San Francisco Ballet shows its versatility

Sarah Van Patten (top), Ulrik Birkkjaer & Mathilde Froustey in Cathy Marston’s ‘Snowblind’ © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet produces a fascinating display of dance this week, as it opens the second and third programs of its 2019 season – presenting six ballets which highlight the versatility of the Company’s dancers, and illustrate the wealth of diversity in its repertoire.

The first of these – entitled Kaleidoscope – opens with a Balanchine classic, Divertimento No 15, which the choreographer set to that particular work by Mozart. The choreographer considered this to be the finest divertimento ever written, and the result is a real Balanchine showcase – traditional in style, yet bursting with elements of the creative genius for which he’s well known, his sparkling choreography brilliantly reflecting the mood of the music.

San Francisco Ballet rehearses ‘Appassionata’ © Erik Tomasson

LA-based choreographer Benjamin Millepied (founder of the LA Dance Project) selected a Beethoven Piano Sonata (No 23 in F minor) for his ballet, Appassionata – which receives its West Coast premiere this week. Appassionata was first performed by the Paris Opera Ballet in 2016, under its original title, La Nuit S’Achève (The Night Ends), and the focus of the work is the the range of emotions experienced in love. These are portrayed by three couples over the timespan of an evening, which starts out with a degree of formality, but as it progresses, the formality falls away, and while there are moments of quiet intimacy, tenderness and playfulness, the dancing also becomes wilder and more tempestuous.

Dores André Joseph Walsh in Peck’s ‘Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming’ © Erik Tomasson

The final work in the program, Justin Peck’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, was one of the successes of San Francisco Ballet’s 2018 Unbound festival of New Works. Commissioned for the Company, its dancers are in casual streetwear and sneakers, with choreography showing a decided inclination towards athleticism. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is set to the music of LA-based electronic band M83, and – as the name suggests – is based on “the way that we dream as human beings”, says Peck. Appropriately, the inspiration for this work was San Francisco itself, the ideas formulating as Peck walked around the city listening to the music of M83.

In Space & Time, the next program of the season, features another success story of the Outbound FestivalCathy Marston’s Snowblind, which is teamed with Helgi Tomasson’s The Fifth Season, and Harald Lander’s Études – last seen in performance by the Company in 1999.

Created for San Francisco Ballet’s 2006 Repertory Season, The Fifth Season features the music of contemporary Welsh musician and composer Karl Jenkins – now Sir Karl Jenkins – his String Quartet No 2, together with a largo from his immensely popular Palladio. The score takes us on a journey through time and space, which includes a mesmerizing, almost minimalist, theme, a delightful tango, a Baroque-style air, and an elegant waltz – presenting a fascinating choreographic challenge.

Audiences will no doubt be thrilled by the inclusion of Snowblind in this program. This is a retelling of Edith Wharton’s best-known work, Ethan Frome, which Cathy Marston has brilliantly transformed into a highly emotional ballet, set against the snowstorms of mid-winter Massachusetts. Recounting the tale of a passionate but doomed love triangle, Snowblind’s dramatic theme is enhanced by a Philip Feeney score which features an arrangement of pieces by Amy Beach and Arthur Foote (both contemporaries of Wharton’s and members of the group known as the Boston Six), as well as Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. The pathos of this work is deeply moving.

San Francisco Ballet in Lander’s ‘Études’ © Erik Tomasson

In complete contrast is Harald Lander’s Études. Lander was a Danish dancer, choreographer and one-time artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet who is credited with rebuilding that company into “the superb performing organization that it is today” (Encyclopaedia Britannica). Created in 1948, Études is essentially a series of variations that throw the spotlight firmly on the techniques of classical ballet – showing the sort of exercises that every ballet dancer performs at the start of each day in the studio, and which gradually transform into an extravaganza of dance. Set to music by composer Knudåge Riisager, who orchestrated Carl Czerny’s Études for Piano, the work features over 40 dancers in a brilliant display of technical skill, stylishly woven into a fascinating showcase of balletic beauty. 

Kaleidoscope runs at the War Memorial Opera House from February 12th to 23rd, alternating with performances of In Space & Time which runs from February 14th to 24th. In both programs, the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra is led by Martin West, acknowledged as one of the foremost conductors of ballet today.

More information on these performances and on reserving tickets can be found on the San Francisco Ballet website.  

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Ballet program notes
The George Balanchine Trust
Benjamin Millepied
Encyclopaedia Britannica – Edith Wharton
Encyclopaedia Britannica

MTT leads SF Symphony with Shaham, Mackey World Premiere & Tchaikovsky

Gil Shaham plays the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No 1
© Luke Rattray

Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony this week in a program which includes a performance by Gil Shaham of the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No 1, the World Premiere of a new work by Steve Mackey, , and Tchaikovsky’s magnificent Symphony No 4.

