Temirkanov and the St Petersburg Philharmonic return to San Francisco

Yuri Temirkanov and the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra – courtesy Opus 3 Artists

As part of its Great Performers series, the San Francisco Symphony welcomes back to Davies Symphony Hall the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra with Artistic Director and Principal Conductor Yuri Temirkanov. Maestro Temirkanov leads the Orchestra in two programs – the first featuring selections from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and his Violin Concerto No 2 – with Japanese violinist Sayaka Shoji – and Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe Suite No 2. The second program opens with Brahms’ Piano Concerto No 1 – with guest artist Garrick Ohlsson – followed by the Shostakovich Symphony No 5.

In 1999, Sayaka Shoji was the first Japanese, and youngest ever winner of the Paganini Competition. According to Gramophone magazine, Sayaka Shoji “isn’t merely a superb technician, she’s a deeply engaging performer. Her richly resonant, spirited sound is impressive and so, too, is the poetic delicacy of her phrasing.” The New York Times refers to her “impressive poise, [and] refined technique”, and The Sunday Times writes of her “Passionate, free, almost improvisatory virtuosity of the highest order”.

Japanese violinist Sayaka Shoji – © Masato Moriyama

Ms Shoji regularly performs with conductors as illustrious as Vladimir Ashkenazy, Charles Dutoit, Mariss Jansons, Zubin Mehta, Semyon Bychkov, Paavo Järvi, Myung-Whun Chung, Sir Antonio Pappano and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and she also appears in recital and as a chamber musician with artists such as Joshua Bell, Vadim Repin, Itamar Golan, Steven Isserlis and Lang Lang. Highlights of this current season include Ms Shoji’s debut with the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, and appearances with Osmo Vänskä and l’Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France, the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra and the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra.

In addition to Garrick Ohlsson’s reputation as one of the world’s leading exponents of the music of Chopin – he won the Gold Medal in the 1970 International Chopin Competition in Warsaw, the only American to have achieved this – he commands a wide repertoire of works for the piano. This season sees Mr Ohlsson performing works by Rachmaninoff (Piano Concertos Nos 3 and 4), Brahms (Nos 1 and 2), and works by Beethoven, Mozart, Grieg and Copland, appearing in Philadelphia, Atlanta, Detroit, Dallas, Miami, Toronto, Vancouver, San Francisco, Liverpool and Madrid. The Philadelphia Inquirer referred to him as “an elegant guest with the Philadelphia Orchestra”, adding that he “made a marvelous Mozartian”.

Pianist Garrick Ohlsson – © Paul Body

Mr Ohlsson is also a frequent and enthusiastic recitalist, having appeared with ensembles such as the Takacs, Cleveland, Emerson and Tokyo string quartets, and is a founding member – with violinist Jorja Fleezanis and cellist Michael Grebanier – of the San Francisco-based FOG Trio.

The St Petersburg Philharmonic, described by The Washington Post as “the national treasure of Russia”, and by Le Figaro as “the crowning glory of Russian culture”, is the leading orchestra of the St Petersburg Philharmonia which was founded in 1882 following a decree by Alexander III. Initially known as the Court Choir of St Petersburg, the orchestra became known as the Court Orchestra at the beginning of the 20th Century, was renamed the State Philharmonic Orchestra of Petrograd in 1917, and the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra in the mid-1920s. It wasn’t until 1991 that the ensemble took the name of the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra.

During the 2015-16 season, the Orchestra, under Maestro Temirkanov, toured widely, appearing in concert halls which included La Scala, Milan, the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, London’s Royal Albert Hall, the Théâtre des Champs Elysees in Paris, Madrid’s Auditorio Nacional de Música, Jurmala’s Dzintari Concert Hall, Tokyo’s Suntory Hall and the Beijing Concert Hall in the Forbidden City, where the musicians performed as part of the the project Day of Russia in the World. This season sees Yuri Temirkanov and the St Petersburg Philharmonic performing in France, Switzerland, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Spain and the USA, with the honor of appearing at the Gala Opening of the VIII Mstislav Rostropovich International Festival, at the Grand Hall of the Moscow Conservatoire, on March 27.

Yuri Temirkanov – Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra – courtesy IMG Artists

Yuri Temirkanov took up the role of Artistic Director and Principal Conductor in 1988, following the 50-year tenure of Evgeny Mravinsky who had led the Orchestra from 1938. Maestro Temirkanov’s name is associated with the beginning of the revival of the Mariinsky (formerly the Kirov) Theatre, serving as Artistic Director and Principal Conductor from 1976-1988. He was Chief Guest Conductor of the London Philharmonic Orchestra between 1979 and 1998, and also Principal Conductor from 1992 to 1998. He served as Chief Guest Conductor of the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra (1992-1997), as Chief Guest Conductor of the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra (1998-2008), and led the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra from 2000- 2006.

Maestro Temirkanov – recipient of over 33 honors and awards – is also currently Music Director of Teatro Regio di Parma, Music Director Emeritus of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, and Honorary Conductor of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia.  Le Monde has compared his conducting to “a magical immersion into a world that would have been lost to us, if not for the great conductor, one of the last giants of the last century”.

