artists of the French Salon, and ceramics from world wide origins. In this environment, Gauguin’s interest in art became a passion. Through Arosa, he met Camille Pissaro. The great Impressionist became Gauguin’s friend and mentor. Gauguin had no formal art training. Mette Sophie Gad, a Danish woman, met him in Paris; they married in 1873 and had five children. The stock market  crash in 1882 was a fortunate fall; it opened a door for Gauguin’s full time devotion to his art. Although Mette and Paul would eventrually separate when he turned to painting full time, she loyally supported his work, organized an exhibition in Copenhagen, and sold his paintings. Other painters were also important in his life as friends and companions. He and Emile Bernard met in Brittany where Gauguin made important strides in creating his own style. The Bretons with their distinctive dress and their emphatically not-Parisian life style and environment were nearly foreign and exotic.

Breton Girl, 1889, is in exhibition at de Young

Gauguin and Vincent Van Gogh painted side by side in Arles, in the south of France. Each had his own vision creating art, but the few months together surely had an impact. Gauguin left Provence shortly after Van Gogh cut off his own ear. Gauguin continued searching for a pure, wild or “sauvage” home in which he could get in touch with a culture and spirituality which was not influenced by the industrialized, urban world of Copenhagen or Paris. He left Mette and his family to travel to Panama and Martinique. He made his first trip to Tahiti in 1891 under the auspices of the French Ministry of Fine Arts. What he found in Papeete was not an untouched paradise; the colonialism of the French empire had inevitably modified Tahitian existence. He moved onward to another part of the island, Mataiea. On his second trip to Tahiti, his ship was delayed in Auckland, New Zealand. He closely observed and collected Maori art.

Flowers and Cats, 1899, Tahiti, in the de Young exhibtion

His story is not one of finding the original, pure society he sought; instead, it is one of continual seeking. He went to Hivo Oa in the Marquesas Islands, in 1901, and died there in 1903. Among the many glorious surprises in this brilliant exhibition are Gauguin’s ceramics. These are not thrown on a wheel but hand worked in fascinating character. To see his earlier paintings which glory in nature and humanity in nature, and his drawings and paintings of Breton life which present the differences of life style, forms, and pattern established through the shapes of costume and patterns of movement is a spiritual journey for the exhibition visitor. It expands one’s understanding of this artist’s many journeys to come closer to the world as a whole and to immerse himself in particular ways of living which were never entirely his own. Gauguin was also a collector of art. His collections expose his profound interest in other forms of living and other forms of worship. The exhibition closes on June 23. Do not miss it.

Battery Dance Film at Cinequest: MOVING STORIES

Great news for dance and film lovers, especially in the South Bay area. The Cinequest Film Festival will present MOVING STORIES, at the Hammer Theatre, 101 Paseo De San Antonio Walk, San Jose, 95112, Saturday, March 16, 4:15 p.m. Tickets are $12. Information: contact@cinequest.org     phone: 408/295-3378

Link for online tickets: https://www.cinequest.org/tickets-passes

This film shows the work of Battery Dance Company of New York as their dancers travel around the world to bring the experiences of dance performance to at-risk youth. Battery’s dancers traveled to India, Romania, South Korea, and Iraq to inspire the young people and “transform their lives” through the effort, training, and magic of dance. The Battery dancers took only one week in each locale to teach a choreographed work to the youth who would then perform it. The film shows the struggles and triumphs that come through this amazing program. Battery Dance Founder/ Director, Jonathan Hollander has pioneered this work both at home in New York and across the globe. The Battery dancers learn about the extremely difficult conditions of their youthful collaborators’ lives. Together, they create something unique which will last forever in the hearts of all participants.