Gil Shaham has been described by The New York Times as “One of today’s preeminent violinists”, he also has a “prodigious technique and silky tone” according to the Texas Classical Review, the Baltimore Sun refers to him as “an impeccable violinist”, and the Chicago Classical Review writes that “There are few violinists before the public whose engaging personality informs their music-making as much as the Urbana native” [Gil Shaham]. He is also a frequent and very welcome guest artist with the Symphony

Prokofiev began composing his First Violin Concerto in 1915, and although the score was completed by the summer of 1917, it wasn’t performed until 1923 – delayed by the Russian revolution. The premiere took place at one of the Concerts Koussevitzky in Paris – where Prokofiev had settled after his return to Europe from the United States. Serge Koussevitzky conducted, and his Paris concertmaster, Marcel Darrieux was the soloist.

The work wasn’t terribly well received, however, since Darrieux, although an able violinist, apparently lacked the ability to make the concerto come alive. Critics were also condemnatory because of the non-traditional arrangement of the work, and interestingly, it was this unusual arrangement which attracted Joseph Szigeti who performed the concerto in Prague – with Fritz Reiner conducting – after which it really took off. In his memoirs, Szigeti wrote that from the outset he had been fascinated by this concerto because of “its mixture of fairy-tale naïveté and daring savagery in lay-out and texture”.

Composer Steve Mackey © Kah Poon

The opening work of the program is Mackey’s Portals, Scenes and Celebrations, a work commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony and composed in honor of Michael Tilson Thomas. Steve Mackey was awarded the first-ever Distinguished Teaching Award from Princeton – where he currently teaches composition, music theory and courses on 20th century music and improvisation. Among other honors are a Grammy Award, several awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim fellowship, the Stoeger Prize from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award. He has also been the composer-in-residence at major music festivals such as Tanglewood, Aspen, and the Holland Festival.

Describing Portals, Scenes and Celebrations, Steve Mackey says it is “composed of five contrasting but connected tableaux” .… an “energetic celebration of motion and color, occasionally pulling back to refresh and relaunch toward an ever brighter next quest, but never in search of serenity”.

The final work in the concert is Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, a wonderfully energetic yet emotive work which he himself regarded highly. It was written in 1877 and dedicated “to my best friend”, that person being his patron Mme Nadezhda von Meck. Known as a notable patron of the arts in Moscow, and collector of musicians, she was a devoted admirer of Tchaikovsky, and through her extraordinary generosity enabled him to concentrate on his composing without the worry of having to support himself – even though that patronage carried the unusual caveat that the two should never meet. Mme von Meck was also a friend of the pianist and conductor Nicolai Rubinstein, who led the premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4 at a concert of the Russian Musical Society in Moscow, on February 10, 1878.

This work meant a great deal to the composer, who conceived it as a depiction of the nature of Fate. “Never yet has any of my orchestral works cost me so much labour,” he wrote, “but I’ve never yet felt such love for any of my things .… Perhaps I’m mistaken, but it seems to me that this symphony is better than anything I’ve done so far.” Many of us would be hard pressed to express a preference for just one work out of the many utterly gorgeous pieces that Tchaikovsky wrote, however there’s no doubt that this one is supremely powerful, bearing so many of the hallmarks of his genius.

Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony in performances of works by Steve Mackey, Sergei Prokofiev – with guest violinist Gil Shaham – and Tchaikovsky, at Davies Symphony Hall, from February 7th to 9th. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Symphony program notes –

Prokofiev Violin Concerto

Portals, Scenes and Celebrations

Tchaikovsky Symphony No 4


and artists’ websites:

Gil Shaham

Steve Mackey

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SFJAZZ honors Chucho Valdés at Gala Concert

Chucho Valdés at the SFJAZZ Center – © SFJAZZ

SFJAZZ is in celebratory mood this week – and that means a barnstorming party is on the way – because on January 31st, the Jazz Center throws open its doors for its annual Gala Concert!

To mark this occasion, SJAZZ will be honoring the fabulous Cuban pianist, composer and arranger Chucho Valdés with the SFJAZZ Lifetime Achievement Award, and hosting a Gala Concert with an incredible line-up of some of the best names in jazz today.

Known as the greatest living Cuban pianist, Valdés – winner of six GRAMMY®, three Latin GRAMMY® Awards, and the 2018 Latin GRAMMY® Lifetime Achievement Award – has, over the 50 years of his career, come to be regarded as the most influential figure in modern Afro-Cuban jazz. Last year he was inducted into the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame, and he gets this year off to a flying start with the SFJAZZ Award.

The Gala features the great man himself, performing with Irakere 45 – the band which he established in 1973, and was discovered and launched on the international stage by no less a figure than jazz legend Dizzy Gillespie.

Paying tribute to Valdés on this memorable occasion will be a truly star-studded array of artists, including Omara Portuondo – known as the first lady of Cuban jazz – the 2018 NEA Jazz Master and five-time GRAMMY®-Award winner Dianne Reeves, and British singer and songwriter Corinne Baily Rae – another GRAMMY® winner.

Also on stage will be the all-star ensemble SFJAZZ Collective who perform new arrangements of works by a modern master each year, as well as their own commissioned works, virtuoso vibraphonist Stefon Harris – a former member of the Collective and winner of the 2018 Doris Duke Artist Award – Cuban saxophonist, percussionist and composer Yosvany Terry, also a Doris Duke Award-winner, and the recipient of a Rockefeller Grant, and Havana-born jazz pianist and composer Harold Lopez-Nussa – who triumphed at the 2005 Montreux Jazz Festival.

