Elegant, passionate and sumptuous – MTT & San Francisco Symphony release Tchaikovsky's 'Pathétique'

Following the beautiful recording of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony in 2015 – together with his lovely Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture – we could be sure that the Sixth wouldn’t be too far behind.  The Pathétique is now about to be released – and it’s every bit as gorgeous as the previous Tchaikovsky album. Quite simply, it’s exquisite. Recorded live during performances at Davies Symphony Hall in March 2017, the Russian master’s final symphony is about to be released in digital format on the SFS Media label.

This recording bears all the hallmarks of Tilson Thomas’ obvious love for the work of Tchaikovsky – a performance into which both he and the Symphony seem to have poured their very souls.  As MTT explains in the following video clip, there’s an interesting rationale behind his reluctance to record this work earlier – “…. I could not come to a peaceful solution as to how to give it the delicacy and vulnerability, as well as the enormous power that it so often requires”, he says. He felt that his interpretation needed to reflect the delicacy and elegance of the work, and the emotion that Tchaikovsky was conveying in this most personal symphony.  The composer was, after all, frequently described as elegant, gracious and courteous, with beautiful manners.

Countless opinions have been expressed on the meaning of this work since the composer’s death – a matter of days after it premiered in St Petersburg on October 28th, 1893 – where it had been “politely and respectfully, but not rapturously”, received. Many have felt that, with the slow, solemn fourth movement – what Tchaikovsky described as “….. a most unhurried adagio” – he had been writing his own requiem, that he was anticipating his forthcoming demise.

There is, however, much evidence to suggest quite the opposite – that it represents, in fact, Tchaikovsky’s interpretation of life itself. “The underlying essence … of the symphony is Life”, he’d written when sketching notes for the work on a voyage home from America in 1889. “First part – all impulsive passion, confidence, thirst for activity …. Second part love: third disappointments; fourth ends dying away …..”. Nevertheless, when talking to his nephew Bob – to whom the work was dedicated – in February 1893, he was quite adamant that “… the program will remain a conundrum to everyone. Let them guess at it,” he said.

Photo © Kristin Loken – courtesy San Francisco Symphony

There are also conflicting reports about Tchaikovsky’s state of mind in the month preceding the premiere of the work. In mid-September he had visited his brother Anatoly and his family near Nizhny-Novgorod, where – according to his sister-in-law – “he enjoyed the beautiful country walks tremendously. He was in perfect health and full of plans for the future.” He even promised to spend the forthcoming Christmas with them. Other plans included his intention the following spring to walk the full length of the canal near his home in Klin to the Volga, as well as the mention of a new opera – Romeo and Juliet, perhaps. Nevertheless there are also reports of the gloom that descended on him when he returned home to Klin, and to a previously abandoned work – a symphony which he’d decided to turn into his Third Piano Concerto – and with which he was struggling.  So the questions surrounding his state of mind continue to swirl around.

According to one of his biographers, Anthony Holden, there was good reason to believe that the composer was in good spirits in the days preceding the premiere – even after the less than fulsome response it received.  Tchaikovsky was also optimistic that this symphony would achieve greater success at its planned first performance in Moscow some weeks later – which he didn’t live to conduct.

Photo © Stefan Cohen – courtesy San Francisco Symphony

We shall probably never know the truth about the Symphony No 6, as we’ll never know the truth behind the mystery surrounding Tchaikovsky’s death, but what is beyond argument is the man who’s regarded as the greatest Russian composer left a legacy of some of the most beautiful, stirring, emotional and elegant music ever written.

Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony in a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6, Pathétique, to be released in digital format on the (eight) Grammy Award-winning SFS Media label. The recording will be available for streaming and download on June 29th – full details of which can be found on the San Francisco Symphony website.

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Symphony program and notes

Tchaikovskya biography by Anthony Holden, published by Bantam Press (1995) – from which all quotes were taken



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Daniil Trifonov set to wow San Francisco – with MTT and the SF Symphony

Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov appears with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony – Photo: © www.daniiltrifinov.com

In their penultimate program of the 2017-18 season, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony are joined by the sensational young Grammy-winning pianist, Daniil Trifonov, who closes his season-long residency with the Symphony in true Russian style – with the magnificent Piano Concerto No 3 by Sergei Rachmaninoff.

“Few artists have burst onto the classical music scene in recent years with the incandescence of the pianist Daniil Trifonov” writes the New York Times of the artist who has been described by The Times of London as “…. without question the most astounding young pianist of our age”.

