A momentous year for MTT & San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony – © Bill Swerbenski

It’s customary at this time of year to look back and recall highlights of the past 12 months, but sometimes so much happens that it’s quite a challenge to decide which events to feature in a roll call of achievements. It’s been that sort of year for Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony – who say farewell to 2017 on a high note – so let’s start with some anniversary celebrations.

2017 marked the 15th year since the establishment of SFS Media, the Symphony’s eight-time Grammy Award-winning in-house recording label which produces the Orchestra’s CDs, DVDs, as well as radio and television documentaries. Not only was the Symphony the first orchestra in the United States to feature in regular radio broadcasts, but in yet another milestone, it was also the first American orchestra to create its own audio and video label.

During this 2017-18 season, the Symphony also celebrates the 30th anniversary of the SFS Adventures in Music program, which integrates into the school curriculum live music performances and music education experience.  Again, the San Francisco Symphony is unique, in that this is the most comprehensive music education program of its kind delivered by any American symphony orchestra.  It also features bespoke in-school presentations and a visit to Davies Symphony Hall for a private performance by the Symphony.

Conductor Christian Reif with the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra – © Stefan Cohen

Another celebration during this 2017-18 season marks the 35th anniversary of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. Recognized as one of the finest youth ensembles in the world, it has toured internationally and performed in some of the world’s major concert halls. Under Music Director Christian Reif, the orchestra has an ongoing commitment to the nurturing of young musicians, providing pre-professional orchestral training, and coaching by SFS musicians, to young instrumentalists in the Greater Bay Area. The orchestra has also released ten recordings, and has the honor of being represented by many of its alumni in leading orchestras around the globe.

Two special concerts were included in the Symphony’s schedule this year. In April, recognizing the Bay Area LGBTQ community, MTT and the orchestra presented a Special Symphony Pride concert, following the cancellation of the North Carolina concerts due to discriminatory legislation by the state.

Then in November, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony staged Symphony Relief:  A Benefit Concert for the North Bay, in response to the devastating wildfires which had ravaged parts of Northern California in October. In a magnificent gesture, everyone involved in this performance – MTT, the musicians, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus (Director Ragnar Bohlin), the San Francisco Opera Chorus (Director Ian Robertson), guest soloists (soprano Nikki Einfeld, mezzo-soprano Renée Rapier, tenor Nicholas Phan and bass Soloman Howard), as well as the SFS stage crew, ushers, and staff – all donated their services for the benefit of the victims of these fires.

Leonard Bernstein – © Library of Congress

As is well known, Michael Tilson Thomas had a close professional relationship with Leonard Bernstein, and in 2017-18, he and the Symphony present a season-long celebration of the centennial of one of the most creative and charismatic musicians of the 20th century. Bernstein’s overture to his comic operetta Candide opened the Symphony’s 2017-18 season, an all-Bernstein program followed a week later – featuring his Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs, the Chichester Psalms, Arias and Barcarolles and the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story – and in November, MTT and the Symphony were joined by guest pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet for a performances of Bernstein’s Second Symphony, The Age of Anxiety. In January, MTT leads the Symphony in a concert version of Candide, in February, the Symphony will accompany a screening of West Side Story at Davies Symphony Hall, and later that month, guest conductor Andrey Boreyko leads the Symphony in a program which includes Bernstein’s Divertimento and his Serenade, with guest violinist Vadim Gluzman.

During this season, MTT and the Symphony will also be celebrating the centennial anniversaries of composers John Adams, Lou Harrison and Steve Reich.

2017 saw the release of another two recordings on the SFS Media label by Michael Tilson Thomas and the Symphony. The first of these was their first digital-only release – Alban Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, recorded during live performances at Davies Symphony Hall in January 2015. This was followed in November by the release of a 2-disc set of the complete symphonies by Robert Schumann, which MTT describes as “…. a preserve for endangered emotions: wistfulness, whimsy, ardency, longing…”. These performances were recorded live during the 2015-16 season, also at Davies Symphony Hall.

