Julia Bullock appears with Esa-Pekka Salonen & the San Francisco Symphony

Music Director Designate Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the San Francisco Symphony in the first of two February programs this week, featuring soprano Julia Bullock.

The program opens with a work which is new to the Symphony – Steven Stucky’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary (after Purcell) – written in 1991 for the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the suggestion of Esa-Pekka Salonen, and premiered by the L A Phil in February 1992.

Soprano Julia Bullock then performs Britten’s Les Illuminations – the British composer’s song cycle set to the verse and prose poems of Arthur Rimbaud, and first performed in 1940. She follows this with a work by Maurice Ravel, his Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé – three art songs based on works by the French poet, and leader of the Symbolist movement.

Ms Bullock – Artist-in-Residence to the San Francisco Symphony this season – has a voice described by the L A Times as “…. deeply rich and richly deep …”, and by Opera News as a “vibrant, dark-hued lyric soprano”. Not only does Ms Bullock have a voice which is drawing superb reviews, but she’s also noted for her curatorial abilities. She was the 2018-19 Artist-in-Residence of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the opera-programming host of new broadcast channel All Arts, a founding member of the American Modern Opera Company (AMOC), and she’s also a member of a cross-disciplinary artistic team recently assembled by Esa-Pekka Salonen for his inaugural season in 2020-21.

As part of her residency with the Symphony, Julia Bullock will also perform at the Symphony’s experimental SoundBox space, and she’ll present an expanded version of her recital program “History’s Persistent Voice” – a mixed-media concert of newly commissioned works by award-winning composers Rhiannon Giddens, Camille Norment, Cécile McLorin Salvant, and Pamela Z.

The program ends with Ravel’s delightful suite Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose), originally written in 1908 as five pieces for piano with four hands, and orchestrated by Ravel in 1912. Choreographer Jerome Robbins created a ballet entitled Mother Goose for the 1975 New York City Ballet’s Ravel Festival, using the music which Ravel had composed.

Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the San Francisco Symphony, and Artist-in-Residence Julia Bullock, in a program of works by Steven Stucky, Benjamin Britten and Maurice Ravel, at Davies Symphony Hall, from 20th to 22nd February. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

‘Classical (Re)Vision’ and ‘Dance Innovations’ from San Francisco Ballet

Sofiane Sylve and Tiit Helimets in Liang’s The Infinite Ocean. (© Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet is well known for its innovative and creative programming, ably slotting contemporary and experimental works into its schedule between the traditional classical and ‘story’ ballets which form part of every season. The Company’s 2020 season provides as fascinating a mix of versatility as any we’ve seen in recent years, and this week sees the opening of two programs of mainly contemporary works – Classical (Re)Vision and Dance Innovations.

Sasha De Sola and Lonnie Weeks in Welch’s Bespoke // © Erik Tomasson

Classical (Re)Vision opens with one of the works which featured in the 2018 Unbound Festival. Bearing the simple title Bespoke, it was created by Australian choreographer Stanton Welch. He uses two of J S Bach’s violin concertos – the A minor and E major – to illustrate the theme of this work, which revolves around what he terms the “bittersweet” love of dancers for their art – the all-consuming passion with which they willingly devote their lives to it, even though the career of a performing dancer is relatively short.

Sofiane Sylve and Carlo Di Lanno in the white swan pas de deux from Dawson’s Swan Lake // © Erik Tomasson

The program goes on to feature a selection of works which fall under the heading of Director’s Choice, three of which will feature in different performances. These works are drawn from ballets already in the Company’s repertoire – Val Caniparoli’s Foreshadow, Christopher Wheeldon’s After the Rain pas de deux, Helgi Tomasson’s Soirees Musicales, Myles Thatcher’s 05:49, Danielle Rowe’s For Pixie, Gsovsky’s Grand Pas Classique, David Dawson’s Swan Lake pas de deux, and Tomasson’s Concerto Grosso.

San Francisco Ballet in Morris’ Sandpaper Ballet. (© Erik Tomasson) *** Local Caption *** SAB09REP-ET011.jpg

Ending the program on a light-hearted and upbeat note is a ballet which Mark Morris created for the Company in 1999. Sandpaper Ballet is neoclassical in style, but set to the music of the hugely popular composer of light orchestral works, Leroy Anderson. The score includes some of his best-loved pieces – Sleigh Ride, Fiddle-Faddle, The Typewriter, A Trumpeter’s Lullaby and The Syncopated Clock. It’s a fun and entertaining piece, with costumes by American fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi.

San Francisco Ballet rehearse McIntyre’s The Big Hunger // © Erik Tomasson

Program 03 – a selection of both classical and contemporary ballets – is entitled Dance Innovations, and opens with a world premiere by American dancer and choreographer Trey McIntyre – one of the contributing choreographers to the 2018 Unbound program. The McIntyre work featured in this program is The Big Hunger, which the choreographer relates to the search for a purpose in life.

For the score, he’s selected Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 2, a work which McIntyre describes as “…. complex and original, and somehow melodic and danceable, but also discordant and strange, and off-putting and embracing and lovely”. It will be played in these performances by Yekwon Sunwoo, winner of the 2017 Van Cliburn Gold Medal.

