A cavalcade of stars at the SFJAZZ Festival

The SFJAZZ Festival opens tomorrow! A highlight of the San Francisco entertainment calendar, the Festival showcases 41 performances, over 13 days, in the city’s Hayes Valley district.

Following the traditional free, open-air Block Party this evening, the Festival gets underway in earnest on Wednesday in the Miner Auditorium, with vocalist Jazzmeia Horn whose 2017 debut album, A Social Call, was nominated for a 2018 GRAMMY Award and voted best jazz vocal debut in the 2017 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll.

The Festival line-up is as impressive as ever, continuing with a double bill featuring pianist and composer Fabian Almazon – voted #1 Rising Piano Star on the Downbeat Magazine Critics 2014 Poll, and granted the Chamber Music America 2014 NEW Jazz Works commission – and bassist Linda May Han Oh – a recent recipient of the Jerome Foundation Fellowship, and a member of Pat Metheny’s most recent quartet project. Almazon appears with his seven-member group Rhizome – of which the star bassist is a member – and Linda MayHan Oh with her quartet, in which Almazon is the pianist.

The Matson 2 -Identical twins Jared and Jonathan – play numbers from their 2018 release, Play A Love Supreme – their re-interpretation of the 1964 John Coltrane masterwork. They’re joined by jazz guitarist Calvin Keys who’s enjoyed partnerships with luminaries such as Ray Charles, Ahmad Jamal, John Handy, Bobby Hutcherson and Pharoah Sanders.

Cuban vocalist Bobi Céspedes – she of the deep, rich and distinctive voice – is joined by John Santos – seven-time Grammy-nominated percussionist, US Artists Fontanals Fellow, and 2013-2014 SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director – considered to be one of the foremost exponents of Afro-Latin music in the world today. Celebrating a 25-year collaboration with Santos, Céspedes presents a world premiere performance of a selection of brand new songs.

From Cuba comes Orquesta Akokán, a 16-piece ensemble led by vocalist José ‘Pepito’ Gómes, featuring “…. some of the island’s greatest instrumentalists” (The New York Times). Orquesta Akokán made its US debut last year, already has an appearance at Lincoln Center under its collective belt, and will continue to tour the US for the remainder of this year.

The music of Antônio Carlos Jobim will have the JAZZ Center swaying once more as Claudia Villela – the “Brazilian-born genius with a blistering voice” (JazzTimes) – returns to SFJAZZ, to present an evening of some of Jobim’s finest songs. She’s accompanied by special guest Chico Pinheiro – guitarist, pianist and arranger – and regarded as a leading exponent of modern jazz in Brazil.

The Cookers – a seven-member ensemble of jazz giants – is described by the Detroit Metro Times as “ …. the greatest jazz super-band working”. Founded by trumpeter David Weiss, this septet comprises tenor saxophonists Billy Harper and Donald Harrison, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Billy Hart, and each of them has an association with at least one among some of the greatest names in jazz – names such as Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Herbie Hancock, Dexter Gordon, Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Henderson, Pharaoh Sanders, Wayne Shorter, Charles Lloyd, Miles Davis and Stan Getz.

Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino – originally founded by Caterina ‘Rina’ Durante in the mid-1970s – has been introducing the music of Southern Italy to audiences ever since. Originating in Puglia’s Salento region, the ensemble – now led by Durante’s son, Daniele – has successfully combined the ancient folk music of the region (pizzica tarantata) with a contemporary style, most recently taking the title of Best Group at the 2018 Songlines Music Awards in London. Described by The New Yorker as a band that “has few peers in contemporary world music”, the group has frequently collaborated with Ludovico Einaudi, most recently on his highly-acclaimed 2015 Taranta Project.

Referred to as the “Godfather of Neo Soul”, vibraphonist, composer and band-leader, Roy Ayers – among the most respected artists in contemporary R&B, hip-hop and soul today – returns to SFJAZZ. Still in great demand, he’ll be a popular attraction at the Festival, with the feel-good, funky sound with which he’s been associated for over four decades.

Zakir Hussain – winner of the 2017 SFJAZZ Lifetime Achievement Award and former SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director – presents a an evening of solo tabla, raga, and the rarely heard music of Natya Sangeet – which translates literally as ‘drama music’ and is a unique kind of musical theatre that combines Natya-drama and Sangeet-music. This musical theatre originated in the Maharashtra state of India, and developed over the centuries under the guidance of the singers, poets and actors for which this region is known. For this unique presentation, Zakir Hussain will be joined by violinist Kala Ramnath – described by Songline magazine as one of the 50 world’s best instrumentalists – and special guest vocalist Mahesh Kale – winner of the Best Playback Singer award at the 63rd National Film Awards in India.

