The National Ballet of Canada presents John Neumeier’s ‘Nijinsky’

Guillaume Côté in Neumeier’s ‘Nijinsky’ – © Bruce Zinger

Vaslav Nijinsky was one of the greatest – and most fascinating – dancers that the world has known, and this coming week, San Francisco Ballet hosts the National Ballet of Canada in a series of performances of John Neumeier’s memorable and haunting portrayal of this complex artist’s tragic descent into insanity.

American dancer, choreographer and director, John Neumeier is Director and Chief Choreographer of The Hamburg Ballet, a role he has held since 1973. He founded the Hamburg Ballet School, became Ballet Director of the Hamburg State Opera in 1996, and during his career he has guested with some of the world’s major ballet companies. He is also a world authority on the life and work of Vaslav Nijinsky.

Neumeier has spent years studying Nijinsky, collecting books, photographs, memorabilia, costumes, absorbing every piece of information possible, and even interviewing Nijinsky’s widow, Romola. He now has what’s regarded as the most extensive private collection on the dancer in existence.

Nijinsky’s dancing life was tragically short. From his first appearances as one of the stars of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes in Paris in 1910, he stunned audiences with his physical capabilities, his incredible technique, and his mesmerizing style of presentation, and he rapidly rose to become an international sensation in ballets such as Petruskha, La Spectre de la rose and Scheherazade. Within a couple of years, his first choreographic achievement – the surprisingly erotic L’Aprés-midi d’un faune – shocked the world of ballet. His ballet Jeux was regarded as decidedly unusual, and his Sacre du Printemps – set to a controversial score by Igor Stravinsky – caused a riot at its premiere in Paris in 1913. By the time his interpretation of Til Eulenspiegel went public in 1916, the schizophrenia, which was ultimately to destroy Nijinsky’s career, was already becoming apparent.

The National Ballet of Canada in Neumeier’s ‘Nijinsky’ – © Bruce Zinger

The choreographic genius, riveting stage presence, and sheer brilliance of Nijinsky as a dancer are well documented, as is his role in changing the previously held perceptions of the physical and artistic capabilities of the male dancer, but it’s when you read the words of his wife, Romola, or of the creator of this work, John Neumeier, that the depths of his character can truly be comprehended.

Nijinsky’s last public performance took place in 1919, in the ballroom of the Suvretta House Hotel in the Swiss resort of St Moritz, and it’s this occasion which Neumeier uses to open his ballet – a recreation of the thoughts, memories and hallucinations which he envisages might have been going through the dancer’s mind in what he knew would be his final performance. He focuses on important situations and events in Nijinsky’s life – his childhood, the Mariinsky Theatre, his career with the Ballets Russes, his roles in Les Sylphides, Scheherazade, La Spectre de la rose – those whose presence had influenced him as a person and as an artist – his family, Diaghilev, his wife – and the tumult of the times through which he lived – the era of the First World War. All these, in Neumeier’s interpretation, pass through the mind of Nijinsky, and his response to each of them forms the synopsis of the ballet.

Guillaume Côté in Neumeier’s ‘Nijinsky’ – © Aleksandar Antonijevic

Neumeier not only created and choreographed this homage to Vaslav Nijinsky, he designed the sets and costumes – based partly on original sketches by Léon Bakst and Alexandre Benois – as well as the lighting. The score is taken from works by Chopin, Robert Schumann, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Dmitri Shostakovich.

The ballet was given its world premiere by The Hamburg Ballet, in Hamburg, on July 2nd, 2000. It was premiered by the National Ballet of Canada on March 2nd, 2013, on which occasion it was described by as “Sublime … truly breath-taking”, and “A triumph of dramatic intensity” by the Toronto Star.