This is Trifonov’s third appearance as a guest of the Symphony this season – his first having been a solo recital last October, in which he performed works by Chopin and by composers who were inspired by the Polish-French Romantic era virtuoso. In February, Trifonov was joined by his teacher and mentor, Sergei Babayan, for a recital of works which included a new piece by contemporary Italian composer, Mauro Lanza.

Prior to this week’s performance in San Francisco, Mr Trifonov completed his acclaimed Perspectives Series for the current season at Carnegie Hall, he appeared with Gidon Kremer and Kremerata Baltica, and presented his Decades recital program in Zankel Hall, which included an influential piece from each decade of the 20th century.

From San Francisco, Trifonov embarks on a tour which takes in the Grand Teton Music Festival with Donald Runnicles, the Aspen Music Festival, the Vail Music Festival – again with Donald Runnicles – and the Philadelphia Orchestra, back to Aspen for a performance of his own Piano Concerto with Ludovic Morlot and the Aspen Festival Orchestra, and to the Festspielhaus in Baden-Baden with Valery Gergiev and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra – all this before he even gets to the Verbier Festival where he performs in the festival’s 25th Anniversary Concert. And that’s only his calendar for July.

Before this whirlwind schedule, though, Daniil Trifonov pulls out all stops with Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto, which he describes as “..… a very powerful and sincere expression of a composer”. Said to be the composer’s favorite among his four piano concertos, it’s apparently also incredibly challenging from a technical point of view. The work was composed in 1909, specifically for Rachmaninoff’s North American tour, and it premiered on November 28th, 1909, with the composer as soloist, and the New York Symphony conducted by Walter Damrosch.

The concerto opens with an almost delicate, lilting melody, and no great orchestral flourishes – Rachmaninoff saves those for later – and those who love that great sumptuous sound so typical of this Russian composer aren’t to be disappointed. The work is as passionate as we’ve come to expect from Rachmaninoff, “…. with themes ranging from reflective moods to rolling thunder”, says Encyclopaedia Britannica. The music writer for the New York Herald declared it to be one of “the most interesting piano concertos of recent years,” whilst the New York Tribune picked up on the “essential dignity and beauty” of the work.

The work which opens this San Francisco Symphony concert is the first of two Sibelius symphonies – Nos 6 and 7 – which were composed almost in parallel with one another. They couldn’t, however, be more different.

Sibelius started writing his Sixth Symphony in 1918, and completed it in February 1923, when he led the Helsinki Municipal Orchestra in the world premiere. The work was well received by the critics, and also the audience, although they were somewhat surprised to hear a symphony from Sibelius that was so unlike those he’d written before – a work that he described as “… very tranquil in character and outline”. It’s a gentle work, conjuring up images of a pastoral landscape – light on water, birdsong and sweeping expanses of countryside. Sibelius qualified his description with the words: “Whereas most other modern composers are engaged in manufacturing cocktails of every hue and description, I offer the public pure cold water”.

The Symphony No 7, the last by Sibelius, was also started in 1918, but wasn’t completed until a year after the premiere of the No 6 – on March 2nd 1924. The work had its world premiere on March 24th of that year, with the composer again conducting the performance, this time by the Konsertförening Orchestra at the Auditorium in Stockholm, Sweden. This symphony, by contrast, is a grand work – by turns joyful and brooding, yet with moments of appealing lyricism. Tom Service in The Guardian describes it as “Sibelius’s most astonishing and fantastical symphony”, and “…. one of the most ambitious and extraordinary symphonies in the repertoire”.

Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony, with guest artist Daniil Trifonov, in works by Sibelius and Rachmaninoff, at Davies Symphony Hall from June 21st to June 24th. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.


Information sourced from:

Artist’s website

San Francisco Symphony Artist Spotlight – Conversation with Trifonov

San Francisco Symphony program notes:

Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No 3

Sibelius Symphony No 6

Sibelius Symphony No 7

The Guardian – Sibelius Symphony No 6 – Tom Service

The Guardian – Sibelius Symphony No 7


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MTT & San Francisco Symphony present concert version of Mussorgsky’s ‘Boris Godunov’

June is the month for impressive productions in San Francisco, and this week sees Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony mount a concert version of Modest Mussorgsky’s dramatic opera, Boris Godunov. With a host of international stars – including soloists from both the Mariinsky and Bolshoi theatre operas – MTT and the Symphony present, for the first time in San Francisco, a semi-staged interpretation of Mussorgsky’s depiction of the reign of 16th century Tsar, Boris Godunov.