Flying the flag for the Valdés family will be Chucho’s daughter, classically-trained pianist Leyanis – who has made her mark in many international competitions – and his son, Jessie – an exciting young drummer who combines drumming with electronics, ensuring that Cuban music will continue to form part of the future.

The SFJAZZ High School All-stars will entertain guests at the pre-performance party, and the late-night after-party features a performance by the Valdés Family Band, as well as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, with Corinne Bailey Rae and Jesús Diaz y su QBA.

This is an event that jazz enthusiasts won’t want to miss!

The SFJAZZ annual Gala Concert takes place the the JAZZ Center on Thursday, January 31st. More information on this amazing event is available on the SFJAZZ website where there’s also information on buying tickets.

San Francisco Ballet celebrates 150 years of ‘Don Quixote’

Mathilde Froustey and Angelo Greco in San Francisco Ballet’s ‘Don Quixote
© Erik Tomasson

Joyful, lively and colorful, with dazzling choreography and a wonderfully melodic score by Ludwig Minkus, Don Quixote deservedly holds a place as one of San Francisco Ballet’s most popular productions – and this year the ballet celebrates its 150th anniversary.

Mathilde Froustey as Kitri in San Francisco Ballet’s ‘Don Quixote’ © Erik Tomasson

One of three full-length narrative ballets to be presented by San Francisco Ballet this season, Don Quixote draws its inspiration from two chapters of Miguel de Cervantes’ classic novel, focusing more on the love story played out between innkeeper’s daughter Kitri and the town barber Basilio, than the story of Don Quixote and his quest to find his beautiful Dulcinea. Nevertheless, The Don on his gorgeous white steed, his counterpart, Sancho Panza, and those windmills, play a supporting role in the story.

Jim Sohm in Tomasson/Possokhov’s Don Quixote.
(© Erik Tomasson)

Don Quixote the ballet was first produced in Vienna in 1740, by Austrian dancer and choreographer Franz Hilverding, and was followed by various productions in Europe, none of which has survived. In 1869 Marius Petipa was asked to create a new version of Don Quixote for the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, which he followed with a much grander production in St Petersburg in 1871.

San Francisco Ballet’s ‘Don Quixote’ © Erik Tomasson

It was in 1900 that Russian dancer and choreographer Alexander Gorsky staged a revival of Petipa’s ballet in Moscow in 1900, a production which was performed in St Petersburg in 1902, and it’s this Petipa/Gorsky interpretation of Don Quixote which formed the basis of all modern productions. It is also the interpretation on which San Francisco Ballet’s Artistic Director, Helgi Tomasson, and Resident Choreographer, Yuri Possokhov, based their original 2003 production, which included additional detail which Possokhov was able to provide, having been personally involved with the work during his time as a student at the Bolshoi.

The production which we now see dates from 2012 when the ballet was completely restaged – the choreography from 2003 remained unchanged, but the costumes and design, by the late Martin Pakledinaz, were completely new. Styled on 19th century Spain, these designs, in combination with the artistic creativity of Tomasson and Possokhov, deliver a production which is unique to San Francisco Ballet.

Hansuke Yamamoto in Tomasson/Possokhov’s Don Quixote © Erik Tomasson

Czech composer and violinist Ludwig Minkus wrote several very popular ballet scores, many of which are still widely performed today, among them two which are probably his best known – Don Quixote and La Bayadère. Austrian by birth, Minkus’ first involvement in composing for ballet was assisting composer Édouard Deldevez in the score for Paquita in Paris in 1846. He later travelled to Russia and ultimately joined the newly created Moscow Conservatory as a professor of violin studies. Don Quixote for the Bolshoi was his first great success, leading to his appointment as official composer of ballet music to the Imperial Theatre in St Petersburg, where he and Marius Petipa enjoyed a fruitful creative relationship.

San Francisco Ballet presents Don Quixote at the War Memorial Opera House from January 25th to February 3rd. At this opening performance, the cast will be headed by Mathilde Froustey in role of Kitri, with Angelo Greco as Basilio. Martin West conducts the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson/Possokhov’s ‘Don Quixote’ © Erik Tomasson

For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Ballet website.

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Ballet program notes

The Royal Ballet program notes –
Don Quixote
Ludwig Minkus

The Petipa Society

Cambridge Scholars

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Salonen leads first concert as San Francisco Symphony’s Music Director Designate

Esa-Pekka Salonen – Music Director Designate of the San Francisco Symphony
Photo: Andrew Eccles

Finnish conductor and composer, Esa-Pekka Salonen take to the podium at Davies Symphony Hall this week in his first appearance with the San Francisco Symphony as the orchestra’s Music Director Designate. The program includes Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Metacosmos, Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra and Sibeliius’ Four Legends of the Kalevala

Esa-Pekka Salonen succeeds the charismatic and much-loved Michael Tilson Thomas when he takes his departure as Music Director of the Symphony in July 2020, at the end of an amazing 25-year tenure. Salonen – regarded as one of the most influential and creative forces in music – is a popular choice to succeed MTT. He made his debut as a conductor with the San Francisco Symphony in 2004, and led the Symphony on December 8th, 2011 – during its Centennial celebrations – in a performance which included his own violin concerto which he wrote for Leila Josefowicz, a concerto which featured in an international campaign for iPad. Maestro Salonen has made a number of return visits to the Symphony, most recently in 2015 with a program which included one of his own compositions, Nyx.