Guillaume Côté in Neumeier’s ‘Nijinsky’ – © Erik Tomasson

Eight years after Nijinsky’s death in April 1950, Romola wrote a postscript to the biography of her husband (which was first published in 1933), briefly chronicling the years of his illness – what she refers to as “Thirty-one years of martyrdom for Nijinsky” – her own suffering, and the lengths to which she went to get help for him. In his final years, she says, he seemed to have overcome the violence and rebellion which his illness had caused, and was “kind, docile and affectionate”, leaving his family, friends and physicians with the impression that “he in his silent tender manner, had given us a splendid uplift, a great lesson of faith”. Poignantly, the postscript, dated 1958, was written in San Francisco.

The National Ballet of Canada presents Neumeier’s Nijinsky at the War Memorial Opera House from April 3rd to 8th.  For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Ballet website.


Information sourced from:

National Ballet of Canada program notes by Michael Crabb

Nijinsky, an autobiography by his wife, Romola Nijinsky


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‘The Effect’ at San Francisco Playhouse – absorbing, moving and compelling

Tristan (Joe Estlack) and Connie (Ayelet Firstenberg) get to know each other

The world of clinical testing is an interesting, but somewhat murky one to those who are not involved in the study and application of this practice – which of course means most of us. Clinical trials are held to test the effect of new drugs on human volunteers, to see whether the drugs should be approved for wider use in the general population – and this is the pivot around which the action revolves in the latest  San Francisco Playhouse production, The Effect.

Award-winning playwright Lucy Prebble was drawn to this subject following an actual clinical trial in Britain in 2006, which went horrifically wrong. The volunteers ended up in intensive care, being treated for multiple organ failure, and with heads so swollen that they resembled the Elephant Man. The Effect won a Critics Circle Award following its world premiere at the National Theatre in London in 2012, and four years later it opened at the Barrow Street Theater in New York.

Joe Estlack as Tristan, Susi Damilano as Dr Lorna James, and Ayelet Firstenberg as Connie

In this production, Connie (Ayelet Firstenberg) and Tristan (Joe Estlack) have volunteered to become human guinea-pigs in the clinical testing of a new super-antidepressant. Connie is doing so because she sporadically suffers from depression, while Joe is simply doing it for the money. Neither of them has any idea of the possible side-effects that might be caused by this drug, and initially, neither of them knows which of them is being given a placebo, or indeed, whether either of them actually is.

What they do discover, though, is that during the long hours between consultations with Dr Lorna James (Susi Damilano) who is conducting the trial, and administering the drug, they rapidly become more and more interested in each other, and before long, they fall in love. The problem, though, is that neither is sure whether this is actually what’s happening to them, or whether it’s a side effect of the drug.

Dr Lorna James (Susi Damilano) and Dr Toby Sealey (Robert Parsons) discuss the case

Things become more complicated as it transpires that Dr James and her superior, Dr Toby Sealey (Robert Parsons) are dogged by their own personal issues – and when they realize the effect that this trial is having on their two volunteers, they’re forced to examine the ethics of what they’re doing, and the responsibility that they both bear towards Connie and Joe, as their respective characters are systematically laid bare.

The Effect is an absorbing play. It’s also moving, thought provoking and compelling, with some welcome flashes of humor. Director Bill English keeps a tight rein on the production, drawing riveting performances from each member of the cast, as their characters develop.

Initially, Firstenberg is delightfully and disarmingly frank and unperturbed about the experiment – which is basically what it is – and Estlack is a bit of a character – likeable, fun, larger than life and almost nonchalant about what he’s doing. They both start off as accommodating and obedient volunteers, but as tensions rise and fear creeps in, they suffer a startling loss of control over their emotions as they give vent to their frustration and anger.

Tristan (Joe Estlack) grows concerned over Connie’s (Ayelet Firstenberg) state of mind

Susi Damilano is a professional, methodical, business-like and somewhat aloof doctor, until her emotions get the better of her, and Robert Parsons uses his bravado as a weapon to disguise an inadequacy brought on by his past – but is unable to maintain this mask when he, too, feels threatened.

The stage design is eerily sparse and – yes, clinical – with some creative use of lighting and special effects, and the minimalist sets are efficiently and briskly changed.