The original version of Mussorgsky’s opera was completed in 1869, and a revised version in appeared in 1872. This costumed version – with original video projections and lighting designs – is largely based on the 1869 edition of the opera, which was inspired by Alexander Pushkin’s 1825 play, Boris Godunov. The opera premiered at the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg on February 8, 1874, conducted by Eduard Nápravník, with stage direction by Gennadiy Kondratyev, and starred Ivan Melnikov in the title role.

The actual story on which Pushkin’s play was based takes place in Russia following the death of the Tsar known as Ivan the Terrible who had killed his eldest son and heir in 1581, during an argument. The only legitimate surviving heir was Ivan’s second son, Fyodor, who was mentally unfit to rule. Godunov – who had been an adviser to Ivan – became the factual head of the country within a year of Fyodor acceding to the throne, and following Fyodor’s death some 13 years later, Godunov was duly proclaimed Tsar in 1598.

His reign coincided with what became known as the Time of Troubles in Russia – a period marked by foreign invasion, famine and plague – but Godunov’s worst problem arrived in 1601, in the form of a defrocked monk, a Pretender to the throne, who declared himself to be Dmitry, a third son of Ivan who had actually died some years previously. This Pretender had acquired a disparate band of supporters on his march to Moscow, but although Godunov’s forces managed to defeat them, he himself died in 1605, and following a coup against his family by a group of influential boyars (next in rank to a prince), the False Dmitry did indeed become Tsar.

Pushkin’s play, however, tells a different story. Although it revolves around the reign of Boris Godunov as Tsar, he – according to Pushkin – takes on the role reluctanctly, because he had been implicated in the death of Dmitry.  Godunov is, however, feted by the people who want to see him become Tsar, so in the year 1598, he accedes to their wishes.

Pimen, an aging monk and former soldier, relates the story of Dmitry’s death to a young novice named Grigory, telling him how Dmitry would have become Tsar had he lived. Grigory condemns Boris for his role in Dmitry’s death, and decides to see justice done by taking on the role of the Pretender to the throne. Prince Shuisky, a powerful boyar, tells Boris that Dmitry has appeared in Poland, and that he has the support of the Pope, the king and the nobles of that country. Shuisky is perplexed at how a supposedly dead child could become Tsar, but Boris knows the truth and is overcome by terror. Seeing visions of Dmitry’s ghost in his hallucinations, he begs God’s forgiveness for his crime.

Two years later, a special Council of Boyars in The Granovitaya Hall in the Kremlin is drawing up an edict against the Pretender. Shuisky arrives with an account of how he had seen Godunov in a state of anguish over his imagined vision of the death of Dmitry, but Boris insists that the boy is still alive, and threatens Shuisky with punishment for saying otherwise. Shuisky tells Godunov that the old monk, Pimen, is waiting outside for an audience with him, and when Godunov goes out to see what Pimen wants, he hears Pimen’s story about a shepherd, who had been blind from childhood, but who had regained his sight whilst praying at the grave of Dmitry.

At this news, Godunov collapses, and calls for his son Fyodor. Sensing that his life is coming to an end, he bids Fyodor farewell, instructing him to rule wisely, and to uphold the Orthodox faith. He prays for forgiveness as a bell solemnly tolls, and having appointed his son as the new Tsar, Boris Godunov dies.

Russian bass Stanislav Trofimov in a Mariinsky Theatre Opera production of ‘Boris Godunov’ – Photo courtesy San Francisco Symphony

The role of Boris Godunov in this production is taken by bass Stanislav Trofimov, a soloist of the Mariinsky Theatre Opera since 2016, and also a guest soloist of the Moscow Theatre Opera. Mr Trofimov has recently made a role debut as Procida in the Mariinsky’s new production of Verdi’s I Vespri Siciliani, and also as Zaccharia in Verdi’s Nabucco at the opening of the Arena Di Verona Summer Festival. He toured with the Bolshoi Theatre as the Archbishop in Tchaikovsky’s Maid of Orléans in France, and performed at the Salzburg Festival as the Priest in Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk with the Vienna Philharmonic under the baton of Mariss Jansons. Mr Trofimov returns to the Salzburg Festival this summer in Tchaikovsk’s Pique Dame and Bizet’s Les Pecheurs des Perles. Among performances lined up for next year are an appearance as Dosifey in a new production of Mussorgsky’s Chowanschina at Teatro alla Scala, in the title role in Glinka’s Ivan Susanin, and in Boris Godunov at the Mariinsky Theatre.