Jonathan Hollander,Founder/Director of Battery Dance Company

Mr. Hollander and company dancer Sean Scantlebury will also screen the film in San Francisco and follow the showing with a dance workshop led by Mr. Scantlebury who is a dancer in the film. The event is Saturday, March 16, 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. Film showing is from 10 a.m.-noon; workshop from noon- 1 p.m. Event is at 188 The Embarcadero, San Francisco, the Google Community Space. Tickets are $16.78. Please purchase before March 14. For tickets and more please go to this link:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/film-screening-of-movingstories-dance-workshop-by-battery-dance-company-tickets-5695886952

Sean Scantlebury (standing dancer) Company member of Battery Dance Company

This is a thrilling opportunity for everyone who loves dance and who puzzles over how individuals from different cultures could ever work together. The Battery Dance Company answer is there is a universal language: DANCE!

Esa-Pekka Salonen Debuts as Newly Named Director SF Symphony

A completely full house at Davies Symphony Hall, January 19, 2019, greeted Esa-Pekka Salonen with applause and cheers before he even reached the podium. This was his first performance with the San Francisco Symphony after being named Michael Tilson Thomas’ successor as Music Director of the SFS. Although he had led the orchestra previously, there was a feeling in the house that this was something different, a time to listen and watch intently for hints of what is ahead for San Francisco.

Esa-Pekka Salonen addressing the SF audience at the Sound Box

The program featured Also sprach Zarathustra, by Richard Strauss (1896) and Four Legends from the Kalevala, by Jean Sibelius (1896). The West Coast Premiere of Metacosmos Anna Thorvaldsdottir (2017) opened the concert.

Richard Strauss

Also sprach Zarathustra (Thus Spoke Zarathustra) is familiar to many as the theme music of the movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey which opened in 1968. Being the theme of a hugely popular movie has pluses and minuses. On the plus side is the immense, world wide audience now exposed to the music. On the possibly negative side is the permanent association of the movie and the music making it difficult to think of one without the other. 2001, tragically, now has other associations, as does 1968, a year of war, assassinations, political turmoil. The SF Symphony’s performance of the thrilling music was so effective that the audience was totally involved and could not have pondered anything else. R. Strauss took a work by Friedrich Nietzsche as his inspiration for the music. Nietzsche had as his inspiration Zarathustra, a Persian philosopher from the 6th century B.C.E.  After isolating himself from society, Zarathustra sees a sunrise and realizes he must rejoin his world. R. Strauss wrote that he intended his music to transmit “the evolution of the human race from its origin.” It is a roller coaster ride from the stratosphere to Earth and back again. If this is humanity, it has endless pitfalls and triumphs and mysteries. This is music that should be experienced as the SF Symphony played it, no movie required, lifting the listeners, opening their eyes as they let go of the safety rail and ride.

Jean Sibelius, 1913

Four Legends from the Kalevala is a suite of pieces representing episodes in the Finnish epic story. A young man, Lemminkainen, has fabulous adventures as he hunts, finds love, battles, and defies death. Each episode has a different character and sound: Lemminkainen and the Maidens of the Island; Lemminkainen in Tuonela; The Swan of Tuonela; Lemminkainen’s Return. The writing creates a deeply colored and emotional atmosphere more than representing specific narrative actions. The encounter with the Maidens of the Island begins with an announcement suitable to opening the entire suite and ends with carefree, sensuous dancing. In Tuonela, Lemminkainen begins his quest to kill the Swan of Tuonela but is killed himself instead. In the Finnish myths, Tuonela is death’s habitat. As in many epics, the hero has a polar opposite, a blind cowherd who manages to overcome the hero. Lemminkainen’s mother finds her son’s body and is able to bring him back to life. The tension in this movement comes forth in intense harmony that leads to the music of a solo cello. In the epic, the Swan of Tuonela swims in dark water of a large river. The Swan sings. The music in this movement is exquisite and strange. The string sections are composed in 13 different parts on top of each other and from that complex, but unified sound comes the voice of a solo English horn. It is eerily beautiful. The Journey home unifies the different aspects of the music and introduces a rondo which brings all the adventures together. The work demands and richly rewards attention. This was an extraordinary performance by the SFS. The musicians played themselves into the mysterious world of the Kalevala giving their audience a superb, personal experience of a distant world. The audience stood, applauding for the Music Director designate to return for more bows. This event promises a close creative partnership of orchestra, conductor, and audience.