On the subject of releases, MTT and the Symphony have recently been nominated for a 2018 Grammy Award in the category Best Orchestral Performance – for their gorgeous October 2016 recording, Debussy: Images, Jeux, La plus que lente. We wish them success!

Earlier this month, Michael Tilson Thomas had the honor of being inducted into the California Hall of Fame, joining other inspirational Californians – including director Steven Spielberg and poet Gary Snyder – who were described by Governor Brown as representing “the dynamic spirit and imagination that is the hallmark of the Golden State”.

Also recently announced, Michael Tilson Thomas, together with architect Frank Gehry, will receive the Richard D Colburn award at the Colburn School’s Annual Gala, Celebrate Colburn, for “their exemplary achievements and contributions to the worlds of classical music and the performing arts in Los Angeles and throughout the world”. This prestigious event takes place in April 2018, at the Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concerto Hall in Los Angeles, where MTT will lead the Colburn Orchestra in a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 1.

Michael Tilson Thomas – courtesy San Francisco Symphony

On a less-than-celebratory note, we also heard this year of MTT’s intention to end his legendary 25-year tenure as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony at the end of the 2019-20 season. Bringing to an end one of the most creative and productive musical partnerships in the orchestral world, Tilson Thomas will leave the Symphony a unique and enduring legacy, but there’s good news too – as Music Director Laureate of the San Francisco Symphony, he will continue to conduct the Orchestra for a minimum of four weeks each season, in addition to what’s described as “other special projects”. He will, without a doubt, be warmly welcomed back by musicians and audiences alike.

For more information on Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, visit the SF Symphony website.


ArtsPreview home page

‘The Nutcracker’ – still a sparkling Christmas tradition

Maria Kochetkova and Joseph Walsh in Tomasson’s ‘Nutcracker’ – © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet’s magnificent production of The Nutcracker has opened its 2017 season at the War Memorial Opera House – a magical Christmas tradition that will never cease to deliver a warm glow, a frisson of excitement, and a sense of wonder.

The 18th century English writer Samuel Johnson, observed that a man who is tired of London is tired of life, and a similar rationale can be applied to The Nutcracker, for despite the fact that the ballet is presented in countless productions every Christmas, its timeless appeal is universal, and it’s regarded as a special part of the Christmas season by many the world over – and not only ballet enthusiasts.

Scenes from Tomasson’s ‘Nutcracker’ – © Erik Tomasson

Even so, this adaptation by Alexandre Dumas Père of a story by E T A Hoffmann was poorly received at its premiere by the Mariinsky Theatre Ballet in St Petersburg in 1892. With choreography by Lev Ivanov to a libretto by Marius Petipa, it was slated by the critics, but The Nutcracker took hold, and has succeeded in establishing its place in the Christmas tradition around the world ever since. Visually it’s awe-inspiring – a Christmas party, a magician, and a Nutcracker doll who comes to life in a vivid dream which depicts a battle between toy soldiers and an army of invading rats, waltzing snowflakes, a Kingdom of Sweets with guests from around the world performing a series of colorful variations, a Sugar Plum Fairy and a handsome prince and beautiful princess. Not only does The Nutcracker have all this, but it also has a score which features what many consider to be some of the most beautiful music that Tchaikovsky wrote.

Rubén Martín Cintas in Tomasson’s ‘Nutcracker’ – © Erik Tommason

The Nutcracker is of historical importance to San Francisco Ballet as well, the Company having been the first in the United States to stage the ballet in its entirety, in December 1944, with choreography by the then Artistic Director Willam Christensen. In 1986, the present Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson staged the Company’s fourth production of The Nutcracker, and in 2004 he presented the unique interpretation which we see today, themed around the Panama-Pacific Exposition held in San Francisco in 1915, and drawing into the design a number of well-known San Francisco landmarks.

Esteban Hernandez in Tomasson’s ‘Nutcracker’ – © Erik Tomasson

This year, San Francisco Ballet welcomes two new Principal Dancers – Ana Sophia Scheller and Ulrik Birkkjaer. Hailing from Buenos Aires, Ana Sophia Scheller was previously a member of New York City Ballet, having danced principal and featured roles in works by choreographers such as George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon.