San Francisco Ballet in Liang’s The Infinite Ocean. (© Erik Tomasson)

The Infinite Ocean is the third work created for San Francisco Ballet by Edwaard Liang – and it also premiered during the Unbound Festival. According to Liang, the setting of the ballet is that space in time between life and death, before a spirit crosses the infinite ocean of the title. The score is a beautiful violin concerto commissioned by Liang from contemporary British composer, Oliver Davis.

San Francisco Ballet in Lander’s Etudes. (© Erik Tomasson)

Completing this program is Études, a ballet by Danish dancer and choreographer, Harald Lander – Artistic Director of the Royal Danish Ballet from1932 to1951 – who was inspired to create this work by Danish composer, Knudåge Riisager. The work traces the progression of ballet from the basics with which every dancer’s day begins – a rigorous repetition of exercises – to the ultimate goal of the performance. For the score, Riisager arranged for orchestra a set of piano studies by Austrian composer Carl Czerny, which themselves mirror the increasing challenges faced by the dancer. Études is a grand opportunity for the Company to showcase the artistry of its principal dancers, as well as that of the corps de ballet.

San Francisco Ballet is accompanied by the Grammy Award-winning San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, led by Music Director and Principal Conductor, Martin West, sharing conducting duties with Ming Luke.

Classical (Re)Vision and Dance Innovations will be performed at the city’s War Memorial Opera House between 11th and 27th February. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Ballet website.

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Ballet program notes

Oliver Davis

Harald Lander

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Bieito’s staging of ‘Carmen’ returns to English National Opera

Scene from ENO’s production of Bizet’s ‘Carmen’, staged by Calixto Bieito
© Richard Hubert Smith

Georges Bizet’s Carmen is regarded as one of the most popular operas ever composed, thrilling audiences the world over. This revival by English National Opera, however, is Carmen with a difference – a bold and gritty production by Catalan director Calixto Bieito, which was first staged at ENO in 2012.

In 1872 Bizet was invited to collaborate on a new full-length work by the theatre director of the Opéra-Comique in Paris. The composer suggested to librettists Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halevy (who had previously worked with Jacques Offenbach) an adaptation of the novella, Carmen, by Prosper Mérimée, written and first published in 1845.

The production duly opened in Paris in 1875, but it wasn’t particularly well received. Audiences were apparently shocked at the obsession and violence conveyed in the storyline, and although it initially ran to more performances than any of Bizet’s previous works, the influence of the criticism was significant. Nevertheless, it was still running some three months later, when Bizet died at the age of 36. It wasn’t long, though, before the opera opened in Vienna to great acclaim, with subsequent and very successful performances around the world. Sadly, Bizet wasn’t to know that his work had become so popular.

Carmen is usually associated with a vision of 19th century Seville, of Spanish señoritas in swirling skirts, flicking their fans, but Bieito – well known for his radical reinterpretations of classic works – set his opera in Ceuta, the autonomous Spanish city situated at the tip of North Africa, and brought it forward in time to the post-Franco Spain of the 1970s. Interestingly, this version is considered to be closer to the setting of the original Mérimée novel than the adaption by Bizet and his librettists.

Acknowledged as one of the most sought after opera and theatre directors of his generation, Calixto Bieito – who describes his Carmen as “intuitive, earthy, passionate, melancholy, sensitive …. living in a dangerous and violent society” – has previously directed for ENO productions of Don Giovanni , A Masked Ball, Fidelio and The Force of Destiny.

Sean Pannikar and Justina Gringytė in ‘Carmen’ – © Richard Hubert Smith

The role of the defiant, seductive and bewitching Carmen is sung by Lithuanian mezzo-soprano Justina Gringytė, who has previously appeared in this role for Scottish Opera, at Teatro Massimo in Palermo, Teatro National São Carlos in Lisbon, Lithuanian National Opera and Novosibirsk Opera and Ballet. Major opera houses in which Ms Gringytė has also appeared include the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, Teatro Real Madrid and the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, and this season sees her return to Lithuanian National Opera as Carmen, to Korean National Opera as Hänsel in Humperdinck’s Hänsel und Gretel, and to Scottish Opera in her role debut of Santuzza in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana.

In 2016, Ms Gringytė launched a charity foundation in her name, in aid of young musicians. “To be a talented musician is a gift,” she says, “but to develop that talent requires dedication, discipline and funds. This is why I was compelled to create this foundation; so that musically gifted children can be assisted financially to further their education and fulfil their potential.”

American tenor Sean Pannikar – an alumnus of San Francisco Opera’s Adler Fellowship – makes his house debut as Don José in this ENO production of Carmen. Opera News writes of Mr Pannikar: “His voice is unassailable—firm, sturdy and clear, and he employs it with maximum dramatic versatility”. He has a number of engagements with the Metropolitan Opera to his credit, including the company premiere of John Adams’ The Death of Klinghoffer, a new production of Rossini’s Guillaume Tell, Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor and Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. Mr Pannikar has also appeared at Washington National Opera, in Francesca Zambello’s La Bohème at the Royal Albert Hall, at Cincinnati Opera, Pittsburgh Opera, Santa Fe Opera and the Glimmerglass Festival, and in symphonic performances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the San Francisco Symphony and the St Louis Symphony Orchestra.

