San Francisco Ballet shows its versatility

Sarah Van Patten (top), Ulrik Birkkjaer & Mathilde Froustey in Cathy Marston’s ‘Snowblind’ © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet produces a fascinating display of dance this week, as it opens the second and third programs of its 2019 season – presenting six ballets which highlight the versatility of the Company’s dancers, and illustrate the wealth of diversity in its repertoire.

The first of these – entitled Kaleidoscope – opens with a Balanchine classic, Divertimento No 15, which the choreographer set to that particular work by Mozart. The choreographer considered this to be the finest divertimento ever written, and the result is a real Balanchine showcase – traditional in style, yet bursting with elements of the creative genius for which he’s well known, his sparkling choreography brilliantly reflecting the mood of the music.

San Francisco Ballet rehearses ‘Appassionata’ © Erik Tomasson

LA-based choreographer Benjamin Millepied (founder of the LA Dance Project) selected a Beethoven Piano Sonata (No 23 in F minor) for his ballet, Appassionata – which receives its West Coast premiere this week. Appassionata was first performed by the Paris Opera Ballet in 2016, under its original title, La Nuit S’Achève (The Night Ends), and the focus of the work is the the range of emotions experienced in love. These are portrayed by three couples over the timespan of an evening, which starts out with a degree of formality, but as it progresses, the formality falls away, and while there are moments of quiet intimacy, tenderness and playfulness, the dancing also becomes wilder and more tempestuous.

Dores André Joseph Walsh in Peck’s ‘Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming’ © Erik Tomasson

The final work in the program, Justin Peck’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, was one of the successes of San Francisco Ballet’s 2018 Unbound festival of New Works. Commissioned for the Company, its dancers are in casual streetwear and sneakers, with choreography showing a decided inclination towards athleticism. Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming is set to the music of LA-based electronic band M83, and – as the name suggests – is based on “the way that we dream as human beings”, says Peck. Appropriately, the inspiration for this work was San Francisco itself, the ideas formulating as Peck walked around the city listening to the music of M83.

In Space & Time, the next program of the season, features another success story of the Outbound FestivalCathy Marston’s Snowblind, which is teamed with Helgi Tomasson’s The Fifth Season, and Harald Lander’s Études – last seen in performance by the Company in 1999.

Created for San Francisco Ballet’s 2006 Repertory Season, The Fifth Season features the music of contemporary Welsh musician and composer Karl Jenkins – now Sir Karl Jenkins – his String Quartet No 2, together with a largo from his immensely popular Palladio. The score takes us on a journey through time and space, which includes a mesmerizing, almost minimalist, theme, a delightful tango, a Baroque-style air, and an elegant waltz – presenting a fascinating choreographic challenge.

Audiences will no doubt be thrilled by the inclusion of Snowblind in this program. This is a retelling of Edith Wharton’s best-known work, Ethan Frome, which Cathy Marston has brilliantly transformed into a highly emotional ballet, set against the snowstorms of mid-winter Massachusetts. Recounting the tale of a passionate but doomed love triangle, Snowblind’s dramatic theme is enhanced by a Philip Feeney score which features an arrangement of pieces by Amy Beach and Arthur Foote (both contemporaries of Wharton’s and members of the group known as the Boston Six), as well as Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. The pathos of this work is deeply moving.

San Francisco Ballet in Lander’s ‘Études’ © Erik Tomasson

In complete contrast is Harald Lander’s Études. Lander was a Danish dancer, choreographer and one-time artistic director of the Royal Danish Ballet who is credited with rebuilding that company into “the superb performing organization that it is today” (Encyclopaedia Britannica). Created in 1948, Études is essentially a series of variations that throw the spotlight firmly on the techniques of classical ballet – showing the sort of exercises that every ballet dancer performs at the start of each day in the studio, and which gradually transform into an extravaganza of dance. Set to music by composer Knudåge Riisager, who orchestrated Carl Czerny’s Études for Piano, the work features over 40 dancers in a brilliant display of technical skill, stylishly woven into a fascinating showcase of balletic beauty. 

Kaleidoscope runs at the War Memorial Opera House from February 12th to 23rd, alternating with performances of In Space & Time which runs from February 14th to 24th. In both programs, the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra is led by Martin West, acknowledged as one of the foremost conductors of ballet today.