Whilst decidedly sobering, The Effect is also likely to spark off some fascinating discussions, particularly around the morality of clinical trials such as this, and the wisdom of giving one human being such power over your life.

The Effect runs at the San Francisco Playhouse until April 28th. For more information and tickets visit


All photographs by Jessica Palipoli


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San Francisco Ballet celebrates Jerome Robbins

Jerome Robbins – © Jesse Gerstein – courtesy Jerome Robbins Foundation

The year 1918 was a particularly special one for American music and dance, for it produced two exceptional talents – Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins. Individually they left their mark – not only on the American cultural scene, but internationally as well – and together they produced a partnership which was to become one of the most illustrious of the 20th century.

In this fifth program of its current season, San Francisco Ballet marks the centennials, and celebrates the creative genius of both Bernstein and Robbins, with a program devoted to works by this exceptionally gifted and highly creative choreographer, and includes the ballet which marks the first collaboration between himself and the brilliant composer Leonard Bernstein.

Mikhail Baryshnikov described Jerome Robbins as “…. an extraordinary man who changed the direction of twentieth-century musical theater …. a haunted perfectionist …. a charismatic and complex character”. Robbins was all of these, and also someone who never seemed to quite accept who or what he was, or even recognize the depth of his own genius. Nevertheless he left the world a priceless legacy – one unsurpassed in the combined realms of ballet and Broadway.

This San Francisco Ballet program features four of Jerome Robbins’ works, opening with Opus 19/The Dreamer. The ballet takes its name from the music to which he set it – Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No 1 opus 19 – and the almost dreamlike air created by its constantly changing shapes and patterns, through which a pensive and introspective dancer searches for his spiritual counterpart.

A work of great beauty – created on Baryshnikov and Patricia McBride at New York City Ballet – it drifts from its almost ethereal beginnings to a nightmarish episode, before reverting once more to serenity. The gentle, hauntingly lovely, yet at times spirited Prokofiev concerto provides a perfect backdrop for Robbins’ distinctive style of choreography.

San Francisco Ballet in Robbins’ ‘The Cage’ – © Erik Tomasson

Female dominance must have been high in Jerome Robbins’ mind when he created The Cage. Originally intended to be a mythological piece about a tribe of Amazons, the work took another course when the choreographer developed a fascination for insects and the animal world, and the way in which creatures moved and used their bodies. So the tribe of Amazons was replaced by a colony of insects ruled by a matriarchal figure, the Queen, whose daughter, the Novice, is trained to kill any male who dares to infiltrate the colony’s environs. The first such intruder is rapidly disposed of, but the Novice forms a brief and tender relationship with the second, before the tribe descends on him and his fate, too, is sealed.

For the score, Robbins chose Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for String Orchestra – a piece by which he was apparently mesmerized – describing it as “terribly driven, coerced, compelled”, which lent itself well to the scenario for The Cage which he was building in his mind.

Frances Chung and Angelo Greco in Robbins’ ‘Other Dances’ – © Erik Tomasson

Jerome Robbins adored the music of Frédéric Chopin – as we know from his Dances at a Gathering, In the Night and The Concert – and in Other Dances, the third work on this program, he once more uses the music of the Polish master of the waltz and mazurka to pay homage to the folk culture of his own Polish and Russian heritage. Other Dances was choreographed for a gala benefit for the Library of Performing Arts at Lincoln Center, and created on two of the most luminous of Russian emigrés gracing the international stage at that time – Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova who described Jerome Robbins as “the most romantic of all the classical choreographers”.

Other Dances is a joyful work – graceful, tender, elegant and lyrical, at times sparkling, and yes technically challenging, but – with every step and every note in perfect harmony – it’s a delight.

During the wartime years of the 1940s, “sailors were rife in New York” said Robbins, and on his way to and from the Metropolitan Opera, wrote Deborah Jowitt in her biography of Jerome Robbins, “he noticed that they often sauntered along in threes, full of bravado, grasping at pleasure before being shipped out to possible death.” This was the inspiration for the final work in this program, Fancy Free – Robbins bringing Broadway to the ballet. His scenario was simple – three sailors out on the town for an evening of fun, and two girls whom they meet in a bar and persuade to join them for their brief hours of shore leave. Their tight uniforms, caps at angles, their jaunty walk – all of these provided the perfect picture for Robbins to include in his ballet.

