MTT & San Francisco Symphony celebrate the unifying power of music

Michael Tilson Thomas and Audrey Hepburn at the premiere performance of ‘From the Diary of Anne Frank’ 1990 – Photo courtesy San Francisco Symphony

San Francisco Symphony Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas, leads the Symphony this week in a program both poignant and celebratory, the first of two programs marking the 70th anniversary of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There are two works in this first program – a narration of extracts from The Diary of Anne Frank which MTT set to a piece of music written for his friend and UNICEF ambassador, Audrey Hepburn – narrated by guest artist Isabel Leonard – followed by Beethoven’s grand and heroic Symphony No 3, Eroica.

The purpose of these performances is to shine a light on the power of music as a vehicle for unity, compassion, healing, teaching and social justice – ending with the triumphal ring of liberty.

From the Diary of Anne Frank is a dramatic work for narrator and orchestra, commissioned by UNICEF, and based on the diary kept by the young Anne Frank whilst she was in hiding at the time of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during the Second World War. Michael Tilson Thomas wrote the work for Audrey Hepburn, an ambassador for UNICEF at the time, who not only was the same age as Anne Frank, but also grew up in occupied Holland. “I now realize,” says Tilson Thomas, “that so much of this work is a reflection not just of Anne Frank, but of Audrey Hepburn. Audrey’s simplicity, her deeply caring nature, the ingenuous sing-song of her voice are all present in the phrase shapes of the orchestra. The work would never have existed without her, and it is dedicated to her.”

The work was premiered in 1990 by the New World Symphony, led by Michael Tilson Thomas, and narrated by Audrey Hepburn.
Taking that role this week is American soprano Isabel Leonard, who appeared as a guest of the San Francisco Symphony in September 2017 during the celebration of the Leonard Bernstein Centennial, and featured on the Symphony’s digital release of Bernstein’s Arias and Barcarolles. Ms Leonard – who won a Grammy Award in the Best Opera Recording category for her performance in Thomas Ades’ The Tempest – was also the recipient of the 2013 Richard Tucker Award.

With a repertoire ranging from Vivaldi to Mozart to Ades, Isabel Leonard has appeared on the stages of the Metropolitan Opera, Vienna State Opera, Paris Opera, Salzburg Festival, Bavarian State Opera, Glyndebourne Festival, Lyric Opera of Chicago and San Francisco Opera, and with orchestras such as the Cleveland Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia, and Vienna Philharmonic.

Soprano Isabel Leonard – Photo © Becca Fay – courtesy San Francisco Symphony

The second work on the program is Beethoven’s dramatic and uplifting Eroica Symphony, originally inspired by the efforts of Napoleon to bring about social reform for the benefit of the working classes. However, when Napoleon declared himself the Emperor of France, Beethoven was filled with disgust at what he viewed as the act of a tyrant, and is said to have scratched out the name of Napoleon from the front page of the score, replacing it with a sub-title that referred more generally to heroism rather than the deeds of any person in particular.

Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony, with guest narrator Isabel Leonard, in his own work, From the Diary of Anne Frank, and Beethoven’s Symphony No 3. The performances take place at Davies Symphony Hall, and further information about the program and tickets is available on the San Francisco Symphony website.

Michael Tilson Thomas and Audrey Hepburn at a rehearsal for the 1990 premiere of ‘From the Diary of Anne Frank’ – courtesy San Francisco Symphony

The second in this set of concerts celebrating the signing of the Declaration of Human Rights takes place at Davies Symphony Hall next week – November 23rd to 25th. Michael Tilson Thomas again leads the San Francisco Symphony, in performances of Beethoven’s Symphony No 9, with Ragnar Bohlin’s San Francisco Symphony Chorus, and guest soloists Susanna Phillips (soprano), mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor, tenor Nicholas Phan and bass-baritone Davóne Tines.

The program also features Berg’s Seven Early Songs, with Susanna Phillips as soloist, a performance which will be recorded live for future release on SFS Media.  For tickets and more information visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

The concerts both this week and next are dedicated to the memory of the victims of the tragic events which took place in Pittsburgh on October 27th this year.

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Symphony program notes

Isabel Leonard


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Bolshoi Ballet’s ‘La Sylphide’ to be screened worldwide

The Bolshoi’s Anastasia Stashkevic in the title role of ‘La Sylphide’ – Photo courtesy Bolshoi Ballet

La Sylphide – one of the world’s oldest surviving ballets – opens the new Bolshoi in Cinema season this weekend, with a screening of Johan Kobborg’s highly acclaimed staging of this romantic work, which has become synonymous with the name of Danish ballet master August Bournonville.