Legendary soul singer and songwriter William Bell pays tribute to the soul music of Memphis and the Stax Records sound in an evening of some of his most memorable songs. His early hit for the label You Don’t Miss Your Water (Until Your Well Runs Dry) is now considered one of the finest early examples of soul music, as well as being one of the most covered songs in blues/rock music history. Apart from releasing an amazing succession of soul hits, Bell has also been recognized with honors such as the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s R&B Pioneer Award, the W C Handy Heritage Award from the Memphis Music Foundation, and the BMI Songwriter’s Award. A member of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, Bell features prominently in the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and in 2017 received the Epitome of Soul Award, which was presented to him by Stevie Wonder, the 2016 honoree.

The 2019 SFJAZZ Festival runs from June 11 to 23. For all details and tickets, visit the SFJAZZ website.

Information sourced from SFJAZZ program notes

Artists’ websites

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Monaco hosts International Television Festival

A Golden Nymph statuette – Courtesy Monte-Carlo TV Festival

Glamorous and stylish, the Principality of Monaco is the focus of the international television industry this month, as it hosts the 59th Monte-Carlo Television Festival. This annual event brings together celebrities, producers, directors, writers and studio heads, to showcase the finest in television programming, and to compete for the Golden Nymph Awards.

Established by Prince Rainier III of Monaco in 1960, and now under the Honorary Presidency of H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco, the Festival is one of the most prestigious of its kind in international television programming, and an event which attracts the elite of the industry.

This year’s Festival has an added dimension to the presentation of the dazzling Golden Nymph Awards and the cavalcade of programmes and stars appearing in the Principality – the premiere of the National Geographic documentary APOLLO: Missions to the Moon.

This documentary – featuring much material hitherto unseen – will be screened in partnership with the Embassy of Monaco in Washington DC, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Apollo 11 lunar landing, and man’s first steps on the surface of the moon. The event will also throw a spotlight on Monaco’s little-known involvement in aerospace technology, which saw the Principality’s first communications satellite launched in 2015, and will herald the launch of MonacoSat-2 within the next few years.

Prestigious and highly coveted, the Festival’s Golden Nymph statuettes which will be presented to the winning artists, are copies of La Nymphe Salmacis, a sculpture created in 1826 by Monégasque artist François-Joseph Bosio – chief court sculptor to Louis XVIII. The original sculpture is on display in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

La Nymphe Salmacis in the Louvre Museum, Paris – François-Joseph Bosio

The Opening Ceremony, which takes place in the Salle des Princes of the Grimaldi Forum – free and open to the public – will be presented by Belgian television and radio presenter Julie Taton, and features a roll-call of international names synonymous with the most popular television series worldwide. The juries for the Golden Nymph Awards will also be presented at this ceremony, followed by the French premiere of the first episode of L.A.’s Finest , starring Gabrielle Union (Bad Boys II) and Jessica Alba (Sin City).

The Golden Nymphs are awarded in two categories – Fiction and News. Fiction is subdivided into Drama, Comedy and Long Fiction, and News into Documentary, Live Breaking News and TV News Item. Readers will recognize several familiar TV programmes and performers in these line-ups.

There are also five Special Prizes. The Prince Rainier III Special Prize features two documentaries – Drowning in Plastic (United Kingdom) and The Curse of Abundance (Poland) – the AMADE Prize and the ICRC Prize which will both be awarded to Yemen: Kids and War (France), the Monaco Red Cross Prize for the British production of Care and the SIGNIS Prize which goes to a German film entitled War.

A full list of nominations in all categories can be seen on this link.

A special Golden Nymph Award will also be presented to an actor or actress considered to have made an extraordinary contribution to the global entertainment industry. Previous winners have included Helen Mirren, Mariska Hargitay, Marg Helgenberger, Patricia Arquette and Donald Sutherland, and this year the honour will go to American actor Michael Douglas, described by Festival CEO Laurent Puons as “…. one of today’s most highly-respected actors”, noting “…. the huge impact his work has had on the global television industry”.

Michael Douglas’ television career began with his appearance in a 1969 CBS-TV “Playhouse” special, entitled The Experiment, and his first significant role was in the multi-award-winning series The Streets of San Francisco which ran from 1972 to 1976. Among the many honors which Douglas has received are two Academy Awards (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1976 and Wall Street in 1988), and an Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG for his portrayal of Liberace in Behind the Candelabra. Most recently he has just finished filming the second season of The Kominsky Method, with Alan Arkin. Mr Douglas will be present at the Festival to collect his award from Prince Albert at the closing ceremony on 18th June.

