A cavalcade of stars at the SFJAZZ Festival

The SFJAZZ Festival opens tomorrow! A highlight of the San Francisco entertainment calendar, the Festival showcases 41 performances, over 13 days, in the city’s Hayes Valley district.

Following the traditional free, open-air Block Party this evening, the Festival gets underway in earnest on Wednesday in the Miner Auditorium, with vocalist Jazzmeia Horn whose 2017 debut album, A Social Call, was nominated for a 2018 GRAMMY Award and voted best jazz vocal debut in the 2017 NPR Music Jazz Critics Poll.

The Festival line-up is as impressive as ever, continuing with a double bill featuring pianist and composer Fabian Almazon – voted #1 Rising Piano Star on the Downbeat Magazine Critics 2014 Poll, and granted the Chamber Music America 2014 NEW Jazz Works commission – and bassist Linda May Han Oh – a recent recipient of the Jerome Foundation Fellowship, and a member of Pat Metheny’s most recent quartet project. Almazon appears with his seven-member group Rhizome – of which the star bassist is a member – and Linda MayHan Oh with her quartet, in which Almazon is the pianist.

The Matson 2 -Identical twins Jared and Jonathan – play numbers from their 2018 release, Play A Love Supreme – their re-interpretation of the 1964 John Coltrane masterwork. They’re joined by jazz guitarist Calvin Keys who’s enjoyed partnerships with luminaries such as Ray Charles, Ahmad Jamal, John Handy, Bobby Hutcherson and Pharoah Sanders.

Cuban vocalist Bobi Céspedes – she of the deep, rich and distinctive voice – is joined by John Santos – seven-time Grammy-nominated percussionist, US Artists Fontanals Fellow, and 2013-2014 SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director – considered to be one of the foremost exponents of Afro-Latin music in the world today. Celebrating a 25-year collaboration with Santos, Céspedes presents a world premiere performance of a selection of brand new songs.

From Cuba comes Orquesta Akokán, a 16-piece ensemble led by vocalist José ‘Pepito’ Gómes, featuring “…. some of the island’s greatest instrumentalists” (The New York Times). Orquesta Akokán made its US debut last year, already has an appearance at Lincoln Center under its collective belt, and will continue to tour the US for the remainder of this year.

The music of Antônio Carlos Jobim will have the JAZZ Center swaying once more as Claudia Villela – the “Brazilian-born genius with a blistering voice” (JazzTimes) – returns to SFJAZZ, to present an evening of some of Jobim’s finest songs. She’s accompanied by special guest Chico Pinheiro – guitarist, pianist and arranger – and regarded as a leading exponent of modern jazz in Brazil.

The Cookers – a seven-member ensemble of jazz giants – is described by the Detroit Metro Times as “ …. the greatest jazz super-band working”. Founded by trumpeter David Weiss, this septet comprises tenor saxophonists Billy Harper and Donald Harrison, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, pianist George Cables, bassist Cecil McBee and drummer Billy Hart, and each of them has an association with at least one among some of the greatest names in jazz – names such as Art Blakey, Roy Haynes, Herbie Hancock, Dexter Gordon, Bobby Hutcherson, Joe Henderson, Pharaoh Sanders, Wayne Shorter, Charles Lloyd, Miles Davis and Stan Getz.

Canzoniere Grecanico Salentino – originally founded by Caterina ‘Rina’ Durante in the mid-1970s – has been introducing the music of Southern Italy to audiences ever since. Originating in Puglia’s Salento region, the ensemble – now led by Durante’s son, Daniele – has successfully combined the ancient folk music of the region (pizzica tarantata) with a contemporary style, most recently taking the title of Best Group at the 2018 Songlines Music Awards in London. Described by The New Yorker as a band that “has few peers in contemporary world music”, the group has frequently collaborated with Ludovico Einaudi, most recently on his highly-acclaimed 2015 Taranta Project.

Referred to as the “Godfather of Neo Soul”, vibraphonist, composer and band-leader, Roy Ayers – among the most respected artists in contemporary R&B, hip-hop and soul today – returns to SFJAZZ. Still in great demand, he’ll be a popular attraction at the Festival, with the feel-good, funky sound with which he’s been associated for over four decades.

