Tag Archives: San Francisco Symphony

SF Symphony Visits a Bad Child in Beautiful Music: L’Enfant et les Sortileges

Let us begin with a confession: this writer is one who recoils just a bit, one step back, upon hearing that a symphony will be accompanied by multi-media. Believing that music is enough on its own and that Bartok, Debussy, Ravel are complex enough to require and reward careful, focused listening, yes, a step back is in order. The performance of Maurice Ravel’s one act opera, L’enfant et les Sortileges, June 28, changed that outlook. It was an exciting performance in which all the many elements worked together so well that it is now difficult to imagine the music without the entire SF Symphony, the Symphony Chorus, the Young Women’s Chorus, the San Francisco Boys Chorus, the nine vocalist soloists, and the phenomenally attractive, animated figures of armchairs, frogs, bats, trees and other natural creatures, including the enormous hand of Maman, a mother who has had it with her child.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

The story in the opera was written by Colette, the popular French author whose marvelous writing about cats, love, nature, growing up, getting older can capture a reader’s attention until every last page is read and re-read. The history of the opera’s creation includes World War I. The Director of the Paris Opera suggested Colette write a libretto for an opera. He also suggested various composers; Colette was sold on the project as soon as Ravel’s name was mentioned. Ravel, however, was at Verdun, in 1916, a place and battle whose horrors define that war. The composer was a driver in the Motor Transport Corps. Colette’s story was sent to Verdun. What could they be thinking? It was lost. In 1917, another was sent. Ravel was demobilized and able to study the story and begin thinking of his music. The opera’s premiere was at the Theatre de Monte-Carlo, Monaco, in 1925.

Photograph courtesy of the website of artist/animator Gregoire Pont from the premiere of L’enfant et les Sortileges, Lyon, France, 2016.

The title of the story can be translated in many ways; The Child and the Magic Spells suits what happens. On the stage there is a thin curtain hanging between the back of the conductor and the area nearest the audience (down stage). The Child, a boy brilliantly played by mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard wearing shapeless shorts, tee shirt and hat, is reprimanded by his mother for failing to do his home work and messing up the house and his work book. He is not going to have a nice dinner, and he feels rebellious. He would like to pull the tail of the cat and, if he could find one, cut the tail off a squirrel. A giant hand appears on the curtain in white outlines. The Child cowers a little before it, but then he continues his rebellion. Two armchairs appear on the curtain (sung by Marnie Breckenridge and Michael Todd Simpson). They are the first of a series of objects and animals which are projected onto the curtain and enacted by the singer soloists. Each character describes the ways in which the child has harmed it. When the scrim is covered in images of insects moving up and down in columns, one sees a dragonfly flitting across the vertical rows. Then, a singer stands alongside the human sized image of the dragonfly’s wings. He (Jennifer Johnson Cano) sings of the painful loss of his mate, killed by the Child. There are trees (Mr. Simpson) which have been stabbed by the child’s knife. There are two cats who love and fight (Kelly Markgraf and Ginger Costa-Jackson), a Wedgewood tea cup (Ms Costa-Jackson), saucer, and tea pot (Ben Jones) which the Child has broken. Bats (Nikki Einfeld) fly away, terrified by the Child. All sing through the presence of the soloists who interact with the gracefully drawn images. Frogs swim across the ceiling of the concert hall.

Fire in L’Enfant et les Sortileges

Anna Christy, soloist, stands on a block and sings Fire. A long, loose cloak drapes her while changing colors of orange, red, yellow are projected on her and all over the screen. The Child has not only transgressed by playing with the fire, but also endangered the whole house. Fire tells him “Good Children get warm, Bad Children get burned.” Ms Christy sings the role of the Princess in a fairy tale. The boy wants to be her hero. He says, “If only I had a sword,” and a knight’s helmet with great plumes appears on the screen exactly over his head as the sword is “drawn” into his hand. The Princess sings, “You are too weak” and “how long can a dream last?”

The creatures and objects are tired of being oppressed by the boy. They join forces and fight with him. A general impression could be that the child realizes it is safer to be good than to be bad. In the libretto, the child sees that a baby squirrel’s paw has been injured. He decides to bind its wound. He also observes that the others have each other and love, but he is alone. Suddenly, he calls out “Maman.” The others recognize this as a magic word that the child uttered as he did something good. The action of the Child caring for the squirrel was not included in this performance. So, having the other soloists begin to sing that the child is “wise” and good, was startling. He’s not good, not yet. Seeing the Child attack every aspect of nature and objects of civilization including china, a clock, furniture, and learning may look different to today’s audience observing mass extinctions; extreme hurricanes, fires, floods; and the melting of the Arctic thanks to human’s lack of care for their own world than it did to audiences and artists who had survived and witnessed the gross destruction of human life in World War I. The Child yearned for his mother at a time of crisis; one might say he reaches out for the good.