The 59th edition of the Monte-Carlo Television Festival takes place from 14th to 18th June. For more information, visit the Festival website.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the online lifestyle magazine Riviera Buzz

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San Francisco Opera’s Summer Season opens with Bizet’s ‘Carmen’

J’Nai Bridges as Carmen and David Leigh as Zuniga in Bizet’s Carmen
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera opens its 2019 Summer Season at the War Memorial Opera House this evening with the work regarded as the most popular opera in the repertoire – Georges Bizet’s Carmen.

Staged by American director Francesca Zambello, this production of Carmen – new to San Francisco Opera – celebrates a number of debut performances. Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges makes her professional role debut in the title role, tenor Matthew Polenzani sings Don José for the first time, and soprano Anita Hartig, as Micaëla, makes her debut appearance with San Francisco Opera. Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen has appeared with the Company previously, and returns as the bullfighter Escamillo, however conductor James Gaffigan fulfills his first opera engagement with the Company, leading the cast, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

In 1872, Georges Bizet was commissioned by the Paris Opéra-Comique to write a new work. Historically, this institution was known for light, moralistic pieces – those suitable for ‘family theatre’, safe and predictable – and although Bizet received the commission to try to raise the theatre from its somewhat dull reputation, the co-directors had no idea just how revolutionary Bizet’s opera would be. Based on an 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée, with a libretto in French by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, Bizet’s Carmen broke new ground, focussing on the underclass – the so-called ‘common folk’, which included gypsies, smugglers and factory workers, women who smoked in public, who were involved in physical fights and who were sexually free. Consequently, when the opera premiered at the Opéra-Comique in March 1875, it was condemned by the critics as immoral and vulgar.

Bizet’s Carmen with the San Francisco Opera Dance Corps, J’Nai Bridges as Carmen (center), Natalie Image as Frasquita (left) and Ashley Dixon as Mercédès
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Bizet, who had taken a lot of care to familiarize himself with the music of Andalusia – the region in which Carmen is set – was devastated by this reception, and at the time of his death from a heart condition three months after the premiere, he was certain that he’d written the greatest failure in the history of opera. He didn’t live to see how successful his Carmen would become – nor did he know of the prediction of Tchaikovsky that within 10 years, it would become “the most popular opera in the world”.

A Francesco Zambello production at the War Memorial Opera House is always keenly anticipated. This internationally recognized, multi-award-winning director of opera and theatre is hugely popular. Included in her recent productions for San Francisco Opera are Der Ring des Nibelungen, Aida, Luisa Miller, Show Boat, Porgy and Bess, and the world premieres of Heart of a Soldier and Two Women (La Ciociara). In January of this year, she staged Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas for Houston Grand Opera, in March her production of Bernstein’s West Side Story opened in Sydney, in April Fort Worth Opera presented Porgy and Bess, and Atlanta Opera staged La Traviata, Lyric Opera Chicago presented West Side Story last month, and Show Boat and La Traviata open at the Glimmerglass Festival in July. General Director of The Glimmerglass Festival since 2010, and Artistic Director of The Washingtion National Opera at the Kennedy Center since 2012, Francesca Zambello was Artistic Advisor to San Francisco Opera between 2005 and 2011, and Artistic Director of the Skylight Theater from 1987 to 1992.

Kyle Ketesen as Escamillo with the San Francisco Opera Chorus in Bizet’s Carmen
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

J’Nai Bridges first appeared with San Francisco Opera as Bersi in a 2016 production of Andrea Chenier, and in 2017 she created the role of Josefa Segovia in the world premiere of John Adams’ Girls of the Golden West. Recent highlights of Ms Bridges’ operatic career include her debut as Preziosilla in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino with Opernhaus Zürich, a debut at Bavarian State Opera as Bersi, she appeared as Nefertiti in Philip Glass’ Akhnaten with Los Angeles Opera, and at Vancouver Opera as Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. Her 2016 performance as Suzuki in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at San Diego Opera drew the following critique from concertonet.com: “Vocally gifted with effusive, smoky substance, her softness and soulfulness fit like a glove as the devoted servant. …. Ms Bridges expresses her character with moving delicateness; she will go far.”

David Leigh as Zuniga, Zhengyi Bai as Remendado, Natalie Image as Frasquita, Ashley Dixon as Mercédès (partially obscured) and J’Nai Bridges in the title role of Bizet’s Carmen
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

American tenor Matthew Polenzani was last seen at San Francisco Opera in 2013, in the title role of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann. His 2018/19 season has included a return to Lyric Opera of Chicago in his signature title role of Mozart’s Idomeneo, an appearance at Teatro Massimo di Palermo as Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème, a role debut as Vaudémont in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, and the title role of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito at the Metropolitan Opera. Mr Polenzani has also recently appeared with Michael Fabiano and Bryan Hymel, under Riccardo Frizza, at The Dallas Opera Gala. According to Opera News, “Few singers today command the sheer beauty of timbre and dynamic control of Matthew Polenzani …”, noting his “almost impossibly beautiful pianissimo ….”, and the New York Sun refers to his “ringing, clarion lyric tenor that he can push to heroic heights ……”.

