Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony launch their 2017-18 season this week with a fabulous program, featuring one of classical music’s most illustrious artists, cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
Getting the festivities of the Gala Opening off to a rousing start is Leonard Bernstein’s Overture to Candide, the first work by MTT and the Symphony in their season-long tribute to to one of the 20th century’s greatest composers, conductors, pianists – and characters – on the 100th anniversary of his birth. Bernstein wrote this colorful and melodic overture for his comic operetta, Candide, based on Voltaire’s 1758 novella – a satirical comment on the fashionable philosophies of the time. The overture is more often performed than the operetta, but San Francisco audiences are in for a treat, for in January, MTT will lead the Symphony in a full concert performance of the entire work.
Yo-Yo Ma is a towering figure in the world of music. Whether he’s playing orchestral, chamber, recital, or folk and cultural music, he demonstrates his admirable versatility in collaborations with a wide range of artists, from Emanuel Ax, Daniel Barenboim and MTT, to Iranian kamancheh virtuoso Kayhan Kalhor, bassist Edgar Meyer, choreographer Mark Morris, pianist Kathryn Stott, mandolinist Chris Thile, pipa player Wu Man, and former New York City Ballet principal dancer Damian Woetzel. Yo-Yo Ma also has a strong personal focus on communication, and on helping young people to appreciate the joys of music making and creativity from an early age. As he says: “All the things I love about life outside music have to do with people, and playing the cello allows me to fulfill all those interests through music.”
Having recorded over 100 albums, 18 of which have won Grammy Awards, Yo-Yo Ma has also been the recipient of a number of prestigious honors, including the 1978 Avery Fischer Prize, the 1999 Glenn Gould Prize and the National Medal of the Arts in 2001. He was appointed a CultureConnect Ambassador by the United States Department of State in 2002, and serves as a UN Messenger of Peace.
The first of the two gorgeous works which Yo-Yo Ma performs at this Gala Concert is the Saint-Saëns Cello Concerto No 1. Written as one continuous movement, despite having three distinct sections, it’s a lyrical and appealing piece, and the fact that it was premiered at the Paris Conservatoire – on January 19, 1873 – gives an indication of the high regard in which the composer was held. The Conservatoire at that time wasn’t given to featuring works by contemporary composers.
Tchaikovsky’s hauntingly beautiful Variations on a Rococo Theme is a welcome addition to the program, for it’s not as often played in the concert hall as are many other works for the cello. The theme in question wasn’t actually based on one from the Rococo period, but on a theme imagined by Tchaikovsky to be in the style of the Classical Era, his admiration for Mozart and Haydn having been well documented. Either or both of these composers might have been the inspiration for the piece, but it was scored for a rather smaller orchestra than was common during their time. Played with no breaks between the variations, this work is nevertheless said to be the closest that Tchaikovsky ever came to composing a cello concerto.
Wrapping up the program is Ravel’s mesmerizing Bolero, a piece of music that he wrote whilst on holiday in Saint-Jean-de-Luz, in his beloved Basque country. He’d promised to write a piece for the Russian dancer Ida Rubinstein, and – apparently playing the melody with just one finger on the keyboard – he remarked to a friend that he thought it had an “insistent quality” and planned to develop it. Insistent, with an unstintingly regular rhythm it might have been, but by the time Ravel had finished with these 18 variations on one theme, they were set to become his most popular work. Bolero premiered in Paris on November 22, 1928, with Rubinstein performing a ballet choreographed by Bronislava Nijinska.
This Opening Night Gala will certainly be an occasion to remember – the Symphony knows how to throw a spectacular party! An evening of superb music is preceded by the fizz of bubbles, with the traditional After-Party for all concert-goers in the Tented Pavilion in Grove Street – and all for a great cause, too – benefiting the Symphony’s many artistic, community and education programs, which reach more than 75,000 Bay Area children every year.
The Gala heralds a season packed with wonderful programs, an important part of which will be the celebration of the Centennial of Leonard Bernstein – a hugely influential figure in the life of Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas. In addition to the concert performance of Bernstein’s Candide, works by this most charismatic of composers include his Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs, his Chichester Psalms, his eight-part song cycle Arias and Barcarolles, the Symphony No 2, The Age of Anxiety, and his Serenade; Facsimile; Divertimento. No Bernstein celebration would be complete without his wonderful Symphonic Dances from West Side Story, and there’ll also be a screening of the film in a separate performance, with the score provided by the San Francisco Symphony.
Other highlights of the season include a semi-staged production of Mussorgsky’s epic Russian opera Boris Godunov, starring Stanislav Trofimov in the title role, and the list of visiting conductors features Jakub Hrůša, Edward Gardner, and Daniel Harding – all making SFS debuts. Krysztof Urbański, Susanna Mälkki, Semyon Bychkov, Osmo Vänskä and Herbert Blomstedt lead performances of music from their own countries. Juraj Valčuha, Pablo Heras-Casado, Stéphane Denève and David Robertson conduct the first SFS performances of contemporary works, and Charles Dutoit conducts works that featured in Ravel’s 1928 tour of the United States.
There’s a season-long residency by young Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, and the list of visiting ensembles and soloists is impressive – the Royal and Israel philharmonic orchestras, Bach Collegium Japan, and Joshua Bell and the Academy of St Martin in the Fields; pianists Yuja Wang, Yefim Bronfman, and András Schiff; violinist Christian Tetzlaff; and what’s billed as “an extraordinary collaborative performance” by violinist Itzhak Perlman and pianist Martha Argerich. It’s certainly going to be a grand season.
For more information and tickets for the Opening Night Gala and all performances, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.
San Francisco Symphony program notes