The original version of La Sylphide was premiered in Paris in 1832, a production by Filippo Taglioni, in which his daughter, Marie, danced the lead – the first time that an entire ballet was danced en pointe. Bournonville saw a production of the ballet, and decided to stage his own interpretation of it for his company, the Royal Danish Ballet. This production was first seen in Copenhagen in 1836 – set to a commissioned score by Herman Lovenskjold – and is the version of La Sylphide which has been handed down through the years, and is still being performed today.

Based on a libretto by Adolphe Nourrit and Filippo Taglioni, the ballet is set in a Scottish manor house, and opens on the eve of James’s marriage to Effie. He’s dozing by the fireside when he is woken by a Sylph who kisses him on the forehead. Enchanted by this beautiful winged creature, he tries to capture her, but she vanishes up the chimney. A group of local people arrives to start celebrations for the wedding, amongst whom is James’s rival, Gurn, who is also in love with Effie, and who suspects by James’s behavior that he has become infatuated with another.

Photo: Anna Shakina

James is preoccupied by his encounter with the Sylph throughout the wedding preparations, and Gurn takes this opportunity to woo Effie. On the morning of the wedding, the Sylph appears to James again, and entices him into the forest, where he again tries to capture her. Ultimately he manages to throw a veil – provided by a mischief-making old woman, Madge – around the Sylph’s shoulders, and he kisses her, but his embrace is fatal, the Sylph loses her wings and dies. By this time, Gurn has persuaded Effie to marry him, and as James stands alone in the forest, he listens forlornly to what should be the celebration of his own wedding taking place in the distance.

Dancer, choreographer and artistic director, Johan Kobborg is well placed to stage this production of La Sylphide for the Bolshoi Ballet. Not only is he one of the world’s leading interpreters of the role of James, but as one of the Royal Danish Ballet’s finest dancers he has performed in almost every ballet which Bournonville created for the company. Also a former Principal of The Royal Ballet, Kobborg was invited to stage a new version of La Sylphide for the Company in 2008, and such was the success of the production, that it led to the invitation from the Bolshoi for Kobborg to stage it for them as well.

The role of the Sylph in this production is performed by Bolshoi principal dancer Anastasia Stashkevich, a graduate of the Moscow State Choreographic Academy. Later this month, Ms Stashkevich will be seen in Jean-Christophe Maillot’s The Taming of the Shrew (which he choreographed for the Bolshoi) and in John Neumeier’s Lady of the Camellias.

Photo: Damir Yusupov

Semyon Chudin, who dances the role of James in this production, graduated from the Novosibirsk Choreographic College, and danced with the Universal Ballet Company in Seoul, Republic of Korea, before joining the Bolshoi Ballet, where he is now a principal dancer. Mr Chudin will also be performing in The Taming of the Shrew later this month.

The Bolshoi Orchestra in this performance is conducted by Alexei Bogorad, a resident conductor of the Company. Maestro Bogorad is a former principal clarinetist of the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra, and soloist of the Russian National Orchestra. Chosen by Vladimir Jurowski as his assistant at the State Academic Symphony Orchestra of Russia (Svetlanov Symphony Orchestra), Alexei Bogorad has also conducted major Russian orchestras such as the Russian National Orchestra, National Philharmonic of Russia, the Tchaikovsky Symphony Orchestra, the Saint Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Mariinsky Theatre Orchestra. In this cinema season, he will also be leading the Bolshoi Orchestra in performances of Raymonda and The Nutcracker.

The original choreography of La Sylphide is by August Bournonville, new choreography is by Johan Kobborg, the Designer is Peter Farmer, Pavel Klinichev is Music Director, and Damir Ismagilov is the Lighting Designer.

The Bolshoi Ballet’s production of La Sylphide can be seen in cinemas worldwide on Sunday, November 11th. Details of screenings, and information on tickets, can be found by visiting the Bolshoi Ballet in Cinema website.

Information sourced from:

Bolshoi Ballet

Johan Kobborg

Anastasia Stashkevic

Semyon Chudin

Alexei Bogorad

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Hrůša leads San Francisco Symphony in works by Shostakovich, Borodin & Bartók

Czech conductor Jakub Hrůša leads the San Francisco Symphony this week Photo: Courtesy IMG Artists

One might be forgiven for thinking of Bartók and Shostakovich as two of the bad boys of 20th century classical music, since each of their works featured in this week’s San Francisco Symphony concerts was initially either banned (in the case of Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin) or held back from publication (in the case of the Shostakovich Violin Concerto No 1).  Not so, however, because even though both were pushing the boundaries of what was deemed acceptable in their respective countries at the time of writing, with the passage of time, they’re both regarded as two of the most significant composers of the last century.  Jakub Hrůša leads the San Francisco Symphony in a program of these works, together with Borodin’s lively and passionate Symphony No 2. The guest artist in the Shostakovich Violin Concerto is Karen Gomyo.