Yuri Temirkanov leads the St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of works by Prokofiev and Ravel – with guest soloist Sayaka Shoji – at Davies Symphony Hall on Sunday, March 19. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

On Monday, March 20, the St Petersburg Philharmonic and Maestro Temirkanov present a program of works by Brahms and Shostakovich – guest artist Garrick Ohlsson – at Davies Symphony Hall.  More information can be found on the San Francisco Symphony website.

 

Program notes:

Romeo and Juliet

Prokofiev Violin Concerto No 2

Brahms Piano Concerto No 1

 

Sources:

San Francisco Symphony

The St Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra

Yuri Temirkanov

Sayaka Shoji

Garrick Ohlsson

Mstistlav Rostropovich Festival

 

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Antonacci sings ‘La Voix humaine’ for SF Opera Lab

Anna Caterina Antonacci with Donald Sulzen in SF Opera Lab’s ‘La Voix humaine’ © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

In a relatively rare performance outside of Europe, Italian soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci stars in SF Opera Lab’s second presentation this season – La Voix humaine (The Human Voice) which has just opened at the Taube Atrium Theater. Performing one of her most celebrated roles, she sings Elle in Francis Poulenc’s 1958 monodrama, based on a play by Jean Cocteau, which revolves around the final telephone conversation between a desperate woman and the lover who is about to reject her. Ms Antonacci is accompanied by pianist Donald Sulzen.

It’s a demanding role, both vocally and dramatically, and Ms Antonacci is regarded as one of its finest interpreters. Following a recent performance, The Los Angeles Times described her as “A dramatically commanding soprano” and “an exceptional stage presence”. Opera News wrote that she “applied her enormous palette of vocal colors and inflections to portray, with an almost unbearably lifelike immediacy, a woman losing control”, and The New York Times referred to her “remarkable talent” as “a suspension between artifice and naturalness, theatricality and subtlety”.

It’s because of Ms Antonacci’s superb vocal and dramatic skills that she has won international acclaim for her performances in a wide-ranging repertoire. She has appeared in opera houses such as The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, La Scala Milan, Teatro Regio in Turin, the Théâtre du Châtelet and the Théâtre des Champs-Elysees in Paris – and with conductors such as Antonio Pappano, John Eliot Gardner, Yannick Nézét-Seguin. She has also appeared with San Francisco Opera on four previous occasions, her two most recent performances, in 2015, having been as Cassandre in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, led by Donald Runnicles, and as Cesira in the world premiere of Marco Tuttino’s Two Women, conducted by Nicola Luisotti.

SF Opera Lab’s ‘La Voix humaine’ stars Anna Caterina Antonacci with pianist Donald Sulzen © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

This SF Opera Lab production also features Ms Antonacci in performances of Berlioz’s La mort d’Ophélie (The Death of Ophelia) and a selection of French art songs, which includes Debussy’s Chansons de Bilitis, set to poems by Pierre Louÿs, and the song cycle La fraîcheur et le feu (The Cool and the Fire), by Poulenc, which he dedicated to Igor Stravinsky.

Donald Sulzen – whose playing has been described by The New York Times as “graceful and articulate” – has not only collaborated with some of the most celebrated singers, but he also performs in recital halls across Europe, South America and Japan, as well as in the United States. He has taught for a number of years at the Mozarteum in Salzburg and is a professor for the instruction of song duos at the Hochschule für Musik und Theater in Munich.

SF Opera Lab presents Anna Caterina Antonacci, with pianist Donald Sulzen, in La Voix humaine in the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater at the Diane B Wilsey Center for Opera, on March 14 and 17. For more information, and for tickets, visit the San Francisco Opera website.

Sources:

San Francisco Opera program notes

Artists’ websites:

Anna Caterina Antonacci

Donald Sulzen

 

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‘Contemporary Voices’ make themselves heard at San Francisco Ballet

Dores André in Pita’s ‘Salome’ © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet’s second triple bill of the week takes the title Contemporary Voices, and it’s just that – a program which gives a voice to three contemporary choreographers – Yuri Possokhov, Arthur Pita and Liam Scarlett, all of whom created the featured works specifically for the Company. Possokhov’s Fusion and Scarlett’s Fearful Symmetries were both given their world premiere performances by San Francisco Ballet in previous seasons, and this year’s world premiere is Pita’s Salome.

San Francisco Ballet in Possokhov’s ‘Fusion’ © Erik Tomasson

Fusion is a work in which contrasting expressions of Eastern and Western cultures come face to face, where an interpretation of Eastern spirituality integrates with the movements of Western contemporary jazz. Possokhov’s inspiration came, in part, from watching a performance by a group of Whirling Dervishes – dervishes being members of a religious sect which originated in Turkey in the 13th century, who devote themselves to a life of spiritual modesty and meditation, and are associated with a ritual dance which involves highly stylized whirling movements.

