Cuba’s greatest living pianists at SFJAZZ

Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba – Photo courtesy SFJAZZ

This week in San Francisco, lovers of Cuban jazz have a rare opportunity to see two of the greatest living pianists which that country has produced – Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba – on stage together, at SFJAZZ. In a program entitled Trance, these two legendary artists will share with their audiences an intimate program of duo and solo performances – four evenings of pure jazz piano, Cuban style.

Chuco Valdés – pianist, composer and arranger, and winner of six GRAMMY® and three Latin GRAMMY® Awards – is regarded as the most influential figure in modern Afro-Cuban jazz. According to The New York Times he’s “one of the world’s great virtuosic pianists”. First taught by his father – the pianist, composer and bandleader, Ramón “Bebo” Valdés – Chucho graduated from the Conservatorio Municipal de Música de la Habana at the age of 14, formed his first jazz trio a year later, and at the age of 18 made his debut with one of the great orchestras in modern Cuban music history, Sabor de Cuba, directed by his father.

Not content with performing with a great Cuban orchestra, Valdés founded his own ensemble, Irakere, in 1973, and although it wasn’t known outside Cuba at the time, it wasn’t long before Dizzy Gillespie heard the band on a visit to the island, and arranged for it to be signed up by CBS. In 1978, Irakere debuted at Carnegie Hall as part of the Newport Jazz Festival, and the following year was awarded the GRAMMY for Best Latin Recording.  Valdés stayed with the ensemble until 2005.

The talents of pianist and composer Gonzalo Rubalcaba had already been recognized in his home country when he was discovered in 1985 by Dizzy Gillespie – who described him as “…the greatest pianist I’ve heard in the last 10 years”…. Rubalcaba, too, had a father who was a pianist, composer and bandleader, and young Gonzalo was playing drums in his father’s orchestra at the tender age of 6. Following his graduation from the Institute of Fine Arts in Havana, he swung into the world of touring musicians, visiting Europe, Africa and Asia with the Orchestra Aragón, as well as touring his native Cuba, and by 1984 was leading his own Afro-Cuban band, Grupo Proyecto.

In 1999 Gonzalo Rubalcaba was listed by Piano & Keyboard Magazine as one of the great pianists of the 20th century – along with names as illustrious as Glenn Gould, Martha Argerich and Bill Evans – and Sir Simon Rattle has referred to him as “the most gifted pianist on the planet …”. The list of awards that Rubalcaba has received is highly impressive. Among these are two GRAMMYs, two Latin GRAMMYS, the PALMAR D’OR” of the Music Academy in Paris, the Latin Pride National Award, he has been recognized by The Art Critics Association in Japan, the Festival Internacional de Jazz de Barcelona, and the ASCAP Foundation, and he was the 2001 Leader Circle Laureate of the San Francisco Jazz Festival Organization. Since 2015 he has been a faculty member of the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami.

Chucho Valdés and Gonzalo Rubalcaba are at SFJAZZ from Thursday to Sunday, August 2nd to 5th. For more information, and for tickets, visit the SFJAZZ website.

Information sourced from:

SFJAZZ program notes

and artists’ websites:

Chucho Valdés

Gonzalo Rubalcaba


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San Francisco Playhouse spends 'Sunday in the Park with George'

John Bambery in the title role in ‘Sunday in the Park with George’

Staging Sunday in the Park with George is certainly a challenging and ambitious undertaking. The concept is brilliant, the piece of theatre masterly (it has a Pulitzer Prize and 10 Tony Awards to its credit), but without consummate performing talent, and the technical artistry to produce a simply awe-inspiring set of back-drops, it would be impossible to convey to the audience the depth of emotion of a story so imbued with passion. If anyone can deliver a stunning success despite rigorous demands such as these, though, it’s the San Francisco Playhouse.

It’s hardly surprising that Director Bill English felt “terrified” to bring to bring this production to the stage. His trepidation was based on the fact that it’s such a personal work, exposing “the vulnerability of art and how that deeply affects the artists who create it”.

John Bambery (George) and Nanci Zoppi (Dot) in ‘Sunday in the Park with George’

The play picks up the story of post-impressionist artist, Georges Seurat, in 1884, as he’s engrossed in observing and creating sketches of local Parisians enjoying the peace and tranquillity of a Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. From this scene he will create his masterpiece with pointillism, a technique which he’s developed, using minuscule points of color, too tiny to be discerned by the naked eye, but which give his works the overall sensation of shimmering light.