Esa-Pekka Salonen was Music Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1992 to 2009. Closely involved in the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, he established a Commissions Fund bearing his name, and was instrumental in enabling the Philharmonic to become one of the best attended and funded orchestras in the United States. He is now Conductor Laureate for the LA Philharmonic.

As Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor for London’s Philharmonia Orchestra, a position he leaves at the end of the 2020–21 season, Salonen was involved the orchestra’s award-winning RE-RITE and Universe of Sound installations, enabling people to virtually step inside the orchestra through audio and video projections. He was also behind the development of The Orchestra, an app for iPad, for which he conducted eight symphonic works, giving users access to multiple facets of orchestral performances.

Maestro Salonen is also currently Artist in Association at the Finnish National Opera and Ballet, Conductor Laureate for the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and co-founder of the annual Baltic Sea Festival, serving as its Artistic Director from 2003 to 2018. In 2015.

With Esa-Pekka Salonen’s commitment to bringing contemporary compositions into the classical repertoire, it comes as no surprise that this week’s concert opens with the West Coast Premiere of a work by Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir, entitled Metacosmos – described by The New York Times as a work with “seemingly boundless textural imagination”. Alan Gilbert – until recently Music Director of the New York Philharmonic – calls Ms Thorvaldsdottir “one of the most unique and expressive voices in the composition scene today”, and she has been described by New York Classical Review as “one of the most compelling contemporary composers”.

Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s work has been featured at several major venues and music festivals, including Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, the Leading International Composers series at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC, as well as the Kennedy Center in DC, Beijing Modern Music Festival, and Reykjavik Arts Festival.The one-movement Metacosmos, which was premiered in Lincoln Center’s Geffen Hall by the New York Philharmonic, conducted by Esa-Pekka Salonen last April, is described as “constructed around the natural balance between beauty and chaos”.

The opening of Richard Strauss’ tone poem Also sprach Zarathustra – next on the program – is probably best known today for its inclusion in the score of Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Strauss drew his inspiration for this work from a series of parables about the life of the prophet Zarathustra by German philosopher Friedrich Nietzche, and dwelt on the vastness of the universe, prompting questions about God, humankind and our place in the natural world

The final work on the program is Sibelius’ Four Legends from the Kalevala, taken from his Lemminkäinen Suite. Written in 1895, this work was based on mythical legends from Finland’s folklore, telling of the exploits of Lemminkäinen, the handsome son of Lempi, the god of erotic love. At the premiere of the work on April 13, 1896, the first and third legends – Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island, and Lemminkäinen in Tuonela – were poorly received. The second – The Swan of Tuonela (probably the best-known today) — and the last legend, Lemminkäinen’s Homeward Journey, were an instant success, and published in 1900. Sibelius put the other two pieces aside and they remained in a drawer until 1935, almost 10 years after he had stopped composing, with final revisions being made to them in 1939.

Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the San Francisco Symphony in a program of works by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, Richard Strauss and Jean Sibelius, from Friday, January 18th to Sunday, January 20th. For tickets and more information, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

Information sourced from:
San Francisco Symphony program notes
Esa-Pekka Salonen
Anna Thorvaldsdottir

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Met Opera’s new production of ‘La Traviata’ on cinema screens

Juan Diego Flórez as Alfredo and Diana Damrau as Violetta in Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera

In his first Live in HD transmission as the Metropolitan Opera’s Music Director, Canadian conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin leads a new production of Verdi’s La Traviata for the Met, to be screened live in cinemas and performing arts centers worldwide.

This presentation of La Traviata is hosted by Georgian soprano Anita Rachvelishvili, production is by Michael Mayer, and soprano Diana Damrau sings the role of the tragic heroine Violetta Valéry, the ‘fallen woman’ of the title. Tenor Juan Diego Flórez makes his role debut as her lover Alfredo, and baritone Quinn Kelsey is Alfredo’s father, Count Germont, who cannot stand the shame of his son’s relationship with a courtesan and sets about destroying their relationship. It’s only as he watches the suffering of is son as Violetta is dying that he accepts the consequences of his actions.

Diana Damrau as Violetta and Quinn Kelsey as Giorgio Germont in Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera

Verdi’s three-act opera, with an Italian libretto by Francesco Maria Piave, is based on the 1852 play La Dame aux camélias by Alexandre Dumas fils, which in turn was based on Dumas’ 1848 novel of the same name. Inspiration for the novel came from an actual ‘lady of pleasure’ whom Dumas had known and adored. The opera, which premiered at La Fenice in Venice on March 6th, 1853, became one of Verdi’s most frequently performed during his lifetime – and continues to be so today.

The reviews of the Met Opera’s production have been glowing. “Nézet-Séguin’s La Traviata at the Met brings down the house”, says the Philadelphia Inquirer, referring to its “Spontaneity, freshness and originality”, and adding “This goes to the top of my Traviata pantheon”.