This mood of contrasts is also reflected in the score, as it moves from Rahul Dev Burman’s Aaj Ki Raat – taken from the soundtrack of one of his Bollywood films – and arranged by Osvaldo Golijov – to three pieces by contemporary British composer, pianist and conductor, Graham Fitkin – Hard Fairy, The Cone Gatherers and Bed.

Dores André in Pita’s ‘Salome’ © Erik Tomasson

Judging by the impressive list of productions, achievements and awards which are associated with the name Arthur Pita – in dance, opera, musicals, plays and film – it was only going to be a matter of time before San Francisco Ballet commissioned a work from him, and his Salome, promises to be something of a revelation. South African-born Pita – who trained in Johannesburg before completing his studies at the London Contemporary Dance School – has a well-known affinity for the surrealist style of film director David Lynch, one of the sources of inspiration for his (very) loose adaptation of the Biblical story of Salome.  Benjamin Freemantle – a member of the corps de ballet –  describes Salome as “something along the lines of ballet theatre”. This, he says, is most obvious at the start of the ballet when “Arthur really takes the time … to set the mood and to showcase to the audience what story he wants to tell”.

Dores André in Pita’s ‘Salome’ © Erik Tomasson

Freemantle refers to ‘Salome’ as “a dark, sinister and eerie ballet with explosions of color. Quite the juxtaposition between the two,” he admits “but it makes for an amazing effect onstage”. It’s also “unusual and a little off-the-grid from what the Bay Area audience usually sees from us,” he adds, “…. not something SF Ballet would typically do, but that being said, we are always pushing the envelope and bringing in new ideas and choreographers from all over. So, this is actually typical of us.”

The score is an original composition by British musician and composer Frank Moon, with whom Pita has collaborated on a number of occasions, as he has with Brazilian-born designer Yann Seabra, whose stage setting is dominated by a large black stretched limousine.  Expect something much more contemporary, and very different, from the image which Salome normally conjures up.

San Francisco Ballet in Scarlett’s ‘Fearful Symmetries’ © Erik Tomasson

From the moment the curtain rises on Liam Scarlett’s Fearful Symmetries, you have a sense that something intriguing is about to take place. The stark background of vertical and horizontal neon lights in bright white sets the mood for a menacing urban location, compounded by the relentless rhythms of John Adams’ pulsating score. Both ballet and music take their title from the “fearful symmetry” referred to in the first stanza of William Blake’s 1794 poem, The Tyger.

With the dancers in uncompromising costumes of black and steel-gray, and no pointe work at all, there’s a sense of apprehension in Scarlett’s highly physical, athletic work – he describes it as “feral” – but one which nevertheless has a thread of sensuality running through it. The mood is similar to that created by Jerome Robbins for his warring gangs in West Side Story, and not unlike the undercurrent of fear running through The Rite of Spring. It’s only at the end – in the ‘after the storm moment’ – that Scarlett gives us a complete contrast – a quietly elegant, and very classical, pas de deux.

San Francisco Ballet, with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, led by Martin West, presents Contemporary Voices at the War Memorial Opera house from March 9 to 19. For more information, and for tickets, visit the San Francisco Ballet website www.sfballet.org.

 

Yuri Possokhov

Arthur Pita

Liam Scarlett

Rahul Dev Burman 

Graham Fitkin

Yann Seabra

John Adams 

 

Sources:

San Francisco Ballet program notes – by Cheryl A Ossola

Artists’ websites

Whirling Dervishes in the Islamic Tradition

 

Three faces of Balanchine from San Francisco Ballet

Joseph Walsh in Balanchine’s ‘Prodigal Son’ © Erik Tomasson Choreography by George Balanchine // © The Balanchine Trust

In a program with the arresting title Must-See Balanchine, San Francisco Ballet almost challenges you not to miss out on three very different facets of the versatility of George Balanchine – the choreographer who was recognized as a genius during his lifetime, still is to this day, and probably will be for all time. This triple bill – featuring one of Balanchine’s abstract ‘black and white ballets’, a narrative work and his scintillating illustration of the grandeur of Imperial Russia – is certainly unmissable for anyone who loves ballet in all its manifestations.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Balanchine’s ‘Stravinsky Violin Concerto’ © Erik Tomasson Choreography by George Balanchine // © The Balanchine Trust

Balanchine created the opening work, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, for New York City Ballet’s 1972 Stravinsky Festival, held just over a year after the death of the composer who was both a close friend of, and an inspiration to Balanchine. Opening on June 18th of that year – the anniversary of Stravinsky’s birth – this week-long tribute featured thirty ballets – twenty-one of which were premieres – by six different choreographers.

San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine’s ‘Stravinsky Violin Concerto’ © Erik Tomasson Choreography by George Balanchine // © The Balanchine Trust

As with Stravinsky’s score for his Violin Concerto in D, the ballet has four movements. The opening Toccata is followed by two Arias – in this case pas de deux – and these in turn are followed by a closing Capriccio. With no costumes or sets to detract from Balanchine’s immaculate choreography, this work mainly reflects the neoclassical style for which he is so well known, but also features movements with more than a passing reference to the folk dances of his native Georgia.