Transport this scene to Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s musical, a fictional interpretation of the story surrounding the creation of Seurat’s unusual painting – the title of which translates from the French as A Sunday afternoon on the island of La Grand Jatte. Here the artist, George – in a tremendous performance by John Bambery – is working feverishly, totally absorbed in his sketches, and completely oblivious to the complaints – or needs – of his lover, Dot, who is posing for him – a plaintive and sympathetic portrayal by Nanci Zoppi.

John Bambery (George) and Nanci Zoppi (Dot) in the Sondheim/Lapine musical ‘Sunday in the Park with George’

Gradually, the subjects of the work which George is planning are brought to life – against the backdrop of a huge reproduction of the painting – each having his or her own story to tell, or problem to air. They interact with each other, they break into song to an unusual and almost brittle score, and as an onlooker, you are drawn into the lives of this disparate group of people – whose somewhat solemn demeanor is offset by the presence of a young girl and cardboard replicas of two obviously playful dogs – and who outwardly all appear to be ignoring each other. They turn out, however, to be a lot more colorful than you’d imagine. Interestingly, almost every one of them in Seurat’s painting is in profile, and even those who are front-facing have their faces smudged, so you really have little idea who and what they are until Sondheim and Lapine bring them to life.

John Bambery (George), Maureen McVerry (the Old Lady) and Michelle Drexler (Nurse)

There’s George’s rather crotchety mother, known as the Old Lady (Maureen McVerry) who is greatly disturbed by the tower being constructed for the forthcoming International Exposition, her nurse (Michelle Drexler) who is far more interested in Franz, the coachman of George’s friends – Jules (Ryan Drummond) and his wife Yvonne (Abby Haug). Jules, also a painter, is finding it very hard to appreciate George’s masterpiece – and Franz and his wife Frieda have a less than convivial relationship. There’s also the rough and ready – and rather ill-tempered – boatman (Xander Ritchey) who shouts at Jules and Yvonne’s daughter, Louise (Charlotte Ying Levy), when she tries to pet his dog. The shopgirls – Celeste 1 and Celeste 2 (Emily Radosevich and Corrie Farbstein) – vie for the attention of two soldiers (Elliott Hansen and William Giammona) – and American tourists (Zac Schumann and Michelle Drexler) are hating everything about Paris, apart from the pastries, so they plan to take the baker, Louis (Anthony Rollins-Mullens), back to the States with them, together with Dot, whom he’s prepared to marry, even though she’s carrying George’s child.

Fast forward 100 years to an American gallery, where the artist’s great-grandson, also named George, is opening his new exhibition of highly technical and whizzy artworks. He, like his great-grandfather, is enduring his own personal crisis in trying to bring to the world of art a concept which is new and somewhat revolutionary, but he, ultimately, discovers his own fulfillment through linking his present to his celebrated past.

Everything about this production of Sunday in the Park with George is deserving of a superlative – from the casting, to the sets, to the performance of the score. Visually sumptuous, it’s delightful, humorous, fascinating and also intensely moving – a particularly fine work of art.

Sunday in the Park with George runs at the San Francisco Playhouse until September 8th. For more information and tickets, visit

Photos by Ken Levin

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Playhouse program notes

The Art Story

Encyclopaedia Britannica

ArtsPreview home page

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Philip Glass Residency at SFJAZZ

Philip Glass – Photo © Steve Pyke – courtesy SFJAZZ

As the SFJAZZ Summer Sessions continue to sizzle, this week brings to San Francisco a particularly interesting residency – that of Philip Glass – the first composer with a repertoire which has spanned the opera house, the concert hall and the jazz scene, as well as the worlds of film and dance – simultaneously. And unsurprisingly, this extraordinarily versatile artist brings to SFJAZZ an eclectic range of fellow artists who have each made their mark in the classical, jazz and/or contemporary traditions.

Baltimore-born and raised, Glass studied initially at the University of Chicago, the Juilliard School, and in Aspen – with 20th century French composer Darius Milhaud. In Paris he studied further under the distinguished Nadia Boulanger – whose pupils included Aaron Copland, Virgil Thomson and Quincy Jones – and Glass also worked closely with sitar virtuoso and composer, Ravi Shankar.