Soprano Nardus Williams makes her role and house debut as Micaëla in this production of Carmen. Ms Williams won a Kiri Te Kanawa Scholarship whilst training at the International Opera School at the Royal College of Music, before joining the Houston Opera Studio for the 2018-19 season. A former Jerwood Young Artist at Glyndebourne, she appeared as Adina in L’elisir d’amore with the Glyndebourne Tour in November 2019. With a “superbly controlled, sensuous soprano which has sheen and shimmer as well as real focus of tone” (Opera Today), Ms Williams will appear as Countess Almaviva in ENO’s production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in March, and as Donna Anna in his Don Giovanni for Nevill Holt Opera this summer.

Nardus Williams and Sean Pannikar in ‘Carmen’ © Richard Hubert Smith

The role of Escamillo is sung by British bass-baritone Ashley Riches. A former member of the King’s College Choir at Cambridge, and a former member of the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at the Royal Opera House, Mr Riches has subsequently appeared with the Royal Opera, Opera National de Lorraine, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Gabrieli Consort and the Philharmonia Orchestra, with some of the world’s finest conductors, including Esa-Pekka Salonen, Robin Ticciatti, Sir John Eliot Gardiner, Sir Simon Rattle, Christian Curnyn and Sir Roger Norrington.

Tenor David Butt Phillip will sing the role of Don José for two performances towards the end of Carmen’s run. Recent role debuts include appearances at Deutsche Oper Berlin, Glyndebourne, Teatro Real Madrid, Opéra de Lille, Opera North and the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. His current season includes appearances at Wiener Staatsoper, Staatsoper Berlin, Opera Australia, the Metropolitan Opera and returns to the Royal Opera House, Teatro Real and Glyndebourne.

Also appearing are ENO Harewood Artists Samantha Price, Matthew Durkan and Alex Otterburn.

Justina Gringytė and Sean Pannikar in ‘Carmen’ © Richard Hubert Smith

Leading these performances of Carmen is ENO Mackerras Fellow, Valentina Peleggi, conducting her first main house production at ENO. Principal Conductor of the OSESP Choir São Paulo, Guest Music Director at Theatro São Pedro in São Paulo – where she was voted Best Opera Conductor in Brazil 2019 by Movimento magazine – Honorary Conductor at Coro Universitario di Firenze and an Associate of the Royal Academy of Music, Ms Peleggi was Resident Conductor of the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra from 2016 – 2018, and Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the orchestra’s professional chorus from 2017 – 2019.

This co-production with Den Norske Opera and Ballet is sung in English, with English subtitles, and runs at the London Coliseum until 27th February, alternating with Barbora Horáková’s production of Guiseppe Verdi’s Luisa Miller. For further information and tickets, visit the English National Opera website.

Information sourced from:

English National Opera programme notes

Justina Gringytė

Sean Pannikar

Nardus Williams

Ashley Riches

David Butt Philip

Valentina Peleggi

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Bolshoi Ballet screens ‘Giselle’ in cinemas worldwide

Olga Smirnova in the title role of Ratmansky’s ‘Giselle’ © Bolshoi Theatre

In the latest global screening of productions direct from the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, the Bolshoi Ballet presents a new staging of one of the best-loved works in the classical repertoire – Giselle. This new – and “exquisitely faceted recreation” (The New York Times) – is the work of internationally renowned choreographer Alexei Ratmansky.

Regarded as the most famous of the Romantic era ballets, Giselle came about through the collaboration of three French artists – Ballet Masters Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli, and composer Adolphe Adam. The libretto was written by Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier, who drew inspiration came from two sources – a passage in prose entitled L’Allemagne by German poet, writer and literary critic Heinrich Heine, and the poem Fantômes from Victor Hugo’s Les Orientales.

At the time, the Paris Opéra Ballet was keen to feature a new Italian dancer, Carlotta Grisi, in a work as soon as possible, so the ballet was commissioned, the librettists set to work, and the choreographers produced a truly lovely ballet, set to Adam’s utterly gorgeous score. Giselle, starring Carlotta Grisi, premiered at the Paris Opéra on 28th June, 1841.

The story of Giselle tells of a frail young peasant girl who is betrayed by her beloved, the aristocratic Count Albrecht, and who dies of a broken heart. She finds herself in a moonlit glade surrounded by supernatural spirits called Wilis – maidens who had all died before their wedding night – and their queen, Myrtha. Albrecht enters the glade to lay flowers on Giselle’s grave, and is summoned by Myrtha and her Wilis to dance until his death. Giselle – ever forgiving, and touched by his exhaustion – eventually pleads for mercy for him, and the Wilis ultimately allow him to leave the forest.

Olga Smirnova and Artemy Belyakov in Ratmansky’s ‘Giselle’ © Bolshoi Theatre

Alexei Ratmansky is regarded as one of the world’s foremost choreographers, whose works are featured in the repertoire of some of the world’s finest ballet companies. A graduate of the Bolshoi Ballet School, he is a former dancer with the National Opera in Ukraine, the Royal Winnipeg Ballet in Canada, and the Royal Danish Ballet. He was appointed artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet in 2004, and credited with reinstating the company to its international status following a number of difficult years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Multi-award-winning Ratmansky is also a Knight of the Order of the Danish Flag, an Honoured Artist of Ukraine, winner of the Diaghilev Competition in Moscow, and a MacArthur Foundation Fellow. He is currently the first artist-in-residence at American Ballet Theatre.