In his search for a composer for the score, he was taken by a friend – stage designer Oliver Smith, who would ultimately be the designer of the ballet – to meet the then-unknown Leonard Bernstein. When he showed Bernstein his scenario, the composer sang a tune that he’d sketched out that very day on a restaurant napkin, and, as he says: “Jerry went through the ceiling”. The partnership was born, one which would produce not only Fancy Free, but four other works, including the spectacularly successful West Side Story – and, like West Side Story, Fancy Free made it to the silver screen as well, as a full-blown musical, under the title On the Town.

Jerome Robbins – © Didier Olivre

San Francisco Ballet celebrates Jerome Robbins at the War Memorial Opera house from March 20th to 25th. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Ballet website.

Sources of information:

San Francisco Ballet

Jerome Robbins Foundation

Jerome Robbins – His Life, His Theater, His Dance by Deborah Jowitt

PBS American Masters series – Something to Dance About

Somewhere – The Life of Jerome Robbins by Amanda Vaill

New York City Ballet


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Behzod Abduraimov debuts with MTT & San Francisco Symphony

Behzod Abduraimov – © Nissor Abdourazakov – courtesy San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas is back on the podium at Davies Symphony Hall this week to lead the San Francisco Symphony in a program featuring the SF Symphony debut of Ukranian pianist Behzod Abduraimov, in a performance of the Prokofiev Piano Concerto No 3. The program also includes the world premiere of a work commissioned by MTT and the Symphony – Charles Wuorinen’s Sudden Changes – and Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony.

Behzod Abduraimov is an award-winning recording artist – his debut recital CD won both the Choc de Classica and the Diapason Découverte – and he is also internationally renowned for his appearances as a concert pianist. He made a dazzling debut at the 2016 BBC Proms – with Valery Gergiev and the Münchner Philharmoniker – and returned to the festival the following year. In recent seasons he has appeared with orchestras such as the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Boston Symphony, Leipzig Gewandhaus and the London Philharmonic, and with conductors of the caliber of Valery Gergiev, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Manfred Honeck, Vasily Petrenko, James Gaffigan, Jakub Hrůša, Vladimir Jurowski – and now Michael Tilson Thomas.

Mr Abduraimov “… has technique in spades ….. with an attention to detail and emotional engagement that made the Prokofiev piece sparkle”, wrote ARTSATL of a performance of this concerto, and according to Suddeustche Zeitung, “His delicate playing captivates immediately and Abduraimov’s technical security is growing so rapidly that it is soon breath-taking. That’s the sound of a great virtuoso.”

Prokofiev’s gorgeous Piano Concerto No 3 is lyrical, melodic, dramatic and delightful – but apparently fiendishly difficult to play. According to French pianist Jean-Efflam Bavouzet in an interview for Gramophone, it’s the most famous and the most played of Prokofiev’s five piano concertos. “It’s simpler and more classical in its structure than the others,” he says, “but it does contain the composer’s trademarks: ballet, fairy tale, magic, sarcasm, irony – and virtuosity”.  M. Bavouzet will be appearing with the Symphony next month.

Charles Wuorinen – © Nina Roberts – courtesy San Francisco Symphony

Charles Wuorinen – a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences – is regarded as one of today’s leading composers, whose many honors include a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship and the Pulitzer Prize in Music. From 1985 to 1989 he was Composer-in-Residence to the San Francisco Symphony – for whom he had already  composed his Rhapsody for Violin and Orchestra – and included in his many works is the overture he wrote for the opening concert of the New World Symphony in Miami, when MTT founded this ensemble in 1987.

The concert ends with Aaron Copland’s Third Symphony, which he completed in September 1946. Commissioned by the Koussevitzky Music Foundation, it was premiered by the Boston Symphony in October of that year, and dedicated “to the memory of my dear friend Natalie Koussevitzky”, the wife of the conductor.