The projections were created by Gregoire Pont, a French artist who began to study animation at age 8. He calls his work Cinesthetics described on his website as”in complicity with a group of musicians, he draws and animates live, creating a unique experience where music and motion interplay.” Among his other works are Ravel’s La Mere L’Oye (Mother Goose) presented in London’s Festival Hall and the Paris Philharmonic; Shonberg’s Gurrelieder presented in Gothenberg; Debussy’s La Mer presented in Tokyo. The singers interacted with the projections by becoming part of the picture or striking toward the screen to make the image change or singing notes that made the images change rhythmically. It was a fantastic performance, both visually and musically inspiring.

Conductor Martyn Brabbins was a cheerful sorcerer bringing forth beauty, curiosities, musical tales and philosophy. He is the Music Director of the English National Opera. The first half of the concert evening included works with themes or images related to childhood. Pianist John Wilson performed three solo selections from Debussy’s Children’s Corner. With musicians from the SFS, he performed Debussy’s La Plus que lente. All were beautifully performed and delightful. An SFS chamber group including Helen Kim, violin; Matthew Young, viola; Sebastien Gingras, cello; Sayaka Tanikawa, piano, performed Faure’s Allegro molto from Quartet No. 1 in C minor, Opus 15. Debussy’s Noel des enfants qui n’ont plus de maisons (A carol of the homeless children, 1916) was a  cri de coeur sung with appropriate pain and passion by Ginger Costa-Jackson with pianist Peter Grunberg. Mr. Wilson and Mr. Grunberg played the piano four hands work by Ravel, The Enchanted Garden, from La Mere L’Oye. The entire concert was an Enchanted Garden which thoroughly charmed, enlivened, and lifted the audience sending all home with sparkles in their eyes.

 

YEFIM BRONFMAN & SF SYMPHONY PLAY PROKOFIEV

On June 22, the Hedgehogs were in the audience for the powerful performance of Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2 in G minor for Piano, Opus 16. It was a privilege to be there. Yefim Bronfman, the pianist, is surely one of the greatest pianists. His mastery of this Concerto reveals his mastery of Prokofiev’s music and of the art of the piano. Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2 is demanding on every level: technique, emotion, physical abilities. Bronfman triumphs

Yefim Bronfman

in every category with magnificent partnership of the SF Symphony. Bronfman made the challenges of playing this grand, gorgeous, overwhelming music seem to come to him naturally. He breathes the music and the Davies Symphony Hall audience was captivated as he led them on an enormous journey. Mr. Bronfman will continue touring through the US and abroad this summer. If you are anywhere near one of his concerts, go. Do not miss his performances. Everyone who loves music will talk about the experience forever.

The composer, Sergei Prokofiev, found this concerto’s piano solo difficult to play. It is said that he complained of how hard it was for him to learn and perform. Prokofiev won first prize in piano from the St. Petersburg Conservatory so his opinion of playing his creation must be accepted. The Concerto No. 2 is the second in more than one way. His first composition of it was lost in a fire, in 1918. Not yet published, the concerto was lost. Prokofiev had fled the revolution in Russia and gone to Paris. In 1923-1924, he reconstructed it from notes and added new music. The concerto is melodic, suggests dances, machine sounds, and, in the third movement, even sounds threatening. Throughout, the meter changes grabbing the audience’s attention to a piano that is played almost faster than one can listen. It is a giant, life journey.

Yefim Bronfman was born in Tashkent, in Central Asia, a former part of the Soviet Union. He and his family immigrated to Israel where he studied piano with Arie Vardi, head of the Rubin Academy of Music, Tel Aviv University. Moving to the US, he studied at the Juilliard and Marlboro Schools of Music and at the Curtis Institute of Music. His teachers were Rudolf Firkusny, Leon Fleisher, and Rudolf Serkin. He became an American citizen, in 1989. Among his honors: he won the Avery Fisher Prize, 1991. He has been nominated for 6 Grammy Awards and won in 1997 for a recording of the three Bartok piano concertos with Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Also on this program were Fratres for Strings and Percussion by Arvo Part, Music for Ensemble and Orchestra by Steve Reich, and Polovtsian Dances by Alexander Borodin.

Alexander Borodin

The SF Symphony’s performance of the Polovtsian Dances was beautiful as the SFS captured the exquisite, dancing music and enchanting, exotic folkoric sounds. Just when the listener comes close to being lulled into a dream, the 12th century military campaign of Prince Igor against the Polovtsian tribe re-enters with force and  passion. Bravo, Borodin!