Sofiane Sylve and Joseph Walsh in Balanchine’s ‘Prodigal Son’ © Erik Tomasson Choreography by George Balanchine // © The Balanchine Trust

The narrative work in this program is Balanchine’s The Prodigal Son, which he created for the final Paris season of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. The score for the ballet was written by Sergei Prokofiev to a libretto by Boris Kochno, the French-Russian dance writer and ballet librettist who was Diaghilev’s creative advisor and went on to have a major influence on French ballet after World War II. He based his scenario on the parable from St Luke’s Gospel – using a fair amount of artistic license. Balanchine’s choreography led to something of a rift with Prokofiev who was reportedly unhappy with the way in which the character of the Siren was portrayed. Nevertheless he conducted the premiere of the work in Paris on May 21, 1929, where it was very well received, and became one of the first of Balanchine’s ballets to gain international recognition.

Vanessa Zahorian and Carlo Di Lanno in Balanchine’s ‘Diamonds’ © Erik Tomasson Choreography by George Balanchine // © The Balanchine Trust

Balanchine adored the grandeur of Imperial Russia, by which he was surrounded in St Petersburg, the city of his birth, and at the Mariinsky Theatre where he trained. It was from this background that he drew his inspiration for Diamonds, the final movement of his three-part ballet, Jewels – the ballet which is believed to represent the three countries in which he lived and worked.  The first part, Emeralds, with music by Fauré, reflects the elegance of France, and Rubies represents the close relationship which he shared with Igor Stravinsky in America. Diamonds, set to four movements of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 3 (omitting the first), is a showpiece in every way. It glitters and sparkles, the combined genius of Balanchine’s choreography and Tchaikovsky’s glorious score highlighting the influence that the master composer had on the master choreographer – what Jennifer Homans in her book, Apollo’s Angels, refers to as Tchaikovsky’s “towering presence” in Balanchine’s art.

San Francisco Ballet in Balanchine’s ‘Diamonds’ © Erik Tomasson Choreography by George Balanchine // © The Balanchine Trust

San Francisco Ballet, with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, led by Martin West, presents Must-See Balanchine at the War Memorial Opera House from March 7 to March 18. For more information, and to buy tickets, visit the San Francisco Ballet website www.sfballet.org

 

Sources:

San Francisco Ballet program notes – by Cheryl A Ossola

Somewhere – The Life of Jerome Robbins by Amanda Vaill (published by )

The George Balanchine Trust

All Music

Oxford Reference

Apollo’s Angels by Jennifer Homans (published by Random House Trade Paperbacks)

Gautier Capuçon guests with MTT & San Francisco Symphony

French cellist Gautier Capuçon – courtesy San Francisco Symphony

Internationally acclaimed French cellist Gautier Capuçon returns to Davies Symphony Hall this week as the guest soloist with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. He plays the Shostakovich Cello Concerto No 1 in a program which includes Tchaikovsky’s heart-melting Symphony No 6, Pathétique.

Known for his profoundly expressive yet spirited artistry, Gautier Capuçon is the recipient of a number of awards – First Prize in the Maurice Ravel International Academy of Music competition in 1998, the International Andre Navarra Cello Competition in 1999, he was named New Talent of the Year by Victoires de la Musique in 2001, won the Borletti-Buitoni Trust Award in 2004, and four Echo Classics awards between 2004 and 2012.

Gautier Capuçon regularly appears with some of the world’s finest orchestras – the London Symphony and Philharmonia orchestras, Berliner Philharmoniker, Russian National Orchestra, Staatskapelle Dresden, Münchner Philharmoniker, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic – working with illustrious conductors such as Charles Dutoit, Semyon Bychkov, Valery Gergiev, Gustavo Dudamel, Lionel Bringuier, Andris Nelsons, Christoph Eschenbach, Andrés Orozco-Estrada, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin, as well, of course, with MTT and the San Francisco Symphony.

Mr Capuçon is the founder and leader of the Classe d’Excellence de Violoncelle at the Fondation Louis Vuitton – based in Frank Gehry’s fascinating new Auditorium in Paris – coaching six specially selected and talented young cellists in a six-month series of public masterclasses and concert performances. For this current series, Gautier Capuçon has commissioned a work for seven cellos from composer Bruno Mantovani, which will be premiered at the last concert of the season in June this year.

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his Cello Concerto No 1 in 1959, during a period of uncertainty in Russia, for although Stalin had died six years previously, the feeling of relief which his death brought to the Russian people was tempered by a degree of apprehension about what the future might hold.

The concerto was dedicated to Shostakovich’s great friend and artistic partner Mstislav Rostropovich, who was delighted to have had it written for him. During the concert tours of Europe which he and the composer had undertaken during the 1950s, he had nurtured the hope that Shostakovich would bestow such an honor on him, and such was Rostropovich’s enthusiasm for the work that he learned it by heart within just four days, much to the astonishment of the composer. The Cello Concerto was premiered by Rostropovich in 1959 with the Leningrad Philharmonic conducted by Evgeny Mravinsky.

