Yuja Wang plays Rachmaninov with San Francisco Symphony

Yuja Wang (c) Julia Wesely

Yuja Wang is the dazzling guest artist in Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3 at Davies Symphony Hall this week, with the San Francisco Symphony led by Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen. Also on the program are the San Francisco premiere of Gabriella Smith’s Tumblebird Contrails, and Salonen’s tone poem Nyx.

The sheer genius of her performances and captivating personality of pianist Yuja Wang have granted her star status wherever she appears. Since her international breakthrough with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 2007, she has attracted critical superlatives and audience ovations, whether appearing in concerts, recitals, residencies and tours, with some of the world’s finest orchestras and conductors. Musical America’s 2017 Artist of the Year, Ms Wang has appeared across North America, Europe and in her home country, China, as well as in prestigious concert halls such as Het Concertgebouw, Carnegie Hall and The Barbican.

Yuja Wang (c) Norbert Kniat

The Financial Times writes: “Her combination of technical ease, colouristic range and sheer power has always been remarkable … but these days there is an ever-greater depth to her musicianship, drawing you into the world of each composer with compelling immediacy”. New York Classical Review says: “To perform one Rachmaninoff concerto requires the stamina of a linebacker, the dexterity of a surgeon, and the soul of an artist. To play all four—plus that brilliant joyride, the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini—would seem beyond human capacity. But if anybody could pull it off, Yuja Wang, with her impressively efficient technique and unwavering focus, could”.

In October 1909, following the successful premiere of his Piano Concerto No 2 a few years earlier, Sergei Rachmaninov undertook his first concert tour of the United States, with a newly completed piano concerto to present to his American audiences. The premiere of the Piano Concerto No 3 took place on November 28, 1909. The New York Symphony Orchestra was led by Walter Damrosch and the soloist was Rachmaninov himself. The concerto was performed a few weeks later by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Gustav Mahler.

Sergei Rachmaninov – United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division courtesy Wikimedia Commons

Known to be one of the most technically challenging piano concertos in the classical repertoire, Rachmaninov’s Third Piano Concerto received mainly positive reviews at its premiere. The New York Herald wrote that it was one of “the most interesting piano concertos of recent years”, and it was praised for its “essential dignity and beauty” by the New York Tribune. The critics from both these newspapers did, however, criticize the length of the work, but despite undertaking some revisions, Rachmaninov left it much as it was, and its popularity is undimmed to this day.

Gabriella Smith – courtesy San Francisco Symphony

Bay Area native Gabriella Smith wrote Tumblebird Contrails as an ode to the rocky beauty of the Point Reyes area in Marin County, Northern California. Having grown up with a tremendous love for the California coast, she features the natural world in many of her works, hence titles such as Breathing Forests – her Organ Concerto – and Tidalwave Kitchen which she describes as having been inspired by “…. memories of hikes shrouded in fog, tidepooling on the rocky beaches, and sitting by the Pacific listening to the hallucinatory sounds of the ocean, the keening gulls, pounding surf, sizzling of sand and sea foam …”. Lost Coast, her Concerto for Cello and Orchestra, was named one of NPR Music’s 26 Favorite Albums of 2021. The Philadelphia Enquirer describes her music as “high-voltage and wildly imaginative”, Musical America refers to her as “the coolest, most exciting, most inventive new voice I’ve heard in ages” and the LA Times calls her an “outright sensation”.

Esa-Pekka Salonen (c) Andrew Eccles

Esa-Pekka Salonen’s tone poem Nyx, named after the Greek Goddess of the Night, was, by Salonen’s own admission, influenced by the music of Jean Sibelius. Composed in 2010 on a joint commission from Radio France, the Barbican Centre, the Atlanta Symphony, Carnegie Hall and the Finnish Broadcasting Company, the piece depicts Nyx – a figure of power and beauty – as trailing stars, and painting the night sky. “She is an extremely nebulous figure altogether”, said Salonen at the time, “we have no sense of her character or personality. It is this very quality that has long fascinated me and made me decide to name my new orchestral piece after her.”

Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the San Francisco Symphony in performances of music by Sergei Rachmaninov – guest artist Yuja Wang – Gabriella Smith and one of his own compositions at Davies Symphony Hall on March 1 and 2.