Cuban-American mezzo-soprano Eliza Bonet sings the role of Godunov’s son, Fyodor, in her debut with the San Francisco Symphony. As a member of the Merola Program at San Francisco Opera, Ms Bonet performed the role of Eunice in the company’s production of Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, and covered the role of Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Recent role debuts include Bradamante in Handel’s Alcina as a member of Washington National Opera’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program, and Paquette in Bernstein’s Candide with Washington National Opera, both performances at the Kennedy Center. In the 2018-19 season, Ms Bonet takes the role of Reba in the World Premiere of Taking Up Serpents by Kamala Sankaram and Jerre Dye.


Soprano Jennifer Zetlan sings the role of Xenia, Godunov’s daughter, a role she has sung on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera, as well as in the Met in HD series. Other roles include appearances in Verdi’s Macbeth, Prokofiev’s War and Peace, Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto, Musetta in Puccini’s La bohème and Woglinde in Das Rheingold and Götterdämmerung, and The Forest Bird in Siegfried, in Seattle Opera’s 2013 production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle.

The role of the Nurse is taken by mezzo-soprano Silvie Jensen, a versatile artist who has appeared in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nünberg for Lyric Opera of Chicago and San Francisco Opera. In addition to her operatic roles, which include Carmen with American Chamber Opera in Chicago, Kashcheyevna in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kashchey the Immortal, and Maddalena in Rigoletto with Island City Opera, and Olga in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin with One World Symphony, Ms Jensen has also created and performed new works at London’s Barbican Centre with Ornette Coleman, at Teatro Comunale di Ferrara with Meredith Monk, and at Carnegie Hall with Philip Glass.

The role of Prince Shuisky is taken by Russian tenor Yevgeny Akimov. An Honoured Artist of Russia, Mr Akimov was a recipient of Russia’s prestigious Golden Mask theatre prize in both 1997 and 2002, and twice received a Diploma of the Golden Sofit, St Petersburg’s most prestigious theatre prize, in 2001 and 2004. As a member of the Mariinsky Opera Company, Mr Akimov has appeared in a wide range of productions in the company’s vast repertoire, and has sung the tenor roles in concert performances of Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony and Rachmaninoff’s vocal-symphonic poem The Bells. He has appeared in co-productions between the Mariinsky Theatre and San Francisco Opera (Prokofiev’s Betrothal in a Monastery), and also with La Scala (Boris Godunov), and internationally he has sung at the Metropolitan Opera, the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the Opéra de Paris, the Teatro Regio in Turin and the National Grand Theatre of China in Beijing.


Russian-American baritone Aleksey Bogdanov – who reflects “”star quality in every way” says Opera News – takes the role of Andrei Shchelkalov, a boyar who is Secretary to the Duma. Apart from this first appearance with the San Francisco Symphony, Mr Bogdanov has this season also debuted with Arizona Opera as Scarpia in Puccini’s Tosca, and with Sarasota Opera as Sebastiano in d’Albert’s rarely-heard Tiefland. Other appearances include Lionel in Tchaikovsky’s The Maid of Orléans with Odyssey Opera, Four Villains in Les Contes d’Hoffmann with Opera North, and he covered the title role in Rubinstein’s The Demon with Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona.

Russian bass Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev appears as the monk Pimen in this performance of Boris Godunov – a role he has also sung in Budapest, Debrecen and Liège. Other international appearances include those of Figaro at the Ischia Opera Festival in Italy, as Gianni Schicchi at the Opéra National de Lyon, Alfonso d’Este in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia in Santiago de Chile, and Agamemnon in Tanayev’s Orestie in New York. A soloist at Novaya Opera Theatre in Moscow since 2007, Mr Kuzmin-Karavaev is also a regular guest soloist at the Bolshoi Theatre and the Galina Vishnevakaya Opera Centre. His concert performances include roles in Haydn’s Stabat Mater, the requiems of Schumann, Verdi, Mozart and Fauré, and in Rossini’s Petite messe solennelle.