San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas – courtesy San Francisco Symphony

This week’s concerts open with a work entitled The Jewish Orchestra at the Ball of Nothingtown by the 20th century Russian composer Mikhail Gnessin who studied at the St Petersburg Conservatory with composers such as Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Alexander Glazunov and Anatol Lyadov. Gnessin’s four sisters – all professional musicians – founded the Gnessin Institute of Musical Art in Moscow, an elite training school now known as the Gnessin Russian Academy of Music. The Jewish Orchestra at the Ball of Nothingtown is a suite of incidental music for orchestra, comprising seven dances – Quadrille, Polka, Romance, Valse, Gavotte, Petits pieds and Galop.

Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 was composed between February and August 1893, and dedicated to his nephew Vladimir (Bob) Davidov. The world premiere at the Hall of Nobles, St Petersburg on October 28, 1893 was conducted by the composer, and nine days later he died.

At the time that Tchaikovsky began writing this symphony, he was somewhat depressed over the reception received the previous December for a double bill featuring his ballet, The Nutcracker, and his one-act opera Iolanthe.  He decided that the symphony would have a program, “but a program of a kind that would remain an enigma to all”, he said, and initially he planned to call it the Program Symphony (No 6). It was his brother Modest who came up with the title Pathétique which, according to Tchaikovsky’s biographer John Warrack (writes Michael Steinberg), is more similar in Russian to words such as ‘passionate’ and ‘emotional’ than the English word ‘pathetic’. Despite the fact that Tchaikovsky was said to have “shed many tears” while writing the symphony, he also declared that it had given him great pleasure to compose and that he regarded it as his best and most sincere work.

Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony, in a program of music by Gnessin, Shostakovich – with guest artist Gautier Capuçon – and Tchaikovsky, at Davies Symphony Hall from March 1 to 4. For further information, and for tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

 

Sources:

Gautier Capuçon

Fondation Louis Vuitton

San Francisco Symphony program annotator, the late Michael Steinberg:
Shostakovich Cello Concerto
Tchaikovsky Symphony No 6, Pathétique

The Kennedy Center

Good Music Guide

All Music

 

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Josefowicz plays Adams’ ‘Scheherazade.2’ with MTT & San Francisco Symphony

Violinist Leila Josefowicz © Chris Lee

In the second concert devoted to the celebration of John Adams’ 70th birthday, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony are joined by violinist Leila Josefowicz for a performance of Adams’ Scheherazade.2, followed by MTT and the Symphony’s Grammy-winning interpretation of a suite from Prokofiev’s gorgeous ballet music for Romeo and Juliet.

Known as a passionate proponent of contemporary violin music, Leila Josefowicz shares her enthusiasm for new works with composers, orchestras and conductors around the world. Ms Josefowicz was the winner of a MacArthur Fellowship in 2008, and has had violin concertos written for her not only by John Adams, but also by Esa-Pekka Salonen – which was nominated for a Grammy Award in 2014 – by British composer Colin Matthews and American composer Steven Mackey.

Leila Josefowicz has been a friend and champion of John Adams’ music for the past 15 years, and together they have performed his Violin Concerto and his concerto for amplified violin, The Dharma at Big Sur, on many occasions. So, when Adams received a commission from the New York Philharmonic, the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam, and the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for a new work in 2014, he responded with a Scheherazade.2 – a Dramatic Symphony for Violin and Orchestra – in which the principal character would be portrayed by a solo violin, and which he created for Ms Josefowicz.

Composer John Adams © Deborah O’Grady

The inspiration for this work came to Adams at an exhibition of the history of the Arabian Nights, the collection of ancient tales which the sultana Scheherazade related to her murderous husband in order to keep him entertained, and to prevent him from putting her to death. The theme of brutality towards women in many of these tales – and that faced by Scheherazade herself – made a deep impression on John Adams, an impression that was reinforced by the many instances of oppressed, violated or abused women, and those who are victims of religious fanaticism, even today.

Adams’ Scheherazade.2 doesn’t follow an actual story line, but creates a series images, divided into four movements, depicting a determined and beautiful young woman; her pursuit by those who would consider themselves to be ‘true believers’;  a violent yet tender love scene; the trial of the young woman by a court of religious zealots; and, finally, her escape.

The work was premiered on March 26, 2015 by Leila Josefowicz, with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, at Avery Fisher Hall in New York. This week’s performances are the first by the San Francisco Symphony. A recording of this work, featuring Leila Josefowicz with David Robertson and the St Louis Symphony, won a 2017 Grammy nomination.

The second half of this concert at Davies Symphony Hall is devoted to another Grammy achievement – Selections from Romeo and Juliet, a recording of which won MTT and the San Francisco Symphony a Grammy for Best Orchestral Performance of 1996.