Anita Hartig as Micaëla, Matthew Polenzani as Don José and J’Nai Bridges in the title role of Bizet’s Carmen
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Romanian soprano Anita Hartig’s rise to international recognition has been swift since her successful series of debut performances as a member of the Vienna State Opera ensemble between 2009 and 2012. Her debut performance in 2012 as Mimi in Puccini’s La Bohème for Teatro alla Scala, Milan, led to a CNN documentary on her artistry, and she has since appeared in the same role for The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera, the Bayerische Staatsoper and the Opéra de Bastille in Paris. Ms Hartig has also appeared as Violetta Valery in Verdi’s La Traviata for Gran Teatre de Liceu in Barcelona, as Liù in Puccini’s Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera, and she recently returned to the Vienna State Opera to perform the role of Micaëla, prior to her performance in San Francisco. Later this season, she returns to the Metropolitan Opera to sing Violetta, which she will also perform for the Toulouse Opera, and she will appear for Opéra de Paris as Amelia Grimaldi in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra.

Matthew Polenzani as Don José and J’Nai Bridges in the title role of Bizet’s Carmen
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen was described by Opera News as having “… a naturally beautiful, superbly trained voice, rich and clear at the low end, smooth and flexible in the middle range and effortless at the top”. This season, Mr Ketelsen has sung the role of Escamillo for the Metropolitan Opera, and also that of Golaud in Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande. He has appeared as Conte Rodolfo in the Opernhaus Zurich’s production of La Sonambula, and will also appear as the King of Scotland in the premiere of Handel’s Ariodante at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Méphistophélès in Les Siècles’ La Damnation de Faust throughout France. Included in his schedule will be concert appearances with the Madison Symphony.

Other members of the cast include bass David Leigh as Zuniga, making his Company debut, and current San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows soprano Natalie Image as Frasquita, and mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon as Mercédès. Tenor Christopher Oglesby sings El Dancairo, tenor Zhengyi Bai El Remendado and baritone SeokJong Baek is Moralès.

Although this production of Carmen will be the first time that James Gaffigan has led an opera performance for the Company, he led the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Adler Fellows in the concert The Future is Now in 2017. Michelle Merrill conducts the June 20th performance (a debut with the Company), and the Director of the San Francisco Opera Chorus is Ian Robertson.
Sung in French with English supertitles, Carmen runs at the War Memorial Opera House for seven performances, until June 29th. Further information and tickets are available on the San Francisco Opera website, and tickets may also be reserved on (415) 864-3330.

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Opera program notes

Encyclopaedia Britannica

and artists’ websites:

Francesca Zambello

J’Nai Bridges

Matthew Polenzani

Anita Hartig

Kyle Ketelsen

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English National Ballet’s ‘Cinderella’ at the Royal Albert Hall

Emma Hawes and Francesco Gabriele Frola © Jason Bell. Art Direction and Design Charlotte Wilkinson Studio

Famed for its magnificent in-the-round productions at the Royal Albert Hall, English National Ballet is about to dazzle British audiences once again, with Christopher Wheeldon’s spectacular production of Cinderella, set to Sergei Prokofiev’s glorious score.

Wheeldon, creator of numerous and highly acclaimed choreographic works for some of the world’s finest ballet companies, is regarded as the most successful choreographer of his generation. It came as no surprise, then, to discover his versatility when he was asked to both direct and choreograph the revival of An American in Paris in 2014, its extraordinary success telling us all we need to know about the Midas touch of this hugely talented artist.

Originally created simultaneously for Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet in 2012, Wheeldon’s Cinderella was never going to be a simple retelling of the traditional fairytale, but his interpretation doesn’t deviate too far from it either. Drawing on both the Perrault and Brothers Grimm versions of the fairytale, he has added tiers of his own creative brilliance to this production, delivering a truly magical result.

The focus for Cinderella, following her mother’s death, is a ‘living’ tree which rises from the earth, watered by the young girl’s falling tears, and providing a backdrop to the antics of a selection of weird and wonderful woodland creatures and elegant fairies. Four ‘Fates’ – whose mission is to guide and protect Cinderella – replace the fairy godmother of the original story, her sisters are portrayed as young girls – splendidly retaining the comedy aspects of their characters – and the concept of the coach and horses which whisk Cinderella to the ball is nothing short of pure genius.

Cinderella was described by The Washington Post as “an utterly exquisite production”, and so it is – the result of a collaboration between some wonderfully creative artists, which Wheeldon has used to spectacular effect. The libretto is by Tony and Pulitzer Prize nominee Craig Lucas, the stunning sets and exquisite costumes are by Julian Crouch (Metropolitan Opera and Broadway) special effects by Obie Award winner and MacArthur Foundation Fellow Basil Twist (the tree and that coach!), with lighting by Natasha Katz, and projection design by Daniel Brodie.

