Monthly Archives: December 2023


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


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.