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Geneva Anderson digs into art

Interview: Pianist Kirill Gerstein on the eve of his performance at Weill Hall with the San Francisco Symphony

Pianist Kirill Gerstein performs Beethoven's Second Piano Concerto on Thursday, June 5, at Weill Hall as part of “Dutoit Conducts Beethoven and Shostakovich,” the final concert in the San Francisco Symphony’s 2013-4 Weill Hall performance series.  Gerstein is the Winner of the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition and the recipient of a Gilmore Artist Award.

Pianist Kirill Gerstein says it’s a “special thrill and a tickle” to come to the Wine Country and perform at Weill Hall. The virtuoso performs Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto on Thursday, June 5, as part of “Dutoit Conducts Beethoven and Shostakovich,” the final concert in the San Francisco Symphony’s 2013-4 Weill Hall performance series. Gerstein is the Winner of the Arthur Rubinstein Piano Competition and the recipient of a Gilmore Artist Award.

Born in Voronezh, Russia, in 1979, classical pianist Kirill Gerstein was the winner of the 2001 Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv.  In 2010, he was awarded the prestigious $300,000 Gilmore Artist Award.  Gerstein first touched foot in the U.S.  at age 14, when he went to Berklee College of Music in Boston as a jazz pianist (their youngest student ever).  There wasn’t any live jazz to be heard in Voronezh, but Gerstein fell in love with it by listening to his parents’ extensive record collection and it was his skill at improvisation that led to a scholarship to Berklee.  He went on to tackle classical repertoire in summers at Boston University’s Tanglewood Institute and earned both his bachelor’s and master’s at the Manhattan School of Music at 20.  Gerstein, now 35, has spent his life balancing his love of classical music and jazz but chose to focus his energy on classical playing. And what a life he’s crafted.  With his technical prowess and ability to communicate his connection to the music, he’s emerged as one of the most respected and insightful pianists of his generation.  He manages a global touring schedule that includes recitals, chamber music and concerto solos and carves out time to teach.  Since receiving the Gilmore Award, he has commissioned boundary-crossing new works from Oliver Knussen, Chick Corea (Jazz), Brad Mehldau (Jazz) and Timothy Andres, and additional commissions are in the works.  This Thursday, at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall, Gerstein performs Beethoven’s “Piano Concerto No. 2” with Charles Dutoit and the San Francisco Symphony.  Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 10” is also in the program.  Composed after Stalin’s death in 1953, this piece, since the late 1970’s, has been seen as a depiction of the Stalin years in Russia and is considered one of the most devastating essays in the twentieth-century symphonic literature.   This is the final concert in the San Francisco Symphony’s 2013-4 Weill Hall performance series. The concert will also be performed at Davies Symphony Hall Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.

Gerstein’s latest album, Imaginary Pictures (Myrios Classics) which features Schumann’s “Carnaval” and Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” will be made available this week at Weill Hall and at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, before its general release on June 10.  Immediately after each concert, including Thursday’s performance, Gerstein will be greeting the audience and signing copies of the new cd in the lobby.  Gerstein’s recording in 2010 of the Liszt Sonata “Humoresque” and a piece by Oliver Knussen, also on Myrios Classics, was considered one of the best recordings of 2010.

Typically, a soloist as busy as Gerstein would perform one concerto and move on, but the Bay Area is in for treat because on Sunday, June 8, we will have the special opportunity to hear Gerstein perform Chamber Music with Members of the San Francisco Symphony.   This is gorgeous music that musicians love to play and audiences live to hear and Gerstein will be playing Dvořák’s “Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor, Opus 90, Dumky” and Shostakovich’s “Piano Quintet in G Minor, opus 57.”

Yesterday, in between rehearsals, I had the pleasure of speaking with Kirill Gerstein about his extraordinary career and his commissions.  Known for his fiery, dramatic playing, his vocal style is crisp and to the point.  In short time though, he demonstrated that his musical curiosity and insights are profound.

Here is our conversation—

You were born in 1979 in very interesting part of Russia, Voronezh—the intersection between Urals and Siberia and Caucasus and Ukraine…a real hinterland. What did you do for fun there growing up?  And when did your love of music really take hold?

I generally have fun and I don’t think, even as child, that I made a distinction between fun and non-fun—it was all fun and I didn’t have any realizations about something missing in Voronezh.  I enjoyed studying music and reading and my parents made sure that I spoke with a lot of people.  I wasn’t the tortured prodigy you sometimes read about.  I practiced but not those crazy amounts you hear about.

And when did your love of music really take hold?

Kirill Gerstein:  Music has always accompanied me.  My mother is a musician and she taught college but she also taught at home and the piano was there and she was my first teacher.  I don’t remember any time without music or the piano.  So it wasn’t a certain moment or lesson, it was just always there and my interest increased.   Most of my exposure was to classical music.  I went to a lot of concerts.  The jazz was only from recordings as there wasn’t really an active jazz scene in Russia.  There was a bit in Moscow, but not very much, and certainly not in Voronezh which was not a capital city.  I really liked Chic Corea and Keith Jarrett and listened over and over.

In reading about your life, it seems like praise has been heaped upon you since you were a child.  Who’s been the most influential teacher you’ve had and why and what hurdle did that person take you over?   Did you immediately win him or her with your playing, or was it more of a brutal relationship where you really had to strive? 

Kirill Gerstein:  There was a lot of praise and heaped is correct.  Studying music is a process where you encounter a lot of criticism that accentuates your weak spots as a player and as a person and that’s how you learn.  The process is to do justice to the music.  The two most important teachers I had were Dmitri Bashkirov in Madrid and Ferenc Rados in Budapest.  Both of them, especially the first time, were very harshly critical of what I did but it was clear to me that they had some very valuable information that I wanted and needed.  So, in spite of the ego bruising, I stayed with them and worked with them.  With Dmitri Bashkirov, who I had heard in Voronezh in concert as child, because he happened to give regular concerts there, I was transfixed, so that was particularly important.   I first played for him in Spain when I was about 17 and he was harsh but there was such insight.  I kept returning and, finally, I broke through and began to really develop my playing and took his class.  I worked with him for years.       

The lives and careers of Beethoven and Shostakovich were separated by over a century and in their works we can see how they wrestled with these big themes of freedom, liberty, and politics. The concert, I hope, will illuminate some of the subtler, musical traits that these composers have in common. What comes to mind for you in the pairing of the No. 2 and Shostakovich’s “Symphony No. 10”?  

Kirill Gerstein:  I think this is a good pairing. In terms of Russian composers of the 20th century, Shostakovich was a composer of great symphonies. The symphonic composer was really defined, or let’s say redefined, by Beethoven in ways that impacted every subsequent generation from Brahms onwards, including Shostakovich.  Mozart and Haydn wrote very important symphonies but Beethoven with his nine symphonies is really a towering presence who went beyond classical music to impact all of Western culture. Shostakovich was aware of this and in many ways inspired by these symphonic models and the two do go very well together.  You could say that, in some ways, Shostakovich modeled his compositional ideals on Beethoven, not necessarily the style but concept behind it, and you have the important body of string quartets by both composers for which this also holds.

The two pieces on Thursday’s program are very different in sprit and mood because the “Symphony No. 10” is a later piece of Shostakovich whereas the Beethoven “Piano Concerto No. 2” was actually composed first. This is really the most youthful of his five piano concertos, where he’s just starting to depart form the models of Mozart and Haydn but it does so boldly, just as he lived his life.  In this concerto, he does show that he has studied and absorbed the great models of Mozart and Haydn but also that he has much to say that’s very original.  It’s also a piece filled with lots of humor and a beautiful second movement that’s very much inspired by the Italian operatic traditions because one of his teachers was Antonio Salieri, very influential.

On Sunday, at Davies you’ll be performing a very special chamber music concert which includes the Shostakovich “Piano Quintet in G minor, Opus 57 and the Dvorak “Piano Trio No 4 in E Minor, Opus 90.”  The third movement of the Shostakovich is this amazing scherzo and trio that has a kind of dark sarcasm to it.  What’s your favorite part of this piece?