The role of Giselle is danced by Olga Smirnova, a prima ballerina of the Bolshoi with an impressive list of awards to her name. She has been with the company all her professional life, but has also toured widely with the Bolshoi, and guested with internationally renowned ballet companies such as Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, the American Ballet Theatre, the Mariinsky Theatre, the Wiener Staatsballett, and the Hamburg Ballett John Neumeier. Her favourite roles include the title role in Anna Karenina, Tatiana in Onegin, Marguerite in Lady of the Camellias, as well as the classics such as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake, Giselle, and Nikiya in La Bayadere.

Artemy Belyakov, who dances Count Albrecht, graduated from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in 2010, since when he has acquired a vast repertoire of roles in works from the classics to the contemporary. The most recent of these include Prince Desire in The Sleeping Beauty, a soloist in Balanchine’s Symphony in C, Frantz in Coppélia, Vronsky in Anna Karenina and Romeo in Ratmansky’s Romeo and Juliet. On tour he has appeared in Chelyabinsk, Yehaterinburg – where he appeared in his own creation Sospiri set to the music of Sir Edward Elgar – in Sofia and Bashkir.

The Bolshoi Ballet presents Giselle in a live transmission – distributed by Pathé Live – to cinemas around the world on Sunday, 26th January. To find your nearest cinema, visit https://www.bolshoiballetincinema.com/

Information sourced from:

Pathé Live

The Petipa Society

Aleksei Ratmansky

Aleksei Ratmansky

Olga Smirnova

Artemy Belyakov

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MTT leads San Francisco Symphony in World Premiere of his new work

Michael Tilson Thomas © Art Streiber courtesy San Francisco Symphon

In his final season as Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony in two programs this month – the first of which takes place this week, and features the World Premiere of MTT’s own work, Meditations on Rilke, with Artist-in-Residence mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny. Also on the program are the Berlioz Overture to Benvenuto Cellini, selections from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and Ravel’s fascinating La Valse.

The concert opens with Berlioz’s Overture to Benvenuto Cellini, an opera which (although largely fictional) drew its inspiration from the memoirs of the Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini. The opera was not well received, and even today is not often performed, but the overture is heard as a standalone piece in the concert hall.

Tilson Thomas’ song cycle Meditations on Rilke, is a musical setting of poems by the Bohemian-Austrian novelist and poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926), regarded as one of the most lyrical of German-language writers. MTT describes these six songs as “reflections of the many moods the poems suggest …. motives and harmonies [which] have been with me for years ….. that recur, recombine, and morph differently in each song”.

Sasha Cooke – winner of two Grammy Awards – has both a versatile repertoire and a commitment to new music. Referred to by the New York Times as a “luminous standout”, and in “equal parts poise, radiance and elegant directness” by Opera News, she regularly appears with the world’s leading orchestras, opera companies and chamber ensembles. A self-confessed devotee of San Francisco, Ms Cooke made her debut with the Symphony in 2009, and the following year became a Shenson Young Artist. Included among her performances with the Symphony are appearances in Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Mahler’s Das Lied van der Erde and Die Klagende Lied.

Sasha Cooke is also well known to San Francisco Opera audiences, having appeared in a number of roles for the Company. During this current season, she has sung the role of Hansel in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, and will appear as Laurene Powell Jobs in Mason Bates and Mark Campbell’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs , a role she created at Santa Fe Opera in 2017.

Joining Sasha Cooke is American bass-baritone, Ryan McKinny – “one of the finest singers of his generation”, with “a voice that drips with gold”, says Opera News. Having appeared with many of the world’s finest opera companies, he has also appeared on the concert stage with numerous leading orchestras around the globe. No stranger to San Francisco audiences either, Mr McKinny made his debut with the Symphony in its celebration of the works of Leonard Bernstein in 2017, and more recently appeared in a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 at the Symphony’s season opening concert last September.

For San Francisco Opera, he has appeared in the Company’s World Premiere of John Adams’ and Peter Sellars’ production of Girls of the Golden West in 2017, in which he also appeared, with Dutch National Opera, for the European premiere. In 2018, Ryan McKinny was nominated as one of San Francisco Opera’s Emerging Stars.

MTT’s love for the music of Gustav Mahler is well known, and in this program, Mahler is represented by Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn) – a song cycle which he composed between 1892 and 1899. The poems were the work of Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim, who wrote an anthology of German folk songs between 1805 and 1808 – either original works, or rewrites of folk songs which had originally been written by 17th century poets. It’s interesting to note that apparently more than half of the songs which Mahler wrote during his career are settings to lyrics from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, works in which the composer covered a wide range of subjects and emotions.

In June this year, SFS Media – the Symphony’s own recording label – will release an album of works composed by Michael Tilson Thomas, and performed by the Symphony during the 2018-2020 seasons. The Rilke Songs sung by Sasha Cooke and Ryan McKinny – recorded during these performances – will be on this album, together with live recordings of From the Diary of Anne Frank – narrated by mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard – and Street Song.

The final work in this week’s programme is Ravel’s intriguing and somewhat enigmatic La Valse, which the composer described as “a dancing, whirling, almost hallucinatory ecstasy, an increasingly passionate and exhausting whirlwind of dancers, who are overcome and exhilarated by nothing but ‘the waltz’”. This gorgeous piece of music – so typical of Ravel – was originally sketched out in 1906 as Vienne, a symphonic poem, written in tribute to Johan Strauss II. When asked by Sergei Diaghilev to write a work entitled La Valse for his Ballets Russes, Ravel presented him with this piece. As it happened, Diaghilev was disappointed in the work, and although he was complimentary about it, he didn’t think it suitable for a ballet. Some years later, though, both George Balanchine and Sir Frederic Ashton saw its merits – Balanchine creating a work for New York City Ballet in 1951, and Ashton for The Royal Ballet in 1958.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 on September 3, 2010 in Davies Symphony Hall.

Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony, and soloists Sasha Cooke and Ryan McKinny in the World Premiere of MTT’s Meditations on Rilke, and music by Berlioz, Mahler and Ravel, at Davies Symphony Hall from January 9th to 12th. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

From January 16th to 18th, Michael Tilson Thomas leads the Symphony in the West Coast premiere of SFS-commissioned Fountain of Youth by Julia Wolfe, Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in which pianist Emanuel Ax will be the guest soloist.

More information, and details of ticketing, can be found on the San Francisco Symphony website.

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Symphony program notes

Rainer-Maria Rilke

Des Knaben Wunderhorn

La Valse

Sasha Cooke

Ryan McKinny

Handel’s ‘Messiah’ with the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus

The San Francisco Symphony and Chorus © Cory Weaver

One of the joys of the Christmas season is Handel’s Messiah – and the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus present this magnificent work at Davies Symphony Hall this weekend. This performance, conducted by Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin, features the harmony of 100 voices, with soloists Lauren Snouffer (soprano), countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, tenor Ben Bliss and bass Adam Lau.

George Frideric Handel – said by Beethoven to be the “greatest composer that ever lived” – wrote this glorious oratorio in the space of four weeks, over August and September, in 1741, and originally conceived it as an Easter offering. Weary of the emotional and financial burden of producing operas, with their requirement for elaborate scenery and foreign soloists – and to some extent conscious of the changing tastes of audiences – Handel started writing oratorios in the 1730s.

Messiah had its preview at the Musick Hall, Fishamble Street in Dublin, on 13th April, 1742 – before an audience of 700, who flocked to see the oratorio (as well as one of the soloists who was the subject of much gossip at the time). Ladies were asked, in advance, by the management to wear dresses without hoops, in order to make “Room for more company”, and gentlemen were asked not to wear their swords. A great benefactor of orphans, retired musicians and those who suffered ill health, Handel donated a portion of the proceeds of this debut to a debtors’ prison and a hospital in Dublin.

The San Francisco Symphony Chorus with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting in rehearsal on Tuesday evening, June 28, 2016 © Stefan Cohen

Messiah became an Easter tradition, and was revived in London in 1745, in 1749, and again in 1750. By 1777 performances had spread to major cities throughout the United Kingdom, as well as the German cities of Hamburg and Mannheim, and by the 1780s to Boston, New York and Philadelphia. By the 19th century, however, Handel’s oratorio had become firmly entrenched as a Christmas tradition – even more so in the United States than in Britain.

The Grammy Award-winning San Francisco Symphony Chorus (eight awards in all) was established in 1973 at the request of the Symphony’s then Music Director Seiji Ozawa. The Chorus numbers 32 professional artists – who are part of the American Guild of Musical Artists – and more than 120 volunteer performers, and it performs more than 26 concerts each season. One of a few choruses in the world devoted solely to one orchestra, it has a repertoire which ranges from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to A Charlie Brown Christmas – which the Chorus will be performing on 21st to 23rd December. Prior to that – on 19th and 20th December – the Chorus will appear in ’Twas the Night – a Festival of Carols – both at Davies Symphony Hall and with the San Francisco Symphony.

The San Francisco Symphony Chorus with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting in rehearsal on Tuesday evening, June 28, 2016 © Stefan Cohen

The line-up of soloists for Messiah is impressive as well. American soprano Lauren Snouffer has a wide-ranging repertoire, embracing the music of Monteverdi through to contemporary composers such as Missy Mazzoli and George Benjamin. Multi-award-winning countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen – with a “commanding stage presence, gorgeous tone and musical sensitivity” (Houston Chronicle) – is regarded as one of opera’s most promising young stars. He was a member of San Francisco Opera’s 2018-19 Adler Fellowship program. Tenor Ben Bliss, described by the New York Classical Review as “one of the leading Mozartian tenors,” is considered to be among the most versatile performers of his generation, and award-winning bass Adam Lau is appearing in Messiah with the Oratorio Society of New York and Musica Sacra this season as well. He has sung in some of the nation’s leading summer programs including San Francisco’s Merola Summer Festival, Aspen Opera Theater, and Santa Fe Opera.

Ragnar Bohlin leads the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and soloists in Handel’s Messiah at Davies Symphony Hall on 13th and 14th December. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

Information sourced from:

Smithsonian Magazine
San Francisco Symphony program notes
San Francisco Symphony Chorus
Lauren Snouffer
Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen
Ben Bliss
Adam Lau

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Mariss Jansons – 1943-2019

With the passing of Latvian conductor, Mariss Jansons, the world of classical music has lost a towering figure. Maestro Jansons passed away at his home in St Petersburg at the age of 76 on 30th November.

Born in Riga – the son of conductor Arvīds Jansons – he studied in St Petersburg, assisting Yevgeny Mravinsky at the Leningrad Philharmonic, before entering the city’s Conservatory where he studied piano and conducting. He worked with Hans Swarowsky in Vienna, and with Herbert von Karajan in Salzburg.

