‘Shostakovich Trilogy’ – a welcome return to San Francisco Ballet

Lovers of ballet in San Francisco have enjoyed an interesting and exciting season from San Francisco Ballet this year, with works as diverse as Don Quixote, The Sleeping Beauty, The Little Mermaid, world premieres of ballets by Liam Scarlett and Yuri Possokhov, and a selection of some of the works so successfully premiered in the Company’s 2018 Unbound: A Festival of New Works.

The Season draws to a dramatic close this month with Alexei Ratmansky’s fabulous and highly successful Shostakovich Trilogy – a work which earned the choreographer his second Prix Benois de la Danse in 2014, and the work which will open San Francisco Ballet’s London season at Sadler’s Wells at the end of May.

Co-commissioned by American Ballet Theatre and San Francisco Ballet, the first part of Shostakovich Trilogy was premiered by American Ballet Theatre in 2012, the second and third parts in 2013 – the year in which Ratmansky was the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation ‘genius’ award. The work in its entirety was first seen at the War Memorial Opera House in San Francisco the following year.

As Ratmansky’s tribute to the music of Shostakovich – which has long held a fascination for him – the ballet is set to three of the composer’s full-length works – Symphony #9, Chamber Symphony and Piano Concerto #1 – each reflecting a different phase of the composer’s life during the tumultuous years of the Stalinist era.

The Symphony # 9 was written at the end of the Second World War. It was supposed to be a grand triumphal work, celebrating the defeat of the Nazis, instead of which Shostakovich – in one of his acts of rebellion – produced what conductor Phillip Lenberg described as “a critical mirror held up to Stalin’s Russia”, which he used as a voice for the Jewish people persecuted in the Soviet Union under Stalin’s tyrannical regime.

Created for 21 dancers, the work features five principal characters – two lead couples and a solo male dancer. The first couple represents Shostakovich and his wife, supporting each other in a time of great personal danger, when he was in constant fear of arrest, the other couple heading the corps de ballet which represents the Soviet regime. The ballet, however, is not devoid of hope, which comes in the form of a dancer whom Ratmansky calls the Angel, who shows that a way through the turmoil can be found.

The Chamber Symphony – an arrangement of Shostakovich’s 1960 String Quartet No 8, Op 110, by conductor Rudolf Barshai – provides the score for the second ballet, a work which is known to have been deeply personal to the composer. It carries the dedication ‘In Memory of Victims of Fascism and War’, however it’s also considered by some to be autobiographical, conveying a deep feeling of loss. Ratmansky addresses this perception with his portrayal of the composer and the three loves in his life – the girl with whom he was infatuated, but for whom he never made time; his wife, the mother of his children, whose death affected him badly’; and the young wife with whom he spent his later years.

Piano Concerto #1 is regarded as the most abstract ballet of the three. The concerto is delightfully quixotic, with rapid mood changes, from the bright and sparky to beautiful passages of a more serious nature. Shostakovich apparently refused to make any comment on the ‘inner meaning’ of the work, the only indication of his thought process having been an article published in Sovetskaye Iskussto in December 1933, in which he was quoted as saying: “I am a Soviet composer. Our age, as I perceive it, is heroic, spirited and joyful. This is what I wanted to convey in my concerto. It is for the audience, and possibly the music critics, to judge whether or not I succeeded.”

Staged by Nancy Raffa, Shostakovich Trilogy has scenic design by George Tsypin, costumes by Keso Dekker and lighting by Jennifer Tipton.

San Francisco Ballet presents Shostakovich Trilogy at the War Memorial Opera House from May 7th to 12th. The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra will be led by the Company’s Music Director and Principal Conductor, Martin West. More information on this ballet can be found in the program notes, and information on tickets can be found on this page of the San Francisco Ballet website.

Information sourced from:
San Francisco Ballet program notes
Shostakovich Symphony No 9
Shostakovich Chamber Symphony
Shostakovich Piano Concerto No 1

All photographs © Erik Tomasson

ArtsPreview home page

James Ehnes plays Bruch with Marek Janowski & the San Francisco Symphony

Violinist James Ehnes

Violinist James Ehnes is the guest artist in this week’s San Francisco Symphony performances, led by Marek Janowski, the first of three guest conductors appearing at Davis Symphony Hall this month. He’ll be followed later in May by Krzysztof Urbanski and Juraj Valcuha. Ehnes will play the Violin Concerto No 1 by Max Bruch in a program which also features works by Mendelssohn and Wagner.

James Ehnes – described by The Times as “A violinist in a class of his own” – is the recent winner of a 2019 GRAMMY Award in the Best Classical Instrumental Solo category, for his recording of Aaron-Jay Kernis’ Violin Concerto. Mr Ehnes premiered this work with the Toronto, Seattle and Dallas symphony orchestras, and has since performed it with the Deutsches Symphonie-Orchester and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.

Currently Artistic Director of the Seattle Chamber Music Society, and Artist in Residence of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra, James Ehnes is a favorite guest artist with some of the world’s most respected conductors, and has appeared with some of the world’s finest orchestras. The Telegraph has written of him as “The wondrous James Ehnes, a thinker of the violin as well as a supreme virtuoso of the instrument … an artist of the first order”. He is also the recipient of the 2017 Royal Philharmonic Society Award in the Instrumentalist category.

In this week’s performances, James Ehnes plays the work described by violinist Joseph Joachim as “the richest, the most seductive” of the four major German violin concertos.

Conductor Marek Janowski © Felix Broede

Polish by birth, and raised in Germany, Marek Janowski is considered to be one of the great masters of music in the German tradition, recognized throughout the world for his interpretation of the music of Wagner, Strauss, Bruckner, Brahms, Hindemith and the Second Viennese School.

Currently Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Dresdner Philharmonie, Marek Janowski has also held the positions of Artistic Director and Chief Conductor of the Rundfunk-Sinfonieorchester Berlin, Musical Director of the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, Chief Conductor of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Monte Carlo, Chief Conductor of the Dresdner Philharmonie, and Musical Director of the Orchestre Philharmonique de Radio France.

Following a number of years appearing in the world’s major opera houses, he stepped back from opera in 1990 to focus on the German and French symphonic repertoire.

In 2014 Maestro Janowski was awarded  the “Ehrenpreis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik” (honorary prize of the German Critics’ Award) in recognition of his life’s work.

The program opens with Mendelssohn’s Overture to Victor Hugo’s dark and convoluted play, Ruy Blas, an overture which the composer revised and reintroduced some days after the opening of the play, when he led the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.

The last two works in the program are both by Richard Wagner – the Overture and Venusberg Music from his opera Tannhäuser, and the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde, an opera based largely on the 12th-century romance Tristan by Gottfried von Strassburg.

Read more about the featured works in the San Francisco Symphony program notes below.

Marek Janowski leads the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and guest artist James Ehnes in works by Bruch, Mendelssohn and Wagner at Davies Symphony Hall from May 2nd to 4th. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Symphony program notes:

Bruch Violin Concerto
Ruy Blas Overture
Overture and Venusberg Music from Tannhäuser
Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde
and artists’ websites:
Marek Janowski – Intermusica
Marek Janowski – Pentatone Music
James Ehnes
James Ehnes – Intermusica

ArtsPreview home page