English National Ballet’s ‘Cinderella’ at the Royal Albert Hall

Emma Hawes and Francesco Gabriele Frola © Jason Bell. Art Direction and Design Charlotte Wilkinson Studio

Famed for its magnificent in-the-round productions at the Royal Albert Hall, English National Ballet is about to dazzle British audiences once again, with Christopher Wheeldon’s spectacular production of Cinderella, set to Sergei Prokofiev’s glorious score.

Wheeldon, creator of numerous and highly acclaimed choreographic works for some of the world’s finest ballet companies, is regarded as the most successful choreographer of his generation. It came as no surprise, then, to discover his versatility when he was asked to both direct and choreograph the revival of An American in Paris in 2014, its extraordinary success telling us all we need to know about the Midas touch of this hugely talented artist.

Originally created simultaneously for Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet in 2012, Wheeldon’s Cinderella was never going to be a simple retelling of the traditional fairytale, but his interpretation doesn’t deviate too far from it either. Drawing on both the Perrault and Brothers Grimm versions of the fairytale, he has added tiers of his own creative brilliance to this production, delivering a truly magical result.

The focus for Cinderella, following her mother’s death, is a ‘living’ tree which rises from the earth, watered by the young girl’s falling tears, and providing a backdrop to the antics of a selection of weird and wonderful woodland creatures and elegant fairies. Four ‘Fates’ – whose mission is to guide and protect Cinderella – replace the fairy godmother of the original story, her sisters are portrayed as young girls – splendidly retaining the comedy aspects of their characters – and the concept of the coach and horses which whisk Cinderella to the ball is nothing short of pure genius.

Cinderella was described by The Washington Post as “an utterly exquisite production”, and so it is – the result of a collaboration between some wonderfully creative artists, which Wheeldon has used to spectacular effect. The libretto is by Tony and Pulitzer Prize nominee Craig Lucas, the stunning sets and exquisite costumes are by Julian Crouch (Metropolitan Opera and Broadway) special effects by Obie Award winner and MacArthur Foundation Fellow Basil Twist (the tree and that coach!), with lighting by Natasha Katz, and projection design by Daniel Brodie.

Wheeldon has also retained Prokofiev’s gorgeous score which, although not as well known as his Romeo and Juliet, is every bit as lovely, and filled with sumptuous melodies and the full range of variations in the tradition of classical ballet. Prokofiev started writing the score in 1940 – a work initially intended for the then Kirov Ballet (now the Mariinsky) – but due to the intervention of World War II, he moved it aside and didn’t return to it for two years. When it was finally completed, operational problems caused by the War prevented the Kirov from mounting the production, and it was premiered by the Bolshoi Ballet instead, in November 1945. The ballet was a tremendous success, and the score was one of Prokofiev’s works named when he was awarded a Stalin State Prize shortly afterwards.

The English National Ballet Philharmonic is led by Music Director, Gavin Sutherland, who refers to Prokofiev as “a master storyteller: he managed to get every emotion, every character, and every scenario across in the most understandable of terms with his music …..”. Sutherland refers to it as “a great score, because it grabs the attention from the first note and it holds you until the end”.

Alina Cojocaru and Isaac Hernandez © Laurent Liotardo
Maria Kochetkova and Jeffrey Cirio © Laurent Liotardo

Among the stars dancing the leads are Alina Cojocaru, with Isaac Hernández, and Maria Kochetkova – who danced the role for San Francisco Ballet – with Jeffrey Cirio.

Wheeldon’s Cinderella is enchanting, touching, romantic and humorous, brilliantly conceived, and a true spectacle. A co-production between Dutch National Ballet and San Francisco Ballet, this presentation is by English National Ballet and the Royal Albert Hall.

Cinderella runs at the Royal Albert Hall from 6th to 16th June. More information can be found on the English National Ballet website, and tickets are available online via this link or by telephone on 0845 401 5045.

Information sourced from:
English National Ballet programme notes
Christopher Wheeldon

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Valčuha leads Barantschik & San Francisco Symphony

Slovak conductor Juraj Valčuh – Courtesy San Francisco Symphony

Popular Slovak conductor Juraj Valčuha returns to Davies Symphony Hall this week, leading the San Francisco Symphony and Alexander Barantschik in a program which features the work of two very different composers. Concertmaster Barantschik plays J S Bach’s Violin Concerto No 2, and the Shostakovich work is his Symphony No 8 – regarded by the composer as a poem of suffering.