More information on these performances and on reserving tickets can be found on the San Francisco Ballet website.  

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Ballet program notes
The George Balanchine Trust
Benjamin Millepied
Encyclopaedia Britannica – Edith Wharton
Encyclopaedia Britannica

MTT leads SF Symphony with Shaham, Mackey World Premiere & Tchaikovsky

Gil Shaham plays the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No 1
© Luke Rattray

Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony this week in a program which includes a performance by Gil Shaham of the Prokofiev Violin Concerto No 1, the World Premiere of a new work by Steve Mackey, , and Tchaikovsky’s magnificent Symphony No 4.

Gil Shaham has been described by The New York Times as “One of today’s preeminent violinists”, he also has a “prodigious technique and silky tone” according to the Texas Classical Review, the Baltimore Sun refers to him as “an impeccable violinist”, and the Chicago Classical Review writes that “There are few violinists before the public whose engaging personality informs their music-making as much as the Urbana native” [Gil Shaham]. He is also a frequent and very welcome guest artist with the Symphony

Prokofiev began composing his First Violin Concerto in 1915, and although the score was completed by the summer of 1917, it wasn’t performed until 1923 – delayed by the Russian revolution. The premiere took place at one of the Concerts Koussevitzky in Paris – where Prokofiev had settled after his return to Europe from the United States. Serge Koussevitzky conducted, and his Paris concertmaster, Marcel Darrieux was the soloist.

The work wasn’t terribly well received, however, since Darrieux, although an able violinist, apparently lacked the ability to make the concerto come alive. Critics were also condemnatory because of the non-traditional arrangement of the work, and interestingly, it was this unusual arrangement which attracted Joseph Szigeti who performed the concerto in Prague – with Fritz Reiner conducting – after which it really took off. In his memoirs, Szigeti wrote that from the outset he had been fascinated by this concerto because of “its mixture of fairy-tale naïveté and daring savagery in lay-out and texture”.

Composer Steve Mackey © Kah Poon

The opening work of the program is Mackey’s Portals, Scenes and Celebrations, a work commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony and composed in honor of Michael Tilson Thomas. Steve Mackey was awarded the first-ever Distinguished Teaching Award from Princeton – where he currently teaches composition, music theory and courses on 20th century music and improvisation. Among other honors are a Grammy Award, several awards from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Guggenheim fellowship, the Stoeger Prize from the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, and the Kennedy Center Friedheim Award. He has also been the composer-in-residence at major music festivals such as Tanglewood, Aspen, and the Holland Festival.

Describing Portals, Scenes and Celebrations, Steve Mackey says it is “composed of five contrasting but connected tableaux” .… an “energetic celebration of motion and color, occasionally pulling back to refresh and relaunch toward an ever brighter next quest, but never in search of serenity”.

The final work in the concert is Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, a wonderfully energetic yet emotive work which he himself regarded highly. It was written in 1877 and dedicated “to my best friend”, that person being his patron Mme Nadezhda von Meck. Known as a notable patron of the arts in Moscow, and collector of musicians, she was a devoted admirer of Tchaikovsky, and through her extraordinary generosity enabled him to concentrate on his composing without the worry of having to support himself – even though that patronage carried the unusual caveat that the two should never meet. Mme von Meck was also a friend of the pianist and conductor Nicolai Rubinstein, who led the premiere of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 4 at a concert of the Russian Musical Society in Moscow, on February 10, 1878.

This work meant a great deal to the composer, who conceived it as a depiction of the nature of Fate. “Never yet has any of my orchestral works cost me so much labour,” he wrote, “but I’ve never yet felt such love for any of my things .… Perhaps I’m mistaken, but it seems to me that this symphony is better than anything I’ve done so far.” Many of us would be hard pressed to express a preference for just one work out of the many utterly gorgeous pieces that Tchaikovsky wrote, however there’s no doubt that this one is supremely powerful, bearing so many of the hallmarks of his genius.

Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony in performances of works by Steve Mackey, Sergei Prokofiev – with guest violinist Gil Shaham – and Tchaikovsky, at Davies Symphony Hall, from February 7th to 9th. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Symphony program notes –

Prokofiev Violin Concerto

Portals, Scenes and Celebrations

Tchaikovsky Symphony No 4


and artists’ websites:

Gil Shaham

Steve Mackey

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