For more on Sibelius’ Swan of Tuonela, see post on Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony at    livelyfoundation.org/wordpress/?p=1073

 

 

 

 

 

Itzhak Perlman Plays Klezmer

Itzhak Perlman performed “In the Fiddler’s House,” San Franciso Symphony, January 14, 2019

The music began, and I felt myself smile. Not because the music was an old, familiar tune. Just because it was rollicking, joyful sounding music. Those of us lucky enough to be at Davies Symphony Hall, Monday night, January 14, were treated to a full concert of Klezmer music led by the great violinist, conductor, fiddler Itzhak Perlman. He shared the stage with a crowd of gifted musicians playing accordion, bass, bass clarinet, clarinet, tsimbl(cymbalom), drums, guitar, mandolin, piano, saxophone, tambourine, trombone, trumpet, violin, and singing. I think there was a total of 15 musicians, but since most of them played more than one instrument it became hard to keep track. This music is “something completely different.” In his typical fashion, Mr. Perlman was modest and also brilliant. When the musicians came on stage, I did not see him. Then, I realized he was there but allowed himself to be camouflaged by his colleagues. Pianist Hankus Netsky acted as MC, offering bits of history and musical introductions. He and Mr. Perlman established an occasionally competitive conversation with Mr. Perlman urging Mr. Netsky to get on with it instead of talking and adding his own commentary. It was a playful Pat and Mike act that was informative without being weighty. Mr. Netsky is Founder/Director of the Klezmer Conservatory Band, and was music director and arranger for Eternal Echoes, Itzhak Perlman’s collaboration with cantorial, Hassidic, and Yiddish music, available on Sony Masterworks.

Brave Old World, members of this international Klezmer group were onstage “In the Fiddler’s House,” including Michael Alpert, vocals, guitar, accordion, violin

The name Klezmer comes from combining the words for “tool” and “to make music,” translated as “vessels of song” or “musical instruments.” It also referred to the musicians themselves, not always in a positive way. In the 16th – 18th centuries, “Klezmer” replaced an earlier word for them, “leyts” which means clowns. Mr. Perlman injected this information as his partner described them as scholars. In the early 20th century, recordings referred to it as Yiddish music. It was also called “Freilech” music, “Happy Music” and my recent 21st century reaction attests this is apt. The music has an Eastern sound to it and also a distinctly Romani (Gypsy) sound. The Hedgehog musician says it has a different mode, plays in different scales. It is expressive as well as lively; one can hear sounds like a human voice laughing or sobbing, The oldest written record of Klezmer is from the 15th century, but that music would not be what we can hear now. The strongest 19th century influence came from Romania. The Klezmer like the Romani musicians, Lautari, were traveling musicians and they played music together. The Rabbis did not approve of the Klezmer because of their on the road lifestyle, but they were needed for weddings. The Bible mentions orchestras of musicians and Levites playing music. After the destruction of the Second Temple, some Rabbis disapproved of making music, but back then also it was necessary for wedding celebrations.

The Klezmatics: members of this band were featured artists “In the Fiddler’s House,” including Frank London, Lorin Sklamberg

In Ukraine, the Ukrainian authorities would not allow them to play loud music, so they began to play string instruments and cymbalom. When more Jewish Eastern Europeans arrived in the US, 1880s – 1924, they heard American jazz. Elements of jazz can show up in Klezmer and, like the connection to the Romani music, an exchange occurred. The concert at Davies Hall was a feast of wild rhythms, fantastic interplays of vocal and instrumental music, speed demon virtuoso performances. Mr. Perlman performed with Andy Statman, a blue grass and Klezmer star; they blew away any observers’ desire to find a bunch of words to describe what they were hearing. When Klezmer’s popularity faded, other composers found treasures in it: Mahler and Shostakovich, jazz and swing leaders Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Ziggy Elman; Gershwin, Bernstein, and Copland. There have been several significant Klezmer revivals: in the 1970s; a new wave in the 1980s with non-Jewish musicians; in the SF Bay Area in the 1990s.