Sergei Prokofiev wrote his score for Romeo and Juliet in 1935 and 1936, and it takes its place among the most beautiful of his works.  It did, however, have a somewhat checkered introduction to the world. Originally planned as the score for a ballet by the (then) Kirov Theater in Leningrad, the work was offered to the Moscow Bolshoi Theater after the Kirov backed down from their agreement. The Bolshoi, however, decided that the music was impossible to dance to, and rejected it. Then the Leningrad Ballet School announced that it planned to stage the ballet on the occasion of its 200th anniversary in 1938, but the Brno Opera in Czechoslavakia also had plans to stage the work that year. When the Leningrad school defaulted on its agreement, the work was premiered in Brno in December 1938, and it wasn’t until 1940 that the Kirov staged the ballet.

San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas © Spencer Lowell

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony in John Adams’ Scheherazade.2 with soloist Leila Josefowicz, and a suite from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet at Davies Symphony Hall from February 22 to 25. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

An hour before each performance on February 22, 23 and 24, John Adams hosts a panel discussion on feminism, gender and sexuality in his works. Panelists include scholar Laura Stanfield Prichard, pianist, writer and producer Sarah Cahill, and Stanford University professor Adrian Daub. On February 25, Laura Stanfield Prichard gives a pre-concert talk on Adams’ work.

Sources:

Artists’ websites:
Leila Josefowicz
John Adams

and

San Francisco Symphony program notes:
Scheherazade.2
Romeo and Juliet

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Ted Hearne’s ‘The Source’ opens at SF Opera Lab

Mellissa Hughes in ‘The Source’ at SF Opera Lab © James Matthew Daniel

San Francisco Opera opens Season Two of its SF Opera Lab programs this week with a contemporary oratorio, The Source, by composer Ted Hearne – a work which has as its subject the dramatic 2010 release by US Army Private Manning of hundreds of thousands of classified documents to WikiLeaks.

For the score of this oratorio for four singers and an ensemble of seven musicians, Hearne has pulled together an eclectic range of pieces  – described on his website as “auto-tuned recitatives, neo soul ballads, icy string trios and moments of cracked-out musical theater”.

The content, by librettist Mark Doten, is taken from a combination of Chelsea Manning’s own words, as well as thousands of primary-source documents – including Twitter feeds, cable news interviews, personal chat transcripts and declassified military reports – and sections of the US military documents known as the Iraq War Logs and the Afghan War Diary.

The New York Times referred to The Source as “A 21st-century masterpiece …. remarkable and essential”. According to The Los Angeles Times, it “….. makes vivid the confusing yet crucial bigger picture of how we handle, and how free we are to handle, information …..”.

Isaiah Robinson in ‘The Source’ © Noah Stern Weber/MASS MoCA

A Beth Morrison Production, The Source was premiered at the BAM Next Wave Festival in October 2014, and had its West Coast premiere in Los Angeles in October 2016.

SF Opera Lab presents six performances of The Source – from February 24 to 26, and from March 1 to 3 – at the Dianne and Tad Taube Atrium Theater, in the Diane B Wilsey Center for Opera.  For further information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Opera website

Ted Hearne – The Source

Mark Doten

 

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San Francisco Ballet presents North American premiere of Scarlett’s ‘Frankenstein’

Vitor Luiz in Scarlett’s ‘Frankenstein (© Erik Tomasson)

Lovers of ballet in San Francisco are to be treated to a new full-length work this week – San Francisco Ballet’s production of Frankenstein, by British choreographer Liam Scarlett. A co-production with The Royal Ballet, Frankenstein was inspired by Mary Shelley’s 1813 Gothic novel, Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus, and the ballet received its world premiere at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in May last year. This week, San Francisco Ballet brings the North American premiere to the War Memorial Opera House.

Contrary to popular belief, Frankenstein is not a horror story. It’s more like an early piece of science fiction, and a deeply moving and tragic one at that. In a Royal Opera House video, Scarlett describes his ballet as being “essentially about love”. “The stereotype of Frankenstein has gone so far from the book” he explains, “that what I really want to do is bring it back to how Shelley saw it. I want to show the public what Frankenstein is really about.”

Joseph Walsh in Scarlett’s ‘Frankenstein’ (© Erik Tomasson)

Scarlett’s ballet – set, like the novel, at the end of the 18th Century – revolves around the creation of a living being by a young man, Victor Frankenstein, who loses his mother shortly before being sent to university. With a gift for science, and chemistry in particular, he desperately hopes to bring his mother back through one of his experiments, and, using non-living body parts, succeeds in giving life to his creation. This being, whom he calls the Creature, turns out to be physically hideous, and Victor, repulsed by what he has done, wants nothing to do with him.

The Creature, though, is not some fearful monster with evil intent. Instead, says Scarlett, “I saw him as a child …. an incredibly vulnerable creature who is shunned by his own creator or father.” The Creature’s feelings of abandonment and desperation to be loved are intensified by the love which he sees between Victor and his fiancée, Elizabeth, as well as the relationships that Victor has with his family and friends, all of whom become involved in the tragedy resulting from Victor’s struggle to reconcile himself to the consequences of his actions.