Other concerts taking place in March feature:

Soundbox: Codes – curated by Nico Muhly with Yuja Wang on March 4

The SF Symphony Youth Orchestra on March 5

A Violin Recital by Hilary Hahn on March 12

Music for Families: Discovering Beethoven’s Fifth on March 18

Shenson Spotlight Series: Alexander Malofeev Piano Recital on March 22

Black Panther – film with live orchestra on March 24 and 25

Piano Recital: Jean-Yves Thibaudet on March 26

MTT Conducts Mahler 6 on March 30 – April 1

Further information and booking details for all performances can be found on the San Francisco Symphony website.

Information sourced from:
San Francisco Symphony program notes
Yuja Wang
Esa-Pekka Salonen
Gabriella Smith
Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No 3

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Akram Khan’s ‘Creature’ to be screened in UK cinemas

Akram Khan’s Creature is set for release in UK cinemas this weekend. Choreographed by Khan, and based on the English National Ballet production of 2021, the film is directed by Academy Award-winning director Asif Kapadia, and set to the score composed for the ballet Creature by Vincenzo Lamagna.

The original ballet Creature was inspired by a stage play, Woyzeck, written by 19th century German dramatist Georg Büchner, which was also the basis for Alban Berg’s 1925 opera, Wozzeck. Set in a dilapidated former Arctic research station, the film tells of Creature – danced by ENB guest artist Jeffrey Cirio – who is enlisted into an experimental programme by a military brigade without his knowledge. He falls in love with a cleaner, Marie – danced by Erina Takahashi – who is kind and compassionate towards him, and they dream of an escape together. English National Ballet describes this work as “a beautiful, tragic tale of an outsider’s search for belonging, the insatiable desires of the powerful, and the enduring hope found in human connection and compassion”.

Creature – referred to by Empire magazine as “A propulsive drama” and the Independent as “Superb… A tight-wound drama that never lets up” – is Akram Khan’s third collaboration with English National Ballet, and follows the success of Dust (performed as part of Lest We Forget in 2014), and his first ever full-length ballet, Giselle. Kahn is regarded as one of the most respected dance artists of today, his works having been performed both in the UK and abroad. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including an MBE for services to dance in 2005, a Laurence Olivier Award, a Bessie Award (New York Dance and Performance Award) and an award from ISPA (International Society for the Performing Arts). Among his recent dance creations is Jungle Book reimagined, based on the original by Rudyard Kipling, in which he looks at the story from the perspective of children of today. The work was premiered at Curve in Leicester on 7th April 2022.

Asif Kapadia is an Academy Award, Grammy and four time BAFTA winning producer, director and writer. Working in both film and television, he is best known for his trilogy of documentaries exploring the price of fame – Amy, Senna, and Diego Maradona, as well as his debut feature The Warrior. Included in his other successes are two episodes of the Netflix series Mindhunter – which he directed – and the critically acclaimed music series 1971: The Year Music Changed Everything.

Responsible for the score of Creature – which blends electronic sounds, speech and a live orchestra – is London-based Italian composer and sound designer Vincenzo Lamagna, who collaborated with Khan on Giselle for English National Ballet. Orchestration is by James Kean and Costume Design by Tim Yip.

The film Creature – a co-production between English National Ballet and Opera Ballet Vlaanderen (OBV), with co-producers Sadlers Wells, London – will be screened in cinemas across the UK from 24th February to 31st March, 2023. Further information and booking details can be found on the English National Ballet website.

The original production of Creature the ballet returns to the stage this spring. It can be seen at Sadler’s Wells in London from Thursday 23rd March to Saturday 1st April, 2023.

Information sourced from:

English National Ballet programme notes

Akram Kahn

Asif Kapadia

Georg Büchner

Vincenzo Lamagna

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San Francisco Ballet presents ‘Giselle’ – the most famous of the Romantic era ballets

Misa Kuranaga and Angelo Greco in the Act II pas de deux from Tomasson’s Giselle
© Quinn Wharton

As part of San Francisco Ballet’s 2023 Repertory Season, the Company presents Giselle – one of the oldest classical ballets still being performed today and the most famous of the Romantic era ballets. This production, by Helgi Tomasson, features choreography by Tomasson after Jules Perrot, Jean Coralli and Marius Petipa, and is set to Adolphe Adam’s sumptuous score, with with additional music, orchestrations and arrangements by Friedrich Burgmüller, Ludwig Minkus, and Emil de Cou.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s Giselle © Erik Tomasson

Giselle was the result of the collaboration of the three French artists – ballet masters Perrot and Coralli, and composer Adolphe Adam, who in 1841 were commissioned by the Ballet du Théâtre de l’Academie Royale de Musique to create a new ballet for Italian dancer Carlotta Grisi. Adam had previously composed for this company, and he co-opted librettists Jules-Henri Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Théophile Gautier to assist with the storyline.

