San Francisco Ballet opens new season with a Tchaikovsky classic

There must be many lovers of ballet in the Bay Area who are delighted that San Francisco Ballet is reviving its production of The Sleeping Beauty this season – a work which embodies all that’s wonderful about ballet. With its sumptuous courtly setting, elegant choreography, gorgeous costumes, and what’s acknowledged to be some of the greatest music that Tchaikovsky ever wrote, this romantic fairytale has become one of the best-loved ballets in the world.

Regarded as the first truly Russian ballet, The Sleeping Beauty – at the time of its opening – was likened in style to Faberge’s exquisite ornamental creations which so delighted the Tsar and the Russian elite in the latter part of the 19th century. The ballet epitomized the treasured objets d’art which so delicately replicated, within an egg-shaped shell, the luxurious lives of these aristocrats. As Jennifer Homans – author of Apollo’s Angels – writes: “Fabergé reproduced the court in miniature; Beauty put it on stage.”

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s ‘The Sleeping Beauty’

The Sleeping Beauty as a ballet was conceived by Ivan Vsevolozhsky, director of the Imperial Theatres in St Petersburg at the time of its creation, and based on Charles Perrault’s La belle au bois dormant, first published in 1697. Vsevolozhsky wrote the libretto, designed the original costumes, and commissioned Tchaikovsky to write the score. They both met with Marius Petipa – at that time ballet master and chief choreographer of the Imperial Theatres – in November 1888, but so inspired was Tchaikovsky that by the time of this meeting, he’d already sketched out the first few scenes. By June the following year, he had sketched out the entire ballet, and by the end of August the orchestration was complete. It truly was a labour of love, and little wonder that his friend and firm supporter, Herman Laroche, referred to the score as “one of Tchaikovsky’s pearls”. The ballet premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg on January 15th, 1890.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s ‘The Sleeping Beauty’

San Francisco Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty is choreographed by Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer, Helgi Tomasson, after Marius Petipa. This production premiered at the War Memorial Opera House on March 13th, 1990, with scenic and costume design by Jens-Jacob Worsaae, using some of the designs which he originally created for the Royal Danish Ballet.

Tomasson is indeed fortunate to have a wealth of balletic talent at his disposal, enabling him to cast five different pairs of Principal dancers in the roles of Princess Aurora and Prince Desiré – each of whom is appearing in these roles for the first time in the current production.

Taking the Grammy Award-winning San Francisco Ballet Orchestra through this most beautiful of scores is the Company’s Music Director and Principal Conductor Martin West, regarded as one of the foremost conductors of ballet today. Having received part of his training at the St Petersburg Conservatory of Music, he must surely possess an enviable depth of knowledge and understanding of the music of the great Russian composer, who also studied at there.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s ‘The Sleeping Beauty’

San Francisco Ballet’s production of The Sleeping Beauty runs at The War Memorial Opera House from January 23rd to 28th. For more information, and to reserve tickets, visit the San Francisco Ballet website.

Photographs by Erik Tomasson from the 2007 repertory production of The Sleeping Beauty


Information sourced from:

San Francisco Ballet program notes

Tchaikovsky – an autobiography by Anthony Holden

Apollo’s AngelsA History of Ballet – by Jennifer Homans


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Concert version of Bernstein’s ‘Candide’ from MTT & SF Symphony

Leonard Bernstein – courtesy San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony certainly have form when it comes to presenting successful concert versions of stage productions – be they operas, such as  Britten’s Peter Grimes, or Broadway musicals like Bernstein’s West Side Story and On the Town – so in this centennial year of the remarkable Leonard Bernstein, what better than a concert version of his comic operetta Candide!

Inspired by Voltaire’s 1758 satirical novella on the fashionable philosophies of his day, the adaptation of Candide as a musical was originally suggested to Bernstein by playwright Lillian Hellman, in 1953. Based on a book by Hugh Wheeler, after Voltaire, Candide wasn’t, however, destined to have a smooth path to success. The production was beset by one challenge after another.   At least six well-known personalities – including Lillian Hellman, Dorothy Parker, Stephen Sondheim and Bernstein himself – have had an input into the lyrics, and Candide has undergone a number of variations since the original opening on Broadway in 1956.   There are currently five different versions available to license.

Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas – Photo: Art Streiber

None of this, however, can detract from the quality of the music, created by one of the greatest composers of the 20th century. With its brilliant overture – hugely popular as a standalone concert piece – the musical is fun and humorous, and chock-full of lyrical and memorable melodies.  The story is narrated by Voltaire – who also takes on the personae of various characters who appear in it – telling of a young man, Candide, who, with his betrothed, Cunegonde, goes around the world on an extraordinary romp, believing passionately in the theory of his teacher, Dr Pangloss, that everything that happens is for the best, and that the world is wonderful, no matter what fate befalls them.

Taking the title role in this concert version is tenor Andrew Stenson, a graduate of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. The recipient of a 2011 Sara Tucker Study Grant from the Richard Tucker Foundation, Mr Stenson also took first prize in both the 2015 Giulio Gari International Vocal Competition and the 2016 Gerda Lissner Foundation Competition, and he has sung the role of Candide with Théâtre du Capitole, Toulouse and Opéra National de Bordeaux.