Aaron Copland – via Wikimedia Commons

Copland, one of the conductors striving to produce The Great American Symphony in the aftermath of the Second World War, had in mind a work that would “reflect the euphoric spirit of the country at the time”, in which the strains of his Fanfare for the Common Man are evident, before these develop into a full-blown reprise of his earlier work. There are also references to the haunting themes which he would later use in his score for the Martha Graham ballet Appalachian Spring. According to Leonard Bernstein, “The symphony has become an American monument, like the Washington Monument or the Lincoln Memorial”.

Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony, with guest artist Behzod Abduraimov, in a program of works by Wuorinen, Prokofiev and Copland at Davies Symphony Hall.  The program, which opens tonight, March 15th, runs until March 17th.  For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.


Information sourced from:

Behzod Abduraimov


The Guardian

San Francisco Symphony program notes:

Wuorinen’s Sudden Changes

Copland – Third Symphony

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Lavay Smith, Red Baraat and Buddy Guy – SFJAZZ has them all

Lavay Smith – © Berkeley Agency

Continuing its celebration of Women’s History Month, SFJAZZ this week presents a series of performances by Lavay Smith and her Red Hot Skillet Lickers. Starting on Thursday, March 15th, this glamorous San Francisco-based artist will take over the Joe Henderson Lab with a succession of concerts covering a range of themes which includes great performers, styles of jazz and memorable places in the US.

With her “lush vocal style recalling both Bessie Smith and Dinah Washington” (Los Angeles Times), Lavay Smith is described by The Seattle Times as “the best thing to come out of the jump/swing revival”. She and her seven-piece Red Hot Skillet Lickers – led by arranger and pianist Chris Siebert – have also won plaudits from the San Francisco Examiner: “First-rate vocals…magnificent arrangements…the best combo in town”. 

First off in this eight-concert jazz jamboree is a performance called simply Satch & Fats, a tribute to two of the greatest names in American jazz, whose legacy of fabulous numbers makes it almost impossible to select just a few. This is followed by Red, White and Blues, featuring music inspired by memorable places in the United States. Expect to hear numbers such as Count Basie’s Goin’ to Chicago, and from there take a musical trip to Los Angeles on Route 66.

There’s a performance devoted to Taboo Jazz – featuring numbers associated with Cab Calloway of Cotton Club fame, and the Queen of Jazz whose voice reigned supreme for more than half a century, Ella Fitzgerald. And finally, there’s a tribute to Harold Arlen, the man who wrote some of the greatest hits of the 30s and 40s – including Over the Rainbow, Blues in the Night, Stormy Weather and It’s Only a Paper Moon.

Saturday at the Joe Henderson Lab is Jazz Girls Day, a special session devoted to a performance by some of the aspiring stars from the jazz faculty – all of whom are aged between 13 and 18. The focus of this program by rising young female artists will be on ensemble techniques, improvisation and musicianship.

And just when you thought that  SFJAZZ had provided more than enough entertainment for one week, the Brooklyn ensemble Red Baraat – described by NPR as “the best party band in years” – takes to the stage of the Miner Auditorium on Saturday evening. Their Festival of Colors is a riotous mix of Indian bhangra rhythms, go-go music, jazz, hip-hop and Crescent City brass funk in celebration of the Hindu holiday of Holi. Bay Area singer and songwriter Bhi Bhiman opens the show.

And then – yes, there’s more – for one night only, Buddy Guy is at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre on Saturday, March 17th. Described by SFJAZZ as “the greatest living blues artist in the world”, Buddy Guy – a multi-GRAMMY-winner and inductee of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – is also credited with inspiring several prominent rock artists, including Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck. The boy from Lettsworth, Louisiana, who at the age of seven made his first guitar from a piece of wood, two strings and a few hairpins, has created his own legend and now at the age of 81 will be wowing the Bay Area with his own brand of Chicago blues.