Returning to New York in 1967, he established the Philip Glass Ensemble – a group of seven musicians with whom he still performs his own distinctive style of music – which he describes as “music with repetitive structures”. Glass has collaborated with names such as Yo-Yo Ma, Doris Lessing, Paul Simon, Linda Ronstadt, David Bowie and Twyla Tharp – and even inspired choreographer Jerome Robbins to create a work for New York City Ballet. Entitled Glass Pieces, it’s set, as the name implies, to three of his compositions. Glass has composed more than twenty operas and ten symphonies, works for saxophone, film soundtracks, and concertos for piano, violin and timpani. Having recently celebrated his 80th anniversary concert season, he is still presenting lectures, workshops and solo piano performances the world over.

Harpist Lavinia Meijer might be better known to some as a classical artist, having appeared with ensembles such as the Concertgebouw Chamber Orchestra, the Israel Philharmonic, the Amsterdam Sinfonietta and the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra. She has recorded works by Debussy, Satie and Ravel, and also made transcriptions of some of Philip Glass’ works for harp. Her latest recording, The Glass Effect, was released to celebrate his 80th birthday, and on it, Lavinia Meijer has collaborated with a number of different composers, each creating, as she says, “their own spectrum of sounds and shapes based on the works of Philip Glass”.

Also joining Philip Glass for his first two performances at SFJAZZ is Israeli-American cellist Matt Haimovitz. Classically trained, Haimovitz first appeared at Carnegie Hall at the age of 13, and won an Avery Fisher Career Grant. Gradually he realized that there simply weren’t enough young people attending his concerts, so he took the decision to relinquish the formality of the concert hall in favor of the kind of places that young people did frequent – coffee houses, bars, nightclubs and the like – which in 2005 won him the American Music Center’s Trailblazer Award. In 2012, he performed the premier of Philip Glass’ Cello Concerto No 2 Naqoyqatsi.

Lavinia Meijer and Matt Haimovitz appear with Philip Glass in the Miner Auditorium at SFJAZZ on July 19 and 20. For more information and tickets, visit the SFJAZZ website.

Philips Glass’ next guests are three pianists – Russian pianist and composer Anton Batagov, jazz pianist Aaron Diehl, and Taiwanese keyboardist Jenny Lin.

Regarded as one of the most influential Russian composers and performers of our time, Anton Batagov initially studied at the Gnessin Russian Academy of Music and the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, and was a 1986 prizewinner at the International Tchaikovsky Competition. Batagov is as familiar with the music of Bach, Schubert, Beethoven, Messiaen and Ravel, as with composers of the Russian avant-garde, and has composed several film soundtracks, and over 3,000 tunes for the major Russian TV channels. He is credited with having fundamentally changed the character of new Russian music – bringing contemporary classics to the world of television music, and introducing the music of John Cage, Morton Feldman, Steve Reich and Philip Glass to Russian audiences.

Aaron Diehl is a classically trained pianist and composer, who – over the past 15 years – has made a significant impression on the world of jazz. Described as “a staple of the jazz scene in New York since 2007”, he has been both pianist and musical director for vocalist Cécile McLorin Salvant, and – according to the New York Daily News – is “a rising star of jazz piano” with “an individual talent so huge that one day he may extend the jazz tradition”. He was the 2011 winner of the American Pianists Association’s Cole Porter Fellowship, has toured Europe with the Wynton Marsalis Septet, and has recently turned his attention to modern classical works, performing the Gershwin Piano Concerto with the Cleveland Orchestra, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the New York Philharmonic at its gala opening of the 2016-17 season, prompting the New York Times to comment: “… it’s hard to imagine that Gershwin would not have been impressed”.

Described as “dynamic” by the New York Times, pianist Jenny Lin has also won plaudits from Italy’s Eco di Bergamo: “She has not only bravura, flawless technique and youthful temperament; but also a class that is perceptible at once, and that puts her on a different level”.  She received standing ovations at her Spoleto Festival debut, and has performed at Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, the Kennedy Center, MoMA, Stanford Live and festivals such as Mostly Mozart, the Chopin Festival Austria and the Schleswig-Holstein Festival in Germany. Among the highlights of Jenny Lin’s 2017-18 season was the release of a recording of the complete Piano Etudes of Philip Glass, which she has been performing on a world tour with him.

Philip Glass is joined by Anton Batagov, Aaron Diehl and Jenny Lin in the Miner Auditorium at SFJAZZ on July 21st and 22nd. For more information and tickets, visit the SFJAZZ website.