Frontispiece and first page of chapter one of an early English translation by T Smollett et al of Voltaire’s ‘Candide , printed by J Newbery, 1762 – via Wikimedia Commons

Coloratura soprano Meghan Picerno is Cunegonde, a role she sang in New York City Opera’s acclaimed 2016 revival by Hal Prince. Described by The New York Times as “an exuberant Cunegonde”, she also delivered what New York Classical Review hailed as “by far the standout vocal peformance of the night”.  Among Ms Picerno’s other recent appearances are those as Queen of the Night in productions of Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall.

The role of The Old Lady is sung by internationally renowned soprano Sheri Greenawald, director of the San Francisco Opera Center since 2002, and artistic director of the Merola Opera Program. Ms Greenawald has performed leading roles with some of the world’s leading companies, including San Francisco Opera, the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, La Fenice in Venice, the Munich Bavarian State Opera, Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris, Teatro San Carlos in Naples, Welsh National Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Santa Fe Opera and Los Angeles Opera.

Among the characters that Candide and Cunegonde come across is Paquette, sung by soprano Vanessa Becerra. A recent graduate of the acclaimed Domingo-Colburn-Stein Young Artist Program at LA Opera, Ms Becerra appeared at the 2017 Glimmerglass Festival in the role of Laurey Williams in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! Her performance of Out of My Dreams was described by Opera News as “a moment of true vocal charm”.

Ragnar Bohlin conducts the San Francisco Symphony Chorus – Photo: Stefan Cohen

Other characters which Candide and Cunegonde meet are Maximillian and the Captain – both sung by baritone Hadleigh Adams, a graduate of the San Francisco Opera Merola Program, who was subsequently invited to join the Company as an Adler Fellow. The most recent appearance by Mr Hadleigh for San Francisco Opera was as Schaunard in La Bohème.

The roles of Voltaire, Pangloss, Martin and Cacambo are sung by baritone Michael Todd Simpson, “an elegant baritone who sings with lustre and acts with conviction”, writes Huffington Post. Having appeared in most of the major opera houses in the United States, he also sings the role of Gaylord Ravenal on the DVD of San Francisco Opera’s production of Show Boat.

Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus (director Ragnar Bohlin), and guest artists, in this production of Leonard Bernstein’s Candide which runs at Davies Symphony Hall from January 18 to 21. For more information, for performance times, and for tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

An hour prior to the performances, Leonard Bernstein’s daughter and son – Nina Bernstein Simmons and Alexander Bernstein* – present an introduction to Candide, accompanied on the piano by Peter Grunberg.  These introductions are free to ticketholders.

*Alexander Bernstein will present on January 18 and 19, and Nina Bernstein on January 20 and 21.


Information sourced from:

San Francisco Symphony

Leonard Bernstein

Theatre History

Andrew Stenson

Meghan Picerno

Vanessa Becerra

Sheri Greenawald

Hadleigh Adams

Michael Todd Simpson

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San Francisco Ballet’s ‘Celestial’ opening to the new season

One of the joys of January in the city is the opening of the San Francisco Ballet season. This year, it promises to be particularly dazzling, and includes a production of The Sleeping Beauty, a celebration of the centennials of both Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein, another opportunity to experience the drama of Liam Scarlett’s Frankenstein, the National Ballet of Canada’s production of Nijinsky, and Unbound – a festival of world premieres created specially for the Company by twelve international artists who rank among the finest choreographers of our time.

First, though, there’s the Opening Night Gala, this year taking the theme Celestial, which brings to mind images of glittering stars, twinkling lights and heavenly performances.

Students of the San Francisco Ballet School open the program with a ballet by Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, to the enchanting Little Waltz by Eric Coates, one of many by the British composer known mainly for his ‘light music’.

Jerome Robbins is represented by his 1969 ballet In the Night.  This is a simply beautiful trio of pas de deux to three Chopin nocturnes, which provide the setting for each of three young couples – danced by Mathilde Froustey and Benjamin Freemantle, Jennifer Stahl and Tiit Helimets, Sarah Van Patten and Luke Ingham – who are going through a different phase in their respective relationships.

The range of pas de deux in the program is eclectic, to say the least. In the Bluebird variation from The Sleeping Beauty, Dores André and Wei Wang give us a preview of the gorgeous opening work of the repertory season. Sasha De Sola and Angelo Greco perform the pas de deux from Le Corsaire – a perennial show-stopper, with its technical fireworks – and there’s a lovely excerpt from August Bournonville’s La Sylphide, created for The Royal Danish Ballet, and performed on this occasion by Maria Kochetkova with Ulrik Birkkjaer – new to San Francisco Ballet, who danced the role of James many times during his illustrious career with the Danish company.