Kirill Gerstein:  Well, I clearly like the entire piece.  You’re right, the third movement is a style of overt optimism, projected and fitting for the Soviet period but underneath anyone can detect this is not happy at all but quite the opposite.  This was a very common M.O. for Shostakovich…happiness on the face and darkness in the soul.

How do you prepare before a performance?  Is there some routine you adhere to?  

Kirill Gerstein:  I try not to subscribe to any routines because then you end up breaking the routine and it becomes all about that.  There’s a lot to coordinate—your own travel schedule, rehearsal times vary, the pieces are all varied.  Trying to have a routine is a very futile undertaking.  And the preparing, well, the performance is really a window into something that’s a very continuous process that I think about all the time.  I practice the piano whether there is or is not a concert.  Of course, a public performance brings a wonderful inspiration to the performer who has his life in music.

You have an ongoing collaboration with Charles Detoit, who will be conducting this Thursday.  You obviously have a special rapport.  What clicks? 

Kirill Gerstein:  Well, I met Charles probably ten years ago and he has been a wonderfully supportive collaborator and mentor in quite a variety of repertoire—German, modern pieces, and now the Beethoven Concerto No. 2.  I really feel an established musical and personal connection with him and can say that he is someone who is always inspiring to be with.  Professionally, he’s very accomplished and generous.

Your new album, Imaginary Pictures, to be released June 10 by Myrios Classics, features Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and Schumann’s famous “Carnaval,” both cycles of piano pieces in which the visual was the departure point that fired the composers’ imaginations—in one case actual drawings by Victor Herman and the other, masked revelers at a party.  I’d love to hear your thoughts on your pairing of these magnificent works.  Also, in preparing for the recording, was there anything new you found in these works?

Kirill Gerstein:  There are several reasons to pair the two.  Certainly, they both have overtly visual starting points but it’s not just ‘simple paintings in sound,’ which is the obvious parallel.  Both composers go much deeper to create a psychological portrayal of how they viewed the subjects and ultimately it becomes more about them as observers.  The composers themselves were both self-taught and they had this kind of wild unbridled imagination in common which led to unexpected wonderful things appearing from nowhere.  They knew the academic and classical traditions very well but were always pushing the boundaries, so even though their music sounds quite different, the creative spirit is a kindred one.  And yes, the pieces are very popular but that wasn’t sufficient—unless there was something new and somewhat subjective and different to bring to the piece, there was no point to record it.  I decided to record them because, when I looked at the score on the page, some things appeared differently to me than I was used to hearing.  For example, in “Pictures at an Exhibition”—one of the most played pieces in the piano and orchestral repertoire—some things felt like discoveries to be explored.  Of course, the process of recording itself stimulates this feeling of discovery.

I heard that you wrote the liner notes for this album too.

Kirill Gerstein:  I did that for my previous cd too by the way.  Generally, I enjoy writing.   I’ve written for the gallery section of the New York Review of Books website and that’s something I intend to do more of as I enjoy the process.  To me, that’s part of being a well-rounded expressive person not just a pianist pressing buttons on a keyboard. (Click here to read Kirill Gerstein “Tchaikovsky’s ‘Wrong’ Note,” NYR Gallery, August 13, 2013.)  Specifically, this was also an invitation to think more about the pairing and what the music is trying to express, the philosophical territory.

Speaking of visual inspiration, many composers embrace other art forms for inspiration with their music.  What other art forms have you found strong inspiration in?

Kirill Gerstein:  In general, movement is inspiring, so dance is influential, but so are painting, poetry, prose and performances from great actors as well.  Architecture is something that is inspiring for thinking about music.  But these aren’t direct influences; they are indirect and after some time.  It’s letting myself  be inspired by the many things I encounter, like seeing a great sushi chef cut the fish with a fluid movement that repeated by his hand time and time again—that’s an aesthetic pleasure that has inspiration.  In the end, it’s about walking with your eyes open.

You won the Gilmore Artist Award in 2010, which is given every four years—one of the most prestigious and generous awards a concert pianist can receive. The cash prize of $300,000 stipulates that $250,000 is to be put toward “career development.”  I understand that you are putting that to use by commissioning works by living composers, including jazz composers.  Can you tell us a little about the pieces you’ve commissioned so far and what is in the works?  Do you have ongoing interaction with these musicians?

Kirill Gerstein:  I’ve purposefully chosen very different individuals.  There’s a great figure in modern music, Oliver Knussen, the British composer and conductor.  On the other hand, there’s the young up and coming American composer and pianist, Timo Andres. Andres’ “Old Friend” had its world premiere at Boston’s Jordan Hall on Jan 31, 2014 and I played the piece.  There have been a couple of jazz-related commissions—the great jazz pianists, Brad Mehldau and Chick Corea, have both written pieces for me.  The idea was to pass this money on to other artists, in this case composers, and in return, to get an artwork that for the initial period is exclusive to my concert programs, an additional benefit.  Eventually, the pieces will be for each pianist to play and they will add variety and enrich the piano repertoire.  It’s been very rewarding being part of the impetus that gets new pieces created and out there.  The exchange between the music creator/composer is another source of inspiration and something that shows you how some of the great golden composers—Beethoven, Rachmaninoff—may have participated in that process of collaboration between composer and performer.

Did the composers you commissioned meet your expectations?

Kirill Gerstein:  I try not the have expectations.  I let myself be surprised not only by the composers but by life in general—it’s mentally more efficient.  I have been very satisfied with all of the works and inspired by the process.

Speaking of inspiration, what type of music do you listen to when you want to relax? 

Kirill Gerstein:  When I relax I don’t listen to music usually.  It’s such an intense process for me that it snaps me back into this very engaged mode.  And I don’t listen to background music either.

You started life in Russia, moved early to the States and now your parents live in Boston and you teach at Stuttgart’s Musikhochschule, and your wife, Noam, is from Tel Aviv.   Which place do you consider home and how do you define home?

Kirill Gerstein:  This is very philosophical and should be the subject of an entire interview but, having had this varied history, I feel at home in many places.  Obviously, you give up some feeling of being rooted but on the other hand what I’ve gained is being at home and comfortable in many places in the world and in different cultures and circles.  Something lost, something gained.

Have you ever been to the Wine Country where you’ll be preforming this Thursday?

Kirill Gerstein:  Yes I have.  I really enjoy the wine making region so this is a special dream and tickle. A lot of the wine that I particularly enjoy comes from this area.

 

Concert Details: For tickets and more information for Thursday’s Weill Hall performance “Dutoit Conducts Beethoven and Shostakovich”, click here.  Tickets can also be purchased in person tomorrow at the Green Music Center Box Office for this concert, at 7 PM, one hour in advance of the concert.  For the three San Francisco performances of the concert at Davies Hall, click here. For tickets and more information about Sunday’s Chamber music concert, click here.

 

 

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June 4, 2014 Posted by | Chamber Music, Classical Music, Green Music Center | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

San Francisco Symphony’s Film Series—Charlie Chaplin in “City Lights” with live music at Davies Symphony Hall this Saturday, April 12, 2014

Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp buys a flower from the blind flower girl, played by Virginia Cherrill, in the silent film classic, “City Lights,” which will be shown Saturday, April 12, 2014 at Davies Symphony Hall.  Guest conductor Richard Kaufman, who has devoted much of his career to the music of film, will conduct the San Francisco Symphony in live accompaniment.

Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp buys a flower from the blind flower girl, played by Virginia Cherrill, in the silent film classic, “City Lights,” which will be shown Saturday, April 12, 2014 at Davies Symphony Hall. Guest conductor Richard Kaufman, who has devoted much of his career to the music of film, will conduct the San Francisco Symphony in live accompaniment.

Slapstick, pathos, pantomime, melodrama, physical prowess, and, of course, the Little Tramp—all of these led renowned film critic Robert Ebert to proclaim that Charley Chaplin’s masterpiece of the Silent Era, City Lights, “comes closest to representing all the different notes of his genius.”  Written by, directed by, and starring Chaplin, the enchanting romantic comedy from 1931 features Chaplin in his greatest role ever, the Little Tramp.  A fellow to whom who everyman could relate, the Tramp was tossed about by life but not so battered that he couldn’t pick himself up and, with dignity, carry on.  This Saturday, April 14, 2104, guest conductor Richard Kaufman, who has devoted much of his career to the music of film, conducts the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in City Lights with Orchestra.  The program is part of the new SFS film series which delivers edge-of-your seat thrillers, epic dramas, and animated classics on a huge screen in gorgeous Davies Symphony Hall with live music, performed by the San Francisco Symphony.  ARThound has attended several of these film nights and Davies Hall gets delightfully and refreshingly giddy as octogenarians and 8-year-olds connect over the magic of film and music.