Information sourced from:

SFJAZZ program notes

Artists’ websites:

Philip Glass

Lavinia Meijer

Anton Batagov

Aaron Diehl

Jenny Lin


AllMusic – Matt Haimovitz


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A blast of young talent hits the San Francisco Symphony

Two startlingly gifted and brilliant young musicians are in performance at Davies Symphony Hall this week, as the San Francisco Symphony hosts a conductor and soloist, both in their mid-twenties – neither of whom is settling for an easy ride.  In an all-Russian program of masterworks, British conductor Alexander Prior leads the Symphony in Tchaikovsky’s Violin Concerto – with American violinist William Hagen as guest artist – and a performance of Rachmaninoff’s Symphony No 2.

Alexander Prior, at the age of just 25, is the newly-appointed Chief Conductor of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, with whom he has worked as a guest conductor since 2014. He is also an accomplished composer, having written his first work at the age of 8. London-born and Russian trained, Prior studied at the St Petersburg Conservatory, graduating with master’s degrees in Symphonic and Operatic Conducting and Composition – and at 17 was the youngest student since Sergei Prokofiev to graduate with distinction as a conductor from the Conservatory. At the age of 12, he was conducting his own music at a St Petersburg opera house, and the following year, his ballet Mowgli – commissioned by the Moscow State Ballet – won international acclaim. Alexander Prior has to date written more than 40 works – symphonies, concertos, two ballets, and two operas – with his work being performed at venues such as the Wigmore Hall, the Barbican and the Royal Danish Ballet.

Conductor Alexander Prior – Photo © Diana Unt – courtesy San Francisco Symphony

As a conductor, Prior was appointed to the staff of the Seattle Symphony at the age of 17, where – during the 2009-10 season – he served as Assistant Conductor. His mentors include luminaries of the caliber of Thomas Dausgaard and Robert Spano, Michael Tilson Thomas at the New World Symphony, Andrew Manze, and Nicholas McGegan and Rafael Fruhbeck de Burgos – both at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  Alexander Prior has appeared as guest conductor at Opera Leipzig, the Bavarian State Opera, Royal Danish Opera, the Vienna Chamber Orchestra, Norwegian Radio Orchestra, the German Chamber Orchestra Bremen, Copenhagen Philharmonic, Royal Philharmonic, WDR Funkhaus Orchestra, Seattle Symphony, Victoria Symphony and the New World Symphony.

American violinist William Hagen considers the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto to be “one of the greatest pieces of music ever written”. It’s also considered one of the most technically challenging in the repertoire, presenting the soloist with the longest period of continuous playing of all violin concertos.

Following Hagen’s performance of this work at the 2015 Queen Elisabeth Concours, wrote: “Impeccable timing, an intellectual command of line and score and just the right amount of power to push his cadenzas to the fore brought the audience to its feet: Hagen wore his heart on his sleeve and took many of us along to rejoice with him.” And Belgium’s Le Soir described his performance as “…. a cultured reading of a demanding work ….. that takes its own value beyond its technical difficulties.”

American violinist William Hagen – Photo © Jeff + Fasano

Hagen has performed in chamber concerts with Steven Isserlis at Wigmore Hall in London, and with Gidon Kremer, Steven Isserlis, and Christian Tetzlaff at the “Chamber Music Connects the World” festival in Kronberg, Germany. Conductors with whom William Hagen has appeared include Marin Alsop, Christian Arming, Placido Domingo, Miguel Harth-Bedoya, Michel Tabachnik and Hugh Wolff, and he has performed with the symphony orchestras of Albany, Buffalo, Fort Worth, Jacksonville, St. Louis, Oregon and Utah, in the US, and abroad with the Brussels Philharmonic, the National Orchestra of Belgium, the ORF Radio-Sinfonieorchester in Vienna, the Orchestre Philharmonique Royal de Liège, and in Japan with the Yokohama Sinfonietta and the Sendai Philharmonic. He is currently studying under Christian Tetzlaff at the Kronberg Academy in Germany, is an alumnus of the Perlman Music Program at the Verbier Academy in Switzerland, and has also appeared at the Aspen Music Festival.

The inclusion of a work by Tchaikovsky and one by Rachmaninoff in this program is interesting – for Tchaikovsky was a great supporter of the young Rachmaninoff, who in turn admired Tchaikovsky enormously. Certainly, the influence on Rachmaninoff of the older composer has not been lost on us.