Act II, Scene 2 of Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera

German soprano Diana Damrau has been appearing on the world’s leading opera and concert stages – such as The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Vienna State Opera, Opera Nationale de Paris, Bavarian State Opera and at the Salzburg Festival – for the past two decades, with a repertoire which includes both lyric soprano and coloratura roles.  Describing this production as “A sensation …”, WQXR writes: “Damrau masterfully maintained melodic continuity without sacrificing effect. This was acting of Shakespearean caliber, the likes of which hasn’t often been seen at the Met since the 1970s heyday of Jon Vickers and Renata Scotto …”. while the New York Times describes Ms Damrau as “an extraordinary Violetta, singing with big, plush yet focused sound …”.

Juan Diego Flórez as Alfredo and Diana Damrau as Violetta in Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera

Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Flórez makes his role debut as Alfredo in this production of La Traviata, and according to a review in the Observer, he “…. revealed that his exquisite legato and mezza voce have held up gorgeously in the four seasons since he last sang at the Met, and he looked fetching”. Having made his debut at the Met in 2002 – as Count Almaviva in Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia – Juan Diego Flórez has been a frequent guest artist for the Company.  Other notable landmarks in his career include his having made history at La Scala in 2007 when he broke a 70 year-old taboo and gave the first encore in the theatre since 1933.  In 2010 he performed at the Opening Night Gala of the Walt Disney Concert Hall, with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the following year he funded Sinfonía por el Perú, a social inclusion project enhancing, through music, the artistic and personal development of vulnerable children and youth in his home country.

Hawaiian baritone Quinn Kelsey – a graduate of San Francisco Opera’s Merola Program and of Ryan Opera Center in Chicago – was the recipient of the 2015 Metropolitan Opera’s Beverly Sills Award, and is a popular choice for the Verdi, Puccini and French repertoires in opera houses such as the Metropolitan and San Francisco Operas, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and the Opernhaus Zürich.  Seen and Heard International refers to him as “a Verdi baritone of the first rank”, The Globe and Mail describes him as “stupendous”, and according to WQXR, “Quinn Kelsey left no doubt that a major Verdi baritone has arrived”.

Kevin Short as Dr. Grenvil, Diana Damrau as Violetta, Quinn Kelsey as Giorgio Germont, and Juan Diego Flórez as Alfredo in Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera

Having recently taken up the position of the third Music Director of the Metropolitan Opera, Yannick Nézet-Séguin was previously Music Director of the Rotterdam Philharnonic Orchestra – of which he is now Honorary Conductor – and has held the same position for both the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Orchestre Métropolitain of Montreal.  The Financial Times describes Maestro Nézet-Séguin as “The greatest generator of energy on the international podium”, and the Montreal Gazette refers to him as having “The world at his fingertips”.

American theatre, film and television director, Michael Mayer won the 2007 Tony Award for Best Direction of a Musical for Spring Awakening (which also won the award for Best Musical). He won a Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Director of a Musical for both Spring Awakening and Thoroughly Modern Millie – for which he also received a Tony nomination in 2002 – and which he also directed in London’s West End.

A scene from Verdi’s ‘La Traviata’ Photo: Marty Sohl / Met Opera

The Metropolitan Opera’s production of La Traviata will be transmitted live to cinemas across the United States  on Saturday, December 15th at 12 noon (Eastern Time), and for those not in the US, please check your local theatre for dates and times of screenings, on


Information sourced from:

Metropolitan Opera program notes

Artists’ websites:

Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Anita Rachvelishvili

Diana Damrau

Juan Diego Flórez

Quinn Kelsey  and The Royal Opera program notes

Encyclopaedia Britannica

Michael Mayer


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Capuçon and Thibaudet in recital for San Francisco Symphony

Gautier Capuçon – Photo © Nicolas Brodard courtesy San Francisco Symphony

Two fabulous French artists descend on Davies Symphony Hall on Sunday.  Gautier Capuçon and Jean-Yves Thibaudet are in recital – as guests of the San Francisco Symphony – for one performance only.

Capuçon – whom The Arts Desk rates “among the greatest cellists” – regularly appears with many of the world’s finest conductors and instrumentalists, and is internationally lauded for the expressiveness and vibrant virtuosity of his playing. “The lightness of his touch and the consistent clarity of his bow strokes are quite admirable in themselves,” says Gramophone, “but when combined with an uncanny sweetness of tone in the higher registers they are breathtaking.” According to The Times, “Mellifluous tones pour from Gautier Capuçon’s cello”.

Gautier Capuçon has also won international acclaim as the founder and leader of the Classe d’Excellence de Violoncelle, based at the Fondation Louis Vuitton in Paris. Now in its fifth season, the Classe d’Excellence features six talented young cellists from around the world, and each month – between October and June – they’re invited to attend a series of 3-day sessions with Capuçon in the Auditorium, each of which includes two public masterclasses, and ends with a concert performance.

Jean-Yves Thibaudet – Photo © Decca/Kasskara courtesy San Francisco Symphony

Jean-Yves Thibaudet – “unquestionably, one of the best pianists in the world” says OpusColorado – is currently Artist in Residence at the Colburn School in Los Angeles. His repertoire includes solo, chamber and orchestral works, by composers ranging from Beethoven through Liszt, Grieg, and Saint-Saëns to Khachaturian and Gershwin, as well as contemporary composers such as Qigang Chen and James MacMillan. He also takes great delight in performing jazz, and music from the opera, and has enjoyed many successful collaborations with fellow artists from the worlds of film, fashion and the visual arts.