Russian tenor Sergei Skorokhodov takes the role of the novice monk Grigory, which he has also sung at the Bayerische Staatsoper, München. A soloist with the Mariinsky Academy of Young Singers since 1999, he has appeared with the Mariinsky Opera at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, at Opéra National de Paris, at London’s Coliseum and Barbican Hall, the Royal Opera Stockholm, Mikkeli Music Festival in Finland and at the Red Sea Festival, Eilat, in Israel. For the Metropolitan Opera, Mr Skorokhodov has appeared as Ivan in Shostakovich’s The Nose, and has since sung the role of Vaudemont in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, and at the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Festival.

Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Symphony Chorus (Director Ragnar Bohlin), the Pacific Boychoir (Director Andrew Brown), and guest artists in a semi-staged version of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov at Davies Symphony Hall from June 14th to 17th. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Symphony program notes

Encyclopaedia Britannica


and artists’ websites:

Stanislav Trofimov

Eliza Bonet

Jennifer Zetlan

Silvie Jensen

Yevgeny Akimov

Aleksey Bogdanov

Maxim Kuzmin-Karavaev

Sergei Skorokhodov


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Cast of renowned Wagnerian artists for San Francisco Opera’s Ring cycle

San Francisco Opera has gathered a cast of internationally renowned Wagnerian artists for its momentous production of Der Ring des Nibelungen which opens at the War Memorial Opera House next week. Directed by Francesca Zambello, this ambitious staging of all four operas in Wagner’s Ring cycle once again has Donald Runnicles leading the San Francisco Opera Orchestra.

American bass-baritone Greer Grimsley takes the role of Wotan – the dynamic king of the gods with a magnetic personality, and a lust for power – and women. Regarded as one of the most prominent Wagnerian singers of today, and a leading interpreter of the role, Mr Grimsley sang Wotan in Robert Lepage’s production of the Ring cycle for the Metropolitan Opera in 2013, the same year in which he appeared in his third cycle for Seattle Opera. He has also appeared in the role in complete performances of the cycle with Deutsche Oper Berlin, Teatro Comunale di Bologna, under Daniele Gatti, at Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, and in Tokyo with New National Theatre Tokyo and the Nikikai Opera Foundation. Greer Grimsley first appeared with San Francisco Opera as Scarpia in the company’s 2001 production of Puccini’s Tosca, and in one of his return appearances took the title role in Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer.

German bass-baritone Falk Struckmann, in his first role for San Francisco Opera, sings the role of Alberich, the dwarf-like Nibelung, unlucky in love, who decides to give up on it altogether in favor of wealth. Stealing the gold of the Rhinemaidens in Das Rheingold, he sets off the train of action which runs through all four operas of the cycle, the character reappearing in both Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Mr Struckmann has also sung the roles of Wotan, Fafner, Hunding and Hagen in previous performances of the Ring cycle, and made his debut at Teatro all Scala in Milan as Siegfried, under Riccardo Muti.

A scene from ‘Die Walküre’ the second opera in Wagner’s ‘Ring of the Nibelung cycle – Photo Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Tenor Štefan Margita made his San Francisco Opera debut as Walther von der Vogelweide in the fall 2007 production of Wagner’s Tannhäuser, and he made his highly-acclaimed role debut as Loge in the Company’s 2008 production of Das Rheingold. In this current production, he again takes the role of the fire god, Loge who – joined by Wotan – sets off to seize the ring which Alberich has forged from the gold stolen from the Rhinemaidens. This is a role which Mr Margita also sang for Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2016, following which the Chicago Tribune wrote: “Slovakian tenor Stefan Margita brought his definitive portrayal of Loge, the crafty demigod of fire, to Chicago for the first time and nearly walked away with the show”.

Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin appears in the role of Brünnhilde – a Valkyrie who is also Wotan’s daughter – in Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung. Earlier this season, Ms Theorin sang Brünnhilde with Vienna State Opera, prior to which she has performed this role in many of the world’s great opera houses – including Milan’s Teatro alla Scala, the Metropolitan Opera, The Royal Opera, Covent Garden, Washington National Opera, Berlin State Opera, the Wagner Festival in Budapest, Oper Leipzig, Oper Köln, Semperoper Dresden, and the New National Theatre, Tokyo. Following her appearance at Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu, El Mundo described Ms Theorin as “a force of nature”. She first appeared with San Francisco Opera in the title role of the company’s 2011 production of Puccini’s Turandot.