Wheeldon has also retained Prokofiev’s gorgeous score which, although not as well known as his Romeo and Juliet, is every bit as lovely, and filled with sumptuous melodies and the full range of variations in the tradition of classical ballet. Prokofiev started writing the score in 1940 – a work initially intended for the then Kirov Ballet (now the Mariinsky) – but due to the intervention of World War II, he moved it aside and didn’t return to it for two years. When it was finally completed, operational problems caused by the War prevented the Kirov from mounting the production, and it was premiered by the Bolshoi Ballet instead, in November 1945. The ballet was a tremendous success, and the score was one of Prokofiev’s works named when he was awarded a Stalin State Prize shortly afterwards.

The English National Ballet Philharmonic is led by Music Director, Gavin Sutherland, who refers to Prokofiev as “a master storyteller: he managed to get every emotion, every character, and every scenario across in the most understandable of terms with his music …..”. Sutherland refers to it as “a great score, because it grabs the attention from the first note and it holds you until the end”.

Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernandez © Laurent Liotardo
Maria Kochetkova and Jeffrey Cirio © Laurent Liotardo

Among the stars dancing the leads are Alina Cojocaru, with Isaac Hernández, and Maria Kochetkova – who danced the role for San Francisco Ballet – with Jeffrey Cirio.

Wheeldon’s Cinderella is enchanting, touching, romantic and humorous, brilliantly conceived, and a true spectacle. A co-production between Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, this presentation is by English National Ballet and the Royal Albert Hall.

Cinderella runs at the Royal Albert Hall from 6th to 16th June. More information can be found on the English National Ballet website, and tickets are available online via this link or by telephone on 0845 401 5045.

Information sourced from:
English National Ballet programme notes
Christopher Wheeldon

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Valčuha leads Barantschik & San Francisco Symphony

Slovak conductor Juraj Valčuh – Courtesy San Francisco Symphony

Popular Slovak conductor Juraj Valčuha returns to Davies Symphony Hall this week, leading the San Francisco Symphony and Alexander Barantschik in a program which features the work of two very different composers. Concertmaster Barantschik plays J S Bach’s Violin Concerto No 2, and the Shostakovich work is his Symphony No 8 – regarded by the composer as a poem of suffering.

Currently Music Director of Teatro di San Carlo, Naples, and First Guest Conductor of the Konzerthausorchester in Berlin, Maestro Valčuha was, until 2016, Chief Conductor of the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai. He first appeared with the San Francisco Symphony in May 2013, as a Shenson Young Artist, and has since made frequent, and most welcome, return visits.

Since making his conducting debut in 2005 with the Orchestra National de France, he has led some of the world’s finest orchestras – among them the Philharmonia, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Dresden Staatskapelle, Berlin Philharmonic, Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw, Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, and Milan’s Filarmonica della Scala. Maestro Valčuha’s North American appearances include appearances with the New York and Los Angeles philharmonics, and the Boston, Chicago, Cleveland and Montreal symphony orchestras.

Maestro Valčuha’s achievements in the world of opera are no less impressive. He has led performances of Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges and Gounod’s Faust in Florence, Janáček’s Jenufa and Britten’s Peter Grimes in Bologna, and for Teatro San Carlo di Napoli, the list includes Strauss’ Elektra, Bizet’s Carmen, Puccini’s Tosca and La Fanciulla del West, Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

Alexander Barantschik, Concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony – Courtesy San Francisco Symphony

Violinist Alexander Barantschik celebrates his 15th anniversary with the San Francisco Symphony this year. Hailing originally from St Petersburg, he boasts more than a couple of important brushes with musical history. Not only did he have lessons in the same room in as Jascha Heifetz, but the instrument which he plays – a 1742 Guarnerius del Gesú – belonged to Heifetz, and was his favourite violin. Incidentally, it was also the violin on which Ferdinand David played Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto at its premier in 1845. Barantschik also admits, with some pride, that he was “privileged to play with Rostropovich”.

Also a fan of jazz, Alexander Barantschik says that he’s learned from some of that genre’s finest artists – his favorites include Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald and Stéphane Grappelli.
Mr Barantschik must surely have a very long list of memorable performances with the San Francisco Symphony, but he says that the most recent of these was a performance of Mahler’s First Symphony at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on the Symphony’s most recent European tour. He describes the experience as “a wonderful combination of a fantastic acoustic, the perfect piece for that hall, and an amazing atmosphere”.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Second Violin Concerto – as with his first – was composed during his time in the service of the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, between 1717 and 1723. The Second Violin Concerto was described by his original biographer, J N Forkel, as being “full of an unconquerable joy of life, that sings in the triumph of the first and last movements”. It’s understandably popular – the first movement is sparkling and lively, the second is a sombre but beautiful adagio, and the final movement is an almost jaunty dance-like melody.