Zakir Hussain – winner of the 2017 SFJAZZ Lifetime Achievement Award and former SFJAZZ Resident Artistic Director – presents a an evening of solo tabla, raga, and the rarely heard music of Natya Sangeet – which translates literally as ‘drama music’ and is a unique kind of musical theatre that combines Natya-drama and Sangeet-music. This musical theatre originated in the Maharashtra state of India, and developed over the centuries under the guidance of the singers, poets and actors for which this region is known. For this unique presentation, Zakir Hussain will be joined by violinist Kala Ramnath – described by Songline magazine as one of the 50 world’s best instrumentalists – and special guest vocalist Mahesh Kale – winner of the Best Playback Singer award at the 63rd National Film Awards in India.

Legendary soul singer and songwriter William Bell pays tribute to the soul music of Memphis and the Stax Records sound in an evening of some of his most memorable songs. His early hit for the label You Don’t Miss Your Water (Until Your Well Runs Dry) is now considered one of the finest early examples of soul music, as well as being one of the most covered songs in blues/rock music history. Apart from releasing an amazing succession of soul hits, Bell has also been recognized with honors such as the Rhythm & Blues Foundation’s R&B Pioneer Award, the W C Handy Heritage Award from the Memphis Music Foundation, and the BMI Songwriter’s Award. A member of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame and the Memphis Music Hall of Fame, Bell features prominently in the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and in 2017 received the Epitome of Soul Award, which was presented to him by Stevie Wonder, the 2016 honoree.

The 2019 SFJAZZ Festival runs from June 11 to 23. For all details and tickets, visit the SFJAZZ website.

Information sourced from SFJAZZ program notes

Artists’ websites

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Monaco hosts International Television Festival

A Golden Nymph statuette – Courtesy Monte-Carlo TV Festival

Glamorous and stylish, the Principality of Monaco is the focus of the international television industry this month, as it hosts the 59th Monte-Carlo Television Festival. This annual event brings together celebrities, producers, directors, writers and studio heads, to showcase the finest in television programming, and to compete for the Golden Nymph Awards.

Established by Prince Rainier III of Monaco in 1960, and now under the Honorary Presidency of H.S.H. Prince Albert II of Monaco, the Festival is one of the most prestigious of its kind in international television programming, and an event which attracts the elite of the industry.

This year’s Festival has an added dimension to the presentation of the dazzling Golden Nymph Awards and the cavalcade of programmes and stars appearing in the Principality – the premiere of the National Geographic documentary APOLLO: Missions to the Moon.

This documentary – featuring much material hitherto unseen – will be screened in partnership with the Embassy of Monaco in Washington DC, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of NASA’s Apollo 11 lunar landing, and man’s first steps on the surface of the moon. The event will also throw a spotlight on Monaco’s little-known involvement in aerospace technology, which saw the Principality’s first communications satellite launched in 2015, and will herald the launch of MonacoSat-2 within the next few years.

Prestigious and highly coveted, the Festival’s Golden Nymph statuettes which will be presented to the winning artists, are copies of La Nymphe Salmacis, a sculpture created in 1826 by Monégasque artist François-Joseph Bosio – chief court sculptor to Louis XVIII. The original sculpture is on display in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

La Nymphe Salmacis in the Louvre Museum, Paris – François-Joseph Bosio

The Opening Ceremony, which takes place in the Salle des Princes of the Grimaldi Forum – free and open to the public – will be presented by Belgian television and radio presenter Julie Taton, and features a roll-call of international names synonymous with the most popular television series worldwide. The juries for the Golden Nymph Awards will also be presented at this ceremony, followed by the French premiere of the first episode of L.A.’s Finest , starring Gabrielle Union (Bad Boys II) and Jessica Alba (Sin City).

The Golden Nymphs are awarded in two categories – Fiction and News. Fiction is subdivided into Drama, Comedy and Long Fiction, and News into Documentary, Live Breaking News and TV News Item. Readers will recognize several familiar TV programmes and performers in these line-ups.

There are also five Special Prizes. The Prince Rainier III Special Prize features two documentaries – Drowning in Plastic (United Kingdom) and The Curse of Abundance (Poland) – the AMADE Prize and the ICRC Prize which will both be awarded to Yemen: Kids and War (France), the Monaco Red Cross Prize for the British production of Care and the SIGNIS Prize which goes to a German film entitled War.

A full list of nominations in all categories can be seen on this link.

A special Golden Nymph Award will also be presented to an actor or actress considered to have made an extraordinary contribution to the global entertainment industry. Previous winners have included Helen Mirren, Mariska Hargitay, Marg Helgenberger, Patricia Arquette and Donald Sutherland, and this year the honour will go to American actor Michael Douglas, described by Festival CEO Laurent Puons as “…. one of today’s most highly-respected actors”, noting “…. the huge impact his work has had on the global television industry”.