Yuan Yuan Tan in Tomasson’s Giselle © Erik Tomasson

It was Gautier who initially started working on the story, drawing inspiration from two sources – the poem Fantômes from Victor Hugo’s Les Orientales, which told of a Spanish girl who died after a night of frenzied dancing, and a passage in prose entitled L’Allemagne by German poet, writer and literary critic Heinrich Heine, about a Slavic tale of supernatural maidens called Wilis, young brides-to-be who die before their wedding day. Adam then brought in Perrot and Coralli to choreograph the work, and Giselle premiered at the Théâtre de l’Academie Royale de Musique in Paris on 28th June, 1841.

In 1842, this version of Giselle was staged in St Petersburg, and this is where Marius Petipa became involved in the choreography. As Premier Maître de Ballet of the Imperial Theatres in St Petersburg from 1871, he staged four revivals of Giselle between 1884 and 1903, and it’s this final version on which most interpretations have since been based.

San Francisco Ballet in Tomasson’s Giselle © Erik Tomasson

The ballet tells of a frail young peasant girl who is betrayed by her beloved, the aristocratic Count Albrecht, as a result of which she dies of a broken heart. Giselle finds herself in a moonlit glade surrounded by the supernatural Wilis and their queen, Myrtha. Albrecht enters the glade to lay flowers on Giselle’s grave, and is summoned by Myrtha and her Wilis to dance to his death. The spirit of Giselle – ever forgiving, and touched by his exhaustion – pleads for mercy on his behalf, and Myrtha ultimately frees him from the vengeance of the Wilis.

Giselle is a ballet of grace, beauty and passion. The first act features the young and innocent peasant girl, at first bewildered, a bit nervous and delighted at finding love, with colourful scenes of her friends celebrating with her – until Giselle discovers the truth about the man she loves, experiencing utter devastation at his betrayal. The second act is ethereal and mystical, with shadows of the Wilis flitting across the stage, the icy figure of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, determined to see Albrecht humiliated, but countered by the gentleness and compassion of Giselle.

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s Giselle © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Ballet stages Giselle in 10 performances at the War Memorial Opera House, between February 24 to March 5. The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra is led by Music Director & Principal Conductor Martin West. More detail and information on ticketing can be found on the San Francisco Ballet website. [www.sfballet.org]

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Ballet program notes

Adolphe Adam

Jules Perrot

Jean Coralli

Marius Petipa

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Nice Opera presents Donizetti’s ‘Lucia di Lammermoor’

Poster courtesy Nice Opera

Against a backdrop of vocal brilliance, powerful emotions and internecine battles, Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor has all the makings of a highly dramatic opera. Nice Opera brings to the stage this co-production with Teatro Verdi de Pise.

Starring Kathryn Lewek in the title role, with Oreste Cosimo as her secret lover Edgardo, Mario Cassi as her overbearing brother Enrico and Philippe Kahn as the priest Raimondo, Lucia di Lammermoor is considered by many to be Gaetano Donizetti’s finest work.

Although no longer an unknown composer in 1835, Donizetti really established his reputation with Lucia di Lammermoor. The story is loosely based on Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 novel, The Bride of Lammermuir, set in the Lammermuir Hills in south-east Scotland. The novel – which in turn is roughly based on a real-life murder that scandalized 17th-century Scotland – tells of the tragic and doomed love affair between Lucy Ashton and Edgar Ravenswood. Their feuding families were sworn enemies, as the Ashtons had ousted the Ravenswoods from their ancient estate which ultimately became Enrico’s possession.

