Author Archives: Leslie

SF Symphony: War Requiem by Benjamin Britten

May 18, 2023, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco – The San Francisco Symphony performed the enormous and heartbreaking War Requiem, Opus 66 (1961) with soloists Jennifer Holloway, soprano; Ian Bostridge, tenor; Brian Mulligan, baritone; the San Francisco Symphony Chorus with Joshua Habermann, guest conductor; and the Ragazzi Boys Chorus with Kent Jue artistic and executive director conducting. The soloists, soprano, bass, and tenor performed with deep understanding of the texts and, in addition to the power of their voices, communicated the painful emotions of this work.

Britten assembled a multitude of artists in groups and individuals, not as one voice and not with one anthem. There were two different and sometimes opposing texts: the Catholic mass for the dead, Missa pro defunctis, and poetry by Wilfred Owen, one of England’s World War I poets. There are nine of Owen’s poems. In case you are not familiar with Wilfred Owen’s work, it is worthwhile to know that he fought in the war but was not enthusiastic for it. Before the war, Owen had considered entering the ministry. Beginning December, 1916, he was on active duty in France, then spent 5 months in a hospital, then was sent back to France. He received the Military Cross award. He fought in the trenches, saw hideous wounds and deaths among his comrades, and, while leading his company across the Sambre Canal, was killed by machine gun fire. His death was on November 4, one week before the Armistice.

Benjamin Britten, composer (1913-1976)

In Britten’s Requiem, the mixed chorus and the full orchestra perform texts from the Missa pro defunctis in Latin. The male soloists with a chamber sized group of the orchestra sing the Owen texts in English. The Ragazzi Chorus is not seen. It sings its parts of the Missa from behind the wall enclosing the chorus loft. Their sound is quiet and sounds as though coming from a great distance.

Britten uses all traditional parts of the Missa: Requiem aeternam, Dies irae, Offertorium, Sanctus, Agnus Dei, then closing with Libera me. In this music, these sections become an opera of belief and also condemnation. The solo soprano is in the chorus loft with the Symphony Chorus, but they are behind her on their higher rows. She sits alone in the front and lowest row. She appears like a figurehead on a ship or the ancient Oracle, even though she declaims Christian faith and imperatives. Her first majestic singing is in the Dies irae. The chorus does not adopt her outlook. Instead, they sound weak and doubtful. Then, in an example of the opposition of the Latin text and Owen’s poems, the tenor and baritone sing from the deeply ironic poem, “The Next War.”

Wilfred Owen, soldier, poet (1893-1918)

If one had merely listened to the unique orchestration and the use of bells and many versions of percussion including tambourine, triangle, castanets, Chinese blocks, snare drums, bass and tenor drum, that listener may have awakened to Owen’s poem, The Parable of the Old Man and the Young. It is sung by the tenor and bass with the chamber orchestra. It is Wilfred Owen’s answer to the story of Abraham taking Isaac to a place of sacrifice. Abraham begins to follow G-d’s request to sacrifice Isaac, but then an angel, sent by G-d, stops him, saving Abraham from the murder of his son and saving Isaac’s life.

In the Owen poem, Abraham kills his son. The music is harsh, discordant, and, despite the horror of the death, it is worse because it is roughly torn from the story most listeners will know. As that breath taking, wrenching event is told, the boys of the Ragazzi can be heard singing softly, far away.

“When lo! An angel called him out of heaven,/Saying, lay not thy hand upon the lad,/Neither do anything to him. Behold,/A ram, caught in a thicket by its horns;/Offer the Ram of Pride instead of him./But the old man would not so, but slew his son, -And half the seed of Europe, one by one.”

Rather than the war to end all wars, this was a war that killed a generation of men.

The Sanctus opens with the soprano magnificently singing while the chorus chants. It has become a song of praise. The last movement, Libera me (Deliver me) the Baritone sings“I am the enemy you killed, my friend/I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned/Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed./ I parried, but my hands were loath and cold.”

 Together the tenor and baritone sing: “Let us sleep now…” as though they have learned from engaging in the battle with each other, as though they could go forward peacefully. They cannot do it; they are dead.

(L to R) Jennifer Holloway, soprano; Ian Bostridge, tenor; Brian Mulligan, baritone

The War Requiem ends with the boys’ chorus, mixed chorus, and soprano singing “May angels lead you into Paradise,/may the martyrs receive you” and “Grant them eternal rest, O Lord,/and let everlasting light shine upon them./May they rest in peace. Amen.”

The prayer sounds peaceful. Their rest could be tranquil. I do not think we have traveled through the War Requiem in order to believe the dead, piled up like giant haystacks, are all better now.

Benjamin Britten was a pacifist. Wilfred Owen, after having considered a life devoted to a church, found that he could not trust the institution of churches. He could find no Christ in the churches because killing was not only allowed, but supported. The Agnus Dei/Lamb of G-d section of the Missa, repeats “Lamb of G-d, who takes away the sins of the world,/grant us peace. “ But they sing “Grant us peace.” only once.

A portrait of the composer Benjamin Britten from 1948.
































































































































































































































SF Symphony Premieres of Music & Artists

May 11, 2023, San Francisco Symphony, Davies Hall: It was a great night for the music. There were thrilling debut performances of music and by the artists. Violinist Hilary Hahn was scheduled to perform Johannes Brahms’ Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 77 with the SFS. Illness made it necessary to cancel. What could take the place of Brahms and Hahn? The fully packed audience learned the answer: pianist Bruce Liu, a great pianist who gave us Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. #3 in C minor, Opus 37 (1800). This was Mr. Liu’s debut performance with the SFS; he was the complete artist for Beethoven. The program opened with Darker America (1925) by William Grant Still. It was the SFS’s first performance of this classic music which combines music, history, and emotion. One can hear the composer’s thoughts. Closing the event was Ein Heldenleben, Opus 40 (1898) by Richard Strauss. Strauss is best known for his operas; this piece for orchestra presents the drama that propels his operas. The conductor, Rafael Payare also made his debut with the SFS. He is in his fourth season as music director of the San Diego Symphony and his first season as music director of the Montreal Symphony. He has conducted major European orchestras Including the Vienna Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Dresden, Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra, Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, London Orchestra, and more.

Rafael Payare, conductor   Music Director, Montreal

Maestro Payare shares his electric presence with the orchestra and audience. His gestures are clear and his physical movement expresses the rhythm, shape, and character of the music. He is exciting to watch and more than that he reaches into the orchestra players’ musical beings. Their music is alive with energy in response to him, making a thrilling concert.

William Grant Still, conductor (1895-1978). Photograph by Carl Van Vechten (1949).