Mariss Jansons held a number of eminent roles over his lifetime – the most recent having been Chief Conductor of the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra for more than a decade from 2003, together with that of Chief Conductor of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam from 2004 to 2015. He was only the sixth conductor to hold this role, and became the Orchestra’s Conductor Emeritus after his departure.

In 1979, Maestro Jansons was appointed Music Director of the Oslo Philharmonic – a position he held until 2000 – and from 1997 to 2004, he was Music Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Maestro Jansons also made numerous appearances as an international guest conductor. He was appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the London Philharmonic in 1997, and was a regular guest of ensembles such as the Berlin and Vienna philharmonic orchestras, and the London Symphony Orchestra.

Mariss Jansons was a prolific recording artist, on labels such as Chandos – for whom he recorded the Tchaikovsky symphonies with the Oslo Philharmonic – and focused mainly on the Russian repertoire in his EMI recordings. He also recorded on the Royal Concertgebouw’s own label and released a number of recordings during his time at the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Among the numerous honours bestowed on Maestro Jansons were the Commander of the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit, memberships of the Royal Academy of Music in London, the Society of Music Friends in Vienna, the Order of the Three Stars (Latvia’s highest honour), the Bavarian Maximilian Order for Science and Art, the Austrian Cross of Honour for Science and Art, and honorary membership of the Berlin Philharmonic.

He won a Gramophone Award in 2004 – for the Grieg and Schumann piano concertos with Leif Ove Andsnes and the Berlin Philharmonic – and he was named Conductor of the Year by Opernwelt in 2011 for his performances at Dutch National Opera of Tchaikovsky’s Evgeny Onegin with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. The following year he and Jan Raes, Managing Director of the Concertgebouw Orchestra, received the IJ-Prize of the City of Amsterdam, and in 2013, Mariss Jansons won the Ernst von Siemens Music Prize, became a Knight of the Order of the Netherlands Lion, and was awarded the Grand Merit Cross with Star of the Federal Republic of Germany.

Earlier this year, Maestro Jansons was further honoured with the Herbert von Karajan Prize at the Salzburg Easter Festival, and given the Opus Klassik Lifetime Achievement award.

This truly inspirational conductor will be sadly missed.

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Paris Opera Ballet presents Nureyev’s ‘Raymonda’

Visually sumptuous, vibrant, and set to a gorgeous score, Raymonda is one of the delights of the classical repertoire. The Paris Opera Ballet production opens next week.

This tale – based on a medieval legend – was originally choreographed by Marius Petipa, with a libretto by the author and columnist, Countess Lidia Pashkova, and set to a score by Alexander Glazunov. The ballet had its world premiere at the Mariinsky Theatre on 7th January, 1898, and this production, by Rudolf Nureyev, was first staged for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1983, the year in which Nureyev became Director of the Comany.

French-born Petipa – who became one of the most influential ballet masters and choreographers in the history of ballet – spent more than six decades at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, his name becoming synonymous with most of the great ballets in the Russian repertoire – and ultimately the classical repertoire worldwide. Having made his first appearance there as Premier Danseur in 1847, he rose through the ranks of choreographer to Chief Choreographer, and was ultimately promoted to the position of Premier Maître de Ballet of the Imperial Theatres in 1871, his genius leading to what was known the Golden Age of Russian Ballet.

Raymonda was Glazunov’s first ballet score, and is regarded as perhaps his best-known work. The commission came following the death of Tchaikovsky, when the Director of the Imperial Theatre was looking for a composer to work with the then Ballet Master, Marius Petipa. Very much representative of the Romantic style, Glazunov – who had been a student of Rimsky-Korsakov – is known for producing richly melodic symphonies, concertos for various instruments, and ballet scores. Regarded as a great Russian composer from an early age, he became an instructor in composition and orchestration – and ultimately head – of the St Petersburg Conservatory, before leaving the Soviet Union in 1928. He made his final home in France, where he died in 1936.

Raymonda has the distinction of being the first great ballet staged in Europe by Rudolf Nureyev after his dramatic defection from the Soviet Union in 1961. Largely unknown outside Russia until the Nureyev productions were staged, it was first seen in a production by The Royal Ballet at the Spoleto Festival in Italy in 1964. Nureyev subsequently staged three other versions before the opening of the 1983-84 season of the Paris Opera Ballet.

His version remains true to the Petipa original as far as the variations, the pas de deux, and Act III are concerned. Changes to Acts I and II included adaptations of the variations for the character Jean de Brienne, and two variations for Abderam in the second act – thus creating a new role for this character, and replacing the role which had previously been mimed only.

The role of Raymonda is considered to be one of the most demanding in the classical ballet repertoire. The virtuosity of the dancer needs to combine the vivacity of the variations with the elegance of the adagios, the graceful dignity of the Pas d’action and the grandeur of the spirited Grand pas Classique – never departing from the unmistakable Hungarian influence which runs through the ballet, which is also reflected in Glazunov’s score.

Nureyev commissioned the brilliant Greek designer, Nicholas Georgiadis, to create the wonderfully exotic scenery and costumes which bring an oriental flair to this production. Georgiadis – who produced some of his best known work for British choreographer Kenneth MacMillan – developed a close partnership with Nureyev, creating designs for his production of The Sleeping Beauty for London Festival Ballet, as well as several works for Paris Opera Ballet. Georgiadis is also known for the many opera productions which he designed.