In Donizetti’s opera, with a libretto by Salvadore Cammarano, the Ashton family’s fortunes are in a perilous state. Enrico decides that in order to salvage the situation, his sister Lucia must marry well. Lucia has been having secret trysts with Edgardo Ravenswood to whom she has sworn loyalty, and on learning this, Enrico vows to end the affair and destroy his enemy. He forces Lucia to marry Lord Arturo, but on her wedding night Lucia suffers a complete breakdown, totally losing her mind, and leading to what’s regarded as one of the most unforgettable ‘mad scenes’ ever created. The opera premiered at the Teatro San Carlo in Naples on September 26th, 1835.

American soprano Kathryn Lewek – who reprises her 2020 role as Lucia for Nice Opera – has made her name as Queen of the Night in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). According to New York Classical Review, “Lewek has to be the finest contemporary Queen of the Night, bar none”. This season she will mark her 50th performance of the role at The Met. Other engagements during the 2022-23 season include role débuts as Countess Adèle in Rossini’s Le comte Ory with Lyric Opera of Chicago and one of the Heroines in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann with Deutsche Oper Berlin, house débuts with the Royal Opera House Covent Garden and Semperoper Dresden as Queen of the Night in Die Zauberflöte, and she will also sing the role in a return to the Vienna Staatsoper. Future seasons include reprisals of the roles of Konstanze in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail and Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata, as well as long awaited role débuts of Juliette in Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette and Gilda in Verdi’s Rigoletto.

The role of Lucia’s brother, Enrico, is taken by Italian baritone Mario Cassi. Winner of several important international competitions, Mr Cassi’s operatic repertoire ranges from the music of Handel, Porpora, Cavalli and Mozart to contemporary music, with special attention to the Italian bel canto works, such as those by Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini. Roles in which he has appeared include Figaro in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia, Guglielmo in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Marcello in Pucccini’s La bohème, the title role in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, Conte d’Almaviva in Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Conte di Luna in Verdi’s  Il Trovatore and Sharpless in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. He has most recently appeared as Giorgio Germont in Verdi’s La Traviata and Count Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro for Opera Australia.

Italian tenor Oreste Cosimo takes the role of Lucia’s secret lover, Edgardo, a role he has previously sung for Deutsche Oper am Rhein in Duesseldorf, Aalto Theater Essen and Opera Craiova in Romania. He has recently appeared in the title role in Offenbach’s Les Contes d’Hoffmann and as Alfredo in Verdi’s La Traviata for the Israeli Opera, and other major roles in which Mr Cosimo has appeared include Rodolfo in Puccini’s La bohème, the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s Rigoletto, Pinkerton in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Don Ottavio in Mozart’s Don Giovanni.

The role of Raimondo the priest is taken by French bass Philippe Kahn who has performed in some of the major opera houses in France, across Europe and in the United States. Mr Kahn’s repertoire includes roles such as Sarastro in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, the Commander in his Don Juan, Father Laurence in Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette, Nilakantha in Delibes’ Lakmé, Colline in Puccini’s La bohème, Zaccaria in Verdi’s Nabucco, Il Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and Basilio in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.

Also in the cast are Maurizio Pace as Lord Arturo the ill-fated bridegroom, Karine Ohanyan as Lucia’s handmaid Alisa and Gregoire Mour as the huntsman Normanno.

Stage Director Stefano Vizioli has guested in some of the most important theatres in Italy and worldwide, working with eminent international conductors. Included in his greatest triumphs are Donizetti’s Don Pasquale at La Scala in Milan, Verdi’s Rigoletto at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia at the Théâtre des Champs Elysées and Bellini’s Norma at Ravenna Festival.

The conductor of Lucia di Lammermoor is Andriy Yurkevitch, Music Director at the Polish National Opera. He has also worked with Monte Carlo Opera, Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie, Bayerische Staatsoper, Liceu in Barcelona, Teatro Municipal in Santiago, Greek National Opera and San Francisco Opera.

Maestro Yurkevitch leads the Nice Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus in four performances of Lucia di Lammermoor between 17th and 23rd February. Further information is available on the Nice Opera website.

Information sourced from:
Nice Opera programme notes
English National Opera programme notes
Kathryn Lewek
Mario Cassi
Oreste Cosimo
Philippe Kahn
Stefano Vizioli
Andriy Yurkevitch

This article first appeared in Riviera Buzz

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Kirill Gerstein celebrates Rachmaninov anniversary with London Philharmonic

Pianist Kirill Gerstein © Marco Borggreve

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the birth of composer Sergei Rachmaninov, and piano virtuoso Kirill Gerstein marks this celebration at the Royal Festival Hall, with the London Philharmonic Orchestra led by conductor and violinist Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider. The main work of the concert is Rachmaninov’s much-loved Piano Concerto No 2 in C Minor and also on the programme are Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila and the first four movements of Smetana’s Má vlast (My Homeland).