Michael Douglas’ television career began with his appearance in a 1969 CBS-TV “Playhouse” special, entitled The Experiment, and his first significant role was in the multi-award-winning series The Streets of San Francisco which ran from 1972 to 1976. Among the many honors which Douglas has received are two Academy Awards (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in 1976 and Wall Street in 1988), and an Emmy, Golden Globe and SAG for his portrayal of Liberace in Behind the Candelabra. Most recently he has just finished filming the second season of The Kominsky Method, with Alan Arkin. Mr Douglas will be present at the Festival to collect his award from Prince Albert at the closing ceremony on 18th June.

The 59th edition of the Monte-Carlo Television Festival takes place from 14th to 18th June. For more information, visit the Festival website.

An earlier version of this article appeared in the online lifestyle magazine Riviera Buzz

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San Francisco Opera’s Summer Season opens with Bizet’s ‘Carmen’

J’Nai Bridges as Carmen and David Leigh as Zuniga in Bizet’s Carmen
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

San Francisco Opera opens its 2019 Summer Season at the War Memorial Opera House this evening with the work regarded as the most popular opera in the repertoire – Georges Bizet’s Carmen.

Staged by American director Francesca Zambello, this production of Carmen – new to San Francisco Opera – celebrates a number of debut performances. Mezzo-soprano J’Nai Bridges makes her professional role debut in the title role, tenor Matthew Polenzani sings Don José for the first time, and soprano Anita Hartig, as Micaëla, makes her debut appearance with San Francisco Opera. Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen has appeared with the Company previously, and returns as the bullfighter Escamillo, however conductor James Gaffigan fulfills his first opera engagement with the Company, leading the cast, the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

In 1872, Georges Bizet was commissioned by the Paris Opéra-Comique to write a new work. Historically, this institution was known for light, moralistic pieces – those suitable for ‘family theatre’, safe and predictable – and although Bizet received the commission to try to raise the theatre from its somewhat dull reputation, the co-directors had no idea just how revolutionary Bizet’s opera would be. Based on an 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée, with a libretto in French by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy, Bizet’s Carmen broke new ground, focussing on the underclass – the so-called ‘common folk’, which included gypsies, smugglers and factory workers, women who smoked in public, who were involved in physical fights and who were sexually free. Consequently, when the opera premiered at the Opéra-Comique in March 1875, it was condemned by the critics as immoral and vulgar.

Bizet’s Carmen with the San Francisco Opera Dance Corps, J’Nai Bridges as Carmen (center), Natalie Image as Frasquita (left) and Ashley Dixon as Mercédès
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Bizet, who had taken a lot of care to familiarize himself with the music of Andalusia – the region in which Carmen is set – was devastated by this reception, and at the time of his death from a heart condition three months after the premiere, he was certain that he’d written the greatest failure in the history of opera. He didn’t live to see how successful his Carmen would become – nor did he know of the prediction of Tchaikovsky that within 10 years, it would become “the most popular opera in the world”.

A Francesco Zambello production at the War Memorial Opera House is always keenly anticipated. This internationally recognized, multi-award-winning director of opera and theatre is hugely popular. Included in her recent productions for San Francisco Opera are Der Ring des Nibelungen, Aida, Luisa Miller, Show Boat, Porgy and Bess, and the world premieres of Heart of a Soldier and Two Women (La Ciociara). In January of this year, she staged Daniel Catán’s Florencia en el Amazonas for Houston Grand Opera, in March her production of Bernstein’s West Side Story opened in Sydney, in April Fort Worth Opera presented Porgy and Bess, and Atlanta Opera staged La Traviata, Lyric Opera Chicago presented West Side Story last month, and Show Boat and La Traviata open at the Glimmerglass Festival in July. General Director of The Glimmerglass Festival since 2010, and Artistic Director of The Washingtion National Opera at the Kennedy Center since 2012, Francesca Zambello was Artistic Advisor to San Francisco Opera between 2005 and 2011, and Artistic Director of the Skylight Theater from 1987 to 1992.