Following this appearance in San Francisco, Jean-Yves Thibaudet – with Gautier Capuçon – will visit Los Angeles for a series of concerts with Michael Tilson Thomas and the L A Philharmonic. Also planned for this season will be the renewal of many longstanding musical partnerships, including touring programs with Japanese violinist Midori, appearances in some of the great concert halls of Europe with Georgian violinist Lisa Batiashvili, and chamber music concerts with both Renaud and Gautier Capuçon.

The program in Sunday’s recital at Davies Symphony Hall includes Debussy’s Sonata No 1 in D minor for Cello and Piano, the Brahms Sonata No 1 in E minor for Cello and Piano, and Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata in G minor.

For more information, and for tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.



Information sourced from:

San Francisco Symphony program notes

Gautier Capucon

Jean-Yves Thibaudet

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‘Mary Poppins’ – family fun for the festive season at San Francisco Playhouse

Mary Poppins (El Beh) arrives at Banks household, to the surprise of Jane Banks (Grace Hutton), Michael Banks (Billy Hutton) and Mrs. Bill (Marie Shell)

For the Festive Season, the San Francisco Playhouse presents a popular family musical – Mary Poppins – the story of the “practically perfect” nanny who brings order, a touch of magic, and more than a dose of common sense to the London household of George and Winifred Banks. Susi Damilano directs this production for the Playhouse, music direction is by Katie Colman and choreography is by Kimberly Richards.

While partly based on the 1964 Disney film, this musical is not simply a stage-based repeat of it, but an original musical which owes much to the stories of Australian-born British writer P L Travers – who apparently never forgave Disney for its interpretation of her work.

Mary Poppins (El Beh) and Bert (Wiley Naman Strasser) during a Jolly Holiday with other park strollers (Rudy Guerrero and Sophia LaPaglia)

The show does however have more than a sprinkling of Broadway glitter about it, with original music and lyrics by Richard M Sherman and Robert B Sherman, and a book by Julian Fellowes (he of Downton Abbey fame). George Stiles and Anthony Drewe provided additional music and lyrics, and the co-creator was Cameron Mackintosh, British theatrical producer with a roll-call of fabulous musicals to his name – Cats, Oliver!, Les Misérables, Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon among them. Mary Poppins received nominations for nine Olivier and seven Tony Awards, including for Best Musical.

When Mary Poppins arrives at the Banks household, the bad behavior of the children, Jane and Michael, has already been responsible for the departure of a series of nannies, but Mary – with her jack-of-all-trades friend, Bert – takes the children on a series of magical adventures, and introduces not only them, but their parents too, to the importance of valuing each other, as well as the little things in life that can make such a difference to relationships.

Mary Poppins (El Beh) offers Winifred Banks (Abby Haug*), Michael Banks (Billy Hutton), and Jane Banks (Grace Hutton) a ‘spoonful of sugar’

The handbook from the original production points out that it’s the small acts of kindness that give us “joy, satisfaction and meaning”, as illustrated in the song Feed the Birds. The line “Tuppence a bag” – according to songwriter Richard Sherman – “has nothing to do with tuppence or bread crumbs. It’s about the fact that it doesn’t take much to give love, that it costs very little to make a difference to other people’s lives.”

The San Francisco Playhouse production stars El Beh in the title role. Based in the city, El – theatre artist, performer, musician, singer, composer, mover, and educator – featured in the KQED Arts’ Women to Watch series, which featured 20 local women who are making names for themselves in the creative arts. El has previously been seen on the Playhouse stage in productions which include Into the Woods and Stupid F*****g Bird.

Bert (Wiley Naman Strasser), Mary Poppins (El Beh) and Ensemble

Bert is played by Bay Area actor, dancer, singer, and musician, Wiley Naman Strasser, making a return visit to the Playhouse. Having trained with Alonzo King LINES Ballet, he was last seen at the Playhouse in Colossal in 2016, and has worked with Aurora Theatre Company, Berkeley Repertory Theatre, The Cutting Ball Theater, Hope Mohr Dance, and the Los Angeles Theatre Center, among others.

Ryan Drummond, who takes the role of George Banks, is a seasoned actor, voice actor, singer, clown and comedian – probably most widely heard as the voice of Sonic the Hedgehog! He is a frequent guest on the Playhouse stage, one of his most memorable recent roles having been that of Georges in La Cage aux Folles.

The Banks Family enjoys a moment. From left: Michael Banks (David Rukin), Jane Banks (Ruth Keith), Winifred Banks (Abby Haug), and George Banks (Ryan Drummond

Abby Haug – who plays Winifred Banks – was most recently seen at the Playhouse in Sunday in the Park with George. She, too, appeared in La Cage aux Folles, and in last year’s A Christmas Story, the Musical. Other Bay Area productions in which Abbey has played include No, No, Nanette, Baker Street, The Boys from Syracuse, Mary Poppins (for Hillbarn Theatre) and A Comedy of Errors.