Shostakovich wrote his Eighth Symphony during the summer of 1943, and although the German army had by then been defeated at Stalingrad, the losses to the Red Army were massive. Nevertheless, Shostakovich wrote the symphony not only with these losses in mind, but also with thoughts of the victims of the pre-war purges, victims such as the million and a half Russians who lost their lives between 1937 and 1939. He felt that he had to write about the fear, sorrow and suffocation that people experienced during these terrible events, and wrote his Eighth Symphony as a Requiem for those who had suffered and died before the War, as much as for the 27 million lives which were lost during the hostilities.

The Symphony was premiered on November 4th, 1943, in a performance conducted by the dedicatee, Evgeny Mravinsky, and violently attacked by the authorities as being counter-revolutionary and anti-Soviet, before being withdrawn from the repertoire. Only relatively recently has the work come to be admired throughout the world, and as British conductor Mark Wigglesworth observes: “It is ironic that it wasn’t played in the West because people thought it was only about the war, whilst it didn’t get performed in Russia because the authorities knew it wasn’t!”

Juraj Valčuha leads the San Francisco Symphony and solo violinist Alexander Barantschik in a program of music by Bach and Shostakovich at Davies Symphony Hall from May 30th to June 1st. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

Information sourced from:
San Francisco Symphony program notes
Juraj Valčuha
Alexander Barantschik
Bach Violin Concerto No 2
Shostakovich Symphony No 8

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‘Shostakovich Trilogy’ – a welcome return to San Francisco Ballet

Lovers of ballet in San Francisco have enjoyed an interesting and exciting season from San Francisco Ballet this year, with works as diverse as Don Quixote, The Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, world premieres of ballets by Liam Scarlett and Yuri Possokhov, and a selection of some of the works so successfully premiered in the Company’s 2018 Unbound: A Festival of New Works.

The Season draws to a dramatic close this month with Alexei Ratmansky’s fabulous and highly successful Shostakovich Trilogy – a work which earned the choreographer his second Prix Benois de la Danse in 2014, and the work which will open San Francisco Ballet’s London season at Sadler’s Wells at the end of May.

Co-commissioned by American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet, the first part of Shostakovich Trilogy was premiered by American Ballet Theatre in 2012, the second and third parts in 2013 – the year in which Ratmansky was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ award. The work in its entirety was first seen at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco the following year.

As Ratmansky’s tribute to the music of Shostakovich – which has long held a fascination for him – the ballet is set to three of the composer’s full-length works – Symphony #9, Chamber Symphony and Piano Concerto #1 – each reflecting a different phase of the composer’s life during the tumultuous years of the Stalinist era.

The Symphony # 9 was written at the end of the Second World War. It was supposed to be a grand triumphal work, celebrating the defeat of the Nazis, instead of which Shostakovich – in one of his acts of rebellion – produced what conductor Phillip Lenberg described as “a critical mirror held up to Stalin’s Russia”, which he used as a voice for the Jewish people persecuted in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s tyrannical regime.

Created for 21 dancers, the work features five principal characters – two lead couples and a solo male dancer. The first couple represents Shostakovich and his wife, supporting each other in a time of great personal danger, when he was in constant fear of arrest, the other couple heading the corps de ballet which represents the Soviet regime. The ballet, however, is not devoid of hope, which comes in the form of a dancer whom Ratmansky calls the Angel, who shows that a way through the turmoil can be found.

The Chamber Symphony – an arrangement of Shostakovich’s 1960 String Quartet No 8, Op 110, by conductor Rudolf Barshai – provides the score for the second ballet, a work which is known to have been deeply personal to the composer. It carries the dedication ‘In Memory of Victims of Fascism and War’, however it’s also considered by some to be autobiographical, conveying a deep feeling of loss. Ratmansky addresses this perception with his portrayal of the composer and the three loves in his life – the girl with whom he was infatuated, but for whom he never made time; his wife, the mother of his children, whose death affected him badly’; and the young wife with whom he spent his later years.

Piano Concerto #1 is regarded as the most abstract ballet of the three. The concerto is delightfully quixotic, with rapid mood changes, from the bright and sparky to beautiful passages of a more serious nature. Shostakovich apparently refused to make any comment on the ‘inner meaning’ of the work, the only indication of his thought process having been an article published in Sovetskaye Iskussto in December 1933, in which he was quoted as saying: “I am a Soviet composer. Our age, as I perceive it, is heroic, spirited and joyful. This is what I wanted to convey in my concerto. It is for the audience, and possibly the music critics, to judge whether or not I succeeded.”