William Hagen – Photo © Jeff + Fasano

Sketched and completely orchestrated in less than a month, the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto was initially dedicated to Leopold Auer – who was highly critical of the work – so Tchaikovsky dedicated it to Adolf Brodsky instead, and he performed at the premiere in Vienna on December 4, 1881. The concerto was, however, poorly received, with one prominent critic – according to Anthony Holden in his biography of Tchaikovsky – having “reviled the very hallmarks which have since made the piece so popular: its athletic energy, its robust romanticism and its red-bloodedly Slavonic finale”. We now know, of course, that this is one of the most popular violin concertos in the repertoire.

It’s somewhat surprising that Rachmaninoff’s sumptuous and richly melodic Second Symphony ever saw the light of day, following the devastating reception of his First Symphony in 1897. Nevertheless, following a course in hypno-therapy, Rachmaninoff completed the score which became his most popular work – his Second Piano Concerto – in 1901. So successful was he as a concert pianist, that he moved to Dresden with his wife and baby daughter to remove himself from the public eye, and it was there that his Symphony No 2 was composed during the years 1906 and 1907. He led the first performance of the work on February 8, 1908, in St Petersburg, and by the end of that year, he had been awarded the Glinka prize for it. Sadly, Rachmaninoff’s full worth as a composer only started to be recognized after his death in Beverley Hills in 1943.

Alexander Prior leads the San Francisco Symphony in performances of works by Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, with soloist William Hagen, at Davies Symphony Hall on July 13th and 14th at 7.30 pm. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.


Information sourced from artists’ websites:

William Hagen

Alexander Prior

CBC Music

San Francisco Symphony program notes



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David Gockley awarded San Francisco Opera’s Highest Honor

David Gockley (center) – General Director Emeritus, San Francisco Opera – with Donald Runnicles (left) – conductor of the ‘Ring’ cycle – and current General Director, Matthew Shilvock © Drew Altizer Photography

At the end of an almost completely sold-out program of Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen, San Francisco Opera celebrated further, by awarding David Gockley, General Director Emeritus, the company’s highest honor – the San Francisco Opera Medal.

The award was given in recognition of Gockley’s enormous and highly-valued contribution to the world of opera – not only here in San Francisco, where he served as General Director of the company for 10 years, but also at Houston Grand Opera, where his tenure as General Director spanned three decades.

Under David Gockley’s innovative leadership, San Francisco Opera experienced a wealth of accomplishments. Early on in his tenure, he introduced thousands of people to the wonders of opera – people who would probably never have dreamed of buying tickets to a performance at the War Memorial Opera House. By initiating a live simulcast from the opera house stage, firstly to a giant screen in San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza, and subsequently at AT&T Park, Gockley enabled over 300,000 people to enjoy some of the finest performances of opera, over a period of 15 years. With these simulcasts, he paved the way for the first broadcast-standard video production facility to be installed in an American opera house.

David Gockley with the cast of Wagner’s ‘Götterdämmerung’ © Drew Altizer Photography

During Gockley’s tenure, San Francisco Opera commissioned or co-commissioned 11 new works, presented 9 world premieres and co-produced a new production of Wagner’s Ring cycle which premiered in 2011 and has just completed a further run. Nicola Luisotti was appointed company music director during the Gockley years, which saw the rejuvenation of the company’s reputation as a leading presenter of the Italian repertoire. In February 2016, the Diane B Wilsey Center for Opera opened, the company’s Education department was established, as was the San Francisco Opera archives – in which one of the two galleries of historic photographs was named after David Gockley.

Under Gockley’s leadership, Houston Grand Opera won a Tony Award, two Emmys and two Grammy Awards, presented 35 world premieres and six American premieres, and became America’s leading commissioner and producer of new works. The original full score version of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess was added to the HGO repertoire, the company commissioned and presented the world premiere of John Adams’ first opera, Nixon in China, in 1987, Gockley oversaw the creation of the Wortham Theater Center, built completely by private funding, and he pioneered the co-production model.

In his tribute to David Gockley, Matthew Shilvock – who succeeded him as General Director of San Francisco Opera – spoke of the vast numbers of singers, composers, conductors, directors and designers to whom Gockley gave opportunities for innovation and advancement, and praised him for creating new ways of enabling more and more people to engage with opera. “You have made it accessible, compelling, and vital in our lives,” he said. “And you have given us a legacy of artistic experiences—like this Ring—that will remain in our souls for all time.”

In 2016, American Impresario: David Gockley’s Life in Opera was published by Chronicle Books.


Information sourced from San Francisco Opera


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