Kyle Ketesen as Escamillo with the San Francisco Opera Chorus in Bizet’s Carmen
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

J’Nai Bridges first appeared with San Francisco Opera as Bersi in a 2016 production of Andrea Chenier, and in 2017 she created the role of Josefa Segovia in the world premiere of John Adams’ Girls of the Golden West. Recent highlights of Ms Bridges’ operatic career include her debut as Preziosilla in Verdi’s La Forza del Destino with Opernhaus Zürich, a debut at Bavarian State Opera as Bersi, she appeared as Nefertiti in Philip Glass’ Akhnaten with Los Angeles Opera, and at Vancouver Opera as Sister Helen Prejean in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. Her 2016 performance as Suzuki in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly at San Diego Opera drew the following critique from concertonet.com: “Vocally gifted with effusive, smoky substance, her softness and soulfulness fit like a glove as the devoted servant. …. Ms Bridges expresses her character with moving delicateness; she will go far.”

David Leigh as Zuniga, Zhengyi Bai as Remendado, Natalie Image as Frasquita, Ashley Dixon as Mercédès (partially obscured) and J’Nai Bridges in the title role of Bizet’s Carmen
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

American tenor Matthew Polenzani was last seen at San Francisco Opera in 2013, in the title role of Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann. His 2018/19 season has included a return to Lyric Opera of Chicago in his signature title role of Mozart’s Idomeneo, an appearance at Teatro Massimo di Palermo as Rodolfo in Puccini’s La Bohème, a role debut as Vaudémont in Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, and the title role of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito at the Metropolitan Opera. Mr Polenzani has also recently appeared with Michael Fabiano and Bryan Hymel, under Riccardo Frizza, at The Dallas Opera Gala. According to Opera News, “Few singers today command the sheer beauty of timbre and dynamic control of Matthew Polenzani …”, noting his “almost impossibly beautiful pianissimo ….”, and the New York Sun refers to his “ringing, clarion lyric tenor that he can push to heroic heights ……”.

Anita Hartig as Micaëla, Matthew Polenzani as Don José and J’Nai Bridges in the title role of Bizet’s Carmen
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Romanian soprano Anita Hartig’s rise to international recognition has been swift since her successful series of debut performances as a member of the Vienna State Opera ensemble between 2009 and 2012. Her debut performance in 2012 as Mimi in Puccini’s La Bohème for Teatro alla Scala, Milan, led to a CNN documentary on her artistry, and she has since appeared in the same role for The Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, the Metropolitan Opera, the Bayerische Staatsoper and the Opéra de Bastille in Paris. Ms Hartig has also appeared as Violetta Valery in Verdi’s La Traviata for Gran Teatre de Liceu in Barcelona, as Liù in Puccini’s Turandot at the Metropolitan Opera, and she recently returned to the Vienna State Opera to perform the role of Micaëla, prior to her performance in San Francisco. Later this season, she returns to the Metropolitan Opera to sing Violetta, which she will also perform for the Toulouse Opera, and she will appear for Opéra de Paris as Amelia Grimaldi in Verdi’s Simon Boccanegra.

Matthew Polenzani as Don José and J’Nai Bridges in the title role of Bizet’s Carmen
Photo: Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen was described by Opera News as having “… a naturally beautiful, superbly trained voice, rich and clear at the low end, smooth and flexible in the middle range and effortless at the top”. This season, Mr Ketelsen has sung the role of Escamillo for the Metropolitan Opera, and also that of Golaud in Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande. He has appeared as Conte Rodolfo in the Opernhaus Zurich’s production of La Sonambula, and will also appear as the King of Scotland in the premiere of Handel’s Ariodante at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Méphistophélès in Les Siècles’ La Damnation de Faust throughout France. Included in his schedule will be concert appearances with the Madison Symphony.

Other members of the cast include bass David Leigh as Zuniga, making his Company debut, and current San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows soprano Natalie Image as Frasquita, and mezzo-soprano Ashley Dixon as Mercédès. Tenor Christopher Oglesby sings El Dancairo, tenor Zhengyi Bai El Remendado and baritone SeokJong Baek is Moralès.

Although this production of Carmen will be the first time that James Gaffigan has led an opera performance for the Company, he led the San Francisco Opera Orchestra and Adler Fellows in the concert The Future is Now in 2017. Michelle Merrill conducts the June 20th performance (a debut with the Company), and the Director of the San Francisco Opera Chorus is Ian Robertson.
Sung in French with English supertitles, Carmen runs at the War Memorial Opera House for seven performances, until June 29th. Further information and tickets are available on the San Francisco Opera website, and tickets may also be reserved on (415) 864-3330.

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Opera program notes

Encyclopaedia Britannica

and artists’ websites:

Francesca Zambello

J’Nai Bridges

Matthew Polenzani

Anita Hartig

Kyle Ketelsen

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