Ulrik Birkkjaer was formerly a Principal Dancer with the Royal Danish Ballet, where his repertory included works by Balanchine, August Bournonville, Kenneth MacMillan, John Neumeier, Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon. He has appeared internationally as a guest dancer, and produced the Bournonville Celebration which was performed in New York City and London in 2015, and at a benefit performance, Dancing for UNICEF, in Denmark in 2011.

Maria Kochetkova and Joseph Walsh in Tomasson’s ‘Nutcracker’ – © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet’s The Nutcracker runs at the War Memorial Opera House until December 24. For more information and tickets, visit the SF Ballet website.

Information sources:

San Francisco Ballet program notes

BBC Culture

Ana Sophia Scheller

Ulrik Birkkjaer


ArtsPreview home page

‘A Christmas Story: The Musical’ – lively and fun!

The “wimps” (Mario Gianni Herrera, David Rukin, Jonah Broscow, Panita Serizawa, Charlotte Ying Levy, and Chloe Dalzell) wait for the day payback will come to their bullies

If you need a shot of festive sparkle, and a reminder of what Christmas is all about, the San Francisco Playhouse is only too happy to oblige. A Christmas Story: The Musical is joyful, at times touching, it will make you smile – and laugh out loud. A perfect production for the time of year, it’ll lift your spirits and put the proverbial song in your heart.

Based on the 1983 film, A Christmas Story, the show – which was nominated for three Tony Awards in 2013 – has music and lyrics by Tony- and Oscar-winning Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, with a book by Joseph Robinette. The Playhouse production is in the very capable hands of Susi Damilano.

Jean Shepherd (Christopher Reber) kicks off the Jean Shepherd Show on WOR Radio

The story, set in the 1940s, centers around young Ralphie Parker, who more than anything wants an “official Red Ryder Carbine-Action 200-Shot Range Model BB Gun” for Christmas. The on-stage action is narrated by an adult Ralphie, recalling this eventful episode in his life (an easy-going and humorous performance from Christopher Reber). So great is Ralphie’s desire for this particular gift that he is led to devise one plan after another, in an uphill battle to convince his adoring (but practical) mother, The Old Man (his no-nonsense father) as well as a less-than-jolly in-store Santa, of the benefits of owning one of these rifles.

Miss Shields (Katrina Lauren McGraw) collects her students’ papers

Ralphie (Jonah Broscow*, center) fantasizes about coming to the rescue with his Red Ryder Carbine Action BB gun

These plans lead us on a merry song-and-dance through Ralphie’s day-to-day life in the run-up to Christmas – as he and his younger brother Randy (a fine performance from Jake Miller), behave as typically badly as young boys do – despite being cajoled by their typically perfect and honey-voiced mother whose sole purpose in life is to please her husband and children – a lovely portrayal by Abby Haug.

A triple-dog-dare ends badly for Flick – played here by Mario Gianni Herrera, (center)

The star of the show was undoubtedly Mario Gianni Herrera – a young man with a tremendous singing voice and what would appear to be a great future ahead of him – as Ralphie. Utterly immersed in his role, he had the audience in the palm of his hand, from the little nuances so typical of his character, to the great baleful stares of helplessness as he’s hit by one setback after another, yet he still manages to muster his creative instincts to devise yet another ploy to get what he so badly wants.

Ryan Drummond is always marvelous, and hugely entertaining as the pretty ordinary suburban father who longs to burst out of his normality and achieve something really special in life. His reaction to winning a perfectly hideous lamp in a crossword competition says it all.

The Old Man (Ryan Drummond*, right) unveils his major award as Randy (Jake Miller), Ralphie (Jonah Broscow*), and Mother (Abby Haug*) express their puzzlement

Another superb performance came from Katrina Lauren McGraw as the schoolteacher, Miss Shields, and the talented youngsters who played Ralphie’s friends – and bullying enemies – were obviously having a tremendous time, singing and dancing their way through the whole performance.

From the Creative team, Music Director Dave Dobrusky and his musicians provided a fabulous backing to all this hilarity, and the set – as ever – was skilfully designed and manipulated.