Composer William Grant Still created prolific and varied works: 5 symphonies, 4 ballets, 9 operas, more than 30 choral works, chamber music, art songs, and pieces for solo instruments. His work was successful and embraced by music institutions. He was the first African-American composer to have an opera, Troubled Island, produced (1949) by the New York City Opera and the first to be produced by a major opera company. His first symphony, Afro-American Symphony (premiered in 1931) was the first performance by a major American symphony orchestra of a work by an African-American composer. His career was one of many “firsts,” and his work surely deserved the recognition. He was also the first African-American to conduct major American symphonies, the Hollywood Bowl and the Rochester Philharmonic. He studied with George Chadwick who encouraged him to create music out of an authentic American voice. He also studied with Edgard Varese, the avant-garde French composer. Still was grateful for his time with Varese although he did not follow his avant-garde way. He dedicated Darker America to Varese. Still wrote a program note describing the changing emotions of this tone poem. It depicts the “American Negro. His serious side is presented and is intended to suggest the triumph of a people over their sorrows …”  There are three themes: sorrow, hope, and a “theme of the American Negro.” The music suggests their hardships. The English horn begins the sorrow theme; hope is found in the “muted brass accompanied by strings and woodwinds.” The music does not promise a happy ending. Sorrow and hope lead the people to overcome their struggle. The themes join in the ending notes, more subdued than joyful. Although only 13 minutes long, this piece is musically refined, powerful, and moving. One hopes that SFS’s performance will begin a revival of this piece in other major halls.

Ludwig Van Beethoven, composer (1770-1827)

In his early career, Beethoven often performed piano concerts, includeding improvised music. His partnership with the piano meant that many of the pieces could not be performed by anyone else. It was also true that his piano music was too difficult for lesser beings. His realization of his progressive deafness led him to withdraw from his appearances. He could no longer do the piano parts he composed or sail through improvisations, creating as he played. The Piano Concerto No. 3 in C minor, Opus 37 was probably written in 1800, and premiered in 1803. For music specialists, Beethoven’s work is divided into three eras. This Concerto sits on the fence between the first and middle eras. It maintains the purity of Mozart’s and Hayden’s classical style, but Beethoven’s energy and grand heart, convinces the Concerto to jump off the fence. As played by Bruce Liu, its invention and demand for a pianist of Beethoven-quality let us hear the greatness of the composer.


Bruce Liu, Pianist      Bruce Liu after winning the 18th International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, Poland, 2021.

There was not a moment of the Concerto in which the listener could relax. This is not a warm bath of music. There are sudden changes of key and from soft to loud. The audience was literally on the edges of their seats, ears up, eyes open. Mr. Liu’s style is restrained, no wild arms flaring around; he sat quietly and opened worlds with power and finesse. The music pulses with feeling that makes it different from the earlier Beethoven and classical predecessors. Beethoven pushes humanity forward. His music demonstrates what humans could be and could do. Davies Symphony Hall seemed to levitate when the music ended. No one wanted it to end. After several curtain calls, we were surprised to see Mr. Liu sit down to play Liszt’s etude, La Campanella, which is based on a virtuoso violin piece by Paganini. Wishing Ms Hahn a speedy recovery, he said, “This is one for the violin lovers.” It is intricate, fast, and faster, making circles within circles of music like concentric roller coasters.

Richard Strauss, composer, conductor (1864-1949) Painting by Max Liebermann, 1918, below

Ein Heldenleben, Opus 40, by Richard Strauss, is called a tone poem as is Darker America. It is operatic in the sweep of the story of a Hero’s Life. It is the composer’s own story made into music. In a note to himself, Strauss wrote, “–the man is visible in the work.” The on-going debate over a program, story, or theme in serious music (and painting, dance, writing) was on his mind, and he went ahead with his own sort of program. There are dramatic episodes; it opens with a lush, passionate, bold depiction of The Hero. The music changes radically to abrasive, “cutting,” “hissing,” sounds; those words are written on the score. It is Strauss giving the critics and critical public a large and nasty presence in this music. SFS’s Concertmaster, Alexander Barantschik, played the violin solo majestically. His solo work was devoted to the part describing The Hero’s True Love. Strauss wrote to the novelist Romain Rolland that his wife, Pauline, was “very complicated … tres femme, a little perverse, a bit of a coquette, never the same twice.” The Hero and his True Love are playful, they follow each other and then stay away. In The Hero’s Works of Peace, The Hero goes to battle but also to make peace. The closing section is The Hero’s Escape from the World and Completion; his battles are over and the music becomes tranquil. One of Strauss’s friends protested the quiet ending. The composer changed it to something completely different, loud, profound, and fitting for the mysterious character of The Hero. Ein Heldenleben was more exciting than an action hero’s movie. Its rich, gorgeous music was even fun to hear.

Sibelius, Joshua Bell, Sibelius, SF Symphony: Spectacular

SF Symphony, Davies Hall, San Francisco, April 27, 2023:  The program opened with Nautilus by Anna Meredith. Composed in 2011, this was its first SF Symphony performance. It is extremely challenging to write about this concert. When I think of this evening of music, I shake my head a bit and widen my eyes. Which superlatives are adequate? Joshua Bell was the soloist for Violin Concerto in D minor, Opus 47 (1905), by Jean Sibelius. Dalia Stasevska conducted. The SF Symphony performed Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 43 (1902), by Sibelius. Every moment of that music was powerful, urgent, necessary. Both of the Sibelius works sound like no other concerto or symphony. It was thrilling to hear and see this music. It was a stupendous, spectacular, over the top wonderful performance. Each SFS musician, Bell, and Stasevska were playing at the height of physical and mental experience. The Sibelius works are virtuosic masterpieces. The Violin Concerto demands the most intricate, masterful technique possible. Sibelius had dreams of becoming a violin virtuoso but instead moved further in his composing. The Concerto was written by someone who knew every bit of what a violin could do in the hands of a singular master; Joshua Bell is the person Sibelius dreamed of for this music.

Jean Sibelius, composer (1865 – 1957)

The  Concerto opens with a strong, almost other-worldly presentation that introduces the soloist’s amazing abilities with the relatively small instrument that is able to take the audience immediately into the sky as on a test jet, hum a lullaby, make our heads float on a cloud, and then brings us into a dark forest without a compass. Sibelius is not interested in comfort for the audience or the soloist. A cadenza, an improvisational passage played by the soloist or a written, fancifully decorated passage, usually comes as a climax. Sibelius was not interested in “usually.” A written cadenza is the heart of the first movement, Allegro moderato. The stamp of Virtuoso is pressed into every movement by the soloist. Joshua Bell absorbs the entire score into his physical being. It takes movement to make music, and, at the same time, the music which is created by movements then shapes the movements of the player. It is fascinating to see Mr. Bell express the music with each movement of his back, the hands manipulating the violin and bow, the step forward that happens when the energy of making music changes where the weight is placed in the body, and a foot comes down.

Joshua Bell, violinist       

The second movement, Adagio di molto, is beautiful in a new way that Sibelius found to be beautiful. Sometimes it is the solo violin, sometimes the clarinet and bassoon, and then back to the soloist, a flute, the strings. All is quiet. It is a soft sensation. Was it because the music was soft to hear or was it making a softness the listener will remember as something one could touch or something that touched her? Allegro ma non tanto is the third movement. It has everything. It drives onward, it dances on beats we cannot count, flies and looks like it could crash, but it drives ahead and in spirals. Joshua Bell is unleashed – if there was ever the least restraint – as themes from throughout the Concerto propel this rocket. Sir Donald Tovey, the musicologist, composer, orchestra director, made that comment about a “polonaise for polar bears,” but he did not intend to demean Sibelius’ Violin Concerto at all. He also wrote: “… I have not met a more original, a more masterly, and a more exhilarating work than the Sibelius violin concerto.” The opening night audience, April 27, at Davies appropriately went wild applauding. After perhaps 4 (or 5) curtain calls, Mr. Bell appeared with his violin. He and Wyatt Underhill, the SFS Assistant Concertmaster, played an encore. Mr. Bell announced it as a little tune by Shostakovich. It was an excerpt from Shostakovich’s Five Pieces for Two Violins. It was a lovely, quiet beauty. The audience, giddy from getting an encore, applauded more and longer, but they had to be satisfied by the greatness they had already heard and seen.