The story of Raymonda tells of the love between the young Raymonda and the serene and noble knight, Jean de Brienne, who has to leave her to accompany the King of Hungary on a crusade. In his absence, the malevolent Saracen chief, Abderam, who covets Raymonda, offers her power and riches in return for her hand. When she rejects him, he tries to abduct her, but the knight de Brienne returns in time to save her from this fate. In challenging Abderam to a duel, de Brienne overpowers him, and the lovers are reunited. The King blesses the union, and the wedding celebrations culminate in a vibrant and colourful Hungarian dance.

Estonian conductor Vello Pähn – Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Estonian National Opera – conducts the Orchestre de l’Opéra national de Paris, the Étoiles, Premiers Danseurs and the Corps de Ballet de l’Opéra in Rudolf Nureyev’s staging of Raymonda at the Opéra Bastille from 2nd to 31st December 2019. For further information and tickets, visit the Paris Opera Ballet website.

Information sourced from:Paris Opéra Ballet programme notese

Ballet and Opera

The Rudolf Nureyev Foundation

The Marius Petipa Society

The Bolshoi Ballet

The Royal Opera House

Estonian National Opera

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New production of ‘Hansel and Gretel’ for San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera’s production of Humperdinck’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’
© Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

After a break of nearly 20 years, San Francisco Opera brings Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel back to the War Memorial House in the final work of this Fall season. A new co-production with The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the opera features mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke as Hansel, soprano Heidi Stober as Gretel, and tenor Robert Brubaker as the Witch. Staged by Royal Opera director and production designer Antony McDonald, performances of Hansel and Gretel are conducted by Christopher Franklin.

Sasha Cooke (left) and Heidi Stober as Hansel and Gretel
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

German composer Engelbert Humperdinck set his version of the fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm to a libretto by his sister, Adelheid Wette. The opera began as a series of four songs which Adelheid Wette had requested of her brother for her children to perform. Humperdinck then expanded these four songs into a singspiel, and finally into a full opera which had its premiere in Weimar on December 23rd, 1893 – a performance conducted by Richard Wagner.

Sasha Cooke and Heidi Stober in Humperdinck’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

This San Francisco Opera presentation, sung in English, has been translated by David Pountney, and tells how Hansel and Gretel’s mother sends them out to pick strawberries to prevent their causing chaos inside the home. The two children venture into the forest, not knowing about the terrifying Witch who inhabits the forest and is said to eat children. Lost, tired and hungry, they fall asleep, watched over by the Sandman, the Dew Fairy and other fairytale creatures from the forest. The following day they come across the Witch’s house which is partly edible, and while nibbling at it, are taken prisoner. Eventually managing to outwit their captor, they not only save themselves, but the other children who had been imprisoned by her.

Woodland creatures – San Francisco Opera’s production of ‘Hansel and Gretel’
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke is well known to San Francisco Opera audiences, having appeared in a number of roles for the Company, including Mary in the world premiere of Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene, Anna in Berlioz’s Les Troyens, Magdalene in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg and the title role of Handel’s Orlando during this year’s summer season. Following Ms Cooke’s debut performance with Los Angeles Opera last year, the L A Times wrote of her “rich-voiced performance as Hansel”, and her “effortless midrange power”. Other Bay Area appearances by Ms Cooke this season include performances with the Violins of Hope, an artist-in-residence engagement with the San Francisco Symphony, and her return to San Francisco Opera next summer as Laurene Powell Jobs in Mason Bates and Mark Campbell’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs.

Watching over the children as they sleep
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Having made her critically acclaimed debut performance with Deutsche Opera in 2008, lyric soprano Heidi Stober has appeared in a number of roles for the German company, including that of Gretel, as well as in works by Mozart, Bizet, Donizetti and Verdi. Ms Stober first appeared with San Francisco Opera two years later, and has since made memorable appearances at the War Memorial Opera House – as Zdenka in Strauss’ Arabella, Angelica in Handel’s Orlando, Johanna in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, Norina in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, and Magnolia Hawks in Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II’s Show Boat.

Hansel and Gretel come across the Witch’s house
©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens is Gertrude (mother to Hansel and Gretel), having previously sung Cassandra in Berlioz’s Les Troyens and Klytaemnestra in Strauss’ Elektra for San Francisco Opera. Bass-baritone Alfred Walker – appearing as the children’s father, Peter – made his debut with the Company as Orest in Elektra in 2017, and the role of the Witch is sung by Robert Brubaker who has previously performed this role at the Metropolitan Opera. San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows, soprano Natalie Image and mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon, are the Dew Fairy and Sandman, respectively. 
British director Antony McDonald – Royal Designer for Industry and winner of the 2013 McDonald Set Design Award at the International Opera Awards – has designed sets and costumes for a number of Royal Ballet productions, and sets and costumes for Royal Opera productions – including Verdi’s Nabucco, Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and Janáček’s Kát’a Kabanová. Other works in his repertoire include Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen for Nederlandse Reisopera, Ravel’s L’Enfant et les Sortilèges for the Bolshoi Opera and Tristan und Isolde for Opéra National du Rhin. Of Hansel and Gretel, he says: “I appreciate that this is an opera that very often is the first that many children see and therefore wanted it to be visually arresting and engaging, creating a balance of fear and delight”.