If you love a good musical, the Playhouse – with Christmas spirit in abundance – is the place to go.

The Parker family on Christmas Day

A Christmas Story: The Musical runs through January 13. For tickets, visit the San Francisco Playhouse website or call the box office on (415) 677-9596.

Photographs by Jessica Palopoli


ArtsPreview home page

KDFC broadcasts Met Opera’s ‘The Magic Flute’

Baritone Nathan Gunn as Papageno in Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ – Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera

Mozart’s The Magic Flute is the second production in the Met Opera’s 87th season of Saturday matinee radio broadcasts. It airs on Classical KDFC on December 9 for listeners in the Bay Area.  This series of broadcasts, live from the Metropolitan Opera in New York, was launched in 1931, making it the longest-running continuous classical radio series in American broadcast history.

The Met’s English-language family version of Mozart’s whimsical masterpiece is one of New York City’s holiday traditions, and this version by Julie Taymor once again features Nathan Gunn, “the sensational baritone … with intense charisma and a voice like honey …” (The Mercury News) as the bird-catcher Papageno. Mr Gunn has appeared with some of the world’s finest opera companies – the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, The Royal Opera, Covent Garden, Paris Opera, Bayerische Staatsoper, Glyndebourne Opera Festival, and also in opera houses such as Theater an der Wien, Teatro Real in Madrid and Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels.

Charles Castronovo as Tamino in Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ – Photo: Richard Termine/Metropolitan Opera

The role of Pamina is sung by German soprano Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, who – as Eurydice in Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice at the Kammeroper Rheinsberg – “…. outclassed everyone else in stage presence”, wrote Opernglas. “With her clear, yet expressive soprano, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller created the most touching moments of the evening.”

American soprano Kathryn Lewek is the Queen of the Night, a role in which she made her Met debut in 2013. Ms Lewek – described by Berlin Zeitung as “ not only virtuosic, but fabulous” – also appeared in this, her world renowned signature role, in the Met Opera’s Live in HD broadcast of Die Zauberflöte this past October.

Kathryn Lewek as the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ Photo: Richard Termine/Metropolitan Opera

The role of Tamino is sung by Charles Castronovo, regarded as one of the finest lyric tenors of his generation, who has appeared in many of the leading opera houses of the world – the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Vienna State Opera, Berlin State Opera, Paris Opera, Bavarian State Opera, Munich and Theatre Royale de la Monnaie, Brussels. Mr Castronovo also sang this role in the Met Opera’s recent Live in HD broadcast of Die Zauberflöte.

Bass-baritone Alfred Walker – praised by Opera News for his “inky bass-baritone and clear projection …..” – sings the role of the Speaker. He recently appeared as Orest in San Francisco Opera’s magnificent production of Elektra, and also sings Titurel in Parsifal for the Metropolitan Opera this season.

Tobias Kehrer as Sarastro in Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’ – Photo: Richard Termine/Metropolitan Opera

German bass Tobias Kehrer sings Sarastro, a role in which he made his Met Opera debut in Die Zauberflöte in September this year.

Leading the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and Chorus in this production of The Magic Flute is American conductor Evan Rogister, who – according to Svenska Dagbladet – “fired up the stage and orchestra pit; both were bursting with lifein Opera Malmö’s production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro.

The Metropolitan Opera’s production of The Magic Flute is broadcast on the Toll Brothers–Metropolitan Opera International Radio Network, and can be heard on KDFC, the Bay Area’s Classical Radio Station, at 10.00 am on Saturday, December 9.


Information sourced from:

Metropolitan Opera program notes

Artists’ websites:

Nathan Gunn

Hanna-Elisabeth Müller

Kathryn Lewek

Charles Castronovo

Alfred Walker

Evan Rogister


ArtsPreview home page

A weekend of great performances from the Symphony and the Opera

San Francisco Symphony

San Francisco Symphony presents ‘Music for Families’ – Photo courtesy San Francisco Symphony

The San Francisco Symphony presents Music for Families at Davies Symphony Hall on Saturday afternoon in a program entitled Stringing it All Together: The Elements of Music Making. In a concert which includes music by Wagner, Mahler, Brahms, Gershwin, Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Beethoven, conductor Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser and members of the Symphony show what goes into making a great piece of music.

