Monthly Archives: March 2024

RAY CHEN: An Amazing Violin Recital

As  his audience continued to applaud after his second encore, Ray Chen shouted out “You make me feel like a rock star!” That is exactly right; the full to the rafters audience could not let him go. From Tartini to Chick Corea, this virtuoso violinist swept away his audience by his fantastic playing.

Violinist Ray Chen as pictured on his album, SOLACE, 2020, featuring selections from Bach’s Partitas and Sonatas.

Giuseppe Tartini composer-violinist (1692-1779)

His program began with Giuseppe Tartini’s Violin Sonata in G Major, Devil’s Trill (1713). There are four movements in this remarkable sonata. After each movement, there were moments for audience members to open their eyes very wide as though they realized they were hearing exceptionally difficult music as though it were easy. The piece, arranged by Fritz Kreisler, was an extraordinary accomplishment presenting four different moods. Starting with a Larghetto affettuoso, slowly emotional; an Allegro energico picked up the excitement; the third movement, Grave, checked the energetic happiness; and then closed with Allegro assai. The performer smiled. He had knocked our socks off and this was only the first selection.

Chen’s pianist partner is Julio Elizalde. He has played with Chen for a long time. He played his debut SF Symphony Great Performers Series with Chen, 2019. Elizalde has performed in great halls around the world. He performs as a soloist, collaborator, curator, and educator. He earned his BA degree with honors at the SF Conservatory and his master of music and doctor of musical arts from Juilliard. He wears many hats and receives many awards in the world of music.

Ludwig Van Beethoven, Composer (1770-1827)

Beethoven’s Sonata No. 7 in C minor, Opus 30, no. 2 (1802) was so different from the Tartini Sonata one could imagine them from different planets. They are from different centuries. The world had changed and music changed; Beethoven’s influence made sure of that. The opening movement, Allegro con brio, is suspenseful, taut, and occasionally breaks into dramatic rests. There are moments that seem cheerful and other times that hold a simmering anger or anxiety. This sonata was written as Beethoven realized his deafness was taking away so much. The  second movement, Adagio cantabile, had a tenderness to it but it could not be sustained. The music set up its own protest at conditions that could not change. Beethoven’s Scherzo: Allegro was playful, a little jokey, with a new conversation between the piano and violin. There is irony that steels the wit. The Finale: Allegro-Presto recalls the explosive energy of the first movement. Beethoven will not let it explode. He knows how to ride the wind and thrills us with the Presto. 

During the intermission, thinking about this unsettling music led me to wonder what I could have expected. There is no reason to search for a musical pigeon hole. The Sonata was stirring and in its rough beauty could be dangerous, but a danger to keep.


Johann Sebastian Bach, Composer (1685-1750)

Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E major for Solo Violin, BWV 1006 changed the mood of the music as well as the look of the stage. Before the concert began, I saw the piano on the stage.  There was no one onstage and no thing other than the piano. My eyes were full of the piano, its shape and color. It is such a beautiful thing, sitting there on center stage, I felt that I could spend time just looking at it. A piano is powerful. It looked at ease, occupying its space. It shaped all the space around it. It also looked like it was waiting for the moment when it would spring like a beautiful beast jumping into action, letting its power take charge.

When Ray Chen entered that space with his violin, everything was different. Here was a man with a violin. Alone, he and his violin filled the entire hall with the visual art of the physical presence of the artist and violin and the movement he makes to release the music. The sound is physical and has a spiritual life as well. He recorded his album, SOLACE, as the world was changed by the COVID pandemic. We were at a standstill. Chen wrote that it “became a time of self-reflection, and a renewed appreciation of the power of music….Bach’s music, in particular, written so far ahead of its time, reminds us of an important message: that humanity struggles onward despite the odds.”

So often Bach’s great work is described as ordered, geometric, balanced. All of that is true, but Chen hears the character of the music. The parts of this partita express sadness, loneliness, joy. Two movements of the Partita No. 3 in E Major, are included in the collection of movements from Sonatas and Partitas in SOLACE. The first movement, Preludio, is a waterfall of music. There are endless fast 16th notes challenging the violinist to rise above the Niagra Falls of Bach’s thrills. Chen takes it on, dashing in and through the churning waves. The other part that is on SOLACE is the third movement, the joyful, though polite, Gavotte and Rondeau. Five of the six movements really are about movements. Bach knew he was following the ideas in the dances: minuets, bourres, gavottes. How wonderful that this great composer-musician indeed had room for the dances in his heart.