The story:   City Lights was released three years into the talkies era but Chaplin decided it should be a silent film with sound effects but no speech.  His beloved Tramp had communicated very effectively with a worldwide audience exclusively through mime—Chaplin’s Little Tramp appeared in over 80 movies from 1914 to 1967—and Chaplin was not going to change the formula.   In City Lights, the Tramp fixes his romantic gaze on someone who can’t return it—a spunky blind flower girl played by the luminous Virginia Cherrill.  He also befriends an alcoholic millionaire (Harry Myers) who forgets who Chaplin is when he’s sober, providing some of the funniest scenes in any of Chaplin’s films.  As the Tramp attempts to get money for an operation that will restore the blind girl’s sight, Chaplin exquisitely interweaves pathos and comedy to wrench maximum emotion from each scene.  When the lonely millionaire contemplates suicide, it’s tragic. When the benevolent Tramp tries to save him from drowning, and accidentally ends up with a weight pinned to his own neck, Chaplin creates an ideal framework for sentiment and laughs.  But that’s just one example in dozens of the seamless and brilliant storytelling that occurs in this film.   The movie’s last scene, justly famous as one the great emotional moments in films is bound to bring tears to your eyes.  When Chaplin’s friend, Albert Einstein, attended the Los Angeles premiere of City Lights, he was reported to be have been seen wiping his eyes.  ARThound especially loves the scene where the Tramp swallows a whistle and starts whistling every time he breathes, gathering a large following of dogs and hailing taxi’s.

The delicate onscreen chemistry between Chaplin and Virginia Cherrill is a delight to behold.  Cherrill had the distinction of being the only leading lady of Chaplin’s silent features whom he neither married nor was linked romantically to.  He cast her solely for her photogenic beauty—without a screen test—and their strong personalities clashed and he fired her halfway through the two-year shoot, only to have to woo her back.

The music: If you haven’t yet experienced the magic of watching a silent film accompanied by live music, City Lights is the film to initiate yourself with and SFS is your orchestra.  The exaggerated dynamics and exquisite timing, so integral to the visual experience of City Lights, are enlivened by a musical score which beautifully punctuates the film’s epic tragic-comic moments. This was Chaplin’s first attempt at composing the music to one of his films and he wrote many of its stirring melodies while acclaimed composers Arthur Johnston (“Pennies from Heaven”) and Alfred Newman assisted with arrangement and orchestration.  The process took six weeks.  And, as was customary in the scoring for silent pictures, the Wagnerian leitmotiv system was employed with Chaplin creating a distinctive musical theme identified with each character and idea.

According to Theodore Huff’s analysis of the City Lights score (“Chaplin as a Composer” in his biography Charlie Chaplin, New York, Henry Schuman, 1951, pp. 234-41),  Chaplin composed twenty discrete themes and ninety-five cues, not including instru­mental bits that animate the action.  Not all the melodies are by Chaplin.  The score generously samples other well-known tunes, either undisguised or in variational form, from “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “Old Folks at Home,” and “Scheherazade” to “I Hear You Calling,” “How Dry I Am,” and “St. Louis Blues.”  These mesh with Chaplin’s more generic renditions of jazz, opera, the waltz, the rhumba, the tango, the apache dance, and his blues fanfare for trumpet, a refrain throughout the film.  On the whole though, the score hardly seems a generic mish-mash–it’s tailored to each scene, it ampli­fies emotions, comments on the action, and even creates jokes.

The legacy: When City Lights debuted in New York in 1931, it was so popular that the theater had continual showings from 9 a.m. to midnight, every day except Sunday. According to film historian Charles Maland, “by the end of 1931, the [United Artists’] ledgers reveal, City Lights had already accumulated more domestic rentals than The Circus and over 90 percent of the domestic rentals that The Gold Rush had garnered since 1925.” Critics showered it with praise as well. The Oscar for Best Cinematography in 1931, however, went to another silent film, F.W. Murnau’s Tabu. Many expected City Lights to win, but it wasn’t even nominated. As film historian William M. Drew speculated, “Perhaps Chaplin’s perceived audacity in persisting in making a silent film in Hollywood after sound had arrived … seemed too great an act of insubordination for the industry to honor.”   (quotes extracted from Mental Floss Magazine, February 24, 2012)

Run-time: Approximately 80 minutes, no intermission.

Pre- and post-show Events: Arrive early and visit the lobby bars for a cocktail created especially for this concert!

  • Casablanca (sparkling wine, Grand Marnier, Remy VSOP, lemon twist)
  • French Connection (Grey Goose, Chambord, pineapple juice, sparkling wine, lemon twist)

 

Details: “City Lights with Orchestra” is Saturday, April 12, 2014 at 8PM at 8 PM at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco.  LIMITED AVAILABILITY Tickets: $41 to $156; purchase online here, or, call (415) 864-6000. For more information, visit www.sfsymphony.org.

Getting to Davies:  Davies Symphony Hall is located at 201 Van Ness Avenue, at Grove Street, in San Francisco’s Civic Center, just across the street from City Hall.  The main entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street.

Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco on the weekend and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there is frequently congestion en route to Davies Hall.  Arrive early at your parking garage of choice as these also fill up early on weekends.  Recommended Garages:  Two garages are very close to Davies— the Performing Arts Garage (1/2 block)(Grove Street between Franklin and Gough Streets) and Civic Center Garage (roughly 2 blocks) (McAllister Street between Polk and Larken Streets) (both have flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights)

April 7, 2014 Posted by | Film, Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

MTT conducts Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 with the San Francisco Symphony, mezzo Sasha Cooke, the SFS Chorus, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus

Grammy winning mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke guest solos with MTT and San Francisco Symphony this week in three performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3.  Cooke appeared this summer at San Francisco Opera in the world premiere of Mark Adamo's The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Seen worldwide as Kitty Oppenheimer in the Met Opera and Grammy® Award-winning DVD of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, Cooke is renowned for her command of Romantic and Contemporary repertoire.  Photo: Dario Acosta

Grammy winning mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke guest solos with MTT and San Francisco Symphony this week in three performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 3. Cooke appeared this summer at San Francisco Opera in the world premiere of Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene. Seen worldwide as Kitty Oppenheimer in the Met Opera and Grammy® Award-winning DVD of John Adams’ Doctor Atomic, Cooke is renowned for her command of Romantic and Contemporary repertoire. Photo: Dario Acosta

Gustav Mahler’s Third Symphony in D Minor, the most expansive of his ten symphonies, is a cosmological tour de force.  Full of magic and mystery, it’s the musical journey of Nature coming to life, at first through flowers and animals and then on up to man, the angels and the love of God.  This Thursday, Saturday and Sunday, Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) conducts the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke, the SFS Chorus, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus in this rarely performed epic—in six movements grouped into two parts—which clocks in at roughly 90 minutes, earning it the distinction of the longest symphony in the standard repertoire.   It almost goes without saying that MTT has sealed his reputation on Mahler.  In 2001, SFS and MTT launched the Mahler Project and recorded the balance of Mahler’s major works for voices, chorus and orchestra picking up four Grammys in the process.  The Symphony No. 3 and Kindertotenlieder recording won the 2004 Grammy for Best Classical Album.  Of course, nothing compares to the magic of a live MTT/SFS Mahler performance.  Whether it’s your first or 50th time, each performance reflects a constantly evolving understanding of the composer’s genius and complexities.