For more information, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

Watch a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1959 spy thriller, North by Northwest on Saturday evening, as conductor Richard Kaufman leads the San Francisco Symphony in a performance of Bernard Herrman’s score newly adapted for live orchestra by Patrick Russ – from Herrman’s original manuscripts. Nominated for three Academy Awards®, North by Northwest – starring Cary Grant, Eva Marie Saint and James Mason – boasts a screenplay hailed by the Writers Guild of America as one of the greatest ever written.

North by Northwest screens at Davies Symphony Hall on Saturday, December 2. For more information, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

Deck the Halls at Davies Symphony Hall – Photo: Courtesy San Francisco Symphony

On Sunday afternoon, the San Francisco Symphony presents its traditional Deck the Halls concert at Davies Symphony Hall. Led by Daniel Bartholomew-Poyser, the Orchestra is joined by guest artists including the San Francisco Boys Chorus (Director Ian Robertson), Trainees from the San Francisco Ballet School (Director Helgi Tomasson) and costumed characters, in a performance of favorites such as Leroy Anderson’s Sleigh Ride, excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman and, of course, Deck the Halls. After the concert, there’ll be festivities with treats, arts and crafts, and even more entertainment.

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

San Francisco Symphony soloists Alexander Barantschik (violin), pianist Anton Nel, and cellist Peter Wyrick present a concert in the acclaimed Chamber Music Series, in the glorious setting of the Legion of Honor, on Sunday afternoon. The featured works are Schubert’s Piano Trio No 1 in B-flat major and Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No 2 in C minor.

More information and tickets are available on the San Francisco Symphony website.

On Sunday evening, the brass, timpani and percussion sections of the San Francisco Symphony raise the roof of Davies Symphony Hall with their popular Holiday Brass concert. Led by conductor Edwin Outwater, they perform a selection of works by composers such as J S Bach, Vivaldi, Gabrieli and Franz Biebl, as well as festive favorites from Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev, Waldteufel and Leroy Anderson.

To find out more, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

San Francisco Opera

Scene from ‘Girls of the Golden West’ – Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

On Saturday evening, San Francisco Opera presents another performance of John Adams’ newest opera, Girls of the Golden West. This dramatic work, set against a backdrop of the California Gold Rush of the 1850s, is based on a true series of events chronicled by a doctor’s wife who lived in a remote northern California mining camp at the time, and demonstrates what the composer describes as “…. the very best and the very worst of human traits, from scenes of ugly nativist racism and casual violence to examples of nobility, generosity and ingenuity”.

Grant Gershon conducts the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus in this performance at the War Memorial Opera House. For tickets and more information, visit the San Francisco Opera website.

Scene from Puccini’s ‘Turandot’- Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Sunday is filled with the gorgeous sound of music by Puccini – courtesy of San Francisco Opera. There’s a matinee performance of the Company’s production of Turandot at the War Memorial Opera House, with Swedish soprano Nina Stemme singing the role of the icy queen, Turandot, and American tenor Brian Jagde as the suitor who stands to lose his life if he can’t solve the three riddles which she poses.

Conductor Christopher Franklin leads the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus (Director Ian Robertson) in a spellbinding performance. More information and tickets available on the San Francisco Opera website.

Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Rodolfo and Erika Grimaldi as Mimi in a scene from Puccini’s ‘La Bohème’ – Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

On Sunday evening, KDFC – the Bay Area’s classical music radio station – presents its monthly broadcast of a San Francisco Opera production, and this month it’s Puccini’s heartbreaking love story, La Bohème, set in Bohemian Paris around the turn of the last century. Recorded live at the War Memorial Opera House this past summer, La Bohème stars Italian soprano Erika Grimaldi as Mimi and Mexican tenor Arturo Chacón-Cruz as Rodolfo.

Carlo Montanaro leads the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus (Director Ian Robertson), and members of the San Francisco Girls Chorus and San Francisco Boys Chorus, in Puccini’s La Bohème. More information can be found on the websites of San Francisco Opera , or KDFC .