In theater, actors are taught to listen to the other characters. One cannot rehearse lines in one’s head; that would set the actor apart from the action. I have a strong image of Mr. Bell waiting for his entries into the music. He is listening. He looks at the conductor. He is hearing it all and ready, completely occupied by the music. One time I saw him quickly pull a hair from his bow. He immediately returned to his focus.

There was a wonderful, silent communication between Dalia Stasevska and Joshua Bell. In one moment while he played, she faced him with her arms reaching out as though saying, “yes, yes, keep on just as you are.” Her gestures while conducting are strong, direct, clear. She shows the strength of her intent in every movement. Ms Stasevska is sought after by many orchestras mostly everywhere. She is the Chief Conductor of Lahti Symphony Orchestra, Artistic Director of the International Sibelius Festival, the Principal Guest Conductor of the BBC Symphony Orchestra. This season she performed with the Chicago, Toronto, Montreal Symphonies, the New York and Los Angeles Philharmonics.

Dalia Stasevska            

The Symphony No. 2 in D minor, Opus 43 (1902) is another example of Sibelius’ grand, intelligent creativity. He wanted an abstract work designed so the music itself produces the music. Elements of the work seem to talk with other aspects of music and time. He supplied no story, no reference to Finnish folklore, and was not now even inspired by Finnish traditions. He stepped into the deep end and came up with something Sibelius that neither he nor others had thought of before. However, art is not always received by the onlooker or listener in the way the creator meant it to be. Finnish musicologists, audiences, and critics heard it as music for their resistance against Tsar Nicholas II. Finland was part of the Russian empire, but the Finns asserted their independence. When it had its premiere, Ilmari Krohn, Finnish critic, called this symphony “our liberation symphony.” Sibelius did not join in that description, but that mark has lasted.

Jean Sibelius

Sibelius’s father passed away when Jean was only 3 years old. He and his mother moved to his widowed, maternal grandmother’s home. He was fortunate that he had a paternal uncle who was interested in music and gave him a violin at age 10. An aunt taught him to play the piano, but the violin was his first love. He and his brother and sister would play trios. Jean started composing short pieces and recorded them on paper. In 1883, on the subject of composing, he wrote, “They (his compositions) are rather poor, but it is nice to have something to do on a rainy day.” He was 18 at that time. When his Symphony No. 2 was premiered he wrote that “My Second Symphony is a confession of the soul.” The Symphony’s four movements all seem to grow from the first movement, Allegretto. it is like a family of four; they are not alike but one can see/hear their origins. The second movement, Tempo andante ma rubato, is totally different than the activity and continuous movement of the Allegretto. The SF Symphony was powerful, as inspired by Sibelius and led by Conductor Stasevska. The SFS never ran off the tracks though it moved through the different directions and meters like a train running in the air. The Andante was suddenly heart-rending, quiet, and full of longing. The last two movements, Vivacissimo–lento e soave and Allegro moderato bring all the passengers together, joined in a new reality. The music is the creator, peacemaker, and promise. The Finnish audiences were thrilled in 1902 just as we are in 2023. Their critics wrote it “exceeded even the boldest expectations,” Oskar Merikanto, composer. “An absolute masterpiece,” Evert Katila. Nothing less. A spectacular performance.




Marsalis, Tarkiainen, Shostakovich: Great Music@Davies Hall

San Francisco, April 23, 2023, Davies Symphony Hall:  The San Francisco Symphony presented a program of three different kinds of music and demonstrated their ability to excel in all of them. It was an exciting experience: one could not hear any of the stunning music and anticipate what would come next. Guest Conductor Cristian Macelaru showed us his understanding of great music originating in America, Lapland/Finland, Russia. He was a masterful leader letting the music stay in front and have its way. One can see why he is the music director of the Orchestre National de France, chief conductor of the WDR Sinfonieorchester, and music director and conductor of the Cabrillo Festival of Contemporary Music. He lives in music, a universal language.

Wynton Marsalis, composer, musician, educator

Two movements from Wynton Marsalis’ Blues Symphony opened the program. They were terrific: complicated, fun, exciting, thrilling, sophisticated music. There is only one problem with the performance: where are the other five movements? Great as the two we got to hear are, it made me ready for the entire Blues Symphony, and soon. The Blues Symphony premiered in 2009, performed by the Atlanta Symphony. This was its first SF Symphony performance. Mr. Marsalis believes that jazz needs to have its history codified. He knows that the music lives across generations and even centuries. Felix Mendelssohn revived Bach. Bach was dismissed as a music “mathematician.” His work was ignored. Thanks to Mendelssohn’s great-aunt, grandmother, father, and his tutor Zelter, all of whom found Bach manuscripts and encouraged 15 year old Felix Mendelssohn.  Then, Felix re-discovered the St. Matthew Passion. After 5 years of preparation, Mendelssohn presented its second debut, 102 years after its first. The link between those composers gave the 21st century the knowledge and beauties of Bach.To give jazz the respect it deserves, and to recognize its contributions to other kinds of music and other cultures, Mr. Marsalis has adopted the continuing and massive effort of delineating jazz history. Styles come and go, but music lasts. Marsalis wants “to further the legacy of George Gershwin, James P. Johnson, Leonard Bernstein, John Lewis, Gunther Schuller, and others.” Musicians and composers know what went before them. They grow through it, make it their own, and keep it alive.

In tonight’s program, presented first was Reconstruction Rag, the third movement of the Blues Symphony.

Wynton Marsalis (born 1961 in New Orleans)

Sean Colonna wrote the program note for this performance. He mentions the elements of jazz at the turn of the 19th century into the 20th: ragtime and the “‘African Mystique’ that fascinated white audiences.” I would add that the fascination for many white audiences was as though the musicians came from another, lesser planet. That’s the “Reconstruction” of it. Remember what happened after the Civil War? African-Americans were placed in situations that robbed them and punished them for their new freedoms. Despite ragtime’s bumptious charm and rhythms, there is a kernel of the blues at the heart of this extraordinary music. There are many layers of sound and rhythm spiraling around the heady, engaging rag. The music that sounds so gay can mislead you into thinking the movement is only about a party except there is more. Big City Breaks, the next movement played, is the fifth movement of the Symphony. It is the embodiment of the sounds and music of New York City especially in the rich Bebop era which produced and fostered so many heroic, creative musicians and composers. There are traffic noises, a police whistle, a lot of percussion. Once again there are layers of sounds interrupting other sounds, tunes, rhythms. So many places to look: across the street, up to the high walls of skyscrapers, people dressed in their finery, people looking out for the bus. Again, there are multiple meanings to the movement’s title; there are all kinds of breaks. I think of break dancing on the streets, I think of the break that comes in a tap dance step, a break that gives one a better job. And someone or something that seeks to break you, your will, and your heart. Therefore, I am impatiently tapping my toe until I get to hear the whole Blues Symphony.