Currently Music Director of Teatro di San Carlo, Naples, and First Guest Conductor of the Konzerthausorchester in Berlin, Maestro Valčuha was, until 2016, Chief Conductor of the Orchestra Sinfonica Nazionale della Rai. He first appeared with the San Francisco Symphony in May 2013, as a Shenson Young Artist, and has since made frequent, and most welcome, return visits.

Since making his conducting debut in 2005 with the Orchestra National de France, he has led some of the world’s finest orchestras – among them the Philharmonia, Leipzig Gewandhaus, Dresden Staatskapelle, Berlin Philharmonic, Amsterdam’s Royal Concertgebouw, Orchestra dell’Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome, and Milan’s Filarmonica della Scala. Maestro Valčuha’s North American appearances include appearances with the New York and Los Angeles philharmonics, and the Boston, Chicago, Cleveland and Montreal symphony orchestras.

Maestro Valčuha’s achievements in the world of opera are no less impressive. He has led performances of Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges and Gounod’s Faust in Florence, Janáček’s Jenufa and Britten’s Peter Grimes in Bologna, and for Teatro San Carlo di Napoli, the list includes Strauss’ Elektra, Bizet’s Carmen, Puccini’s Tosca and La Fanciulla del West, Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.

Alexander Barantschik, Concertmaster of the San Francisco Symphony – Courtesy San Francisco Symphony

Violinist Alexander Barantschik celebrates his 15th anniversary with the San Francisco Symphony this year. Hailing originally from St Petersburg, he boasts more than a couple of important brushes with musical history. Not only did he have lessons in the same room in as Jascha Heifetz, but the instrument which he plays – a 1742 Guarnerius del Gesú – belonged to Heifetz, and was his favourite violin. Incidentally, it was also the violin on which Ferdinand David played Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto at its premier in 1845. Barantschik also admits, with some pride, that he was “privileged to play with Rostropovich”.

Also a fan of jazz, Alexander Barantschik says that he’s learned from some of that genre’s finest artists – his favorites include Oscar Peterson, Sarah Vaughan, Duke Ellington, Art Tatum, Ella Fitzgerald and Stéphane Grappelli.
Mr Barantschik must surely have a very long list of memorable performances with the San Francisco Symphony, but he says that the most recent of these was a performance of Mahler’s First Symphony at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on the Symphony’s most recent European tour. He describes the experience as “a wonderful combination of a fantastic acoustic, the perfect piece for that hall, and an amazing atmosphere”.

Johann Sebastian Bach’s Second Violin Concerto – as with his first – was composed during his time in the service of the Prince of Anhalt-Cöthen, between 1717 and 1723. The Second Violin Concerto was described by his original biographer, J N Forkel, as being “full of an unconquerable joy of life, that sings in the triumph of the first and last movements”. It’s understandably popular – the first movement is sparkling and lively, the second is a sombre but beautiful adagio, and the final movement is an almost jaunty dance-like melody.

Shostakovich wrote his Eighth Symphony during the summer of 1943, and although the German army had by then been defeated at Stalingrad, the losses to the Red Army were massive. Nevertheless, Shostakovich wrote the symphony not only with these losses in mind, but also with thoughts of the victims of the pre-war purges, victims such as the million and a half Russians who lost their lives between 1937 and 1939. He felt that he had to write about the fear, sorrow and suffocation that people experienced during these terrible events, and wrote his Eighth Symphony as a Requiem for those who had suffered and died before the War, as much as for the 27 million lives which were lost during the hostilities.

The Symphony was premiered on November 4th, 1943, in a performance conducted by the dedicatee, Evgeny Mravinsky, and violently attacked by the authorities as being counter-revolutionary and anti-Soviet, before being withdrawn from the repertoire. Only relatively recently has the work come to be admired throughout the world, and as British conductor Mark Wigglesworth observes: “It is ironic that it wasn’t played in the West because people thought it was only about the war, whilst it didn’t get performed in Russia because the authorities knew it wasn’t!”

Juraj Valčuha leads the San Francisco Symphony and solo violinist Alexander Barantschik in a program of music by Bach and Shostakovich at Davies Symphony Hall from May 30th to June 1st. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

Information sourced from:
San Francisco Symphony program notes
Juraj Valčuha
Alexander Barantschik
Bach Violin Concerto No 2
Shostakovich Symphony No 8

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‘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

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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

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