Michael Tilson Thomas with the bust of Gustav Mahler at the Weiner Staatsoper (Vienna Opera House) during the filming of the acclaimed "Keeping Score" series in which MTT mapped the actual geography of Mahler’s life. Photo: Courtesy SFS

Michael Tilson Thomas with the bust of Gustav Mahler at the Weiner Staatsoper (Vienna Opera House) during the filming of the acclaimed “Keeping Score” series in which MTT mapped the actual geography of Mahler’s life. Photo: Courtesy SFS

At Monday’s press conference announcing the 2014-15 season, Tilson Thomas, could not recall how many times SFS has played the work during his 19 year tenure as Music Director (3 times—1997, 2002 and 2011) but he did speak about the joys of revisiting Mahler— “I think of these pieces, these big symphonies, like the Mahler, are like National Parks that we love and we come back to.  We all know the map of the park.  I have the complete map and others on stage have the intricate trail maps of one path or another.  But no matter how much you look at the map of that, when you are actually on the trail, it’s a different thing every time—the nature and character of the piece will vary according to where you are in your life and what you’ve experienced and with whom you are on the trail.  Sometimes, you’ll stop and smell the mimosas and other times, you’ll press ahead to get to the view of the glacier.”

The San Francisco Girls Chorus includes 400 singers from 45 Bay Area cities.  In 2008-2009, the Chorus sang at the swearing in of President Barak Obama and can also be heard of several SFS recordings, including the Grammy winning Mahler Symphony No. 3.  Photo:  SFS

The San Francisco Girls Chorus includes 400 singers from 45 Bay Area cities. In 2008-2009, the Chorus sang at the swearing in of President Barak Obama and can also be heard of several SFS recordings, including the Grammy winning Mahler Symphony No. 3. Photo: SFS

Mahler wrote his Third Symphony between 1893 and 96, when he was in his mid-thirties.  When the German composer and conductor Bruno Walter, visited Mahler at his composing hut in Steinbach am Attersee, Austria (some twenty miles east of Salzburg), he wrote in his memoirs that he looked up at the sheer cliffs of the colossal Höllengebirge and Mahler told him “No need to look up there any more—that’s all been used up and set to music by me.”  This immense rockface inspired the introductory theme of the first movement—a grand unison chant for eight horns evoking the primitive forces of nature.  A offstage horn, also figures prominently in the third movement.  Heard floating in the distance, a melancholy haunting solo imitating an old posthorn or valveless coach horn creates one of Mahler’s soulfully nostalgic moments.

Grammy winner, mezzo Sasha Cooke, was radiant as Mary last summer in the world premiere of Mark Adamo’s The Gospel of Mary Magdalene at San Francisco Opera.   In the summer of 2013, she performed Mahler’s Second Symphony with MTT and the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl. Her expressive and rich voice should be a good match for the dark fourth movement, a Nietzsche text that is sung against heavy strings.  By contrast, the fifth movement is light and will feature the voice of angels—women of the SFS Chorus in three part chorus, joined later by the San Francisco Girls Chorus who enter creating lovely bell like noises and join in the exhortation “Liebe nur Gott”(“Only love God”).   The symphony ends with an adagio, softly walking the edge of the sound and silence.

Cellist Margaret Tait joined SFS in 1974 and is one of the orchestra’s most tenured musicians.  When she plays Mahler’s No. 3, she pulls out her personal card which has markings and memories from previous performances and then “gets down to teaching her fingers how to do that.”  Tate especially likes the middle sections of No. 3 which are “light and very songful.”  Photo: Geneva Anderson

Cellist Margaret Tait joined SFS in 1974 and is one of the orchestra’s most tenured musicians. When she plays Mahler’s No. 3, she pulls out her music which has markings and memories from previous performances and then “gets down to reviewing the part and honing the upcoming performance.” Tait especially likes the middle sections of No. 3 which are “light and very songful.” Photo: Geneva Anderson

Cellist Margaret Tait (Lyman & Carol Casey Second Century Chair) has been with SFS since 1974 and currently heads the SFS Players Committee.  At Monday’s press conference, she said.  “We in the orchestra have a deep pool of shared experience, of performing this repertoire on world stages.  When we come to a piece again like the Mahler’s Third Symphony, we can enter the performance with a feeling of security, of asking ‘What can we bring to the work right now that is new and fresh?’  We rely on our deep knowledge of the piece and our understanding of it over years.  This is the only time I’ve had a relationship with a music director that has lasted 20 years.  The orchestra and MTT have been through a lot together and it’s been a wonderful journey for the orchestra. There’s a sense that what we do is deeply American and very adventuresome. ”

Details: “MTT Conducts Mahler’s Third Symphony” is Thursday (Feb 27) at 8PM; Saturday (March 1) at 8 PM and Sunday (March 2) at 2 PM at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco.  Tickets: $30 to $162; purchase online here, or, call (415) 864-6000.  For more information, visit www.sfsymphony.org.

Getting to Davies:  Davies Symphony Hall is located at 201 Van Ness Avenue at Grove Street, in San Francisco’s Civic Center, just across the street from City Hall.  The main entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street.  Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco on the weekend and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there is frequently congestion around the toll-plaza.  Arrive early at your parking garage of choice because those also fill up on weekends.  Recommended Garages:  Two garages are very close to Davies— the Performing Arts Garage (1/2 block)(Grove Street between Franklin and Gough Streets) and Civic Center Garage (roughly 2 blocks) (McAllister Street between Polk and Larken Streets) (both have flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights)

February 25, 2014 Posted by | Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

interview: ARThound talks with SFS Concertmaster, Alexander Barantschik, who plays a rare Mendelssohn Violin Concerto this Thursday at Weill Hall

Alexander Barantschik, San Francisco Symphony Concertmaster for 14 years, performs and conducts "Barantschik and Friends," at Weill Hall on January 23, 2014 and "Barantschik leads Mozart and Mendelssohn," at Davies Symphony Hall on January 22, 24, 25, 26. Photo: SFS

Alexander Barantschik, San Francisco Symphony Concertmaster for 14 years, performs and conducts “Barantschik and Friends,” at Weill Hall on January 23, 2014 and “Barantschik leads Mozart and Mendelssohn,” at Davies Symphony Hall on January 22, 24, 25, 26. Photo: Geneva Anderson

On stage at Davies Hall, San Francisco Symphony (SFS) Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik seems to epitomize the intense and mysterious Russian.  The virtuoso always looks quite serious as he juggles his orchestra leadership role with that of first violinist who plays “The David,” the illustrious 1742 Guarnerius del Gesú violin, famed for its rich dark sound.  I’ve always wondered what makes Barantschik tick and about the particulars of his Russian musical upbringing.  When I had the chance to interview him in conjunction with “Barantschik and Friends“—his upcoming performance at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall this Thursday (and on Wed, Fri, Sat and Sun at Davies as “Barantschik leads Mozart and Mendelssohn“)—I jumped.  We chatted on the phone last Friday and he couldn’t have been warmer as he shared his amazing story.

Google Barantschik. You’ll learn that he’s nicknamed “Sasha” and that this former concertmaster of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic and London Symphony orchestras has served under Music Director MTT (Michael Tilson Thomas) for 14 years through acclaimed cycles of Mahler, Stravinsky, and Debussy, and that he has premiered important works by André Previn and Viktor Kissine.  He’s played exquisite instruments throughout his career too. The fact that Barantschik’s first auditions in the West—for a seat and then for the concertmaster position at Germany’s Bamburg Symphony—were performed with a violin he bought in a department store as he was leaving Russia, is a little known detail I nudged out of him that makes his story all the more fascinating.  As we were talking, I got the impression that he’s a bit private but that didn’t stop me from asking for “a bit more detail.”

