Monthly Archives: May 2024

San Francisco Symphony Explores New Music from 1861-2023

May 16, San Francisco Symphony presented a concert that showed delight in the new and even in the older new music. Each excursion into a different world of sound let the audience enter surprising terrain. The program itself was innovative as its mixture of instruments and completely different ways of composing allowed all of us to realize there are countless approaches to music.

Conductor Ryan Bancroft led the SFS through centuries of music with care and enthusiasm for his program and fellow artists. He grew up in Los Angeles and gained international attention when he won the first prize and audience prize at the Malko Competition in Copenhagen, 2018.

Unsuk Chin wrote Alaraph ‘Ritus des Herzschlags’ (Alaraph: Rite of the Heartbeat) in 2022. She was fascinated to learn about “heartbeat stars.” They have regular pulsations. Alaraph is a “heartbeat star” “in a binary star systems in eccentric orbits with vibrations caused by tidal forces.” The composer has said that she “cannot and I do not need to describe my music..You have to listen to it and everybody has to understand it in their own way.” Despite that desire, it is a big help to have a couple of her hints. Curiously, the “star’s light curve is similar to what a heartbeat looks like through an electrocardiogram when its brightness is mapped over time.” The heartbeat stars therefore have both the pulsating force and their light curve to match the heartbeat concept. While there are traditional orchestral instruments – flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, contrabassoons, horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba, contrabass tuba, and timpani, the percussion list is long. In fact, the list of the instruments is nearly two inches tall. Some of these are familiar: the cowbell, the tam tam, piano strings, for example. There are a lot of drums: wood drum, bongos, snare drum, tom toms, tenor drum, bass drum, but there are also stranger percussion resources, like bamboo tree and binzasara. This was not meant to be something one would hum on the way to the garage. It is sound for the stars, planets, and space. Ms Chin also notes that traditional Korean music is knit into this universe. Having heard Korean music for traditional dance, it is a powerful presence. I was told that one must be careful when such things are playing as the sounds bring out spirits which could rock the chair one had assumed was not going to move or jump, and it might.

As the program had opened with a composition of 2022, the next performance was Violin Concerto No. 5 in A minor, Opus 37, by Henri Vieuxtemps, written in 1861. Vieuxtemps was Belgian and performed his first concert at age six. Throughout his life he was celebrated by the elite of violinists and music critics. This Concerto shows why. In addition to his extraordinary greatness as a violinist, he was also a remarkable composer. Fortunately for the San Francisco audience, Joshua Bell was the soloist. The performance was astounding. One could not compare this performance with any other; it was only played by the SFS  once before, in 1932. The virtuosity required by the soloist is not easy to describe; everything about the piece was designed to keep the mind and fingers moving more and more quickly with more and more brilliance. Berlioz reviewed Vieuxtemps’ Concerto No. 5 in A minor and found it “grand and new;” the “whole is admirably combined to let the solo instrument shine, without its domination ever becoming oppressive.” There was nothing oppressive about it. Seeing and hearing Bell with the SFS lifted us up. Being a witness to the best can do that and also can expand one’s life in the best way.

Thanks go to Joshua Bell for the third selection. He had commissioned a group of new works called the Elements project. “They all have something in common, said Bell: “They all have a tendency toward tonality and melody, which I like.” He wanted to commission “something about the natural world.” On this program, the element was Earth, a ten minute performance with Joshua Bell’s solo violin and flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion, harp, and strings. The composer, Kevin Puts, wrote Earth in 2023. The music had a natural sound though did not imitate the sounds of nature. It was calming and steady. This was Earth without volcanoes or tsunami or hurricanes. This earth endures. While experiencing the music, I thought about our earth. Toward the closing minute, I felt closer to earth but, suddenly, also afraid for Earth.

Claude Debussy composed La Mer from 1903-1905. It sounded like new music, musical, imagistic, gorgeous, and also understated music. The wonderful writer, Michael Steinberg, called La Mer “this not-quite-symphony.” There are three movements or one might call them pictures:  De l’Aube a midi sur la mer (From Dawn Till Noon on the Sea); Jeux de vagues (Play of the Waves); Dialogue du vent et de la mer (Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea). Actually, calling them pictures cannot work. While the visual world of the sea comes forward, the rhythm and movement which Debussy creates feels like the real movement of the sea and the wind. Debussy contributed so much to music; a listener now hears his music as a natural phenomenon. It is entirely his own originality like an element of nature that has lasted and always will. It is different from any other work. Michael Steinberg mentions “the swell and retreat” of the cellos’ theme “echoed” quietly in the timpani and horns. All of us breathe in swell and retreat. Being near the sea, one’s breath synchronizes with the waves and then yearns to be in the water to float on the surface which will lift one and let one down while moving forward. La Mer does present tempestuous conditions, but Debussy loves all of the sea’s movement and rhythm. This is new music.

#Quotations from artists are quoted from SF Symphony program.