Outi Tarkiainen, composer

This was the US Premiere of Ms Tarkiainen’s beautiful contribution to the concert, Milky Ways, written in 2022. It was commissioned by the SF Symphony. The piece is a concerto for English horn and orchestra. It was entirely new and different in so many ways. She expresses her connection to the natural world and desires that her music involves her audience without ever abandoning the music itself. She is quoted describing the interaction of humans and music, “I see music as a force of nature that can flood over a person and even change entire destinies.” The English horn, played by Russ de Luna, SFS English horn, was called upon to wrap a delicate web around the atmosphere that humans live in. His performance was powerful in its expressive beauty. There are three movements: The Infant Gaze, Interplays, At the Fountainhead of God. As a female composer, she does not dodge defining herself as a female living a life determined by her connection to nature and earth. She had no embarrassment or coverup for talking to the audience about mother milk. The Greeks, she said, observed the sky, saw a vast display of stars, and called it the Milky Way because it is like a long stripe of spilled milk. There is also the other milky way that infants, human and otherwise, experience to nourish them and receive love. The mother and baby dream; the mother wakes to the baby’s face and sees it as a “gift from God.”  Another breakthrough in this music is that for decades if not centuries, women entering lives that had long been available only to men, would surely not want their work to be considered delicate. Ms Tarkiainen’s music is delicate and powerful simultaneously. She has found that strength in gentleness. When the lights on the stage turned down, and there was no light but over each music stand, Mr. de Luna slowly walked on a diagonal line from center to upstage left and off. The music captures the audience through sound and live image. A brilliant premiere. The SF Symphony performed with grace and strength.

Dmitri Shostakovich, composer (1906 – 1975)

Symphony No. 1 in F minor, Opus, 10. This listener had never heard Symphony No. 1 before this presentation. It allows a brief reverie wondering about the Shostakovich who had not yet been persecuted by Stalin and his vicious toadies. This symphony was written in 1925. He wrote it as his graduation project for the Leningrad Conservatory, in Leningrad/St. Petersburg. Russia. He was, however, already Shostakovich. Symphony No. 1 was premiered in public, in Leningrad, a year later, after it helped him pass his exams. It was a hit. He received immediate recognition as an artist whose work would be allowed to tour outside of the Soviet Union. This led to a performance with the Berlin Philharmonic, led by Bruno Walter, 1927, and, ultimately to the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski, 1928. The music is magnificent; there is no need to dwell on the composer’s youth. The orchestration allows solos for the violin, cello, and piano. It becomes personal, reaching from the instruments to the audience directly, as though the composer sets these musicians apart to carry a message. These solo moments were performed with virtuoso skill and heart by the SF Symphony artists. The four movements have purposefully chaotic moments, the Shostakovich irony and hint of sarcasm, and bright, energetic passages that beg the orchestra to go ahead and dance. Shostakovich’s individualistic eye cannot help but express his environment, a world in tatters, a yearning for hope to exist. He knew his world. In retrospect, he is almost prophetic of what lies ahead. This is not the Symphony of a beginner in life or art.

Bach & Handel: Magnificent

April 13, 2023, Davies Symphony Hall:  The San Francisco Symphony and Chorus celebrated the best of the Baroque with their precise and gorgeous performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Magnificat in D major, BWV, 243 (1723). Guest conductor Dame Jane Glover, a leader of the world of early music, conducted. It was an all star event. Vocal soloists were Cheryl Cain, soprano; Morgan Balfour, soprano; Leandra Ramm, mezzo soprano; Michael Jankosky, tenor; Matthew Peterson, baritone.

Johann Sebastian Bach, composer (1685-1750)

Bach wrote The Magnificat soon after moving to Leipzig. It was his home for the rest of his life. His Magnificat was performed on Christmas day. His first version of it was a bit higher, E-flat major, than the one performed now in D major. In the first version, he included Christmas texts which are now called Christmas interpolations. He premiered the new version in the summer of 1733. All of the text of the music comes from Luke 1:46-55. Mary has experienced the Annunciation, learns that Elizabeth, her older relative, will also have a baby, and together they sing their joy about their unusual but blessed situations. The work opens with the statement, “Magnificat anima mea Dominum” ( My soul magnifies the Lord). Each of the 12 movements has its own kernel of an idea. The meaning and singing of the messages are compressed so that the Magnificat contains all of the religious story in the most direct way. It is a demonstration of the power of concise construction. The music and singing are directed to the audience in a way that lifts their hearts in joy as well.

Dame Jane Glover, conductor

Bach’s Concerto for Oboe and Violin in D minor, BWV 1060 was originally composed for harpsichord. Apparently, Bach would write for harpsichord but then transcribe the music for other instruments. The composition of this work started probably in 1730-1733. The harpsichord has characteristics all its own. The sounds it makes do not last, it has a greater range than other instruments, and it can play multiple notes at a time. The late, great music writer Michael Steinberg observed that the differences of the instruments Bach wrote for meant that he would change the key so that the music would suit each instrument’s character. This glorious piece for oboe, violin, and orchestra was reconstructed by Max Schneider in 1920, two hundred years after the original, two-harpsichord concerto in C-minor which is now lost. Whatever the mysterious origins of the Concerto we hear now, it is completely beautiful. The soloists made the music fly. Eugene Izotov, Principal Oboe of the SFS, and Alexander Barantschik, Concertmaster of the SFS were extraordinary. Watching the physical act of Concertmaster Barantschik playing the violin was visually fascinating at the same time as the completely wonderful music. Principal Oboist Izotov’s oboe demonstrated the remarkable expressive gifts of the oboe. This music in three movements has beauties that are full of energy, graceful, touching, and embracing. The Allegro ending movement captures the audience in its musical arms. We want to go there again.

The program after intermission belonged to Handel even though it opened with a lovely, new piece. Stacy Garrrop’s Spectacle of Light, was a complete delight. This was its SFS premiere. Ms Garrop was present to speak to the audience about the visual imagery that inspired her music. While that was very interesting, one hears the excitement of a gathering waiting for fireworks to begin, the pop and bigger explosions of light and color, and even the fizzle of the last sounds of the display. While Ms Garrop’s piece matched the event depicted in an etching she had seen and which was included in the program, the Spectacle of Light can stand on its own as bright and colorful music piquing the listener’s imagination.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) composer