In Die Walküre, Finnish soprano Karita Mattila sings the role of Sieglunde, daughter of Wotan, twin sister of Siegmund, wife of the thuggish Hunding, and mother of Siegfried – the child she bore as a result of her relationship with Siegmund. Ms Mattila made her debut in the role of Sieglunde at Houston Grand Opera in 2015, and following a 2017 performance of Act 1 of Die Walküre with the London Symphony Orchestra, The Telegraph wrote that she “….. radiated a quality of ecstatic incandescent abandon that went way beyond mere vocalizing – she was simply a woman who needed to be freed from misery, a woman who needed to give herself up to love”. Ms Mattila made her debut with San Francisco Opera as Ilia in the 1989 production of Mozart’s Idomeneo.

A scene from ‘Siegfried’ the third opera in Wagner’s ‘Ring of the Nibelung’ cycle – © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

In his debut performance with San Francisco Opera, American tenor Daniel Brenna appears in the title role in Siegfried, and portrays the same character Götterdämmerung. His performance in this role for Washington National Opera’s 2016 staging of the Ring (also directed by Francesca Zambello) prompted Communities Digital News to describe him as “The undoubted star of this production ….” while DC Metro Theater Arts described him as “…. simply amazing in every facet of this role”. Internationally, Mr Brenna has also sung the role of Siegfried in Budapest, Stuttgart, the Longborough Festival, and at Opéra de Dijon in 2013, where he appeared as Siegmund in Die Walküre as well.

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton sings the role of Fricka, in Das Rheingold and Die Walküre. The goddess of marriage, she is also the wife of Wotan, who builds for her the fortress of Valhalla – partly to appease her angst at his constant straying, but in reality to reinforce his own power. A somewhat pure-minded soul, she it is who forces Wotan to sacrifice his son, Siegmund, when he falls in love with the girl who turns out to be his twin sister Sieglinde. Ms Barton also sings the role of the Second Norn (in a prologue to Götterdämmerung) and Waltraute, a Valkyrie, in the same opera – both of which she sang at Washington National Opera and Houston Grand Opera.

In Das Rheingold, tenor Brandon Jovanovich sings the role of Froh, the sun god, and he also appears in Die Walküre as Siegmund, the son of Wotan and a mortal woman. Mr Jovanovich performed in San Francisco Opera’s 2011 production of the Ring cycle, and has also appeared for the company as Walther von Stolzing in the 2015 staging of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Wagner’s Lohengrin in 2012. This current season has seen him sing Siegmund in Die Walküre at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

The San Francisco Opera Chorus in Act II of Wagner’s ‘Götterdämmerung’, the fourth part of ‘The Ring of the Nibelung’ cycle – Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Bass Andrea Silvestrelli appears as Fasolt – one of the giants commissioned by Wotan to build the fortress of Valhalla in Das Rheingold – and as Hagen, father of Alberich, in Götterdämmerung. Cunning, sharp and calculating, Hagen is one of several characters who covets the ring for its power, and he nearly succeeds, but is thwarted by Brünnhilde when she returns the ring to the Rhinemaidens before throwing herself on Siegfried’s funeral pyre. Mr Silvestrelli sang both Fasolt and Hagen in the San Francisco Opera production of the Ring cycle in 2011, and has also sung Fasolt at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. He has appeared as Fafner in Das Rheingold with National Taichung Theatre in Taiwan, and with Houston Grand Opera, and appeared in performances of the Ring cycle at the Tiroler Festspiele in Erl, Austria.

Bass Raymond Aceto takes two roles in this production of the Ring cycle. In Das Rheingold he appears as Fafner – who, together with Fasolt, has built the fortress Valhalla, ostensibly in return for Freia, the goddess of youth and beauty. In Die Walküre, Mr Aceto sings the role of Hunding, husband of Sieglunde – a role in which he made his debut in Zambello’s 2016 production of the Ring cycle for Washington National Opera, and one which he has previously sung for San Francisco Opera. In Siegfried, he returns to the role of Fafner who has now turned himself into a dragon, and is at this stage in possession of the cursed and powerful ring around which the entire drama revolves. Mr Aceto has also appeared as Fafner for Lyric Opera of Chicago, and has sung the roles of both Fafner and Fasolt for Dallas Opera.

All artists are scheduled to perform their roles in each of the three Ring cycles which take place on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, from June 12–17, June 19–24 and June 26–July 1, 2018.

For more information on San Francisco Opera’s production of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, and for tickets, visit the San Francisco Opera website.