The Banks children, Jane and Michael, are played by Grace Hutton and Billy Hutton, alternating with Ruth Keith and David Rukin.

The San Francisco Playhouse production of Mary Poppins runs until January 12th, 2019. For more information and tickets, visit


Information sourced from:

San Francisco Playhouse program notes

Broadway Musical Home

Music Theatre International

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San Francisco Opera presents West Coast premiere of ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ – Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

There can be few filmgoers or TV viewers who’ve not heard of Frank Capra’s 1946 classic film, It’s a Wonderful Life – and since 2016, this uplifting and inspirational story has also found its way into the opera repertoire, thanks to composer Jake Heggie and librettist Gene Scheer. These gifted artists premiered their work at Houston Grand Opera two years ago, and San Francisco Opera is now staging the West Coast premiere of It’s a Wonderful Life at the War Memorial Opera House.

The production stars tenor William Burden as George Bailey – the businessman who feels that life simply isn’t worth living any longer – South African soprano Golda Schultz as the angel Clara, who comes to his rescue, Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman is George’s ever-supportive wife Mary Hatch, and baritone Rod Gilfry is the banker, Mr Potter.

The conductor is Patrick Summers – who led the world premiere season in Houston – direction is by Leonard Foglia, set design by Robert Brill, costumes are by David C Woolard, lighting by Brian Nason, the projection designer is Elaine J McCarthy and Keturah Stickann is the choreographer.

William Burden as George Bailey and Golda Schultz as Clara (center) with Amitai Pati, Ashley Dixon, Christian Pursell and Sarah Cambidge as Angels First Class in Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’

Heggie and Scheer’s opera is based in part on the Frank Capra film, which in turn took its inspiration from a short story by Philip Van Doren Stern. This story, entitled The Greatest Gift, which apparently came to the author in a dream one night, told of a man named George Pratt who contemplates suicide, until he’s given an opportunity to see what the world would have been like without his having lived. Stern was unable to find a publisher for his story, so he self-published it in a small pamphlet, and sent it out as his 1943 Christmas Card. Frank Capra – one of the foremost filmmakers of the 1930s, and three-times Academy Award winner – happened to see one of these pamphlets, he showed it to James Stewart, and the film which we know as It’s a Wonderful Life became firmly rooted in the Christmas tradition. It currently ranks as 24th in IMDb’s Top 250 films.

Guggenheim Fellow, master teacher, mentor and guest artist, San Francisco resident Jake Heggie is an award-winning composer who began his career at San Francisco Opera with Dead Man Walking in 2000. He has gone on to write a succession of operas and stage works – such as The End of the Affair, Moby Dick and Great Scott – songs and song cycles, chamber and choral works, and works for orchestra.

Andriana Chuchman as Mary Hatch, William Burden as George Bailey and Keith Jameson as Uncle Billy Bailey in Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Heggie also enjoys a hugely successful partnership with librettist, songwriter and composer Gene Scheer – and together they have at least half a dozen works in their collective repertoire, including three of the four Heggie operas which have been staged by San Francisco Opera – Three Decembers, Moby Dick and now It’s a Wonderful Life – which TheatreJones describes as “Heggie’s most delightful concoction”. They have also been commissioned by Merola Opera Program (the first commission in its 62-year history) to create If I Were You, a full-length opera which is scheduled to receive its world premiere in San Francisco during summer 2019.  Heggie says It’s a Wonderful Life  is “…. about how you measure contentment and happiness in this precarious world”.

Tenor William Burden has previously appeared for San Francisco Opera in roles such as Laca in Janáček’s Jenůfa, Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Dan Hill in Christopher Theofanidis’ Heart of a Soldier and Peter in Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, and created the role of George Bailey for the 2016 world premiere of It’s a Wonderful Life at Houston Grand Opera.

Golda Schultz as Clara (center) with Sarah Cambidge, Amitai Pati, Christian Pursell and Ashley Dixon as Angels First Class in Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

South African soprano Golda Schultz has already sung the roles of Sophie in Der Rosenkavalier, Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte, Liù in Turandot, Musetta in La Bohème, Micaëla in Carmen, Freia in Das Rheingold, and Pamina in The Magic Flute. She adds her first performance with San Francisco Opera to other recent debuts – at the Metropolitan Opera and Vienna State Opera – and later in this season she will also appear with Zurich Opera for the first time. Soprano Kearstin Piper Brown sings Clara in the December 9 performance.

Baritone Rod Gilfry created the role of the banker, Mr Potter, in the Houston Grand Opera premiere of It’s a Wonderful Life, having appeared with San Francisco Opera in roles which include Stanley Kowalski in the 1998 world premiere of André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Faust in Ferruccio Busoni’s Doktor Faust in 2004.

Golda Schultz as Clara (left) and William Burden as George Bailey with members of the San Francisco Opera Chorus in Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

In another debut performance for San Francisco Opera is Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman, an alumna of the Merola Opera Program. She appears in another notable debut this season as Euridice in Orfeo ed Euridice at the Hamburg State Opera.