The Music for the Royal Fireworks was commissioned to celebrate a peace treaty, the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle. It is impossible to describe why there was a War of the Austrian Succession, so on to the music. Handel was given instructions and sometimes demands about what music he should create. The aristocratic bureaucrats and courtiers competed with each other with their ideas. The stage designer Giovanni Niccolo Servandoni out Disney-ed Disney in an era without electricity. There were to be gigantic images of Greek gods and of King George II, triumphal arches, and The Biggest Fireworks. Handel first required 16 trumpets and horns. Then, he cut back to only 12 of each. Unlike most modern producers, reducing the numbers upset the quarrelsome Duke of Montagu and the Comptroller of his Majesty’s Fireworks as well as for War as for Triumph. As for the King, he mostly wanted “no fidles.” Handel’s plan was to follow the 18th century French style influenced by Jean-Phillippe Rameau. It is a calm and rather official sounding opening followed quickly by faster music. Again in the French style, Handel composed a dance movement, the Bourree. Another kind of dance, this one slightly Italian with a siciliano character follows with a title, La Paix/Peace. Appropriately following La Paix is La Rejouissance/Rejoicing. This last section sounds almost almost like a march. Handel has an interesting way with these  movements. His instructions are that La Rejouissance is played three times, each with different instruments leading the way: first it is trumpets, woodwinds and strings; then, horns and woodwinds; last with all the instruments. He ends the festival music with music of another dance style, the minuet. It is so appropriate that the Baroque dance styles play an important role in Handel’s music. Jean-Phillippe Rameau wrote music for ballets, and he followed in the ballet steps of Lully, the founder of French ballet music. The Music for the Royal Fireworks is a journey through glory; even and orderly art; fantastic festivities. The SFS, led by Dame Jane Glover, produced all the sound, images, and thrills in a way that Handel and King George II would appreciate. Early in his tenure as Artistic Director of the San Francisco Ballet, Helgi Tommason created a wonderful ballet for this music. The danseurs tossed their ballerina partners into the air like colorful fireworks or stars.



MTT & MAHLER: The Terrifying 6th Symphony

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS conducts the San Francisco Symphony in Mahler’s 6th Symphony, March 30, 2023:

This giant and terrifying symphony was performed by the San Francisco Symphony with greatness as led by Michael Tilson Thomas.

Please  note: Despite the fact that “terrifying” is the description, do not ever pass up an opportunity to hear it. It has a unique greatness and universal importance. It reaches each listener deeply, as though Mahler addresses us personally and the world at the same time.

Michael Tilson Thomas became Music Director of the SFS in 1995. He made San Francisco a Mahler town. Mahler’s name was painted on the Muni buses. MTT’s Mahler concerts were always sold out. In addition to his 12 Grammy Awards, he shared his musical knowledge and love. We all have grown through his gifts. The standing ovation that welcomed MTT as he entered the stage was given due to the respect and admiration the city continues to hold for him. He is now the Music Director Laureate of the San Francisco Symphony, conductor Laureate of the London Symphony, co-founder, artistic director laureate of the New World Symphony, and has conducted every major orchestra of the US and Europe.

Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director Laureate, San Franciso Symphony

We stood in respectful attention, applauding him to salute him and show our thanks, and then, he conducted music that terrified us all. I mean amazing, innovative, nightmare music composed exactly to warn us: something is coming. This music grabs the listener’s heart and comes this close to ripping it from the listener’s chest.

What is it all about? Mahler himself was stuck between thinking modern music would have an “underlying program,” and knowing that if stories, emotions, or experiences would be spelled out, the music will go flat as the listeners will not really be listening or baring their hearts to this very particular experience. So, he does not give up answers to the riddles.

From the first sounds of the first movement, Allegro Energico, Ma Non Troppo, we are in a threatening world. The music begins with quiet drums, the sound to accompany an army. When we first hear them they are far away, but the drums come nearer and louder. Soon, they are all around us. Trumpets and then oboes sweep in and over us. Suddenly, the music becomes more lyrical. The violins alternate with woodwinds. The music abruptly shifts to this swirling beauty, but it does not last. According to Michael Steinberg, the great writer of SFS’s program notes, the composer’s wife, Alma Mahler, believed this music is portraying her. I believe that she believed that, but, personally, I would not want to be the character in this passage. This music is on a precipice too high, too steep; the character – if in fact Mahler thought of a physical, living being identified in the music – the music character is going to be taken by surprise by another character carrying a big knife. That feels right. Mahler knew what was coming, I cannot believe Alma is there, but as the movement moves toward its end the marching returns. There is a powerful recapitulation. The Alma music returns. Is this a win for Alma? I do not think it will be. Some of this music changes direction roughly, quickly. I hear the changes to loveliness from threats and back again. Mahler is ironic. The sweepingly gentle sounds are not meant to stay. They are there to be eaten by predators. Human predators.

Gustav Mahler, born July 7.1860, Kaliste, Bohemia, died May 18, 1911, Vienna

In rehearsals for the premiere, of his Symphony No. 6, Mahler was torn between having the Scherzo come before the Andante Moderato or vice versa. There were revisions after the first performance, but, in 1963, for the Critical Complete Edition, the editor, Erwin Ratz, settled on keeping the Scherzo second. It has stayed that way for most conductors. Mahler reversed the order of these movements in his second performance of No. 6 and in the second edition. Later, he regretted the change and Ratz believed that Mahler had wanted to go back to the first version.

The Scherzo has ragged rhythms. Nothing is metrically solid or predictable. It is extremely modern for its era in that way. Once again, Alma Mahler recorded her perception of the music. She thought that it represents “the arrhythmical play of little children.” Are the children of the music trying to run away? Are they imps, devilish but not cute- devilish? If they are playing – if there is in the music any vision of physical, solid personages – is that an image that Gustav Mahler would want us to see? The Scherzo’s sounds are broken up, wrenched around, even violent. If Mahler intended images of children, and I doubt it, they are either bad children kicking and beating on each other, or the music again has irony and sarcasm in it. If children are there, they are being lashed and brutally stomped.

After the harsh Scherzo, the Andante Moderato is melodic with gorgeous harmonies. There are sudden reminders of the hints of tranquility which were threatened by the marchers in the first movement. The cowbells played in the Allegro come back. The color and glimpses of love and loveliness waft about us. The Andante is a refuge from the violent Scherzo. Will we be allowed to stay in the refuge?

Absolutely not.

The Finale is longer than the first movement and longer than the two middle movements combined. The distant sound of cowbells in the Allegro, the first movement, is a reminder of a perfect place. It is far away, pastoral, peaceful. Nothing else, nowhere else is. The orchestra for this symphony is grand in numbers as well as in the music they create. There are many of each instrument. For example, there are 4 bassoons, plus a contrabassoon, 8 horns, 6 trumpets, 3 trombones plus a bass trombone. There are 2 timpani players, and a vast variety of percussion: bass drum, chimes, cowbells, cymbals, glockenspiel, hammer, rute*, 2 snare drums, tam-tam, triangle, and xylophone. *A rute is a bundle of birch twigs/sticks used to brush against a bass drum.

The Finale begins with the sound that something dropped; it is a low C. Then, there are many different instruments playing strangely together but not simultaneously and not playing the same thing. This music pulls our mental rug out from under our feet. What is going on? Why do I hear the harp, the woodwinds, more strings making these strange sounds? It is as though they are playing from different worlds, making music that jerks and pulls at each sound. The violins go rogue on their own. The drummers have a vicious sound in their relentless march. What is called the “fate” chord appears in multiple variations. The audience feels the music and seems to be forced to watch and know in their hearts the disintegration of what we had thought was the order of life, of our universe, or, at least, the order in musical sounds.

The lead percussionist appears in the empty chorus above the stage. He is seated on the lowest row. He has in his hand a hammer. It is huge. He strikes with it, and we feel the enormous sound reverberate in our spines. The music returns with an increased energy expressing the soldiers’ march growing ever more insistent and intense. They are coming for us. The music grows more wild and emphatic and scary. The hammer strikes again. The music changes. It is funereal. It blows away, losing force, becoming very quiet, nearly silent. There is a final huge, explosive A minor chord. The music has fulfilled its promise; it began with this chord and has returned, and so have the drums.