Staged by Nancy Raffa, Shostakovich Trilogy has scenic design by George Tsypin, costumes by Keso Dekker and lighting by Jennifer Tipton.

San Francisco Ballet presents Shostakovich Trilogy at the War Memorial Opera House from May 7th to 12th. The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra will be led by the Company’s Music Director and Principal Conductor, Martin West. More information on this ballet can be found in the program notes, and information on tickets can be found on this page of the San Francisco Ballet website.

Information sourced from:
San Francisco Ballet program notes
Shostakovich Symphony No 9
Shostakovich Chamber Symphony
Shostakovich Piano Concerto No 1

All photographs © Erik Tomasson

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James Ehnes plays Bruch with Marek Janowski & the San Francisco Symphony

Violinist James Ehnes

Violinist James Ehnes is the guest artist in this week’s San Francisco Symphony performances, led by Marek Janowski, the first of three guest conductors appearing at Davis Symphony Hall this month. He’ll be followed later in May by Krzysztof Urbanski and Juraj Valcuha. Ehnes will play the Violin Concerto No 1 by Max Bruch in a program which also features works by Mendelssohn and Wagner.

James Ehnes – described by The Times as “A violinist in a class of his own” – is the recent winner of a 2019 GRAMMY Award in the Best Classical Instrumental Solo category, for his recording of Aaron-Jay Kernis’ Violin Concerto. Mr Ehnes premiered this work with the Toronto, Seattle and Dallas symphony orchestras, and has since performed it with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

Currently Artistic Director of the Seattle Chamber Music Society, and Artist in Residence of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, James Ehnes is a favorite guest artist with some of the world’s most respected conductors, and has appeared with some of the world’s finest orchestras. The Telegraph has written of him as “The wondrous James Ehnes, a thinker of the violin as well as a supreme virtuoso of the instrument … an artist of the first order”. He is also the recipient of the 2017 Royal Philharmonic Society Award in the Instrumentalist category.

In this week’s performances, James Ehnes plays the work described by violinist Joseph Joachim as “the richest, the most seductive” of the four major German violin concertos.

Conductor Marek Janowski © Felix Broede

Polish by birth, and raised in Germany, Marek Janowski is considered to be one of the great masters of music in the German tradition, recognized throughout the world for his interpretation of the music of Wagner, Strauss, Bruckner, Brahms, Hindemith and the Second Viennese School.

Currently Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Dresdner Philharmonie, Marek Janowski has also held the positions of Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Musical Director of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Chief Conductor of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo, Chief Conductor of the Dresdner Philharmonie, and Musical Director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France.

Following a number of years appearing in the world’s major opera houses, he stepped back from opera in 1990 to focus on the German and French symphonic repertoire.

In 2014 Maestro Janowski was awarded  the “Ehrenpreis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik” (honorary prize of the German Critics’ Award) in recognition of his life’s work.

The program opens with Mendelssohn’s Overture to Victor Hugo’s dark and convoluted play, Ruy Blas, an overture which the composer revised and reintroduced some days after the opening of the play, when he led the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

The last two works in the program are both by Richard Wagner – the Overture and Venusberg Music from his opera Tannhäuser, and the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, an opera based largely on the 12th-century romance Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg.

Read more about the featured works in the San Francisco Symphony program notes below.

Marek Janowski leads the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and guest artist James Ehnes in works by Bruch, Mendelssohn and Wagner at Davies Symphony Hall from May 2nd to 4th. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Symphony program notes:

Bruch Violin Concerto
Ruy Blas Overture
Overture and Venusberg Music from Tannhäuser
Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde
and artists’ websites:
Marek Janowski – Intermusica
Marek Janowski – Pentatone Music
James Ehnes
James Ehnes – Intermusica

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San Francisco stages A Performance for Paris

Those who know and love Paris will surely have been heartbroken at the sight of the beautiful and timelessly elegant Notre-Dame Cathedral succumbing to a devastating fire only a couple of weeks ago. Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens, Consul General of France, describes Notre-Dame de Paris as “Beyond a monument and an architectural masterpiece …. a part of the world history of art and our common identity”, so the city of San Francisco will stand in solidarity with Paris in a special concert to be held at Grace Cathedral on Monday, April 29th.

Joining the French Consulate and Grace Cathedral for this performance will be musicians of the San Francisco Symphony, mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen and pianist Kseniia Polstiankina Barrad – both San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows – Notre-Dame de Paris organist Johann Vexo, the American Bach Soloists & Choir – under the direction of Jeffrey Thomas – and the Grace Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys, led by Benjamin Bachmann, Diana Dollar Knowles Canon Director of Music.

