Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony celebrate a world premiere by Chinese American composer Bright Sheng in a concert which features the incomparable talent of Yuja Wang, and works by two of the greatest Russian composers of the 20th century – Dmitri Shostakovich and Igor Stravinsky.
The world premiere is Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber Overture, a work commissioned by the Symphony, and dedicated to Michael Tilson Thomas. The appearance of this overture at the beginning of the 2016-17 season represents something of a double celebration, with San Francisco Opera’s world premiere of Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber having premiered at the War Memorial Opera House just a few weeks ago.
Although Sheng’s overture doesn’t actually form part of the score for the opera, much of it is drawn from segments of the score. Based on one of the most important works in Chinese literature – a novel by Cao Xuequin, written during the Qing Dynasty – Dream of the Red Chamber tells of a love triangle involving the young heir to an illustrious family, his spiritual soulmate with whom he’s in love, and the daughter of a wealthy family – whom his mother is determined that he should marry.
Bright Sheng, who has studied under teachers such as Leonard Bernstein, Mario Davidovsky, George Perle, Hugo Weisgall and Chou Wen-chung, is the Leonard Bernstein Distinguished University Professor of Music at the University of Michigan, and a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, the American Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and an ASCAP Achievement Award.
Yuja Wang – guest artist in the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No 1 – needs no introduction to San Francisco audiences, having won our hearts at her debut with the Symphony in 2006, and continued to dazzle us with her “blisterng technique” (the Sydney Morning Herald) and what the Los Angeles Times describes as her “nonchalant, brilliant keyboard virtuosity that would have made both Prokofiev (who was a great pianist) and even the fabled Horowitz jealous”.
Widely regarded as one of the world’s finest performers, Yuja Wang accrues honors at a rate which should come as no surprise. Included in these during the current season, are her appointment as Artist-in-Residence at China’s National Centre for the Performing Arts, as well as the Konserthuset in Stockholm. Other highlights of her season include a nine-concert Asian tour with MTT and the San Francisco Symphony, performances of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G with Gianandrea Noseda and the London Symphony Orchestra at New York’s Lincoln Center and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, a spring tour of Europe with the Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia led by Antonio Pappano, and performances of the complete set of Bartók piano concertos with Gustavo Dudamel and the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.
Also featured in the Shostakovich work – officially titled Concerto No 1 in C minor for Piano, Trumpet, and Strings, Opus 35 – is San Francisco Symphony Principal Trumpet, Mark Inouye. With an impressive classical and jazz background, Mark Inouye has held principal trumpet positions with the Houston and Charleston symphonies, performed with the New York Philharmonic, the Israel Philharmonic and the New World Symphony. He was a soloist in A Jazzy Night – one of San Francisco Symphony’s 2015 summer concerts featuring both jazz and classics – and in Wynton Marsalis’s video production Marsalis on Music, which aired in Europe and North America. He was a founding member of the Juilliard Jazz Sextet at Lincoln Center and a guest performer at the Hollywood Bowl in the Playboy Jazz Festival.
Shostakovich intended his First Piano Concerto to be “joyous”, according to All Music, which also describes it as “ebullient” and a “madcap work”. The combination of Yuja Wang and this spirited concerto is likely to be simply terrific.
The first of Stravinsky’s two works is Le Chant du rossignol (The Song of the Nightingale) – a Symphonic Poem in Three Parts, adapted from his opera The Nightingale, which was based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen. In response to a commission from Russian impresario Sergei Diaghilev, Stravinsky began writing the opera in 1908, but owing to other commissions from Diaghilev, didn’t resume work on it until 1913, completing it in the year of its Paris premiere in 1914.
Two years later, Diaghilev was keen to create a ballet to music drawn from the opera score, leading Stravinsky to transform it into a symphonic work which he called The Song of the Nightingale, and which he completed in 1917. It was 1920 before the first version of the ballet was staged in Paris by Diaghilev, with choreography by Leonid Massine – but the Symphonic Poem was premiered by Ernest Ansermet and the Suisse Romande Orchestra in 1919. What’s interesting about the ballet is that it wasn’t rapturously received, so in 1925 Stravinsky agreed to revive the score. On that occasion, Diaghilev appointed one of his newest students, George Balanchine, to choreograph it, which led to the creation of the Balanchine/Stravinsky partnership – one of the 20th century’s most successful collaborations between composer and choreographer.
The closing work in this San Francisco Symphony program is Stravinsky’s ballet suite The Firebird (L’Oiseau de Feu), which was premiered in Paris by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in 1910, with choreography by Michel Fokine. Stravinsky certainly wasn’t the impresario’s first choice – at least four other prominent Russian composers had rejected Diaghilev’s approach beforehand – but this composition marked a significant milestone in Stravinsky’s career. His musical portrayal of the ancient Russian fairytale about a bird with magical powers, and brilliant red feathers which flickered and glowed like flames, became his best loved and most widely performed score. It also marked the beginning of the highly successful collaboration between Diaghilev and Stravinsky, which, as we know, produced a stream of successes, including Petrouchka, The Rite of Spring and Pulcinella.
Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony in two more performances of this program at Davies Symphony Hall – on Friday, September 30 and Saturday October 1. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website
SF Symphony program notes –