For more information on all these performances, and for tickets, visit the SFJAZZ website.


Information sourced from artists’ websites:

Lavay Smith

Buddy Guy



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‘Rhapsody in Blue’ with Trpčeski, Gardner & San Francisco Symphony

Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski – © Lube Saveski

British conductor Edward Gardner leads the San Francisco Symphony this week in a program of music by Sir Michael Tippet, George Gershwin and Sergei Rachmaninoff. The guest soloist is Macedonian pianist Simon Trpčeski.

A member of the BBC New Generation Artists from 2001 to 2003, Trpčeski was the 2003 recipient of the Young Artist Award by the Royal Philharmonic Society, in 2009 he was honored with the Presidential Order of Merit for Macedonia, and in 2011 awarded the first-ever title ‘National Artist of the Republic of Macedonia’.

In addition to his frequent appearances with some of the world’s finest orchestras and most illustrious conductors, Mr Trpčeski’s 2016/17 season was particularly memorable. It saw the world premiere of his new project Makedonissimo at the Ludwigsburg Festpiele and the Ljubljana Festival, in which he collaborated with composer Pande Shahov in transcriptions of Macedonian folk music. During the same season, he also performed with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the Macedonian Philharmonic Orchestra at the opening of the new Concert Hall in Skopje.

Edward Gardner makes his debut performance with the San Francisco Symphony this week, in a season which also sees him debut with the New York Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony orchestras. He makes return visits to the Gewandhausorchester Leipzig, the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester Berlin, and also appears with opera companies such as La Scala, Milan, Opéra National de Paris, and New York’s Metropolitan Opera. Future engagements include a return to Dutch National Opera and his debut performance at The Royal Opera House Covent Garden.

In the main work of the concert, Simon Trpčeski plays what is now regarded as one of the most important American musical works of the 20th century – Gershwin’s fabulous Rhapsody in Blue – the work that not only changed the life of the composer, but is credited with bringing jazz into the realms of classical music as well.

Rather hastily composed – and apparently on a train bound from New York to Boston – it’s immediately recognizable by what New York Times critic Olin Downes described as “an outrageous cadenza of the clarinet”. The work was commissioned by Paul Whiteman, leader of the Palais Royal Orchestra, for a concert he was organizing to show that the then relatively new style of music called jazz should take its place as a serious and sophisticated art form. Gershwin’s work was scored for jazz by Whiteman’s arranger, Ferde Grofé, and Gershwin himself played the piano solo when it premiered on February 12th, 1924, at the Aeolian Hall in New York City. Grofé was also responsible for scoring the work’s orchestral version. Rhapsody in Blue dazzled lovers of both jazz and classical music in the 1920s, and continues to do so today – and judging by the video clip shown, Simon Trpceski is completely captivated by it.

The program opens with a work by English composer Sir Michael Tippett – Four Ritual Dances from his first opera The Midsummer Marriage – which premiered at The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1955, with choreography by South African-born John Cranko, probably best known for his creation of the ballet Onegin. Also a writer and broadcaster for the BBC, Tippett is regarded as one of the leading English composers of the 20th century, whose operas were among the most successful of his works.

The final work in the concert is one of the gorgeous pieces which came from the pen of Sergei Rachmaninoff – his three-movement orchestral suite entitled Symphonic Dances.  With its mesmerizing solo for the alto saxophone every bit as distinctive as the clarinet in the Gershwin work, it was the last of the composer’s major works.  It was also the only one written in its entirety in the United States, which is perhaps why it’s so hauntingly reminiscent of his Russian heritage – the extent to which Rachmaninoff missed his fatherland and his fellow countrymen having been well documented.  Rachmaninoff’s Symphonic Dances was first performed in 1941 by the Philadelphia Orchestra under the baton of Eugene Ormandy, to whom the work was dedicated.