Frances Chung and Joseph Walsh in Scarlett’s ‘Frankenstein’ (© Erik Tomasson)

 

San Francisco Ballet in Scarlett’s ‘Frankenstein’ (© Erik Tomasson)

Joseph Walsh is one of the San Francisco Ballet principals who’s dancing the role of Victor Frankenstein. He regards the ballet as unique because  “it is not completely driven by a classic love story;  it’s more about the relationship between Victor and the Creature and how that pulls him away from the love between him and Elizabeth. The spectrum of emotion is vast,” he says, “and it has been a pleasurable challenge for me to make it believable.”

Walsh says that although Frankenstein does have choreographic similarities to other ballets of Scarlett’s in which he’s danced – Fearful Symmetries and Hummingbird – it was created with an intention much more different than those. “There’s more focus on character development and movement that’s derived from the plot rather than from just the music, like his more contemporary works,” he explains.

Liam Scarlett, The Royal Ballet’s first Artist in Residence, is also the youngest choreographer to receive a commission for a full-length work from the company. Among the works he has created for The Royal Ballet, Asphodel Meadows won a Critics’ Circle National Dance Award and was also nominated for a South Bank Award and an Olivier Award. Another, Consolations and Liebestraum, was also nominated for a Critics’ Circle Award. In addition to the works which Scarlett has created for San Francisco Ballet – Hummingbird and Fearful Symmetries – he has also choreographed for companies such as English National Ballet, New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and Miami City Ballet. This year, The Royal Ballet will premiere his new work, Symphonic Dances, set to Rachmaninov’s final composition.  Scarlett also takes up the position of Artistic Associate for Queensland Ballet, following his creation of a new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream for the Australian company last season. His roles with the two companies will run concurrently.

Joseph Walsh in Scarlett’s ‘Frankenstein’ (© Erik Tomasson)

The score for Frankenstein was commissioned from American composer, pianist and conductor, Lowell Liebermann, described by Time magazine as “a composer unafraid of grand gestures and openhearted lyricism”. Scarlett has choreographed to Liebermann’s music on three previous occasions – for his ballets Viscera and Euphotic for Miami City Ballet, and Gargoyles for New York City Ballet – but the score for Frankenstein is Liebermann’s first commission for a ballet. The recipient of many awards and accolades, Liebermann has written over a hundred works in all genres, which have been performed by orchestras across the globe, conducted by names as illustrious as Charles Dutoit, Kurt Masur, Andrew Litton, David Zinman, Jesus Lopez-Cobos and Wolfgang Sawallisch, and performed by luminaries such as Joshua Bell, Sir James Galway, Garrick Ohlsson, Stephen Hough and Jean-Yves Thibaudet. Lowell Liebermann also holds the honor of having written the only American opera to have been commissioned and premiered by Opéra Monte-Carlo – The Picture of Dorian Gray.

Set and costume design for Frankenstein is by the wonderfully creative British artist, ballet and opera designer, John Macfarlane.  Macfarlane has previously collaborated with Liam Scarlett – on his productions of Asphodel Meadows, Sweet Violets and The Age of Anxiety – with choreographers such as Jiri Kylian, Glen Tetley and Sir Peter Wright, and has designed for companies such as The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, Netherlands Dance Theatre, Danish Royal Ballet, Canadian Royal Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem and Australian National Ballet.  He has designed for The Royal Opera, Welsh National Opera, Glyndebourne Festival and English National Opera, also for the Metropolitan, San Francisco, Paris and Vienna State operas.  Future commissions include both set and costume design for contemporary and classical ballets at Covent Garden.

Vitor Luiz in Scarlett’s ‘Frankenstein’ (© Erik Tomasson

Frankenstein is a ballet which is clearly very close to Scarlett’s heart. “I’ve immersed myself in this project for nearly three years now,” he says in a Royal Ballet video recorded prior to the world premiere, “and it is a labour of pure love.”

San Francisco Ballet presents the North American premiere of Liam Scarlett’s Frankenstein from February 17 to 26, at the War Memorial Opera House, with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Martin West. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Ballet website.

 

San Francisco Ballet

The Royal Ballet

 

Sources:

San Francisco Ballet program notes by Cheryl A Ossola

The Royal Ballet program notes

 

Artists’ websites:

Liam Scarlett

Lowell Liebermann

John Macfarlane

Videos from The Royal Ballet’s Youtube channel:

Liam Scarlett on creating Frankenstein

Lowell Liebermann on his Frankenstein score

John McFarlane talks about the set and props of Frankenstein

 

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San Francisco Symphony celebrates John Adams at 70

Composer John Adams whose oratorio ‘The Gospel According to the Other Mary’ is presented by the San Francisco Symphony – photo courtesy San Francisco Symphony

 

John Adams, contemporary and ‘post-minimalist’ (his phrase) composer turns 70 this week. One of America’s best known and most frequently performed composers, Adams has enjoyed a long-term relationship with the San Francisco Symphony – the longest partnership he has had with a leading international orchestra during his career, and one which strengthened over the years as he became an internationally known and highly respected composer.

The Adams/SF Symphony relationship began in 1978 when he was appointed the Symphony’s New Music Adviser. Then followed a three-year tenure as composer-in-residence – from 1982 to 1985 – and the creation by Adams of the orchestra’s New and Unusual Music series. A number of John Adams’ best-known orchestral works were written for – and premiered by – the San Francisco Symphony, including Harmonium (1981), Grand Pianola Music (1982), Harmonielehre (1985), My Father Knew Charles Ives (2003) and Absolute Jest (2012).