Also making first-time appearances with San Francisco Opera are tenor Keith Jameson as Uncle Billy Bailey, and baritone Joshua Hopkins as Harry Bailey. Mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook sings the role of Mother Bailey, and present San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows soprano Sarah Cambidge, mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon, tenor Amitai Pati and bass-baritone Christian Pursell appear as the Angel Quartet. The opera also features a pre-recording by actress Patti LuPone as A Voice.

Patrick Summers, Artistic and Music Director of Houston Grand Opera, conducts the San Francisco Opera Orchestra, Chorus (Director Ian Robertson) and cast in Jake Heggie’s It’s a Wonderful Life until December 9th.  Sung in English with English supertitles, this is a co-commission and co-production between San Francisco Opera, Houston Grand Opera and the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music.

Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

As part of the Thanksgiving weekend matinee performance, San Francisco Opera’s Education Department hosts two interactive family workshops between 11.00 am and 12.30 pm, and San Francisco Opera hosts a Family Day celebration the same day, between 12.00 and 2.00 pm.

For more information on performances, tickets and the weekend celebrations, visit the San Francisco Opera website.


Information sourced from:

San Francisco Opera program notes

and artists’ websites:

Jake Heggie

Gene Scheer

Frank Capra

Philip Van Doren Stern


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MTT & San Francisco Symphony celebrate the unifying power of music

Michael Tilson Thomas and Audrey Hepburn at the premiere performance of ‘From the Diary of Anne Frank’ 1990 – Photo courtesy San Francisco Symphony

San Francisco Symphony Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas, leads the Symphony this week in a program both poignant and celebratory, the first of two programs marking the 70th anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There are two works in this first program – a narration of extracts from The Diary of Anne Frank which MTT set to a piece of music written for his friend and UNICEF ambassador, Audrey Hepburn – narrated by guest artist Isabel Leonard – followed by Beethoven’s grand and heroic Symphony No 3, Eroica.

The purpose of these performances is to shine a light on the power of music as a vehicle for unity, compassion, healing, teaching and social justice – ending with the triumphal ring of liberty.

From the Diary of Anne Frank is a dramatic work for narrator and orchestra, commissioned by UNICEF, and based on the diary kept by the young Anne Frank whilst she was in hiding at the time of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during the Second World War. Michael Tilson Thomas wrote the work for Audrey Hepburn, an ambassador for UNICEF at the time, who not only was the same age as Anne Frank, but also grew up in occupied Holland. “I now realize,” says Tilson Thomas, “that so much of this work is a reflection not just of Anne Frank, but of Audrey Hepburn. Audrey’s simplicity, her deeply caring nature, the ingenuous sing-song of her voice are all present in the phrase shapes of the orchestra. The work would never have existed without her, and it is dedicated to her.”

The work was premiered in 1990 by the New World Symphony, led by Michael Tilson Thomas, and narrated by Audrey Hepburn.
Taking that role this week is American soprano Isabel Leonard, who appeared as a guest of the San Francisco Symphony in September 2017 during the celebration of the Leonard Bernstein Centennial, and featured on the Symphony’s digital release of Bernstein’s Arias and Barcarolles. Ms Leonard – who won a Grammy Award in the Best Opera Recording category for her performance in Thomas Ades’ The Tempest – was also the recipient of the 2013 Richard Tucker Award.

With a repertoire ranging from Vivaldi to Mozart to Ades, Isabel Leonard has appeared on the stages of the Metropolitan Opera, Vienna State Opera, Paris Opera, Salzburg Festival, Bavarian State Opera, Glyndebourne Festival, Lyric Opera of Chicago and San Francisco Opera, and with orchestras such as the Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, and Vienna Philharmonic.

Soprano Isabel Leonard – Photo © Becca Fay – courtesy San Francisco Symphony

The second work on the program is Beethoven’s dramatic and uplifting Eroica Symphony, originally inspired by the efforts of Napoleon to bring about social reform for the benefit of the working classes. However, when Napoleon declared himself the Emperor of France, Beethoven was filled with disgust at what he viewed as the act of a tyrant, and is said to have scratched out the name of Napoleon from the front page of the score, replacing it with a sub-title that referred more generally to heroism rather than the deeds of any person in particular.

Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony, with guest narrator Isabel Leonard, in his own work, From the Diary of Anne Frank, and Beethoven’s Symphony No 3. The performances take place at Davies Symphony Hall, and further information about the program and tickets is available on the San Francisco Symphony website.

Michael Tilson Thomas and Audrey Hepburn at a rehearsal for the 1990 premiere of ‘From the Diary of Anne Frank’ – courtesy San Francisco Symphony

The second in this set of concerts celebrating the signing of the Declaration of Human Rights takes place at Davies Symphony Hall next week – November 23rd to 25th. Michael Tilson Thomas again leads the San Francisco Symphony, in performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No 9, with Ragnar Bohlin’s San Francisco Symphony Chorus, and guest soloists Susanna Phillips (soprano), mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, tenor Nicholas Phan and bass-baritone Davóne Tines.

The program also features Berg’s Seven Early Songs, with Susanna Phillips as soloist, a performance which will be recorded live for future release on SFS Media.  For tickets and more information visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

The concerts both this week and next are dedicated to the memory of the victims of the tragic events which took place in Pittsburgh on October 27th this year.

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Symphony program notes

Isabel Leonard


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