Edward Gardner leads the San Francisco Symphony, with guest artist Simon Trpčeski, in a program of music by Tippet, Gershwin and Rachmaninoff at Davies Symphony Hall from March 8th to 10th. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

Information sourced from:

Artists’ websites:

Simon Trpčeski

Edward Gardner

Sir Michael Tippett


Encyclopaedia Britannica




Encyclopaedia Britannica

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Another opportunity to see San Francisco Ballet’s ‘Frankenstein’

San Francisco Ballet presents Liam Scarlett’s ‘Frankenstein’ – © Erik Tomasson

One of the successes of San Francisco Ballet’s 2017 season was the North American premiere of Liam Scarlett’s Frankenstein, and those who were fascinated by his adaptation of Mary Shelly’s 1813 Gothic novel will no doubt be keen to have another opportunity to see this production when it opens at the War Memorial Opera House tomorrow evening.

In this co-production between The Royal Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, British choreographer Liam Scarlett reveals the truth behind what is usually presumed to be a horror story. Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus was, however, far removed from that genre. More like an early piece of science fiction, it is – as Scarlett says – “essentially about love”, and is a deeply moving and tragic tale, one that he chose because he wanted to show people “what Frankenstein is really about”.

Scarlett’s ballet – set, like the novel, at the end of the 18th Century – revolves around the creation of a living being by a young man, Victor Frankenstein, who has a gift for chemistry, and sets about trying to recreate the life of his deceased mother through an experiment. Using non-living body parts, Victor succeeds in giving life to his creation, but the Creature, as he calls him, is physically hideous, and Victor, repulsed by what he has done, wants nothing to do with him.

The Creature, however feels abandoned, and is desperate to be loved, his feelings intensified by the love which is evident between Victor and his fiancée, Elizabeth, as well as the relationships that Victor shares with his family and friends. They all become involved in the tragedy resulting from Victor’s struggle to reconcile himself to the consequences of his actions.

Award-winning Liam Scarlett, The Royal Ballet’s first Artist in Residence, and Artistic Associate for Queensland Ballet, was the youngest choreographer to receive a commission for a full-length work from the Royal, and in addition to creating works for San Francisco Ballet, he has also choreographed for English National Ballet, New York City Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and Miami City Ballet. Frankenstein is a work clearly very close to his heart – a creation that he describes as “a labor of pure love”.

The score for Frankenstein was commissioned from American composer, pianist and conductor, Lowell Liebermann, whose works have been performed by orchestras under the direction of names as illustrious as Kurt Masur, Andrew Litton, David Zinman and Wolfgang Sawallisch, and performed by luminaries such as Joshua Bell, Sir James Galway, Garrick Ohlsson, Stephen Hough and Jean-Yves Thibaudet. He also wrote The Picture of Dorian Gray, the only American opera to be commissioned and premiered by Opéra Monte-Carlo.

Joseph Walsh and Frances Chung in Scarlett’s ‘Frankenstein’ – © Erik Tomasson

Set and costume design for Frankenstein is by the amazingly creative British artist and theatre designer, John McFarlane, who has collaborated with choreographers such as Jiri Kylian, Glen Tetley, Sir Peter Wright, as well as Liam Scarlett, and designed for companies such as The Royal Ballet and Birmingham Royal Ballet, Netherlands Dance Theatre, Danish Royal Ballet, Canadian Royal Ballet, Dance Theatre of Harlem and Australian National Ballet.

San Francisco Ballet presents Liam Scarlett’s Frankenstein at the War Memorial Opera House from March 6th to 11th, with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, conducted by Martin West. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Ballet website.

Vitor Luiz as The Creature in Scarlett’s ‘Frankenstein’ – © Erik Tomasson



San Francisco Ballet
The Royal Ballet

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Ballet program notes by Cheryl A Ossola

The Royal Ballet program notes

Liam Scarlett

Lowell Liebermann

John McFarlane


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Wide-ranging program from Heras-Casado & San Francisco Symphony

Pablo Heras-Casado – © Renske Vrolijk

This evening the San Francisco Symphony welcomes Pablo Heras-Casado back to Davies Symphony Hall, to lead a program of music by Esa-Peka Salonen, Shostakovich and Brahms. The program features Salonen’s Helix, the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No 2 and Brahm’s First Symphony. The soloist in the violin concerto is the Symphony’s own Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik.