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Opera program notes

Encyclopaedia Britannica (notes by Betsy Schwarm)

and artists’ websites:

Greer Grimsley

Falk Struckmann

Iréne Theorin

Karita Mattila

Stefan Margita

Jamie Barton

Brandon Jovanovich

Daniel Brenna

Raymond Aceto


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San Francisco Opera presents Wagner’s epic ‘Ring’ cycle

A scene from ‘Das Rheingold’, the first opera in Wagner’s ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ cycle – © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera undertakes a production of epic proportions this month – the complete set of four operas which comprise Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. This dramatic co-production with Washington National Opera, which premiered at the War Memorial Opera House in June 2011, is staged by internationally acclaimed director Francesca Zambello.

Donald Runnicles, regarded as one of the world’s foremost Wagnerian conductors – who led the San Francisco Opera productions of 1990, 1999, and 2011 – returns to the War Memorial Opera House to take up the baton once again, leading the San Francisco Opera Orchestra (and Chorus in the final work) in this ambitious staging of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.

A scene from ‘Die Walküre’, the second opera in Wagner’s ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ cycle – ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The world-renowned Wagnerian principal artists featured in this presentation include Swedish soprano Iréne Theorin in the role of Brünnhilde, with Greer Grimsley as Wotan, Daniel Brenna as Siegfried, Karita Mattila as Sieglinde, and tenor Brandon Jovanovich as Froh (in Das Rheingold) and Siegmund (in Die Walküre). All artists will perform their roles in each of the three cycles.

Francesca Zambello’s inspiration for this particular staging came to her during a hike in the Rocky Mountains, where the view which she surveyed “…… called to mind the untouched world at the beginning of Richard Wagner’s cycle,” she says, “and I began to see in that landscape an American parallel to Wagner’s story”. Since her 2011 production here, and in Washington in 2016, she has also found that “the power of the work seems even more contemporary. The great overarching themes of the Ring – nature, love, power and corruption – resound through America’s past and haunt our present.” Consequently the theme of the visuals in this production reflects various periods of American history – a marked departure from the medieval stagings to which we’re more accustomed.

A scene from ‘Siegfried’, the third opera in Wagner’s ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ cycle – © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

The creative team for this production includes set designer Michael Yeargan, costume designer Catherine Zuber, lighting designer Mark McCullough, projection designers S Katy Tucker and Jan Hartley, Laurie Feldman (associate director) and Denni Sayers (associate director and choreographer). The chorus director is Ian Robertson.

Richard Wagner wrote both the music and the libretto for this mammoth undertaking. He had long been fascinated by early Norse and German poetry when he sketched out a prose version of the Nibelung myth in 1848. He gave it the title Siegfrieds Tod (The Death of Siegfried) and began composing the music in 1850. He then realized that he needed to write about Siegfried’s life before he could tell of his death, so in 1851 he wrote the libretto for Der junge Siegfried (The Young Siegfried – which later became simply Siegfried).

A scene from ‘Götterdämmerung’, the fourth opera in Wagner’s ‘Der Ring des Nibelungen’ cycle – © Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Continuing to work backwards, he completed the librettos for Die Walküre and Das Rheingold the following year, and then started composing the scores for these two operas in sequence, completing them in 1856. Having taken a break to complete Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, he returned to the Ring, completing Siegfried in 1871 and Götterdämmerung in 1874 —26 years after he had started work on the project.

Der Ring des Nibelungen – all four operas, performed over four days – premiered in the Festspielhaus in Bayreuth from August 13th to 17th, in 1876 – the Festspielhaus having been built to Wagner’s specifications at the command of the King of Bavaria, Louis II (or Ludwig, his German name).

San Francisco Opera’s production of the four operas in Wagner’s Ring cycle are scheduled to take place between June 12th to 17th, June 19th to 24th and June 26th to July 1st, 2018 – on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays.

For more information and for tickets, visit the San Francisco Opera website.


San Francisco Opera

Francesca Zambello

Donald Runnicles


Information sourced from:

San Francisco Opera program notes

Encyclopaedia Britannica – notes by Betsy Schwarm


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Ahmad Jamal opens the SFJAZZ 36th Annual Jazz Festival

Legendary jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal – © Jean Marc Lubrano – courtesy SFJAZZ

If it’s June at SFJAZZ, it’s Festival time – and this year no less a celebrity than Ahmad Jamal will be on stage at Davies Symphony Hall to launch the celebrations. NEA Jazz Master, Kennedy Center Living Jazz Legend and hugely inspirational figure in the world of jazz, Jamal has made an indelible impression on many jazz musicians – Miles Davis is quoted as saying: “All my inspiration comes from Ahmad Jamal” – and at 87, Jamal hasn’t lost his touch.