It took SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik about a year to get comfortable with "David," the famous1742 Guarnerius del Gesú that was Jascha Heifetz’ favorite fiddle on stage and in the recording studio.   Barantschik admires the way sound projects from the violin so that even while he is playing softly, the instrument can be heard throughout the concert hall.  The violin rarely leaves Davies Symphony Hall, EXCEPT when it travels to the Green Music Center or to the Mondavi Center.  Photo: Geneva Anderson

It took SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik about a year to get comfortable with “The David,” the famous 1742 Guarnerius del Gesú that was Jascha Heifetz’ favorite fiddle on stage and in the recording studio. Barantschik admires the way sound projects from the violin so that, even while he is playing softly, the instrument can be heard throughout the concert hall. The violin rarely leaves Davies Symphony Hall, EXCEPT when it travels to the Green Music Center or to the Mondavi Center. Photo: Geneva Anderson

On Thursday, Barantschik returns to Green Music Center to lead the Orchestra in an irresistible program he’s put together showcasing strings.  Following a lovely early Mozart “Divertimento in F major for Strings,”  Barantschik takes center stage to play Mendelssohn’s “D minor Violin Concerto,” one of the Romantic master’s finest creations and a delightful surprise for concertgoers who only know its more famous sibling, the E Minor.  He’ll be playing “The David,” the 1742 Heifetz Guarnerius del Gesù violin owned for many years by his idol, Jascha Heifetz.  The violin, valued at over $6 million, was bequeathed to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF) in 1989 by Heifetz and offered as an extended loan to SFS in 2002, where it has been cared for and played by Barantschik.  Barantschik insists that the dollar value on the instrument is “completely irrelevant” as it’s priceless and could “never be replaced.”  Of course there are a few restrictions. This will be “The David’s” second appearance at Weill Hall—1 of 2 locations outside of San Francisco where he is allowed to take it, the other being the Mondavi Centerfor the Performing Arts at UC Davis.  Aside from these two exceptions, the instrument never travels outside of Davies.  Also on the program is Britten’s winsome “Simple Symphony,” a salute to the composer’s centenary and “Melodia-Libertango,” the sultry music of Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla, the king of nuevo tango, with guest performer Seth Asarnow on the bandoneon.

Where did you grow up in Russia and what was your first experience with the violin?  

Alexander Barantschik: I was born in 1953 in St. Petersburg, Russia (then ‘Leningrad’), which was and still is the cultural capital of the country.  My family wasn’t musical, no musicians except for a very distant relative, Yefrem Zimbalist, who lived in the States but I never met him because he’d emigrated at the beginning of the 20th century.  It was pure coincidence that my mother tried to get me some lessons at the music school which was just across the road from our home.  I could walk there by myself every day and my parents thought this would keep me busy and off the streets, which was just what happened.  I was almost six when I was admitted.  My first instrument was an accordion because there was no space for another violin student in the school.  I don’t remember anything about that accordion but a violin spot opened up and the teacher thought I had a pretty good sense of rhythm and pitch and so I started playing the violin.  After a few years, I made some progress.  I can’t say I was completely dedicated to practicing or spent many hours at it but I loved music.  It took quite a few years before I truly understood the importance of practice and of the violin itself.  I was probably 12 or 13 when I started thinking this might be forever, this might be my life, and then I started practicing and then I started making real progress.

Historically, was there a “Russian style” of music playing and was that around when you were studying and is it still around today?  Who were there big mentors that you looked up to, or, perhaps, wanted to topple?

Alexander Barantschik: When we think of a Russian school of violin, we should think about Leopold Auer, basically the first teacher who could claim that he was important for the whole process of teaching great players.  His students, apart from Heifetz, were phenomenal violinists.  He wasn’t Russian but a Hungarian Jew who came to Russia (in 1868) and his Russian wasn’t perfect but he was teaching his students in a unique way—they all had something special in common.  That tradition of playing was very deeply appreciated after he left and went to live in New York for the last part of his life.  I cannot say there is a Russian tradition of violin playing that exists right now.  The world is smaller, faster, and within one week, you can be in three different continents, so things are not as personalized.  There are great players of the past who are impossible to imitate…Jascha Heifetz, Yehudi Menuhin—great players who were absolutely unique.

How do you feel about David Oistrakh’s playing and did you ever happen to meet him? 

Alexander Barantschik: I loved his playing and heard him play much more than any other violinist as he was in Russia and played regularly with the St. Petersburg Philharmonic.  I was dreaming of becoming his student at the Moscow Conservatory and was able to audition with him when he was performing in St. Petersburg.  I met with him in his hotel room and I played for him for about 20 minutes and he was extremely nice and accommodating and sympathetic.  He listened and made some corrections and tried to see how I reacted to his comments.  His last question after I had played was simple—’Do you think you really love violin?’—and he looked straight into my eyes as he asked me that.  I think I said, ‘I dearly love violin.’  After a second, he said, ‘Ok… I will accept you into my class.’  I couldn’t have been happier than I was at that moment. As I was preparing to take other exams at the conservatory, I heard the tragic news that he been on tour to the Netherlands and had died in Amsterdam after his concert.  I never became his student and that was the end of my training but I’m so glad I have this wonderful memory of playing for him.

What were the circumstances that brought you to the West?

Alexander Barantschik: By the time I was in my mid-twenties, I was a member of the St. Petersburg Philharmonic Orchestra and toured regularly.  I had visited Western Europe and Japan but I felt that, for my musical development, I needed to absorb different cultures and traditions and that the only way to achieve this was to emigrate from Russia, which I did at 26.  My first country was Germany, where I was concertmaster with the Bamberg Symphony Orchestra.  This was my first job and I spent three years there learning all about German traditions—Beethoven, Bückner, Haydn—and I broadened my view and I’m still learning from different traditions today.

How difficult was it to get out of Russia to Germany?

Alexander Barantschik:  It was not easy and, let’s say, it was made difficult.  I left Russia with one suitcase—no money, no job, no references and almost no violin.  My violin was not a Guarneri but it was a nice little violin from Tirol, Austria, and at the last minute, I was not allowed to take it with me.  I ended up going to a department store, to the music section and buying a simple violin that had been made in a furniture factory.  It looked horrible and sounded accordingly.  I played my first audition, for the section, on that.  Afterwards, the committee came to me and said they were happy to offer me a job with the orchestra but that in one week they would have another audition for concertmaster and they asked me if I’d like to participate.  I didn’t think about it and just said yes.  They then asked me about my violin which was very bright red and said they’d never seen anything like it before.  One week later, I returned for the concertmaster audition and played all the solos and concerti and I got that position.   That was when they presented me with a very beautiful Guadagnini violin made in Cremona and the legend was that it has belonged to a famous German violinist Joseph Joachim who was a close friend of Brahms and who wrote cadenzas to almost every important classical violin concerto.

Do you still have that red violin?

Alexander Barantschik:  No.  I lent it to someone and this person never returned it and for that I am very sorry.  I would love to frame it and hang it on the wall for my students at the conservatory to see what my beginnings were.

“Sasha” Barantschik has compared his 1742 "David" Guarnerius del Gesú to the mysterious Italian film star Claudia Cardinale—"dark, rich and complex."  Bequeathed to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in 1989 by Jascha Heifetz, this masterpiece of spruce and maple, was named after Ferdinand David, the violinist who owned it in the mid-19th century and for whom composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote his famous violin concerto in E minor.  Heifetz died in 1987 and stipulated in his will that it be played only by "worthy performers.''  Itzhak Perlman, Gil Shaham, Stuart Canin, and Barantschik are among the very few who have since passed their bows over its venerable strings.  Image: FAMSF

“Sasha” Barantschik has compared “The David,” his 1742 Guarnerius del Gesú, to the mysterious Italian film star Claudia Cardinale—”dark, rich and complex.” Bequeathed to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco in 1989 by Jascha Heifetz, this masterpiece of spruce and maple, was named after Ferdinand David, the violinist who owned it in the mid-19th century and for whom composer Felix Mendelssohn wrote his famous violin concerto in E minor. Heifetz died in 1987 and stipulated in his will that it be played only by “worthy performers.” Itzhak Perlman, Gil Shaham, Stuart Canin, and Barantschik are among the very few who have since passed their bows over its venerable strings. Image: FAMSF

What did it feel like the first time you had Jascha Heifetz’s fiddle in your hands?  How long has it taken you to become truly comfortable with the fact that this is now your violin?

Alexander Barantschik:  Of course, the very first time I held it, I was speechless because the sound of Heifetz had been with me in my ear since I was a child…I’ve listened to his recordings all of my life.   The violin is legendary, with a very special history of ownership and craftsmanship but it is not easy to play.  Players need to find the way to produce the sound it’s capable of and that requires a special technique.  It took me many months, perhaps a year, to meet its demands and to make it my friend so it started to like me as well.

Do you think that Guarneri has a unique voice? One of your SFS colleagues mentioned that he thought he heard a familiar voice from the Heifetz recordings when he heard you play it.