Conductor Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider © Lars Gundersen

Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider, Music Director of Orchestre national de Lyon and Principal Guest Conductor of the Mariinsky Orchestra, makes his debut with the LPO in this performance. A regular guest conductor of some of the world’s leading orchestras, Maestro Szeps-Znaider this season makes return visits to the Chicago Symphony, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic and Orchestre Symphonique de Montréal. He has been acclaimed for his debut appearances leading the Dresden Semperoper and the Royal Danish Opera in Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and will shortly be conducting performances of this work at the Zurich Opera House.

The London Philharmonic Orchestra with Conductor Emeritus Vladimir Jurowski
© Benjamin Ealovega

The career of multi-award-winning pianist Kirill Gerstein includes appearances in solo and concert engagements across Europe and the United States, in China and in Australia. He has a wide-ranging repertoire which features compositions from Bach through to the contemporary composer Thomas Adès, who wrote his 2018 Concerto for Piano and Orchestra for him. Gerstein recently played Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini with Alan Gilbert and Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks where he is Artist-in-Residence 2022-23, and in July this year, he will perform Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No 3 with the London Symphony Orchestra and Susanna Mälkki, as part of his Festival d’Aix-en-Provence Artist-in-Focus. 

Kirill Gerstein © Marco Borggreve

Sergei Rachmaninov, born on 1st April, 1873, was one of the great piano virtuosos of the 20th century, and is regarded as the last great figure of traditional Russian Romanticism. His Second Piano Concerto which premiered in Moscow on 27th October, 1901, was the first success he had achieved since the failure of his First Symphony in March 1897. Having spent some time following that disaster in the care of psychiatrist Nikolay Dahl, the composer regained his self-confidence and produced what has become one of his most popular works, his Second Piano Concerto, which he dedicated to Dahl. It is regarded by some as one of the most romantic works ever written, and was used to great effect in David Lean’s 1945 film Brief Encounter.

Sergei Rachmaninov – United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In 1909 Rachmaninov made his highly acclaimed debut as a soloist in his Piano Concerto No 3 when it was premiered by Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony on 28th November 1909, during Rachmaninov’s concert tour of the United States. He returned to Russia the following year, but after the Revolution of 1917, he once again went into exile of his own volition, dividing his time between Switzerland and the United States. He missed his homeland and the Russian people, but ultimately settled in California where, in 1940, he composed his last major work – the Symphonic Dances for Orchestra. He died in Beverley Hills on 28th March, 1943 – at the age of 69.

The concert opens with Glinka’s rousing Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila – a story dating back to pagan Russia, based on the 1820 poem by Alexander Pushkin, which told of the beautiful Ludmila who was wooed by three admirers and ultimately abducted by the knight Ruslan. Mikhail Glinka (1804-1857) was the first Russian composer to gain international recognition and is the accepted founder of the Russian nationalist school – his composition The Patriotic Song having been the Russian national anthem from the time of the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 until 2000.

Ludmila in the Chernomors Garden by Konstantin Somov
via Wikimedia Commons

The final work on the programme consists of the first four movements of Má vlast by Bohemian composer Bedřich Smetana (1824-1884). Composer of operas and symphonic poems, Smetana was the first important Bohemian nationalist composer. The six-movement symphonic suite, Má vlast, was inspired by the mythology and pastoral beauty of Smetana’s Czech homeland, and it is undoubtedly his most popular work. Sadly, Smetana went deaf in 1874 and never heard Má vlast performed.

Nikolay Szeps-Znaider leads Kirill Gerstein and the London Philharmonic Orchestra in a performance of works by Glinka, Rachmaninov and Smetana. The concert takes place on Friday evening, 10th February at the Royal Festival Hall at 7.30 pm. For further information please visit the London Philharmonic Orchestra website where booking details for the concert can also be found.

Information sourced from:

London Philharmonic Orchestra programme notes

Kirill Gerstein


Nikolaj Szeps-Znaider



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