The music was terrifying. Michael Steinberg uses the metaphor of a hero “in the full flood of confidence and exaltation a hammer-blow strikes him down.” That is one way to think of what is happening in the music; it echoes a reflection written by Mahler. For me, that hammer blow was not aimed at only one person. It is an emblem of destruction. The horror of Symphony No. 6 is fitting for our world today. Extinctions of so many species. Water and air pollution shorten humans life expectancy. Money from fossil fuel corporations pollute politics. Wars, famine, gigantic fires, hurricanes, floods. Gustav Mahler died in 1911, three years from the start of World War I. What would have happened to him if he had lived deeper into the 20th century? Michael Steinberg, a child born in Germany, 1926, was saved by the Kindertransport to England, in 1939. Later, he moved to the US. Michael Steinberg reports in his program notes that Mahler believed the artist could “intuit, even to experience, events before they occur, that in fact he cannot escape the pain of such foreknowledge.” Mahler had experienced personal tragedy in 1907: his daughter Maria died, he discovered he had a serious, not curable heart ailment, and his directorship of the Vienna Opera ended in bad circumstances. However, perhaps through dreadful, personal knowledge and experience, he gave the world a warning of world-destroying tragedy.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet & Debussy

Sunday, March 26, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco:  Jean-Yves Thibaudet performed Claude Debussy’s Preludes, Books 1 and 2 and blew the minds of everyone in the hall. These Debussy works are seldom heard all together. Maybe some extraordinary pianist would perform the Preludes of one of the Books or possibly one or a few of the Preludes, but who would or could perform all of them? So far as I know, only M. Thibaudet. The Preludes are works for solo piano. Each “Book” has 12 of them. Not one of them is like any of the others, except for their miniature form: each is between two and four minutes long.

Claude Debussy, composer (1862 – 1918)

These pieces are not the prelude to something else; they may be brief, but each one is a world in itself. Frederic Chopin wrote 24 Preludes but they did not have names or descriptions. Debussy’s are written with each one having a descriptive word according to its meter or mood. The first one of Book 1 is “Lent et grave,” slow and serious. However, Debussy also gives each one a descriptive title that appears at the end of each prelude. In the first one of Book 1 it is “Danseuses de Delphes,” The Dancers of Delphi. Another one in Book 1, the third prelude, has Anime as its traditional heading: Animated. The descriptive name at the end: “Le Vent dans le plaine/suspend son haleine;” “The wind over the plain/Holds its breath.” This is one of the literary quotations or references that appear in the Preludes. The phrase may be from Charles Simon-Favart, an 18th century composer and playwright. Later, the French poet Paul Verlaine used it as a heading for his poem, “L’extase langoureuse.” In 1874. Debussy had made a song of Verlaine’s poem. These artists are in tune with their culture, whether it is the culture of a century ago or current.

Jean-Ives Thibaudet, French pianist who lives in Los Angeles

Capricieux et leger, the 11th Prelude of Book 1, also has the title, “La Danse de Puck.” The Puck of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream is a playful jokester. The music of this Prelude has the liveliness of Puck’s flying and jumping and his occasionally trouble-making character. Debussy loved Shakespeare and was also an anglophile. In Book 2, the 9th Prelude is Grave, Hommage a S. Pickwick, Esq. P.P.M.P.C.. It honors Samuel Pickwick from Charles Dickens’s first book, The Pickwick Papers. 

M. Thibaudet always dresses elegantly. This time, he appeared in black. From where I was sitting I saw him well but may have missed details, except for his shoes. I could see the bright bar across the top of his foot. I mention this because it drew my eye to his feet. In the program notes, James M. Keller quotes composer Alfredo Casella, a Debussy contemporary, who also took note of Debussy’s feet: “Moreover, he used the pedals in a way all his own.” I am convinced that M. Thibaudet did so, too. Most of the time, I could see only the downstage foot (the foot closest to the audience). The upstage foot must have been exactly parallel and doing its own pedal thing.

Here is more from Alfredo Casella on Debussy’s playing: “…his sensibility of touch was incomparable; he made the impression of playing directly on the strings of the instrument with no intermediate mechanism; the effect was a miracle of poetry.”

This is an apt description of M. Thibaudet’s playing as well.

While it is entertaining to glance through the traditional citations and names like “Modere (Brouillards) Moderate…Mists, it would be a terrible mistake to disregard the beauty and difficulty of the music. No one in the audience could fail to realize the magnificence of M. Thibaudet’s performance. It was literally stunning to watch and listen. Each Prelude has its own meter, a special tone, a unique set of technical challenges. The pianist does not have a through-line of theme or color or emotion. The Preludes are a celebration of the particular. Attention to the most challenging individual elements of the pianist’s technique cannot waver. It is more intense and requires more precision than an Olympic Decathlon and probably as much strength and energy.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet performed something that maybe no one since Debussy himself has done, or done so well. He took the challenge of performing both Books and embraced the vast variety and individual beauties of the Preludes. It could be compared to tight rope walking between two high rise buildings while playing master level chess. The audience cheered and applauded for at least 5 curtain calls. M. Thibaudet succumbed to the audience’s raptures and played Sir Edward Elgar’s Salut d’Amour as his encore. It was a salute to the program’s complexity, charm, originality, and earth-moving beauty. The audience called M. Thibaudet back for another 4 or 5 chances to applaud him before everyone reluctantly realized the music was over for this night.

Jean-Ives Thibaudet will perform the solo program of Debussy’s Preludes throughout the US and Europe this year. He also will appear in recital with Renee Fleming and will tour in the US and Japan with Midori. In addition, he will perform with Itzhak Perlman and Friends in New York City, Michigan, Toronto. The French Ministry of Culture awarded him the title, Officier, in 2012. He is a great artist; don’t miss him.




Hilary Hahn and J.S. Bach

Hilary Hahn’s solo recital on March 12 was truly great. The word astonishing fits except that it is not a surprise when Ms Hahn performs in a way that combines flawless technique with emotion, color, and devotion to the music. While hearing her play three of Johann Sebastian Bach’s works for solo violin, I knew that this was pure Bach. There is no ego or personal style filtering the music. The music did not need such additions; it was exciting, an on-the-edge-of- the-seat experience. It was pure music.

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)

The program offered Sonata No. 1 in G minor, BWV 1001; Partita No. 1 in B minor, BWV, 1002; and, after intermission, Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004.

Hilary Hahn, Violinist

Purity does not mean that it was simple. Every note, every multiple note created a world of sound. Sound is a real, physical thing. It can change the world around it. Sound can move mountains; consider an avalanche.

The Sonata No. 1 in G minor is listed first of Bach’s six works for solo violin. Its parts are Adagio, Fuga: Allegro, Siciliano, Presto. The order of Slow, Fast, Slow, Fast is intentional. It balances classical order with the interweaving of free imagination and openmindedness. There is a mathematical intelligence at play. My college roommate, Leah Johnson Wilcox, was a math major. I knew she knew games of balance and dimensions and that I would never be able to play on that field. Ms Hahn’s superb intelligence is a wonderful match with Bach’s. Together, they explore balance, space, rhythms; they play with time and space. The listener is joyfully immersed in the mathematics of music without really knowing it is happening.