June 1 is a great day to purchase books by Leslie Friedman. The Dancer’s Garden and The Story of Our Butterflies will be available at big discounts. JUNE 1st is The Day.

The Dancer’s Garden can be purchased for $30.

The Story of Our Butterflies: Mourning Cloaks in Mountain View can be purchased for $20.

If you purchase these books, on June 1st, AND if there are books on hand, you will not pay postage and handling. It’s $5 for postage & handling. Purchase by cash or check or – if you want to use a credit card, please go to the landing page of this blog, scroll down the page to see the PaypPal logo, click on it and follow directions. Add $1.50 to the total.

Gemma New Conducts SF Symphony Brilliantly

Conductor Gemma New brought her musical brilliance and personable presence to Davies Symphony Hall, May 10 & 12. On May 11th, she led the SFS in the same program at UC, Davis. It was a program of music with distant origins. Overture, was created in Poland by Polish composer Grazyna Bacewicz while Poland was occupied by Germany, 1943. Englishman Edward Elgar wrote his beautiful, tragic ‘Cello Concerto in E minor, Opus 85, in 1919. Where did that music come from? Elgar had suspended his composing from the beginning of World War I. The horrors of the war kept his writing to brief, minor pieces. This music came from England but also from the fields and trenches of Belgium. Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Opus 56, Scottish, 1842. While Mendelssohn’s music was inspired by his visit to Scotland, its history, impressions of its dramatic seascape, and dances, Mendelssohn’s music was about music. It is a great symphony.

Gemma New, Principal Conductor of the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra

Conductor Gemma New was called to replace Conductor Marta Gardolinska who had to withdraw due to a serious family illness.

A successful Polish conductor, Ms Gardolinska champions Polish composers. For that reason, Grazyna Bacewicz’s Overture opened the program. The music did not have its premiere until 1945. Bacewicz began as a violinist at the Warsaw Conservatory. In the 1930s she studied with the famous teacher, Nadia Boulanger, in Paris. This overture has so much great music in such a short time; it runs only 6 minutes. It is stunning to realize this and other works came forth from a terrible historic time. Warsaw began its rebellion to try to shake off the German hold, August 1, 1944. The Soviet Union’s Red Army did not bring the expected aide. The soldiers parked outside Warsaw, allowing the Germans to kill another quarter of a million Poles. As they left, the Germans set off the dynamite and wiring to explode and destroy all of Warsaw. In the midst of this, Bacewicz’s mind was active. The timpani opens and playful strings join in. She uses dissonance and some abrasive sounds, but it is always a musical language that one believes. There is a lovely and strong flute and then an exciting, delightful forward charge for the orchestra. I hope we may hear more of Grazyna Bacewicz

Sir Edward Elgar, 1857-1934

Pablo Ferrandez, ‘cellist

Elgar’s ‘Cello Concerto in E minor is one of my favorite pieces of music. I am a choreographer and chose the last two movements of this work to choreograph and perform as part of a dance concert on the program of Britain Meets the Bay, sponsored by the British Council. To choreograph this music, I listened to it maybe more often than the composer and also studied the war. On this program, the ‘cellist was Pablo Ferrandez. He has a unique approach to the music, playing it in his own interpretation. He occasionally bows very slowly across the ‘cello producing a disappearing sound. His touring this season includes major orchestras across the US: Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Seattle. In Europe he will perform in London, Rotterdam, Dusseldorf and more. Conductor Gemma New led Ferrandez and the SFS engaging them in the strength and agony of the music.

Felix Mendelssohn, 1809-1847, composer and accomplished painter, linguist, poet. This is a watercolor of Lucerne by Mendelssohn.

Felix Mendelssohn’s Symphony #3 was dedicated to Queen Victoria. Mendelssohn, the Queen, and Prince Albert would gather and play new pieces by Mendelssohn. They formed a true friendship. In his program note, Larry Rothe mentions that Mendelssohn dropped the “Scottish” part of the title. There are sounds that can remind one of the winds sweeping around the islands and the mist that clings to buildings and people walking. The opening of the Symphony may recall the murder of Mary, Queen of Scots’ probable lover. However, no story line appears. One may identify sounds that could be developed from the wind itself. This is also about relationships between disparate sounds, how they oppose other sounds, and demonstrate they are alive by the motion of the rhythms. The music travels through moments when one could imagine folk dancers out doors, but an adagio appears after that mode to a contemplative, mysterious movement beyond specific thoughts. Once more, the music leads ahead of any “ideas” to label it. The quiet of the symphony changes to a sense of victory leaving behind any mysteries or cold winds. It reassembles itself and carries on. This is a great symphony. Oh, I wrote that at the beginning. It bears repetition. Listen to Mendelssohn’s Symphony #3, again.

Please note: A post about conductors who are women will follow this tomorrow.