Heidi Stober (Gretel), Robert Brubaker (the Witch) and Sasha Cooke (Hansel) ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

American conductor Christopher Franklin is based in Lucca, Italy, having launched his career in that country, and appeared at several major Italian opera houses and festivals. As a guest conductor, he has also appeared with a number of notable British and European orchestras – such as the London and Royal philharmonic orchestras, Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte-Carlo, Orchestre de la Monnaie in Brussels, and the Orchestra di Verdi and Accademia della Scala in Milan. Maestro Franklin made his Company debut in 2017 with Puccini’s Turandot, and returned last year to conduct the San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows in concert.

Michaela Martens (Gertrude) and Alfred Walker (Peter) in Humperdinck’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’ ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

In this production of Hansel and Gretel, Christopher Franklin leads the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus, and the children’s chorus – prepared by Ian Robertson, and comprised of members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus (Artistic Director Valérie Sainte-Agathe) and the San Francisco Boys Chorus (Artistic Director Eric Choate).
Associate stage director is Danielle Urbas, associate designer Ricardo Pardo, Lucy Carter is lighting designer, revival lighting is by Neill Brinkworth, and choreography by Lucy Burge – all making their Company debuts.
San Francisco Opera’s production of Hansel and Gretel is sung in English, with English supertitles, and runs at the War Memorial Opera House for eight performances until December 7th. For further information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Opera website.

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Opera program notes

Encyclopaedia Britannica  

Sasha Cooke

Heidi Stober

Antony McDonald

Christopher Franklin

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SFJAZZ Collective salutes two influential albums

The SFJAZZ Collective ©Jay Blakesberg

The SFJAZZ Collective is in residence at San Francisco’s Jazz Center this week, during which they’ll celebrate the 50th anniversary of two hugely significant albums recorded in 1969 – Stand! by Sly & the Family Stone, and Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way. Not only did these albums represent what SFJAZZ terms “a beacon of hope during a turbulent time in American history”, but they were instrumental in pointing jazz, funk and soul music in new directions.

The eight-strong Collective was founded by SFJAZZ in 2004, and – as it does each year – uses the SFJAZZ residency to showcase new arrangements of works by a modern master in these categories, and to feature a recently-commissioned piece by each member of the group. In so doing, not only are they paying tribute to some of the great names of music, but also maintaining the relevance of this music – right in keeping with the commitments of SFJAZZ itself.

In its 15-year existence, the Collective has paid tribute to the music of masters such as John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Horace Silver, Stevie Wonder, Chick Corea, Joe Henderson, Michael Jackson, Miles Davis, and Antonio Carlos Jobim, creating over 100 new arrangements and original compositions.

This year, as they celebrate the 50th anniversary of Stand! and In A Silent Way, the Collective will, for the first time in its residency history, feature two guest artists – vocalist Martin Luther McCoy, and guitarist Adam Rogers. So the line-up this week has David Sánchez on tenor saxophone, trumpeter Etienne Charles, Warren Wolf on vibraphone, pianist Edward Simon, Matt Brewer on bass and Obed Calvaire on drums, together with Rogers and McCoy.

Martin Luther McCoy – guitarist, singer, songwriter and producer – was born and raised in San Francisco. A former member of the Roots touring ensemble, he was the star of Julie Taymor’s 2007 film, Across The Universe – inspired by The Beatles. He has also performed with artists such as Dave Matthews, Jill Scott and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Andy Rogers – jazz guitarist and bandleader – has toured extensively in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Russia, and – having appeared and recorded with a wide range of artists – he’s probably best known for his work with Chris Potter, David Binney and Randy Brecker. Also a trained classical guitarist, he was the featured soloist with the Dresden Philharmonic Orchestra in the summer of 1999.

The album Stand! by Sly and the Family Stone, released in May 1969, has been described by Ultimate Classic Rock as “ideal-based music, with pieces such as Everyday People, I Want to Take You Higher and Sing a Simple Song, deftly blending thoughts on peace and love with of-the-moment calls to purpose such as You Can Make It If You Try”.

This album is regarded as having defined the group which had been gaining in popularity for the previous two years. It was seen as their taking a stand for what they believed in, and representing what bassist Larry Graham described as “a rainbow”, having, for example, an African-American rock guitarist, a female front-line horn player, a white funk drummer and a group of singers performing a combination of all types of music, including R&B, jazz, rock and even country.

Miles Davis’ In a Silent Way – released a month later – is representative of Davis’ involvement in what’s known as his ‘Electric Period’. Gathering together a host of talented individuals – names such as Tony Williams, Wayne Shorter, Herbie Hancock, Chick Corea, Dave Holland, Josef Zawinul and John McLaughlin – and influenced by pop, R&B and funk, Davis produced an album which represents his exploration of the underlying tensions inherent in the future of jazz and how they related to new technology. Controversial at first, it ultimately became regarded as possibly the best that Davis had made in some time.

The SFJAZZ Collective performs in the Miner Auditorium at the JAZZ Center in San Francisco on October 30th and 31st, and November 1st, 2nd and 3rd. For more information and tickets, visit the SFJAZZ website.

Information sourced from:
SFJAZZ program notes
SFJAZZ Collective
Martin Luther McCoy
Adam Rogers
Ultimate Classic Rock
Classical Album Sundays

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