The Partitas have movements named for dances. The Siciliano in Sonata No. 1 is the only dance character in the Sonatas. Baroque dances were crazy complicated in their patterning of order. Partita No. 1 in B minor opens with an Allemande, and then its Double; next comes a Courante and its Double: Presto; Sarabande, and its Double; Tempo di Borea (Bourree) – and its Double. The Double is an ancestor of a jazz variation; it spins out something new from a standard. Here, the music takes off from the musical idea of the dance movement first presented. The rhythms and characters of the dances go beyond a restatement of a physical, 18thc. dance. The music tells us the DNA of a Courante’s running motion or the Sarabande’s dignity and sadness. It is not only the heart of the music in motion; it exposes Bach’s understanding of the electrical pulses and chemical interactions that keep it alive.

Restraint can be beautiful. Order can breathe. These violin solo works are not embroidered or showing off innovation. They combine profound creativity with their classic forms.

There were moments in the recital when I am certain I heard Bach speak. Did Bach invent music? I know that is not true, not entirely true. It only seems that way sometimes. There are not adequate ways to describe Ms Hahn’s greatness. Standing alone on an empty stage, she filled the stage and Davies Hall with her presence and her powerful connection to the music she made.

The Partita No. 2 in G minor shares its format with Partita No. 1 but its Fate led it somewhere else. This one has no Doubles, but it does have five movements: Allemande, Courante, Sarabande, Gigue, and Chaconne. The mood of the first four movements is tinged with reflection, controlled order; if we were to use Romantic thoughts we might find regret. The Gigue (Jig) takes rhythm over the mountain, dancing with wild energy which takes the rhythmic demands farther than one could expect, and even farther than that. And then, there is the Chaconne. It is very long, so long as the all the first four movements together. It gives us a theme and then sixty-four variations. I do not remember breathing as I heard this majestic music. It gathers the knowledge of music’s world and, in the last two strokes of the bow, made my heart stop in awe.

For more about Ms Hahn, please see the article at   about her Davies Hall recital on April 26, 2016, with Cory Smythe, pianist. The program included work by Mozart, Bach, Aaron Copland, and Tina Davidson’s Blue Curve of the Earth, the winner of a competition for new encore pieces sponsored by Ms Hahn.


HERBERT BLOMSTEDT with the San Francisco Symphony

There is no point to searching for the best adjective. “Herbert Blomstedt” says it all. The extraordinary conductor brought us a program of two Czech composers. One is well known and loved, Antonin Dvorak, the other,  Jan Vaclav Vorisek, barely known but deserving love. The matinee performance, February 12, 2023, indeed was a love fest. The audience felt profound admiration and affection for Maestro Blomstedt, but that was not all. The SFS matched their Conductor Laureate’s direction as though they were made of one essence. Herbert Blomstedt conducted what must be the internal truth of the music. The music was played perfectly, according to the brilliant conductor’s insights and precise, forceful leadership. This was perfection in sound so it was never rigid. Every moment was full of life.

Herbert Blomstedt conducting at the Leipzig Gewandhaus, 2015

Maestro Blomstedt selected Jan Vaclav Vorisek’s Symphony in D major, Opus 23 (1823). This year is that symphony’s 200th birthday. While the fine program comments noted the influence of Mozart in the Andante which could be a funeral march, and Beethoven and Schubert’s influence in the Finale, for this listener, it was all new. Vorisek’s opening is an Allegro con Brio, delightfully brisk. The Andante features graceful, tranquil woodwind performances, and the Scherzo offers the unusual 9/8 rhythm. The Finale energetically returns to Allegro con Brio with one brief salute to Beethoven’s 5th symphony. It was a wonderful introduction to an individualistic creation of fine and truly original music. Sadly, Jan Vaclav Vorisek, born in Bohemia, 1791, died in Vienna, 1825, age 34. This symphony was  not published in his life; it did not appear until 1957. We are fortunate that Herbert Blomstedt’s vast musical knowledge has led him to champion this mostly unknown treasure.

Herbert Blomstedt, Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, 1985-1995, now Conductor Laureate of SFS and other world leading orchestras – see below for details

Although a Dvorak devotee, I think I somehow missed hearing his Symphony No.8 in G Major, Opus 88 in person. Lucky me to hear it first as conducted by Herbert Blomstedt. He will perform it with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, March 9, 11, 12. If you missed it in San Francisco. There really is not anything better for you to do than hear it live with Blomstedt conducting.

Antonin Dvorak (born in Bohemia, 1841; died in Prague, 1904)

Descriptions of this Symphony often mention the mood changes. It is beautifully sunny and feeling optimistic and then a minor key gradually takes the happiness down a peg or two. A bird like flute passage appears and dismisses any sad notes or memories. Dvorak loved nature and loved life. One cannot get away from that. Loving life means one has met the dark shadows of illness, betrayal, and death, yet one still goes on for the next bird song, the next absolute beauty. Dvorak would not compose a symphony so limited that the cruel truth is totally eliminated. Our life is  more than one aspect. This shining Symphony No. 8 encompasses our life in the round. His Adagio, the second movement, includes the ambivalent moods: will I be sad or happy about this world? It is strange and unfair, but it is my world. The movement finds its equilibrium; we balance. Balance can be peaceful and peace need not be boring. The third movement, Scherzo, combines the elegance of a waltz with the sense of the country which is lovely but sometimes raw. And then, we are rewarded. Dvorak plays for us and dances with us. It is something completely different which also, as we dance with him, seems to have been written specifically for me and you may think specifically for you and every individual in Davies Symphony Hall will know it is specifically for Antonin to be able to dance with us in person, in his country town. Dvorak gives us Nature’s own music as surrounding us, racing through us, as presented to us by the Conductor for all time signatures, Herbert Blomstedt.

ABOUT HERBERT BLOMSTEDT: He was born in Springfield, Massachusetts, July 11, 1927. He is now 95 years old. His parents, originally from Sweden, moved back there when Herbert was 2 years old. He began to study music in Sweden and later at the Juiliard School, New York. He led important orchestras from a young age. Music Director/or Principal Conductor of the Norrkoping Symphony Orchestra, 1954-1962; Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra, 1962-1977; Swedish Radio Symphony, 1977-1982; Chief Conductor of the Dresdner Staatskapelle, 1975-1985. Throughout these years he made many recordings including the works of Richard Strauss, and the complete Symphonies of Beethoven and Schubert. In addition, he led his orchestras on international tours. He does not waste time in histrionic gestures. His conducting is an example of “anything more than the truth would be too much,” as stated by Robert Frost.

He became Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, 1985-1995. He led the SFS on regular tours of Europe and Asia and won numerous award winning recordings for London/Decca. These included 2 Grammy awards, a Gramaphon award, and the Grand Prix du Disque plus awards from Belgium, Germany, and Japan.  When he ceased being the San Francisco Symphony’s full time leader, he became Principal Conductor with North German Radio Symphony, 1996-1998, and Principal Conductor of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, 1996-2005. He is currently conductor Laureate of SFS, Honorary Conductor of the Bamberg Symphony, Danish National Symphony Orchestra, NHK Symphony, Swedish Radio Symphony, the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, Staatskapelle Dresden.  HERBERT BLOMSTEDT will perform a program of Mozart with Emanuel Ax, in Philadelphia, PA, March 3-5. There are limited tickets for each concert. The availability ranges fro 26-30 tickets. Hop on a plane. You will be so happy to be there.