Alexander Barantschik:  I never tried to imitate Heifetz’s sound.  First of all that’s impossible as there was only one Heifetz and there will never be another.  So it’s not my intention but it does have a unique dark-colored sound and maybe some low notes sound a little familiar for those who are familiar with his recordings.

detail, “The David” made by Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri (del Gesú).  Photo: Stewart Pollens

detail, “The David” made by Giuseppe Antonio Guarneri (del Gesú). Photo: Stewart Pollens

You were MTT’s concertmaster in London Symphony Orchestra right?  You obviously have a special rapport.  What clicks?  Do you and MTT ever share a vodka before or after a performance?

Alexander Barantschik:  We met in London.  I joined the London Symphony Orchestra in 1989, the same year he started as principal conductor. We met in the recording studio when the orchestra was recording Richard Strauss’ “Ein Heldenleben,” which has a huge important violin solo.  We had just one rehearsal and we didn’t have time to discuss things or work out the details—it was spontaneous—we both just trusted each other as musicians.  After this very important and stressful recording session, we immediately became friends.  I still have the cd and it’s one of the best I ever made.  Our collaboration has continued for a little over 30 years now.

As for the vodka, usually, we are both pretty exhausted after a performance and we don’t have any vodka with us.  Maybe, on a couple of occasions, when it was the end of the season, we shared a drink.

SFS Concertmaster Barantschik and Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas in Cologne, Germany, in 2002.

SFS Concertmaster Barantschik and Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas in Cologne, Germany, in 2002.

What’s the most stressful aspect of being the concertmaster?

Alexander Barantschik:  It is a stressful job but maybe a better word is complex.  The most stressful period was when I first started my career as a concertmaster and I had to basically learn the entire orchestral repertoire, an endless body of work.   I’m still learning new pieces and relearning old pieces and forced to make important decisions.  It’s not only about playing—it’s about preparing sheet music, working with guest conductors, auditioning musicians and all of that is very complex in this huge organization.

Historically, the SFS concertmaster has been the only musician not to have tenure.  In the last SFS contract, you were given tenured status and all concertmasters, hereafter, were given the chance to be tenured.  Was that important to you?

Alexander Barantschik:  I think the most important aspect was the recognition of me being an integral part of the orchestra, not as being slightly different from the others.

Why did you select the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in D Minor and what sets it apart from his Concerto in E Minor, one of the five great violin concertos?

Alexander Barantschik:  The D Minor that I will be playing is written for violin and strings whereas the E Minor is written for the whole orchestra with wind and brass.  This program is dedicated to SFO strings and that was my main reason.  It is also rarely played and, in fact, was completely ignored until Yehudi Menuhin found it in the 1970’s and edited the score and performed it for the first time in a couple of hundred years.  So, this is not so popular but it was a master work when Mendelssohn wrote it as a 13 year old and it has all the qualities of the works he composed in his advanced age.  You can hear from hear very first few bars that it is Mendelssohn—it is youthful, beautiful, dramatic and it speaks to my heart.

Any contemporary music for violin that you find intriguing?

Alexander Barantschik:  Of course, it depends what we’re talking about…in terms of the 20th century, which is already the last century, I love Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich the most.  If we are talking later, and more avant-garde, then there are very interesting pieces that have a new language.  The only way to encourage young composers to write is to perform their works. Without performing, we’ll never know where music is going.  On two occasions (2003 and 2012), I played the “Concerto No. 4 for Violin and Orchestra” (written in 1984 as a commission for the Berlin Festival) by the Russian composer Alfred Schnittke (1934-1998).  I was a little nervous about how the audience would react as it’s a very complicated piece, not easy listening, but he’s one of my favorite composers and this is one of my favorite concertos.   The audience and the orchestra loved it in 2003 and when I played it nine or ten years later, it was the same story…successful.  Now, I am learning and I hope to play a concerto by John Adams.

Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik with "David," the famous Heifetz Guarneri which rarely leaves Davies Symphony Hall, except when it travels to the Green Music Center or to the Mondavi Center.  Barantschik will play Mendelssohn's "D Minor Violin Concerto" (1822), written when the composer was just 13, this Thursday at Weill Hall. About one third of Mendelssohn's music (270 of roughly 750 works) remains unpublished and mostly unperformed.  The D minor concerto hasn't been heard much since Yehudi Menuhin gave its premiere in 1952.  Photo: Lowres, SFS

Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik will play Mendelssohn’s “D Minor Violin Concerto” (1822), written when the composer was just 13, this Thursday at Weill Hall. About one third of Mendelssohn’s music (270 of roughly 750 works) remains unpublished and mostly unperformed. The D minor concerto hasn’t been heard much since Yehudi Menuhin gave its premiere in 1952. Photo: Lowres, SFS

Where else aside from Russia, London and CA have you lived and which place do you consider “home”?

Alexander Barantschik:  Without any doubt, home is where my family is— my wife Alena and son Benjamin—and we’ve been here since 2001, 13 years already.  I am very happy to call CA, the Bay Area, specifically San Mateo, where I live, my home.  After I left Russia, I lived in Germany for three years and then in Amsterdam for 22 years where, for 16 years, I combined my job as concertmaster with the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic with my concertmaster position at LSO.  I then moved to California and started my job here at SFS.

Does your son have any interest in pursuing music? 

Alexander Barantschik:  He’s a high school junior now.  He loves math, science, and computer science and he plays piano for his pleasure and loves classical music but he has no desire to pursue music professionally.

Russians have a marvelous and highly creative form of cursing.  What’s your favorite Russian curse?

Alexander Barantschik:  Honestly, I don’t curse so much.  We do have a saying, ‘Ni puha ni pera,’ which is something like ‘break a leg,’ which is what you say to every musician or performer about to go on stage.  The reply to that is always ‘K chortu,’ which is ‘Go to hell,’ a good omen for Russians.

How do you feel about performing at Weill Hall?

Alexander Barantschik: We are used to our hall, Davies, where we perform and rehearse every day and it’s challenging to leave that.  Weill Hall is much smaller than Davies, has a completely different shape, and is very different acoustically from Davies.  Since we don’t have any rehearsals at Weill Hall, or at the Mondavi Center, it’s always challenging to get the sound just right.  We don’t have any experience just sitting in the hall and listening either.  On stage, we are hearing things that are so different from what you’re hearing and we have to adjust immediately without even hardly having a chance to play. This time, we’ve got a small ensemble.  I will come a bit early and check out the acoustics to make sure I remember what it’s like there.

Details: Alexander Barantschik and SFS perform “Barantschik and Friends” at Green Music Center’s Weill Hall, Thursday, January 23, 2014 at 8 p.m. AND “Barantschik leads Mozart and Mendelssohn” at Davies Symphony Hall on Wed (Jan 22, 8 p.m.), Fri (Jan 24, 6:30 p.m.), Sat (Jan 25, 8 p.m.) and Sun (Jan 26, 2 p.m.).  Tickets at Green Music Center are $20 to $156 (click here to purchase) and are $15 to $109 at Davies (click here to purchase.)  For more information, call (415) 864-6000.  For more information about San Francisco Symphony’s four concerts this season at Weill Hall, click here.

January 22, 2014 Posted by | Classical Music, Green Music Center | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hallelujah! Rufus Wainwright solos at Davies Symphony Hall Sunday, June 9, 2013

Rufus Wainwright performs solo at Davies Symphony Hall on Sunday, June 9, 2013.  Image: courtesy SF Symphony

Rufus Wainwright performs solo at Davies Symphony Hall on Sunday, June 9, 2013. Image: courtesy SF Symphony

Whether it’s folk, pop, opera, languid ballads like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” or acting on the big screen—no matter what he’s up to—vocalist and songwriter Rufus Wainwright remains one of the most unique and fascinating performing artists around.  Luminous, he seems to radiate intoxicating otherworldliness, coupled with sadness and loneliness that make it almost impossible to take one’s eyes off of him when he’s performing.  And that voice!  It ranges from the depths of bass to soaring tenor heights.  Affectionately referred to by Elton John as “the greatest songwriter on the planet” and praised by The New York Times for his “genuine originality,” Grammy nominee Wainwright, 39, has established himself as one of the greats of his generation.  Wainwright performs solo and will accompany himself on the piano and guitar, Sunday, June 9, 2013 at Davies Symphony Hall.