La Ronde des lutins, Opus 25, by Antonio Bazzini is a fantastic piece which Izthak Perlman often includes in his encores. It made me happy that Chen had it in his program. The title means Dance of the Goblins, though it also has a more formal name, Scherzo Fantastique. Even I, a non-violinist, can tell how difficult this piece is. Bazzini was successful as a touring virtuoso. He also spent five years as a soloist with the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, conducted by Felix Mendelssohn. He was president of the Concert Society in his home city, Brescia, and became the director of the Milan Conservatory, 1882. He wrote six string quartets and two quintets. Three of his students went on to compose operas: Pietro Mascagni (Cavalleria rusticana), Alfredo Catalani (La Wally), Giacomo Puccini, too, although Puccini moved to another professor, Amilcare Ponchielli (La gioconda). In short, Bazzini was successful, well known, and a significant personage in Europe in the 19thc., and still, La Ronde des lutins is his calling card, his home run in the bottom of the 9th inning. James M. Keller describes from the musician’s view what Bazzini did to make it available for performance only to the greatest technicians: “ricochet bowing, left-hand pizzicatos, alternate fingerings, runs of double-stopped thirds and tenths, double -stopped trills, and double harmonics.” Hats off to Bazzini and Alpha violinists. I credit the Goblins.

Antonin Dvorak, Composer (1841-1904)

There is more! Ray Chen let us hear him play music from different centuries and styles. Next up is Antonin Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance No. 2 in E minor, Opus 72. Early in his career, 1877, a set of Slavonic dances brought positive notice and some cash to him. He wrote another set in 1886; this one was the second dance. It comes from delightful folk tradition that may have originated in Ukraine, probably in the 1500s. This music was arranged by Fritz Kreisler (as was Tartini’s Devil Trill). While Dvorak wrote it in Allegretto grazioso, Kreisler changed it to Andanate grazioso Quasi Allegretto. It gives the Slavonic Dance more weight and seriousness in addition to the dancers’ delight.

Chick Corea, musician-composer (1941-2021)

Chick Corea’s Spain (arranged by Julio Elizalde & Ray Chen), written in 1971, is one of his most popular compositions. It begins by quoting Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, a beautiful work that is nostalgic and innovative. Once that introduction is completed, Corea morphs into a samba, and the samba lives in its rhythm and controlled passion. It a major piece of contemporary music especially in Corea’s musical world of jazz, jazz fusion, and his collaborative work with Herbie Hancock, Bobby McFerrin, and classical music of Mozart and Bartok. Spain has been recorded by many musicians of many singular styles: Tito Puente, James Galway, Bela Fleck, ukelele artist Jake Shimabukaro, Blood Sweat & Tears, Manhattan Transfer. It has a life of its own; it is universal music. Chick Corea turned Spain into a piano concerto and performed it with the London Philharmonic in the 1990s.

This was an amazing, grand concert which brought the voices of six composers into the listeners’ heads and hearts. Ray Chen and Julio Elizalde knew that the audience was ready and greedy for encores. There were three encores: A Evaristo Carriego, by Eduardo Rovira (arr. Chen & Elizalde), Czardas, by Vittorio Monti (arr. Chen & Elizalde), and Estrellita, by Manuel Ponce ( Heifetz). The high energy of the concert continued into the encores. The lovely tune, Estrellita, was a calming choice when the musicians decided to say good-night.

RAY CHEN’S COMING TOURS include La Jolla, CA, tonight, March 28th; following that you can find this incredible artist in Storrs, CT, and Amherst, MA. Check the planes and train schedules. Do not miss an opportunity to hear and see this performance.


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

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

George Balanchine Choreographer (1904-1983)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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












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

Jean Sibelius, Composer (1865 – 1857), Finland

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos by Brandon Patoc courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony




When the French author, Charles Perrault, published his story Barbe-bleu/Blue Beard, 1697, themes from the story had appeared in the 15thc. The themes included serial murders of wives and the importance for young women to obey their husbands in all details. When Bela Bartok decided that writing an opera would give his reputation a lift, he chose Bluebeard. It was to be his first and only opera. He wrote it in 1911 and entered it in a competition for a one act opera. It was refused. He offered it to the Hungarian National Opera; they also dismissed it as impossible to stage.

Bartok returned to his ethnomusicology researching music in Hungary’s forests and villages. During World War I, he returned to composing. The Hungarian National Opera asked Bartok for a ballet; it was The Wooden Prince. It debuted in 1917 and was a great success. After the warm reception for the ballet, the HNO made a double bill by adding Duke Bluebeard’s Castle. Unfortunately, it had mixed reviews. It was, after all, a very dark story.

This was an era that sought knowledge of human psychology and brought forth theories of the unconscious. Sigmund Freund published Totem and Taboo, 1913. Carl Jung’s Psychology of the Unconscious appeared in 1912. Symbolism was a popular trend in literature and music. Debussy composed an opera of Maerterlinck’s Pelias et Melisande.The Barbe-bleu story inspired Maeterlinck’s play, Arione et Barbe-bleu

The performance, at Davies Symphony Hall, March 3rd, began with narration spoken by actor Breezy Leigh. Her introduction suggests that the strange story might be inside of the listeners. It never was a history; it may be a struggle in our psyches.