You still have time to get tickets. Swan Lake, as choreographed by Helgi Tomasson, will be performed at the SF War Memorial Opera House through May 5. This review of last night’s extraordinary performance is still playing in front of my eyes. There was gorgeous dancing by everyone on stage. The casts change night by night. I was thrilled by Principal Dancers Misa Kuranaga, as Odette/Odile, and Angelo Greco, as Prince Siegfried. Each danced with emotion and technique that took my breath away. Swan Lake IS ballet and ballet music. Thank you, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, where would ballet be without you? The SF Ballet Orchestra, led by Music Director & Principal Conductor Martin West, played the beautiful music flawlessly. The day before I went to this Swan Lake, I heard music in my head as soon as I got up. What was it? That amazing Swan Lake music. Apparently it has a special bunk in a corner of my brain. Without telling me what it was doing, it turned on these glorious sounds.

Jasmine Jimison and Isaac Hernández in Tomasson’s Swan Lake // © San Francisco Ballet, photo by Lindsey Rallo

Helgi Tomasson’s choreography, premiered in 2009, for the Swan Lake story makes a difference. The ballet begins with the evil Von Rothbart trying to kidnap Princess Odette. They struggle, she runs away, but Von Rothbart does not like to lose. Odette is seen behind a curtain, Von Rothbart stretches out his arm pointing at Odette, and her shadow changes to the shadow of a swan. Her predicament is explained through the movement, a great way to go.

Julia Rowe and Cavan Conley in Tomasson’s Swan Lake // © Reneff-Olson Productions

All the dancers were wonderful to watch. Helgi Tomasson, former Artistic Director of the SF Ballet for 37 seasons, 1985-2022, makes full use of his company. In the first act there are trios, duets, larger groups dancing. The princesses are there for Prince Siegfried to choose one to marry, but Prince Siegfried did not want to choose from this group. He had received a crossbow and took it to go swan hunting. As I recall now, past Swan Lakes that I have seen begin with the Prince and his friends going hunting together. i enjoyed Tomasson’s way of opening the story and demonstrating his dances.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s Swan Lake // © Lindsay Thomas *** Local Caption *** Swan: V. Wright

Act II is at The Lakeside. Odette and Siegfried meet. He has his crossbow ready to shoot a  swan, but one becomes a beautiful woman, the Queen of all of the swans. I appreciated the way Tomasson used the arms of the dancer-swans. They were in line formation and use just one arm up high on a slight diagonal. As they all did this together, the arms looked like wings. A great dancer himself, Tomasson knew how this one movement would capture the audience’s eyes.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s Swan Lake // © Reneff-Olson Productions

Ms Kuranaga is elegant, precise with perfectly shaped movements, and astonishing extensions. Her turns and leaps were brilliant. There is a detail that caught my eye: her hands. She was able to make her arms and hands so supple, so like flying wings, but there is something else. I confess I do not like the way the hands are used in much of current classical ballet. The fingers are parted and, to me, they appear stiff and pointy. Ms Kuranaga’s hands were gently curved with out sticking out the fingers. Thank you, Ms Kuranaga. Your technique is a wonder right down to your finger tips.  Furthermore, she was a very nasty Odile, the bad daughter of Von Rothbart. She is in total control, holding back from accepting the Prince’s desire to marry her. While that powerful dance between them goes on, the audience sees an Odette figure trying to warn Siegfried. That is another innovation in this classic ballet. Did Odile do the famous 32 fouettes? She did them all. I saw Ms Kuranaga do double turns in the midst of this pinnacle of strength and beauty. I wanted to jump up and cheer.

Nikisha Fogo in Tomasson’s Swan Lake // © Lindsay Thomas

Mr. Angelo Greco certainly received the right name because he flies like an angel. I saw him leap and stay in the air. There were also unusual leaps.  For example, en face (facing the audience), one leg would take him in the air into second position. Second position: the dancer stands with legs apart, toes pointing to the sides. Mr. Greco’s leg would go high in the air and then the other leg would come up, too, just before the first leg began to come down. It was as though he were flying over a mountain top. In addition, Mr. Greco was the perfect partner to Ms Kuranaga. Always there for her, a true cavalier, gracious to Odette with exact timing.

Nikisha Fogo and Aaron Robison in Tomasson’s Swan Lake // © Lindsay Thomas

What would happen at the end of the ballet? Will the lovers be killed by Von Rothbart? Would they fly into heaven as I have seen years ago?  Von Rothbart and Siegfried fight. Odette throws herself off the mountain that is back of the lake. Siegfried tries to kill Von Rothbart and then climbs the mountain, letting himself fall into the unseen lake. Then, we see the lovers standing at the top of the mountain, backs to the audience, looking at the enormous moon which always has been in the lakeside scenes. She has on a longer skirt or maybe it was a cape. Are they OK? Did they die together? Love conquered Von Rothbart, I am sure of that, but I cannot tell what their future would be.

Now, buy the tickets! I am thrilled that I was able to see these dancers and grateful for their performances. Hooray for the San Francisco Ballet dancers and a Swan Lake to embrace and keep.

Photos courtesy of the San Francisco Ballet. The performances had three different lead dancers. No photos of Misa Kuranaga and Mr. Greco were available. All the more reason to look for them in every season.