Making History: Leslie’s Dances in Russia, 1985


The phone rang at 5 a.m. It was 1985; spam calls had not been invented. I picked up the receiver. The caller said he was at the American Embassy in London, is this Leslie Friedman? Yes. He called to find out if I would be willing to travel to Russia to perform. I sat up. Yes. Are you sure you could do this? YES. He asked a few more questions which I do not remember. I interrupted him and said, “Russia is the Mecca of ballet. Of course I want to do it. When do I go?” The caller told me there were other posts that would like to have me come to perform and perhaps to teach. The caller was in charge of planning the presentation of American specialists like engineers and artists. He knew about my 1983-1984 work in India, Sri Lanka, Egypt, and Tunisia from reports sent to him by US diplomats in those places. The caller, Cal,* said that he would get back to me with the details of other posts and travel dates.

Cal called again. Hungary, Romania, and Spain invited me. None” of them had co-sponsored an American artist before this. There had been no cultural exchange with the USSR for 14 years. I would perform for an all-Russian audience of officials and artists. This was completely new. He did not have to tell me, but he did, that Russia, with its great ballet tradition might not know what to make of me, if they came at all.

Long lines of travelers were waiting to show their passports at the Moscow airport when I arrived, March 13. My papers accepted, I heard someone nearby ask if I were Leslie. It was the Cultural Attaché from the Embassy. I was ready to leave the airport, but first my suitcases needed to be searched and then kept for further inspection. My companion asked if I needed anything in the suitcases. Definitely: fluids and a case for contact lenses. Ted* said the Embassy kept supplies on hand; we could go there.

We got the needed items and looked into a ballroom. It was full of people sitting on folding chairs. I remember only men sitting there, looking half or entirely asleep. Their jackets hung over the backs of chairs; their heads rested on their hands draped over the chair in front of them. I asked Ted who they were. He said they were journalists awaiting news of who would be the new leader of the USSR. Chernenko had died a day and a half before. His death and funeral could have called off my program.

Ted said the sleepy writers knew that eventually Secretary of State George Schultz would appear and make the announcement. He asked me if I was ready to go. I asked him if we could stay. “How long do you want to wait?” he asked. “I would like to hear the announcement.” “You mean you’re interested?” “Yes, this is history, and I am here. If we can stay, let’s stay.” We waited. Nothing happened. Then, George Schultz appeared. The room was suddenly alert, chairs filled, jackets back on, all eyes turned toward Secretary Schultz. He said that he had “had a good meeting with Russian leaders. The new person heading their government will be Mikhail Gorbachev. I have met him. He is someone we can work with.” Secretary Schultz smiled. He beamed positive vibes.

Ted said, “Now I can take you to your hotel.” It was very cold outside. Ice and snow were on the sidewalks. Ted escorted me to my room. It was very small. Bunk beds. The window would not close. The shower had only cold water. Ted had said that Paul Newman had stayed in this hotel. I thought, definitely not in this room. I worried about icy muscles before dancing. The next morning, Ted arrived to drive me to the ambassador’s residence, Spaso House. He told me that visiting artists would normally perform at the residence for an American audience. I met the ambassador’s wife. Donna Hartman, a tall, beautiful, blonde lady, told me that I could do my stretches on the floor of their dining room. Mostly, I remember how good the carpet felt. She got down on the floor and did stretches with me. She asked about my hotel room. I told the truth. I said maybe I could move to another room. She invited me to stay there in their home with Ambassador Hartman and herself. I feel my eyes pop as I remember that moment. I slept in the Vice-President’s room in a wonderful, warm bed.

Before the program, I was introduced to Valukin, the artistic director of GITIS. I was scheduled to do a performance and lecture there the next day. GITIS is Russia’s crown jewel of the theater arts, revered for training choreographers, ballet dancers and folk ensembles. Valukin himself had trained there and became a star of the Bolshoi. After my presentation at GITIS, Valukin asked me to return to teach. A First for an American dancer.

Friendship House, a grand, pre-1917 relic, was to be my performance venue. It is the stage for foreign artists. I changed in a small room with a drapery for a door. Ted surprised me by walking in. There was barely room for one person, me, and one person’s stuff, my costumes and notes. Ted had decided there were things I needed to know and a few minutes before my performance was the best time to inform me. He said that one of their great ballerinas, Olga Lepeshinskaya, a Bolshoi star in the 1930s and ’40s, would introduce me, but there was no guarantee that she would show up. The invitees included artists, art administrators, the symphony orchestra, dancers from the Ballet, ballet students, Russian officials. He added that it would be an all-Russian audience; no Americans except the ambassador and Mrs. Hartman. The Russians might not want to come, and they might be told not to come. I told him that this is not what I need to hear at this time. He emphasized that it was important. I told him, “Please leave. Get out of my dressing room.” As I remember this, I feel nervous; his messages were so distracting. At the time, however, I was calm. Especially once he left.

Mme. Lepeshinskaya was onstage introducing me in Russian. It was a moment when everything was in harmony. The dancing went well. When I ended, the audience stood, applauded, even cheered. Mme. Lepeshinskaya praised me in loving comments. She looked into my eyes, held my hand, and told the audience they should follow my example, expanding ballet and expression to bring Russian Ballet into the present. That’s what the translator told me. Praise from a Prima; what a gift.

When I went backstage to the reception room, Valukin picked me up and swirled me around in the air. He was elated. He said I had “done what he had hoped for: showing that a dancer–an American!–could dance beautifully in this new dance.”

Ted accompanied me that night to the Embassy doctor. The unfinished wood floor had left an impression on me. I had many splinters in legs, feet, body. They hurt, but I was too happy to notice the doctor’s needles.

Then, I took the train to Leningrad for performances and meetings with Kirov ballerinas. I stayed in Consul General Charles Magee’s residence. After my Russian program was over, the Consul General told me that my program was so successful it was a significant element in getting a new cultural exchange agreement.

–Leslie Friedman

This article appeared in the Institute for Historical Studies publication, Vol.42, No. 3, Winter 2023. It appears here with permission of the Editor, Maria Sakovich.

*Name changed for publication. ^As Leslie has noted, GITIS, State Institute for Theatre Arts, is Russia’s preeminent training for theatrical arts. Since its founding in 1878 the school has expanded greatly and lived through various changes in name. GITIS is the longest-lived appellation and was incorporated into the 1991 change in status: “Russian Academy of Theater Arts-GITIS.”

Leslie is a modern dancer. “My early training was ballet with Mme. Victoria Cassan, an Englishwoman who was a soloist in Anna Pavlova’s company. Much later, I was offered a scholarship at the Alvin Ailey school and a place in the Martha Graham school’s professional training program. My choreography is musical and expressive. That means that some ballet people think it is modern dance and modern/ contemporary people think it is too balletic.” Editor’s Notes