Maestro Heras-Casado, having made his debut with the Symphony in 2010, and become a Shenson Young Artist in 2013,  is a welcome guest in San Francisco. Principal Guest Conductor of Teatro Real in Madrid, he also has a long-term collaboration with Freiburg Baroque Orchestra, has become the Conductor Laureate of the Orchestra of St Luke’s – the first in the ensemble’s history – and has been appointed Director of the Granada Festival this year – Granada being the place of his birth.

Described by The New York Times as “…. the thinking person’s idea of a hotshot young conductor”, Pablo Heras-Casado makes three debut appearances this season – at the Boulezsaal with Staatskapelle Berlin, and with the Dallas Symphony and Verbier Festival orchestras. He also conducts the Spanish premiere of Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten at Teatro Real – a work hailed as the highlight of the 2012 Salzburg Festival.

Alexander Barantschik has been Concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony since 2001, prior to which he held the same position at the London Symphony Orchestra and Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra. Hailing originally from Saint Petersburg, where he studied at the celebrated Conservatory, Mr Barantschik has performed with major Russian orchestras such as the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic, and has collaborated or appeared with a number of illustrious names in music, including André Previn, Mstislav Rostropovich, Maxim Vengerov and Yuri Bashmet. To add to his achievements, he was also Concertmaster for the year-long, three-continent, Pierre Boulez 75th Birthday Celebration.

This week’s program opens with the first performance by the San Francisco Symphony of a piece by Esa-Pekka Salonen – Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the Philharmonia Orchestra, Conductor Laureate for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and Composer-in-Residence at the New York Philharmonic. Entitled Helix, this work is Salonen’s musical representation of the spiral shape of the helix, a piece gradually increasing in tempo, in what he describes as an “accelerando”. Salonen wrote the work, on commission from the BBC Proms, for Valery Gergiev and the World Orchestra for Peace. It was dedicated to Maestro Gergiev who, with the Orchestra, gave Helix its world premiere at the Royal Albert Hall in London on August 27th, 2005.

Shostakovich composed his Violin Concerto No 2 in 1967 for the celebrated violinist David Oistrakh, who was the soloist at its premiere in Moscow on September 26th of that year, with Kirill Kondrashin and the Moscow Philharmonic. Oistrak also performed at the US premiere of this work on January 11th, 1968, with Leonard Bernstein conducting the New York Philharmonic. The concerto was written at a time when Shostakovich was in poor health, after what must have seemed like a lifetime marked by ongoing inconsistencies in his relationship with the Soviet authorities. Consequently, this work has been described as depicting tension, confusion and sadness in varying degrees, yet it also has passages of liveliness, humor and a certain gentleness, as well as a somewhat bitter undertone. Plaintive at times, frenetic at others perhaps, but nevertheless the concerto is strangely appealing.

The program ends with the work over which Brahms agonized for 14 years – his Symphony No 1. A prolific composer of chamber music, Brahms was perpetually haunted by the shadow of Beethoven, whom he admired enormously, but whose brilliance had the effect on Brahms of making him question his own capabilities. As things turned out, he need not have judged himself so harshly – when it finally premiered in 1876, it was considered “one of the greatest symphonies of the Austro-German tradition”, and referred to by German conductor and pianist Hans von Bülow as “Beethoven’s Tenth”. (Encyclopaedia Britannica)

This program by the San Francisco Symphony, led by Pablo Heras-Casado, with soloist Alexander Barantschik, opens at Davies Symphony Hall this evening, and runs for a further two performances, on March 2nd and 3rd. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.


Information sourced from:

Pablo Heras-Casado

Musical Sales Classical


BBC Music

Encyclopaedia Britannica

San Francisco Symphony program notes (Alexander Barantschik)

Further reading on the program works:

Salonen – Helix

Shostakovich Violin Concerto No. 2

Brahms Symphony No. 1