Esa-Pekka Salonen, Music Director of the SF Symphony, Conducts Duke Bluebeard’s Castle with singers Michelle DeYoung and Gerald Finley.

Despite the grim, gory story, maybe because of those aspects, the music and singing completely captured our attention. The singers became the characters. Mezzo-soprano, Michelle DeYoung, as Judith truly projected the new wife’s innocence, curiosity, proud demands she made of her host. Ms DeYoung’s voice was well suited to the emotions rebounding from happy to terrified. Gerald Finley, bass-baritone as Duke Bluebeard was splendid and horrible as the master of the Castle and keeper of his wives. SF Symphony’s Music Director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, conducted the orchestra and singers with a deep understanding of mysteries contained in Bartok’s opera. He kept faith with Bartok.

This story is different from the Perrault tale. In Perrault’s, there are 6 wives, all dead, and hanging from hooks on the walls of an underground chamber flooded with blood. I remember that image from long ago when I read the story. The young wife is not given a name. Duke Bluebeard marries the younger sister of a neighbor family, leaves his castle, gives the new wife the keys. He warns her not to go into the chamber. She invites her relatives and friends to a party at the Castle. While the party continues, she sneaks away to open that chamber. She runs away from the bloody scene, dropping the key for that room. It is stained with blood that will not wash off. Duke Bluebeard returns, sees the key, and threatens to kill her, but his new wife asks for a last prayer with her sister. As Bluebeard attacks her, her sister and brothers kill the killer. The Castle and riches now belong to her. With her new wealth, she helps her siblings to marry well.

Blue Beard Illustration by Walter Crane

In Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, there are only 3 previous wives. Bluebeard takes Judith on a tour of the Castle. She asks for keys to each locked chamber. He tries to convince her not to examine all the rooms. She sticks to her position. The rooms contain things that show Judith more about her husband. This work considers colors like Prometheus does. There is a room with torture tools, the light goes red; another room has armaments, the light is yellow; a room full of jewels has golden light; a garden is blue-green; the fifth room shows Bluebeard’s properties in bright white light; the sixth is a lake of tears in shadow. Lighting is by Luke Kritzeck. Duke Blue Beard gave Judith chances to leave, but she insisted. She had the deadly virtue of sticking with her plan. Determination is her downfall. A lake of tears? Run,  Judith, run! She wants the key to the seventh chamber. The room is barely lit, but she sees three wives: the love of his dawns, his love of noons, the love of evenings. Judith will be his love of night. She will become mute and isolated. He leaves and locks the door.

Photos by Brandon Patoc, courtesy of the SF Symphony


Scriabin & Bartok; Prometheus & Bluebeard- San Francisco Symphony

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photos by Brandon Patoc courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony.

HEROIC, BELOVED: Celebrate Women’s History!

Beginning in 1996, THE LIVELY FOUNDATION, has celebrated Women’s History Month with concerts of dance and music. The dances were about real, historical women as well as ideas about women: Harriet Tubman, leader for the underground rail road and secret agent for the US in the Civil War; Clara Schumann, composer and acclaimed pianist; Tina Turner, singer, dancer, star. Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s poem, Sabbath Morning at Sea, inspired music by Elgar, and another dance by Leslie Friedman which drew gasps and applause.

Heroic, Beloved was the first concert saluting Women’s History Month, the first anywhere. After a few seasons, Leslie received calls from several other dance organizations wanting to know where and how we got our grants for these events. Leslie did not tell them because there were no grants. Lively carried it on with help from donations from individuals and the audiences’ appreciation and enthusiasm.

Heroic, Beloved was presented annually in San Francisco and more cities including other states: University of Kentucky, Lexington; University of Toledo; the Regional Women of Achievement Awards, Lakeland Community Center/Cleveland; Santa Clara University, Santa Clara, CA; Eastern Kentucky University; University of Northern Iowa; University of Eastern Tennessee.

Choreography and dancing by Leslie Friedman when on tour. In home seasons among the featured dancers were Patricia Broz, Evangeline Maynard, Steve Ortiz, Megan Williams, and Nemesio Paredes, Guest Artist, choreographer and famed Flamenco master.

Lively Foundation Artistic Director Leslie Friedman

The  program came about when Leslie looked at her repertoire and noticed that women were frequently subjects. She began the series of programs with a fund-raiser for breast cancer. A dear friend from history graduate school, Gloria Guth, came to the concert with her support group. At future performances, we were proud to welcome Rev. Amos Brown, San Francisco Supervisor, head of the Bay Area NAACP, and Rev. of the Third Baptist Church.

Keep Heroic, Beloved in your thoughts this month and always. There are so many gifted women, famous or not, who deserve our thanks.