The Klezmer Conservatory Band, based in Boston, members were “In the Fiddler’s House,” including Judy Bressler, Hankus Netsky

The January 14 program featured tunes that might be played for a riotous, happy, dancing wedding. When the invitation came for the audience to dance, hundreds jumped up, held hands, and danced through the aisles. As Mr. Netsky mentioned, tunes also took them back to the synagogue. Their version of Shalom Aleichem was lovely and touching. That song welcomes the Sabbath “Peace be upon you, blessed peace of Sabbath eve,” and the “ministering angels of most high.” Itzhak Perlman is not only the great violinist, he is the great human carrying his message of peace and joy through his music as he travels the world like Klezmers of all time.

Featured, astonishing musicians: Hankus Netsky, music director, saxophone, piano, arrangements; Michael Alpert, vocals, guitar, accordion, violin; Judy Bressler, vocals, tambourine; Lorin Sklamberg, vocals, accordion; Frank London, trumpet; Andy Statman, clarinet, mandolin; Mark Berney, trumpet; James Guttmann, bass; Mark Hamilton, trombone; Pete Rushefsky, bass clarinet, tsimbl; Grantley Smith, drums; Ilene Stahl, clarinet.

Thibaudet & Capucon: An Astonishing Performance

Gautier Capucon, ‘cello, and Jean-Yves Thibaudet, piano, presented a duo recital, December 2, 2018, at Davies Symphony Hall, which was in every way great. Each is technically above brilliant. Their musicality opens new experiences of being in the music. The program selections were outstanding, presenting sonatas that reflected the composers’ greatness and differing characters.

Jean-Ives Thibaudet

Gautier Capucon

Claude Debussy (1862-1918)  Claude Debussy’s Sonata No. 1 in D minor (1915) was an eye-opening visit to Debussy’s imagination and boundless invention.  Known as an “Impressionist” composer, a title which gives a false, gauzy idea of his music, this sonata was altogether more modern sounding than most “new” music of our current time. It demanded a wide range of technical mastery from the ‘cellist: vibratos, pizzicato, glissando. Watching the music being made grabbed the attention as much as listening. The pianist also changes technique and mood incredibly quickly. There is no point to guessing what comes next. Debussy changes the colors and the tonal direction of his music. The exhilarating final movement leaves the audience gasping for breath from this rapidly turning dance and also in amazement at the virtuoso music making.

Johannes Brahms(1833-1897) Brahms’ Sonata No. 1 in E minor for Cello and Piano, Opus 38 (1865) is a grand, musical landmark of music for the two instruments. It is fascinating in its combination of play with musical forms and the sense that an overarching meaning arises from what is built out of sound puzzles and structures. Brahms explores how many variations he can make with a five note phrase. In Brahmsian fashion, the music is sweeping, broad, embracing while it is, underneath it all, built so neatly. The second movement, Allegretto quasi menuetto, goes beyond its minuet inspiration. Brahms’ delightful dance opens up the view from the Sonata. Now it overlooks a vast, sunlit garden. It is a lighter and brighter dance than humans in Eighteenth Century clothing could jump into; Thibaudet and Capucon took over as though the music had been written for them. The final Allegro continues to explore the fugues of the first. It is powerful, all encompassing music. Yes, here we are with Brahms. The immense energy and technical power of the performers was astonishing.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)  

Rachmaninoff’s Sonata in G minor for Cello and Piano, Opus 19, is gloriously melodic, far reaching, and generally just gorgeous. It has drama, sadness, charm. The interplay between the ‘cello and piano is balanced as one instrument flies on lyrical wings and the other travels into distant lands created by diversity of sounds. Capucon and Thibaudet shared the world of this music with obvious respect and generosity. There is something about love and something about elegance revealed in the journey from the first movement, Lento-Allegro moderato-Moderato to the closing celebration of Allegro mosso–Moderato–Vivace. The audience did not stand, it levitated on Rachmaninoff’s music.