Czech-born Jakub Hrůša is Chief Conductor of the Bamberg Symphony, Principal Guest Conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra, Principal Guest Conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, and Principal Guest Conductor of the Tokyo Metropolitan Symphony Orchestra. Having made his debut with the San Francisco Symphony in October last year, he has since appeared with the Prague Philharmonic, made his debut with the Munich Philharmonic, returned to the Opera National de Paris with Lehár’s The Merry Widow, and made his debut at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, with Bizet’s Carmen.

This season, Maestro Hrůša – described by Classical Iconoclast as “one of the most exciting conductors around” – will make debuts with the Berlin Philharmonic, Bavarian Radio Symphony, Orchestre de Paris and the NHK Symphony.

Violinist Karen Gomyo – Photo: Gabrielle Revere – Courtesy San Francisco Symphony

Violinist Karen Gomyo – described by the Chicago Tribune as “A first-rate artist of rare musical command, vitality, brilliance and intensity” – was born in Tokyo, began her musical career in Montréal and New York, and has now made Berlin her home. On the North American continent, in addition to the San Francisco Symphony, she has appeared with the Houston, Oregon, Minnesota, St Louis, Vancouver and Dallas symphony orchestras. In Europe, performances include appearances with the WDR Sinfonieorchester in Köln, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, the Bamberg Symphony, the Danish National Symphony, Orchestre Symphonique de Radio France, the Stuttgart Radio Symphony, Vienna Chamber Orchestra, and the Polish National Radio Orchestra.

In May this year, Karen Gomyo was highly praised for her performance of the world premiere of Samuel Adams’ new Chamber Concerto, with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra led by Esa-Pekka Salonen. The work was written for her and commissioned by the CSO to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its MusicNow series. In 2019, Ms Gromyo will open the Dubai Proms with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Ben Gernon, and make debut performances with the Philharmonia Orchestra with Jakub Hrůša, and the Royal Northern Sinfonia with Karina Canellakis.

Dmitry Shostakovich started working on his First Violin Concerto – described by Warner Classics as “sardonic and challenging” – in early 1948, a time when he was being denounced by the Soviet authorities for his perceived “counter revolutionary” sympathies. His great friend and contemporary, violinist David Oistrakh, was doubtless the inspiration for this concerto, and even though Oistrakh played it privately and apparently made a recording of it at home, Shostakovich decided that it was too risky to publish the work, so he hid it in a desk drawer for seven years. It wasn’t until 1955 – two years after the death of Stalin – that Oistrakh premiered the work, with Yevgeny Mravinsky leading the Leningrad Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Leningrad Philharmonic Hall, on October 29th of that year. The composer couldn’t, however, resist making a point – he very deliberately made sure that the date on which the work had been composed was made public.

It might not be widely known, but Alexander Borodin devoted a significant amount of his time as a scientist to ensuring that women were given access to courses in chemistry – and this was one of the reasons that the piano version of his Second Symphony, which he started composing in 1869, took six years to complete. The orchestral version wasn’t performed until two years after that, and even then, after an unsuccessful premiere, the work was revised in 1879.

Jakub Hrůša – Photo: Zbynek Maderyc

Even so, Borodin’s Symphony No 2 is today regarded as his most popular, and also the most successful of any works written by the group of Russian composers known at The Five or the Mighty Handful, which he joined in the 1860s. The members of this group – Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov, César Cui, Modest Mussorgsky, Mili Balakirev and Borodin – were dedicated to promoting music that was decidedly Russian in character – and Borodin’s symphony most certainly does that. From the opening notes, it couldn’t be anything else.

Béla Bartók’s suite from his one-act pantomime ballet The Miraculous Mandarin was composed between 1918 and 1919, and orchestrated in 1923. Based on a story by Melchior Lengyel, which BBC Music describes as “a nasty little tale of urban depravity”, it tells of three thugs who use a beautiful prostitute to attract a succession of men into a tavern, whom they attack with a view to robbing them. The menacing score was apparently described by the composer as “hellish”.  The production was premiered in Cologne on November 27th, 1926, and caused such a scandal that it was banned on the grounds of morality – or lack thereof – and wasn’t seen again during the composer’s lifetime.

Bartók – who is quoted as saying in an interview that “people had [only] read the plot and decided it was objectionable” – nevertheless worked the first six sections of the score into a suite in 1927, which premiered in Budapest on October 15, 1928, with Ernst von Dohnányi leading the Budapest Philharmonic Orchestra.

Jakub Hrůša leads the San Francisco Symphony and guest violinist Karen Gomyo in a program of music by Shostakovich, Borodin and Bartók, at Davies Symphony Hall from November 8th to 10. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Symphony program notes

Artists’ websites:
Jakub Hrůša
Karen Gomyo

Shostakovich Violin Concerto No 1

Borodin Symphony No 2

The Miraculous Mandarin:
Naxos Records


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