Two of Adams’ orchestral works have been recorded by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony on SFS Media, the orchestra’s in-house label. Their 2012 recording of Harmonielehre (commissioned by the Symphony) and Short Ride in a Fast Machine (commissioned by MTT) won the Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance in that year, and their most recent collaboration on the SFS Media label was the 2015 recording of Absolute Jest & Grand Pianola Music.

In the first of two concerts celebrating John Adams’ 70th birthday, conductor Grant Gershon – Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale and Resident Conductor of the Los Angeles Opera – leads the San Francisco Symphony in the orchestra’s first performance of Adams’ Passion oratorio, The Gospel According to the Other Mary.  The work was commissioned by Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2012, and premiered in May 2013.

With a libretto compiled by Peter Sellars from Biblical sources, and original texts by Hildegard of Bingen, Dorothy Day, Rosario Castellanos, June Jordan, Louise Erdrich and Primo Levi, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, relates the story of the last few weeks of Jesus’ life before his crucifixion, looking at events from the position of Mary Magdalene – a woman often regarded as marginalized – and also featuring her sister Martha and their brother Lazarus. Alongside the miracles and the resurrection, this work also draws parallels with current issues such as oppression, social justice and political unrest.

In a San Francisco Symphony video, John Adams describes how he asked his “long-time collaborator Peter Sellars to design or dream up a narrative for a passion play that would honor the Biblical story but also bring it into the present …. an oratorio that moves back and forth between the Biblical past and the immediate present”, drawing on the experiences of those times and how they relate to events that are taking place today.

Grant Gershon conducts the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus (director Ragnar Bohlin) in John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary at Davies Symphony Hall on February 16, 17 and 18. Also appearing in these performances are mezzo-sopranos Kelley O’Connor as Mary, and Tamara Mumford as Martha, tenor Jay Hunter Morris as Lazarus, and countertenors Daniel Bubeck, Brian Cummings and Nathan Medley.

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

An hour before the performances on February 16 and 17, there will be a pre-concert conversation between John Adams, scholar Alexandra Amati-Camperi, and Stage Director Elkhanah Pulitzer.

On February 18, John Adams joins Alexandra Amati-Camperi for a pre-concert talk about his work.

See also: program notes by Thomas May on John Adams’ history with the San Francisco Symphony

Sources:

San Francisco Symphony notes and video

John Adams’ website

 

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A church in turmoil at San Francisco Playhouse

Antony Fusco, as Pastor Paul, leads a service

Never discuss politics or religion with friends, they say – but if Lucas Hnath’s play, The Christians, is anything to go by, you should avoid discussing the fundamentals of religion in church as well, particularly beliefs and how they’re interpreted!

You have to hand it to Playhouse Directors, Bill English and Susi Damilano, they’re not shy about tackling what could be construed as a bit of a thorny topic – and The Christians most definitely falls into that category.

Pastor Paul (an admirably authentic portrayal by Anthony Fusco) is head of a burgeoning church which, over 10 years, has grown from modest beginnings to a place of worship for thousands of believers. As the play opens, he has decided to throw the proverbial cat among the pigeons by delivering a sermon which questions the very foundation of what most Christians believe about their faith.

Pastor Paul (Anthony Fusco) challenges Associate Pastor Joshua (Lance Gardner) to substantiate his claims from the Bible

The young Associate Pastor, Joshua (in a fine performance by Lance Gardner), is quick to take issue with Pastor Paul over his audacity at even raising the question, much less the alternate interpretation on offer – and the inevitable fissure which has been opened threatens to become wider and more destructive as their dispute continues.

Church Elder Jay (Warren David Keith) tries to rationalize the situation with Pastor Paul (Anthony Fusco)

Jay, one of the church Elders, in a dignified and measured performance by Warren David Keith, takes Pastor Paul aside for a quiet heart-to-heart, in an attempt to smooth things over, but the situation reaches boiling point when one of the choristers steps up to the lectern to give a testimony, and in so doing raises an even more pertinent question about Pastor Paul’s character. Millie Brooks is splendid as Jenny, an (initially) engaging young single mother who becomes ever more impassioned as she gets to the heart of her denunciation.

A congregant, Jenny (Millie Brooks) delivers her testimony

Stephanie Prentice gives a beautifully controlled performance as Elizabeth, Pastor Paul’s adoring wife, who inevitably becomes drawn into the emotional maelstrom of the tumultuous proceedings.

Stephanie Prentice is Elizabeth, the pastor’s adoring wife

Bill English is to be commended for his taut direction which keeps the audience spellbound as this catastrophe unfolds, and the voices of the volunteer members of the First Unitarian Church Choir add a lovely touch of authenticity to the production.

The Christians runs at the San Francisco Playhouse until March 11th. For more information, and for tickets, visit the SF Playhouse website.

 

All photographs © Jessica Palopoli

 

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