Mahler’s 9th Meets MTT: Not a Farewell

Gustav Mahler (July 7, 1860 – May 18, 1911)

Gustav Mahler composed nine symphonies and began his tenth. His Symphony No. 9 was completed in April, 1910, one year before his death, and premiered June, 1912, one year after. With ahistorical hindsight, many have regarded the 9th as a summation of the composer’s life and a farewell to life and music. This is faulty history and a bad way to hear the complex, astonishing music. In the course of this ninety minute symphony, one may hear myriad forces of nature, human experience, and the poignant, irregular pulse in the music. There are pauses; floods of sweeping phrases; galumphing, country dances; a final, transcendent adagio. The movements end as though falling apart, with a harsh punch, or evaporate into another form of being. This writer has heard it said the Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 is not the most sought after for performance. It happens in multiple dimensions at once. It cannot be summed up — it is not “the one with a thousand voices”–it is music made of Mahler’s measureless understanding of music. In the few years preceding his death, Mahler’s life was full of events. He resigned from a ten year tenure as the Artistic Director of the Vienna Court Opera, a role in which he and the orchestra flourished despite constant difficulties, not least the anti-Semitic attacks on Mahler. He desired more time for composing. His four year old daughter, Maria, died. Within days of her death, Mahler learned he had a severe heart problem and needed to curb his activities. An energetic outdoorsman, hiker, swimmer, Mahler was forced to limit the athleticism he loved. This was not a time of giving up: he became Director of the New York Philharmonic and composed Das Lied von der Erde.  He continued to lead a life of creative accomplishment and leadership given to large institutions. He was not an artist in retirement or an invalid marking time. Having seen tv dramas in which someone plays more than one chess game simultaneously, and having tried but not pursued playing even one chess game at a time, one could imagine an unusual person succeeding at that but could not guess how . The structure of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 has a multi-layered complexity put together in a way that creates a unified beauty. It encompasses human emotions and the endless fascination of the natural world. To know one flower, one must look closely and also envision the earth.

Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director of San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the superb, mind-opening, heart-tearing performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, June 13-16, 2019. The Hedgehogs attended the June 16th concert which will be Maestro Tilson Thomas’ last performance with the SFS until his return on September 4. He is taking a leave to have heart surgery, in Cleveland. He was to conduct the Symphony’s programs programs June 20-22 and June 27-30. His composition, Street Song for Symphonic Brass, on the program for June 20-22, will not be performed. His devoted following, truly a chorus of thousands, wish him well and await his return.

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

 

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.

San Francisco Symphony: Sibelius & Rachmaninoff

The San Francisco Symphony, June 24, gave an altogether satisfying, inspiring concert of Jean Sibelius’ Symphonies No. 6 and No. 7, with Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3. The piano soloist Daniil Trifonov was astonishing. Soon to begin his last season as Music Director of the SFS, Michael Tilson Thomas’ brilliance was obvious conducting and in creating this program.

.Jean Sibelius, 1913 (1865 – 1957, Finland)

Recalling the Sibelius symphonies, the word “enchanting” comes to mind. The Hedgehog hesitates at writing it as it also brings the Hallmark channel to mind, but this music came from deep enchantment, serious magic. It is the magic of a pine tree being green all winter. Sibelius was attached to the natural world of Finland. He wrote from a place in his heart which made him feel he, too, was part of Finland’s nature. The music flows as though Sibelius wrote it on a single breath. In Symphony No. 6, Opus 104 (1923) its calm reigns supremely over the events of growth, expressing that natural mystery with no strain or struggle. It is sublime. Sibelius set out to write his Symphony No. 7 in C major, Opus 105 (1924) as three movements. As it turned out, they are unified into one great ribbon of music. In the Vivacissimo, set between two Adagios, it sounds like a love song. It’s not a song of longing but one of wholeness. Experiencing it, it feels ethereal, but music is physical and exerts its force on all the air and objects around it. In Sibelius’ Symphony No. 7, the musical force and the world affected by it are one. It charms the listener and has the great daring to be quiet. It is at rest but never still.

Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873, Russia-1943 California)

Rachmaninoff’s Concerto No. 3 in D minor for Piano and Orchestra, Opus 30 is stupendous. It does it all: lyricism, expansive energy, darting changes of direction. It is probably not the concerto you are thinking of, but it still has that richness of song. Rachmaninoff’s constant invention keeps the songs tumbling over one another like water over Yosemite Falls. It is complex and passionate. It has musical adventure like climbing a steep precipice and dancing on the edge of a sheer drop. The partnership of the soloist and the orchestra is especially notable. Think of a pas de deux in which the young Nureyev supports the elegant Fonteyn in a way that allows her to let go as together they set the stage on fire.

Daniil Trifonov (photo by JKruk)

The SF Symphony showed power and restraint in maintaining its partnership with soloist Daniil Trifonov. He won the 2018 Grammy award for Best Classical Instrumental Solo. His sensational performance of the demanding concerto did not seem to tire him at all though many in the audience seemed to be exhausted by traveling with him through the music. However, the audience was not too tired to applaud the SFS and Mr Trifonov until he returned to perform an encore. This SFS concert had excitement, thrills, and music of great beauty.

Boris Godunov: San Francisco Symphony Triumphs

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

. Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881)

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

Stanislav Trofimov sang the role of Boris Godunov

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

Yevgeny Akimov portrayed Prince Shuisky

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

Catherine Cook appeared as the Innkeeper.

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

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

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

 

 

SF Symphony: Transcendent Concert of Berg & Mahler

Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director

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

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

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

Gil Shaham, Violinist

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

Gustav Mahler (1860-1911)

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

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

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

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

photo of Michael Tilson Thomas courtesy the San Francisco Symphony