The artists responded to the cheering audience with three encores (“Oh, look, they’re coming back!”) Again, the musical choices were not only brilliantly performed, they also created a mini-program of stunning music and emotions. First was Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” Opus 34, no.14; then, Shostakovich’s Scherzo (3rd movement) from Cello Sonata in D minor, opus 40. The artists sent us all home with Saint-Saens, The Swan, from The Carnival of the Animals. Exquisite.

Look for Mr. Thibaudet in San Francisco, April, 2019, on a program with famed violinist Midori. He and Mr. Capucon continue their partnership in concerts in Australia, Antwerp, and France. Each will perform around the US with symphonies from coast to coast. Don’t miss them.

 

 

San Francisco Symphony Presents Triumphant Beethoven’s 9th

San Francisco Symphony’s Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas, led the SF Symphony in a dramatic, exultant performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9, November 24, 2018. The program opened with Seven Early Songs by Alban Berg. Overall, the experience left the audience on its feet cheering and seemingly not sure what to do next. Leaving appeared to be out of the question. Soaring above the chairs was much more likely.

  Alban Berg     Berg’s Seven Early Songs were written between 1905 and 1908 to be sung with piano. The orchestral score was not published until 1969. The songs are lovely, lyrical pieces set to the poems of seven poets. There are glimmering moments reflecting the natural world and Romantic reveries. The music has delicacy even as the songs express personal longing. Although the composer’s name can make some listeners apprehensive, in these songs Berg was not in his dissonant realm.

The soloist, soprano Susanna Phillips has a clear, charming voice which was the perfect match for the music and the poetry. Good news: the performances of Berg’s Seven Early Songs were recorded for SFS Media.

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony (written 1822-1824) is great, enormous, gorgeous, heart-rending, uplifting. It is a grand, musical summation of what’s good about Western Civilization. It celebrates the values of brotherhood, unity among differences, equality, freedom, joy in life. It lifts the top of one’s head off and cheers the heart. The SFS performance was splendid, capturing the mystery as well as the expansive energy of life. Performing with the SFS were the SF Symphony Chorus and four soloist singers. These do not join in until the Finale. All were excellent: soprano Susanna Phillips (pictured above),

(L to R): mezzo soprano Kelley O’Connor, tenor Nicholas Phan, bass baritone Davone Tine.

The giant, first movement is mysterious, disruptive, anxiety provoking. There is struggle and fear, but there is also a persistent forward motion that pushes the soul of the music onward. The Adagio has a loving expression; it is a tide pulling us–sometimes unwilling, sometimes just tired–by our hope and care. And then, the Finale. The Ode to Joy sings out as though our hearts will burst with hope for our highest selves to prevail through love and simple but ecstatic joy in friendship and living. At the end, the music speeds up, scampers, runs and jumps like an endless number of clowns happily tumbling out of a tiny car. I think that might be us: salamanders, penguins, humans; the jumble of life being alive.

The hopes that are vaunted in the Ninth are the same ones dashed when Napoleon crowned himself Emperor. Beethoven removed the dedication to Napoleon from his Third Symphony, the Eroica (written 1803-1804). It is a tribute to Beethoven’s dedication to these values that, now deaf, he still celebrated them with music from his heart and every fiber of his being. If he could keep his vision alive in terrible times, can his audience hesitate?

The performances of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and the performances of Michael Tilson Thomas’ From the Diary of Anne Frank the week before were programming to honor the 70th anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

 

 

SF Symphony Celebrates Stravinsky

The San Francisco Symphony’s September 29th performance of Petrushka, Violin Concerto in D major, and The Rite of Spring/La Sacre du Printemps, all masterworks composed by Igor Stravinsky, was an astounding triumph for the orchestra, for Michael Tilson Thomas, Conductor, and Stravinsky.  There is so much to experience, absorb, admire in each work that any one of them could be a whole program in itself.

Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony

Petrushka was created for Serge Diaghilev”s Ballets Russes, 1911; the SFS performed Stravinsky’s 1947 version. The music reflects a story that takes place at a fair.

Composer Igor Stravinsky with dancer Vaslav Nijinsky costumed as Petrushka

The Magician is able to bring three puppets to life: Petrushka, the sad puppet, loves the Ballerina who is attracted to the Moor. The puppet loses his life at the tragic end, but the fair goes on. The music uses every part of the orchestra. It features bassoon, flute, percussion, brass, strings. They make music that sounds like the environment of a fair: an organ grinder, the music coming from the puppet theater, the peasants dancing and running, a bear, a caravan, everything. Village life swirls around the audience while music imparts the mystical lives of the puppets and Magician. It transmits love, fear, and the death of a puppet only occasionally alive. There is so much wonder in Petrushka. While it could have seemed strange without the dance, the orchestra made music live fantastically on its own. Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas is an energetic, lithe dancer himself. He rises onto his toes, lifts his arms expressively, effortlessly levitates right off of the podium. The multiplicity of rhythms, tones crossing over other tones, the sounds of life mixing with authentic folk tunes all together make Petrushka an entertainment of classical brilliance.

Violinist Leonidas Kavakos performing with the SF Symphony

Stravinsky’s Violin Concerto in D major, premiered in 1931, is a great departure from the earlier Petrushka. It was written for violinist Samuel Dushkin. Its structure is novel: an introductory chord presents each of four movements, beginning with Toccata and ending with Capriccio. Aria I and Aria II fit in between. The Toccata and Capriccio are lively and, of course, inventive with bright, upbeat effects. The Arias differ from each other, but both offer lovely melodies. If this were danced, the dancer would be quick-footed, darting and flying like Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The violin soloist, Leonidas Kavakos, played as though Stravinsky were streaming it to him directly from Paradise. Kavakos made the emotion and delight of the violin become a physical presence.

The great dancer, Nijinsky, choreographed the original production of The Rite of Spring/La Sacre du Printemps

And then, the full house audience, keyed up by Petrushka and the Violin Concerto, took their seats knowing that they were about to experience the famous, infamous Rite of Spring. It’s the music that caused a riot at its premiere. Actually, what could be better publicity than causing polite people in Paris to riot in the concert hall? Who wouldn’t be curious to see the ballet with the outrageous, primitive folk dances, and possibly erotic, definitely murderous plot? The power of spring-time to create life is the idea that propelled Stravinsky. The ritual depicted in the scenario devised by Stravinsky and designer Nicholas Roerich begins with the adoration of the earth. Pipers, young men foretelling the future, an old woman who knows mysteries of nature enter. There are young women with painted faces. They all dance. There is a procession of old men. They interrupt the games. All bless the earth and show they are part of it.

 The Joffrey Ballet, in 1987, “resurrected” The Rite of Spring with Nijinsky’s original choreography.  Millicent Hodson was able to reconstruct the dances, long considered lost, using Nijinsky’s notes and sketches.

Next comes the sacrifice. Virgins enter and travel in circles. One is chosen to sacrifice herself. The music keeps the listener alert. Even those who know – to the extent it can be known – what is happening are on edge, alarmed by the music. It has violent, ragged rhythms. Harmonies pile on top of each other, sometimes conflicting, other times inventing new sounds by piling on. This listener, her ears trying to keep up with the jarring sounds, the changing symbolism, felt a sudden, stabbing chill. It was the end. There was a moment of quiet and then a jab. Stravinsky for all his musical innovation, was a man of the theater. The Rite of Spring, like Petrushka, is rich in folk music and rhythms. Stravinsky first claimed the folk music of Russia and Lithuania was not a resource for him; it clearly was. It is said that Modernism came into being with the Rite of Spring. Perhaps it is most modern in its assimilation of traditional music into a new form. Nothing wrong in that unless a composer wants to be only the newest and writers who want most to discover totally new art. Choreographers, first Nijinsky then Massine later the great Californian Lester Horton and Martha Graham have brought this dreadful Rite to life. With every breath, the music is full of movement. The SFS’s performance made one’s hair stand on end, and the entire audience rose to cheer.