There are two contemporary works which are both new to SF Ballet. One is a pas de deux from Children of Chaos by Toronto choreographer Robert Binet, a work commissioned by Fall For Dance North, and inspired by Canadian dancers who left their home country to pursue careers elsewhere. It’s danced, appropriately, by one such dancer, Frances Chung, partnered by Joseph Walsh, both of whom appeared in the world premiere performance this past October. Choreographer Edwaard Liang provides the other new work – Letting Go – set to music by Max Richter, regarded as being one of the most prolific of contemporary composers.

The other two works on the program are both very American and both hugely popular. The pas de deux from Balanchine’s Stars and Stripes is his wonderfully exuberant tribute to the Fourth of July – all patriotism for his adoptive home, vivid colors and John Philip Sousa. It’s a sparkling vehicle for Company newcomer Ana Sophia Scheller and seasoned SF Ballet artist Vitor Luiz in what will be their premiere performances in this rousing display of Americana.

The Gala closes with Justin Peck’s version of the Four Dance Episodes from Aaron Copland’s Rodeo, which he wrote in 1942 for Agnes de Mille. Sofiane Sylve and Carlo Di Lanno star in this delightful celebration of life in the American West – which was to become one of Copland’s most enduringly popular works.

Conductor Martin West leads the Grammy Award-winning San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, and also appearing are pianists Roy Bogas (the Chopin nocturnes) and Natal’ya Feygina who plays John Kameel Farah’s music for Children of Chaos.

San Francisco Ballet’s Opening Night Gala takes place at the War Memorial Opera House on Thursday, January 18. For more information and for tickets, visit the San Francisco Ballet website.


Note: Although the dancers listed in this article are scheduled to perform in the Opening Gala, San Francisco Ballet reserves the right, as ever, to make cast changes should they be necessary.


Sources of information:

San Francisco Ballet website

Somewhere – a biography of Jerome Robbins by Amanda Vaill

Post City Toronto

Max Richter


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Emanuel Ax goes for diversity with MTT & San Francisco Symphony

Pianist Emanuel Ax – Photo: Lisa Marie Mazzucco

There’s an interesting concert at Davies Symphony Hall this week. Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony are joined by guest artist Emanuel Ax who plays not one, but two, piano concertos – and they really couldn’t be more different – Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 14  and Schoenberg’s Piano Concerto No 42.

Ax, described by The Telegraph as a pianist with a “stellar reputation”, laughingly cites the English idiom ‘chalk and cheese’ in his reference to the difference between these two composers. He calls the Mozart work “a “a great gem of a piece …. very, very beautiful with wonderful, wonderful harmonic movements…”, and then goes on to explain the probability that Schoenberg developed the twelve-tone technique because he didn’t feel that “tonality and the harmonic hierarchy” worked any more and that he had “to find a new language”.

Whatever the rationale, this will be a fascinating program, and Emanuel Ax will be as wonderful as ever!

The program opens with Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No 3, itself not without interest, since it was one of four overtures written for Fidelio, one of three versions of the only opera that Beethoven wrote. Fidelio was originally called Leonore, and is known as a ‘rescue opera’, because it was based on the theme of courageous wives who risked their lives to save their condemned husbands – a theme which became popular around the time of the French Revolution, and which spread to other parts of Europe in the early 1880s. The Leonore Overture No 3, written in 1806, was the most successful of the overtures.

The final work is one of Richard Strauss’ most popular tone poems, Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks. A jaunty piece, it tells of a serial prankster from a 14th century German folk tale, who refused to bow to convention and whose antics finally landed him in trouble.

Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony and guest artist Emanuel Ax at Davies Symphony Hall on January 11, 12 and 13. For more information, and for tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.


Information sources:

NPR World of Opera


Emanuel Ax


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Chris Botti returns to SFJAZZ

Chris Botti – courtesy SFJAZZ

Trumpeter extraordinaire Chris Botti makes a very welcome return visit to SFJAZZ this week, playing in the Miner Auditorium for nine performances – four of which are nearly sold out. This comes as no surprise, since the world’s biggest-selling jazz instrumentalist is as popular here as he is the world over, with sales of over 3 million albums to his credit.

The artist who, at the age of 12, was initially inspired by hearing Miles Davis playing My Funny Valentine, has appeared and/or worked with names such as Frank Sinatra, Joni Mitchell, Sting, Mark Knopfler, Herbie Hancock, Andrea Bocelli and Yo Yo Ma. He was also commissioned to perform his version of Chopin’s Prelude No 20 in Warsaw for the anniversary of the composer’s birth, has recorded an album with the Boston Pops Orchestra, and won a GRAMMY for Best Pop Instrumental Album with his 2012 release Impressions.

He therefore needs no introduction to Bay Area audiences, however a review which appeared in Arts ATL last June indicates that Chris Botti is riding as high as ever. His tone was described as “a luxurious blanket of sound that conjures a hint of nostalgia”, and his interpretation of My Funny Valentine as “alchemy itself, a mysterious transformation of mood that only an artist like Botti can summon”.

Chris Botti appears in the Miner Auditorium from January 9 to 14. For tickets and more information, visit the SFJAZZ website.


Information sources:

SFJAZZ program notes

Website (Chris Botti)