Still performing – on “special occasions”, he says – he’s also still recording. His latest release, Marseille, has been described on stereofile.com as “ ….. one of the most inspired and well-recorded studio recordings of his entire illustrious career. …..  Absolutely sublime.” He’s also still composing, and exploring new avenues of harmony, sound and approaches to his music.

Among Jamal’s impressive awards is an Honorary Doctorate of Music from the New England Conservatory, conferred on him in 2015 with a citation which included the words: “Renowned for his exquisite touch, profound grace, and mercurial improvisational choices. For seven decades he’s been sharing his inimitable and unique voice with jazz lovers the world over.”

Ahmad Jamal opens the Jazz Festival with drummer Herlin Riley, bassist James Cammack and percussionist Manolo Badrena, on Wednesday, June 6th.

This is a festival vibrant with fabulous music and great performances, details of which can all be found on the SFJAZZ website. Here’s a preview of  just some of the highlights.

The Hot Club of San Francisco – led by Paul Mehling – and the San Francisco String Trio – featuring jazz guitarist Mimi Fox, GRAMMY-winning violinist Mads Tolling and bassist Jeff Denson – present a double bill entitled Music of the Beatles.

In the Great American Songbook series, Lavay Smith & Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers with Bobby Black, pay tribute to country music singer and exponent of the Nashville sound, Patsy Cline.

There’s also a tribute to the man whom the New York Times describes as “One of the greatest virtuosos in jazz” – pianist Oscar Peterson. Peterson’s legacy is celebrated by what’s described as an “historic gathering of jazz piano greats”, Bill Charlap, Renee Rosnes, Gerald Clayton, and Justin Kauflin, backed by a rhythm section led by drummer and former member of Peterson’s band, Jeff Hamilton.

Also part of the Great American Songbook performances is one dedicated to legendary swing-era clarinetist and big band leader Benny Goodman – by Gordon Goodwin’s GRAMMY-winning Big Phat Band, with stellar clarinetists Anat Cohen and Eddie Daniels.

Making two appearances is that legend of Brazilian music and the bossa nova sound of the 60s, Sergio Mendes, described by Billboard as “The man who put go-go boots on Brazilian music and brought it to the world”.

Husband and wife team Tuck and Patti are described by the L A Times as “…. quite simply, one of the most remarkable pairings in pop and jazz history – as musically intuitive as Ella Fitzgerald and Joe Henderson, as rhythmically intertwined as Astaire and Rogers”. They bring their distinctive brand of jazz, folk and R&B to the Miner Auditorium at SFJAZZ.

GRAMMY-winning drummer and composer Brian Blade and his Fellowship Band perform music from Blade’s new release Body and Shadow (Blue Note) as well as numbers from his rich repertoire. According to Downbeat, Blade is “…. widely acknowledged as one of the top drummers in jazz”, also describing the Fellowship as “….. a profoundly important band”.

Bamako-born husband and wife team Amadou & Mariam, who met at Mali’s Institute for the Young Blind, are described by the New York Times as “Among the world’s most renowned African musical acts”. They have appeared on the same bill as artists like Coldplay, U2, Alicia Keys and Pink Floyd’s David Gilmour, and bring to the Festival their GRAMMY-nominated blend of Malian pop and Hendrix-inspired blues-rock, with what Spin describes as “spine-tingling harmonies that make the music soar”.

In the Meeting of Masters, SFJAZZ presents Zakir Hussain, Dave Holland and Chris Potter, described as “three of the most influential musicians of the last five decades”, who appeared together at the JAZZ Center during Hussain’s Crosscurrents project in Season 5. The New York Times describes Hussain as “a living genius”, Holland is “a master bassist and bandleader” according to the Boston Globe, and the Chicago Tribune refers to Potter as “one of the most dynamic young players in jazz”.

The complete Festival line-up, together with information on tickets, is on the SFJAZZ website – as well as information on the June 5th Kickoff Celebration – the free Hayes Valley Block Party with Beso Negro, Howard Wiley & Extra Nappy.


Information sourced from SFJAZZ program notes

Artists’ websites (see sfjazz.org)


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