Hearing the SFSymphony’s magnificent performance at this particular time, one notes that to praise spring, a young woman is sacrificed while old men look on. She is the Chosen One, but she is chosen to die. Something amiss in this ritual? One need not fault Roerich or Stravinsky for following a traditional line in their scenario. However, one can hear this music and mentally visualize its events while current historic events in Washington, D.C. are happening. The horror of her sacrifice overwhelms the alleged sanctity of the rite.

Photographs: Michael Tilson Thomas, courtesy of the SF Symphony; Stravinsky and Nijinsky, uncredited; Leonidas Kavakos, photo by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the SF Symphony; Nijinsky, uncredited; The Joffrey Ballet.

NAATAK PRESENTS MAHABHARAT IN PALO ALTO

A great epic of Indian civilization is now onstage at Cubberley Theater, in Palo Alto. The Naatak theater company, the largest Indian theater company in the US, presents the myriad stories within stories, epic within epic wrapped within the grand theater of human life. Adapted for performance and directed by Sujit Saraf, Artistic Director of the company and a novelist and playwright, it is a spectacle of music, dance, and theater. The company took on a huge challenge in choosing to produce the Mahabharat; the result is definitely worth experiencing whether you grew up hearing the stories or they are totally new to you.

The Mahabharat is the longest known epic poem. Its 200,000 individual verse lines make it about ten times the length of the Iliad and Odyssey combined. It is thought to have originated in the 8th or 9th century BCE. Its oldest physical remains date to about 400 years BCE. The play opens with actors describing the “begats” of so many generations: who was the father, the great grandfather, the great great grandmother through eons. They lead us to the fates of the Kaurava and Pandava princes whose families seem to fight forever.

This epic tale never sidesteps the vicious and stupid actions of the human characters. Even the “good guys” can act like idiots, gambling away the lives of family members, for example. One of the central stories is that of Draupadi. It is represented in classical Indian dances that this viewer always finds deeply moving. She is lost to her family in the throw of dice. As the plainly conniving, wicked man begins his assault on her by unwinding her sari, Krishna rescues her by making the sari’s length endless.

The dances in the play are drawn from several classical Indian dance forms: Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi, and Kathak. Choreographers are Soumya Agastya, Archana Kamath, Pragya Dasgupta, Nisha Natraj. Ms Agastya is also the Producer of the presentation. The dances are lively and keep the tales moving forward.

The orchestra of instruments and vocalists sits on stage. This traditional way to perform gives the audience a chance to see the music happening and feel it become a living part of the drama. The music adds to the authenticity of the play’s content and also cues moments of suspense, fear, and even tenderness. Nachiketa Yakkundi is Music Director and Hindustani Vocalist; Anupama Chanratreya, Tejaswini Narayanan, Vocalists; Anand Karue, organ; Ajay Sundar Raj, Tabla; Niranjan Page, Flute.

Battle over DraupadiA loss

The set and costumes are colorful and interesting. There is always a lot of visual interest for the audience. Presented in Hindi with English supertitles, the action in the play is not complex or hard to understand. It is accessible to anyone who has held a grudge, felt exploited, burned with anger, been eaten by jealously, diminished by abuse; yes, I guess that’s all of us. Created so long ago one cannot count the years, the Mahabharat need never change to keep up with human nature. Mahabharat runs through September 23. For more information visit www.naatak.com

All photos by Sharma Podila, courtesy of Naatak theater company.