A frequent performer in Bay Area venues including Davies Symphony Hall throughout his career, Wainwright performed with the SF Symphony in 2010 under conductor Michael Francis, premiering Five Shakespeare Sonnets, Wainwright’s own large scale orchestrations of five of the eleven songs he composed for a theatrical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Sonnets with director Robert Wilson.  If Sunday’s performance takes anything from his last appearance at Davies, it will be Wainwright’s genius with messing with form to create songs that bear his own stamp.  Following several significant and dramatic events in his life—the birth of his daughter, Viva, who was conceived with childhood friend Lorca Cohen, the daughter of Leonard Cohen; the death of his mother, Canadian folk-singer Kate McGarrigle; and his engagement (and subsequent marriage) to partner Jorn Weisbrodt—his seventh studio album, Out of the Game, was released in 2012 with the input of a new collaborator, celebrated British producer and DJ, Mark Ronson.  It’s been hailed as his “pop recording” but it’s far from reductive.  He plays guitar and produces songs that allude to 1950s rock, light 1970s funk, Southern California folk-pop and music hall by way of the Beatles.  “But even in his closest approach to current pop — “Bitter Tears,” with synthesizer chords and a thumping Euro dance beat — Mr. Wainwright is still stubbornly himself.” (Jon Pareles, New York Times 5.10.2012)

OPERA, stubbornly:  Wainwright’s life is the stuff of opera—child of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, he was raised in an atmosphere where the creative juices and drama flowed freely.  His first opera, Prima Donna, was quite an undertaking for someone with no formal music education—it premiered at the Manchester International Festival in 2009 and had its North American debut in Toronto at the Luminato Festival in 2010.   In 2008, Wainwright made the news when the language of the libretto got him in a dispute with its would-be commissioners— the Metropolitan Opera and Lincoln Center Theatre.  Wainwright wanted the opera to be in French but the sponsors insisted that a new opera should be in English as their respective creative teams all were native English speakers and the accompanying creative workshops would all be conducted in English.   They also proposed a very late—2014—production date.  Wainwright so said, “no thank you” and then promptly moved on, achieving his vision.  Prima Donna poster

Prima Donna, written in French with English subtitles (and co-written by Bernadette Colomine), follows an acclaimed, but forgotten soprano, Regine Saint Laurent, who is preparing a return to the stage in the role she was known for, “Alienor d’Aquitaine.”   Convinced her voice is forever gone, Regine has high anxiety about reprising the role. In her quasi-deranged state, she latches on to a young journalist who is all too ready to lavish attention on her.  The New York Times said, “There are inspired touches and disarmingly beautiful passages in this mysterious, stylistically eclectic work in Rufus Wainwright’s first opera…” The London Times declared, “…the Canadian singer-songwriter hasn’t just written an opera. He’s written a love song to opera, soaked in the perennial operatic themes of loss, betrayal, delusion and nostalgia, and saturated in the musical styles of opera’s golden age.” Excerpts have been performed with the Oregon Symphony for The Portland Institute for Contemporary Art’s Time-Based Art Festival and at the Royal Opera House in London. The work received a 2011 Dora Award for Outstanding New Musical/Opera and made its U.S. debut in 2012 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House.

Director George Scott also made a fascinating documentary “Rufus Wainwright: Prima Donna” (2009, 60 min), which airs periodically on the Sundance Channel and delves into Wainwright’s forays with opera long before his first formal opera, Prima Donna was conceived.

RUFUS WAINWRIGHT: “Prima Donna” documentary trailer

COMMEMORATIVE FILM:  Australian actress and documentary filmmaker Lian Lunson’s Sing Me the Songs That Say I Love You: A Concert for Kate McGarrigle  (2012, 107 min) produced a lush and intimately shot hybrid documentary/concert film on Wainwright’s mother, Canadian folk legend, Kate McGarrigle, who passed in January 2010 of Clear-cell sarcoma.  The film screened at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival in May 2013 and weaves many treasured clips of Wainwright performing as a child, as a young adult and with his sister, Martha Wainwright into the tribute.  The May 2011 concert, the subject of Lunson’s film, was hosted by Rufus and Martha Wainwright in honor of their late mother at New York City’s Town Hall Theatre.  It features performances of McGarrigle songs both famous (e.g. “Heart Like A Wheel”) and obscure (e.g. “I Am A Diamond”).  Accompanying the Wainwright siblings in this performance are such friends and admirers as Emmylou Harris, Jimmy Fallon, Norah Jones, and Michael Ondaatje.  Rufus and Martha sing most of the songs and speak in several pre-taped vignettes interspersed between songs.  Their voices resonate with sadness and gratitude in this mesmerizing portrait of their mother.

Wainwright has also acted in Academy Award-winning director Deny Arcand’s film, L’Age des Tenebres (2007), the Merchan-Ivory film Heights (2005), and the major blockbuster The Aviator (2004), directed by Martin Scorsese.

A scene from Lian Lunson's documentary “Sing Me The Songs that Say I Love You” (2012), which features Rufus and Martha Wainwright performing in and hosting a tribute concert in May 2011, at New York City’s Town Hall Theatre, to their late mother, Canadian folk singer, Kate McGarrigle.  The film screened at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival in May 2013.  Photo courtesy San Francisco Film Society

A scene from Lian Lunson’s documentary “Sing Me The Songs that Say I Love You” (2012), which features Rufus and Martha Wainwright performing in and hosting a tribute concert in May 2011, at New York City’s Town Hall Theatre, to their late mother, Canadian folk singer, Kate McGarrigle. The film screened at the 56th San Francisco International Film Festival in May 2013. Photo courtesy San Francisco Film Society

RUFUS WAINWRIGHT performs Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” (Live at The Fillmore)

CONCERT DETAILS:

Pre- and post-show Events—Come early, relax, and treat yourself at the Tier with a Twist on the Second Tier. A fresh way to take in a concert this summer, the Tier with a Twist offers food and drinks in the updated Second Tier bar. The added bonus? Take your beverage to your seat and use the free wifi!  It’s the Second Tier—with a twist.

Tickets and information: “An Evening with Rufus Wainright” is Sunday, June 9, 2013 at 8 p.m. at Davies Symphony Hall.  Tickets: $22-88. For tickets and information, visit www.sfsymphony.org  or phone at (415) 864-6000.

Getting to Davies:  Davies Symphony Hall is located at 201 Van Ness Avenue at Grove Street, in San Francisco’s Civic Center, just across the street from City Hall.  The main entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street.  Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco on the weekend and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there is frequently a 15 to 30 minute back-up on Highway 101 South from Sausalito onwards due to congestion around the toll-plaza.  Arrive early at your parking garage of choice because those also fill up on weekends.  Recommended Garages:  Two garages are very close to Davies— the Performing Arts Garage (1/2 block)(Grove Street between Franklin and Gough Streets) and Civic Center Garage (roughly 2 blocks) (McAllister Street between Polk and Larken Streets) (both have flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights)

June 5, 2013 Posted by | Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

San Francisco Symphony’s dazzling holiday line-up—there’s something for everyone—and there are still seats available for these special events

San Francisco Symphony’s New Year’s Eve Masquerade Ball at Davies Symphony Hall is San Francisco’s most elegant celebration.  The unforgettable evening is built around exquisite music in a stunning setting.

San Francisco Symphony’s New Year’s Eve Masquerade Ball at Davies Symphony Hall is San Francisco’s most elegant celebration. The unforgettable evening is built around exquisite music in a stunning setting.

If you happened to catch Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony’s (SFS) spectacular concert last Thursday at Weill Hall, which inaugurated their annual 4 concert series at Green Music Center, chances are you’re hungry for more.  Each year SFS, offers a stellar musical line-up for the holidays, ranging from events suitable for children and families to attend together children to Handel’s classic Messiah to its spectacular New Year’s Eve Masquerade Ball.  Half the fun of attending an event at Davies Symphony Hall is dressing up and entering its expansive curved lobby which affords gorgeous views of San Francisco.  During the holiday season, this elegant lobby is transformed into a Christmas wonderland, filled with towering trees decorated with handmade ornaments.  The internationally acclaimed San Francisco Symphony, nominated for yet another Grammy Award last week, is one of San Francisco’s treasured gems and the guest performers at Davies are world class.  There is nothing more precious than the gift of music shared between family, loved ones and friends.  Whether it be a matinee or evening performance, the concerts below all have ticket availability and if you act swiftly, there should be no problem attending one, or several, of these magical performances.  