It is particularly appropriate that Frederica von Stade should be appearing in this concert. Her long-time association with San Francisco Opera goes back to 1971, and she is regularly invited by Michael Tilson Thomas to appear with the San Francisco Symphony. Ms von Stade is also well known as one of the world’s finest exponents of the French repertoire, and on this occasion will perform music by Francis Poulenc – including Les Anges musiciens from La Courte Paille. The program also features works by Gregorio Allegri, Louis Vierne, Claude Debussy, Henri Duparc, Michael Kamen, Louis-Nicolas Clérambault and Jean-Joseph Cassanéa de Mondonville.

“This concert,” says M. Lebrun-Damiens, “will allow all of us to find comfort in the beauty of music, and the strength to move on to the phase of reconstruction of our beloved cathedral.”

The Concert for Notre-Dame de Paris takes place at Grace Cathedral, 1100 California Street, San Francisco, at 6.00 pm on Monday, April 29th. Those who wish to attend this free concert will need to register in advance via this link or on the Facebook event page.

Grimaud plays Beethoven with SF Symphony

French pianist Hélène Grimau © Matt Henck

The San Francisco Symphony plays host to two exciting guests artists this week – American conductor James Gaffigan, and French pianist Hélène Grimaud. The program is an interesting one too, featuring an eclectic array of works – by Wagner, Beethoven, Mozart and Barber – the main work being Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4, championed by Felix Mendelssohn in concert halls across Europe.

Known to be a deeply passionate and committed artist, Hélène Grimaud has been richly blessed with other gifts as well – she’s a wildlife conservationist, a human rights activist and a writer. Having launched her career in a performance with the Orchestra de Paris, led by Daniel Barenboim, Ms Grimaud has gone on to perform with many of the world’s finest orchestras and illustrious conductors. As a chamber musician, she has appeared at some of the most prestigious festivals and cultural events with performers of the caliber of Sol Gabetta, Rolando Villazón, Truls Mørk and the Capuçon brothers, Renaud and Gautier, and she is the recipient of France’s highest decoration, as a Chevalier or the Ordre National de la Légion d’Honneur.

Hélène Grimaud’s credentials as a wildlife conservationist are beyond doubt. A global advocate for wolves, she has established the Wolf Conservation Center in upper New York State for two critically endangered wolf species – the Mexican gray wolf and the red wolf – both among the rarest mammals in North America. This non-profit organization provides a wealth of education about these often-overlooked animals, their part in the environment, and what we humans should be doing to protect their future. Wolves, she maintains, are not only “biodiversity engineers,” preserving balances among animal and plant species but also “endlessly fascinating creatures who have much to teach humans”.

Conductor James Gaffigan © David Künzler & Melchior Bürgi

James Gaffigan is regarded as one of the most outstanding American conductors of today. A former Associate Conductor with the San Francisco Symphony – a position specially created for him by Michael Tilson Thomas – he is currently Chief Conductor of the Lucerne Symphony Orchestra, whose profile he has greatly enhanced, both nationally and internationally, with a series of highly successful tours and recordings. He is also the Principal Guest Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra.

Much in demand with leading orchestras and opera houses throughout Europe, the United States and Asia, James Gaffigan has this season made his debut with Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks, and led the Los Angeles Philharmonic, National Symphony Orchestra, BBC Symphony Orchestra, Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. He has also debuted with the Metropolitan Opera in La Bohème, and the Dutch National Opera in Porgy and Bess, and returns to Bayerische Staatsoper for productions of Fanciulla and Don Giovanni, and to San Francisco Opera for Carmen.

This week’s performances with the San Francisco Symphony open with the Good Friday Spell from Wagner’s Parsifal, a three-act opera loosely based on Wolfram von Eschenbach’s 13th century poem of the Arthurian knight, Parzival, and his quest for the Holy Grail.

The Beethoven Piano Concerto is followed by Mozart’s Symphony No 31. Known as the Paris Symphony, it was written in the City of Light, the composer going to great lengths to write it in a style which would appeal to the French people.

The final work is Samuel Barber’s Symphony No 1 – a work in one movement which was written in Rome during 1935 and 1936, and which, in 1937, became the first American work to be performed at the Salzburg Festival.

James Gaffigan leads the San Francisco Symphony in works by Wagner, Beethoven, Mozart and Barber, with guest artist Hélène Grimaud, at Davies Symphony Hall from April 25th to 27th. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

Information sourced from:
San Francisco Symphony program notes
Artists’ websites:
James Gaffigan
Hélène Grimaud
Classic FM – Beethoven Piano Concerto
AllMusic – Mozart Symphony No 31
AllMusic – Barber Symphony No 1

San Francisco Ballet shows its versatility

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

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

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

San Francisco Ballet rehearses ‘Appassionata’ © Erik Tomasson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Information sourced from:

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