HANDEL’S MESSIAH:   Thursday (12/13), Friday (12/14) Saturday (12/15) all at 7:30 p.m:  Few pieces can deliver a fresh perspective each time they are heard.  Handel’s Messiah is one of those works that yields a new secret on every hearing.  Composed in 1741, it reportedly was a favorite work of Beethoven for its “sublimity of language.”  For modern listeners, it holds a place of reverence in the canon for its universal appeal and moments of timeless expression.  Ragnar Bohlin leads soprano Joélle Harvey, mezzo-soprano Jennifer Johnson-Cano, tenor Andrew Stenson, bass-baritone Michael Sumuel, and the SFS Chorus and Orchestra. (Approximate length: 2 hours and 30 minutes) 

Pre-show event:  “Inside Music,” an informative talk with Alexandra Amati-Camperi, begins one hour prior to concerts.  Free to ticketholders.

Post-show: meet Anthony Cirone, author of The Great American Symphony Orchestra: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Its Artistry, Passion, and Heartache (an engrossing backstage tour of symphony life) for a book signing in the Symphony Store following the December 15 concert.  

Davies Symphony Hall was built in 1980 and is the permanent home of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus.  The hall was designed by Pietro Belluschi and seats 2,743 people.  Image: SFS

Davies Symphony Hall was built in 1980 and is the permanent home of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and Chorus. The hall was designed by Pietro Belluschi and seats 2,743 people. Image: SFS

MUSIC FOR FAMILIES WITH SFS: Saturday (12/15) at 2 p.m:  Pass Symphony magic from one generation to the next by bringing your family to hear SFS in kid-sized classical concerts designed for families—great music, fascinating musical discoveries, and priceless memories.  Recommended for ages 7 and older.  Half price for ages 17 and under. Group discount not available. Concert length is approximately 1 hour 30 minutes.

Ticketholders will receive a free concert guide to enhance music appreciation at home.

Conductor/Performers:  Teddy Abrams conducts the San Francisco Symphony

Program: Bernstein-Overture to Candide; Handel—The Arrival of the Queen of Sheba from Solomon; Haydn—Excerpt from Second Movement of Symphony No. 94, Surprise; Beethoven—Fourth Movement from Symphony No. 2; Tchaikovsky—Excerpt from Second Movement from Symphony No. 4; Liszt—Excerpt from Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2; Copland—Saturday Night Waltz and Hoedown from Rodeo; Handy—Saint Louis Blues; Stravinsky—Ragtime from L’Histoire du Soldat; John Williams—Main Theme from Star Wars 

San Francisco Symphony performs a live score accompaniment to the animated family-friendly film "The Showman" on December 22, 2012. Photo: SFS

San Francisco Symphony performs a live score accompaniment to the animated family-friendly film “The Showman” on December 22, 2012. Photo: SFS

THE SNOWMAN  film and sing-along: Saturday (12/22) at 11:00 a.m:  This charming animated 26-minute film (Dianne Jackson, 1982) tells the story of an English boy who makes a snowman on Christmas Eve, only to have it come to life that night and take him on a magical adventure to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus.  SFS performs the score to this family-friendly movie, led by Resident Conductor Donato Cabrera with the Pacific Boychoir.  After the movie, hear the Orchestra will perform Christmas favorites and the audience is invited to sing along.

Pre-show event:Tier with a Twist”—Enjoy a beverage during this concert at “Tier with a Twist” in the Second Tier.  A fresh and festive way to take in a concert, the Tier with a Twist offers specialty food and drinks in the Second Tier bar and you can take your drink to your seat! 

’TWAS THE NIGHT: Carols and sing-alongs with members of the SF Symphony Chorus and Orchestra:  Saturday (12/22) at 7:30 p.m., Sunday (12/23) at 4:00 p.m and Monday (12/24) at 2:00 p.m.

Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin leads soprano Lisa Vroman, members of the Symphony’s brass section and singers from SFS Chorus in three special concerts, featuring favorite carols, childhood Christmas songs, plus audience sing-alongs.  Robert Huw Morgan will play the gorgeous Ruffatti organ, one of the great organs of the world.  Half price for ages 17 and under.  Concert length is approximately 2 hours. 

Pre-show event:Tier with a Twist”—Enjoy a beverage during this concert at “Tier with a Twist” in the Second Tier.  A fresh and festive way to take in a concert, the Tier with a Twist offers specialty food and drinks in the Second Tier bar and you can take your drink to your seat!

NEW YEAR’S EVE MASQUERADE BALL WITH SAN FRANCISCO SMPHONY: Monday (12/31) at 9:00 p.m. Ring in the New Year at the city’s most elegant celebration, the New Year’s Eve Masquerade Ball with SFS. The event stars SFS conductor Michael Francis, soprano Heidi Stober, and members of Dance Through Time.  Everyone attending the event receives a complimentary mask as they enter the beautifully decorated lobby of Davies Hall.  Beginning at 8 p.m., The Martini Brothers entertain and perform their “swingin’ cocktail music” in the lobby.  Starting at 9 p.m., SFS performs polkas, waltzes, and dances on stage in Davies Symphony Hall.  Following the Symphony concert, guests are invited to celebrate and dance on the Davies Hall stage to The Peter Mintun Orchestra.  In the First Tier lobby, Super Diamond will perform the hits of the one and only Neil Diamond.  Immediately following the Symphony performance, guests enjoy complimentary sparkling wine, desserts, savories, and party favors.  As the clock strikes midnight, colorful balloons will cascade from the ceiling as the crowd welcomes in 2013.

Pre-event:  A special pre-concert dinner package includes a cocktail reception beginning at 6 p.m., followed by a sumptuous three-course dinner (wine included) in the lobby of the War Memorial Opera House.  The dinner package also includes La Marca Prosecco served in an exclusive gathering the Loge Level lobby at intermission.  Dinner packages begin at $160 and include parking.  For more details on the pre-concert dinners and to make reservations, call the Davies Symphony Hall box office at (415) 864-6000.

Tier with a Twist”—Enjoy a beverage during this concert at “Tier with a Twist” in the Second Tier.  A fresh and festive way to take in a concert, the Tier with a Twist offers specialty food and drinks in the Second Tier bar and you can take your drink to your seat!

Highlights from the 2012 Celebration:

Getting to Davies :  Davies Symphony Hall is located at 201 Van Ness Avenue at Grove Street, in San Francisco’s Civic Center, just across the street from City Hall.  The main entrance is on the south side of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street.  Driving to San Francisco and Parking: Be sure to allow ample time when driving into San Francisco on the weekend and crossing the Golden Gate Bridge—there is frequently a 15 to 30 minute back-up on Highway 101 South from Sausalito onwards due to congestion around the toll-plaza.  Arrive early at your parking garage of choice because those also fill up on weekends.  Recommended Garages:  Two garages are very close to Davies— the Performing Arts Garage (1/2 block)(Grove Street between Franklin and Gough Streets) and Civic Center Garage (roughly 2 blocks) (McAllister Street between Polk and Larken Streets) (both have flat $15 pay cash as you enter policy on performance nights)

Tickets and information:  www.sfsymphony.org , by phone at (415) 864-6000.  Half-price tickets for children 17 and under are available for certain performances.

Dessert Alert!  Miette Bakery, 449 Octavia Street (San Francisco, 94102), 415 837-0300, M-F 9-7; Sat 8-7 and Sun 10-5, is just 2.5 blocks from Davies Symphony Hall and offers some of the most gorgeous and artfully prepared treats you’ve ever seen— heavenly macarons, confections, cookies and several seasonal selections.  “Miette” is French for crumb… but there won’t be any… because these old world treats with a modern interpretation are just too delicious to leave even a trace behind.  Click this map to get your bearings.

December 12, 2012 Posted by | Classical Music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Magnificent Mahler–MTT and the San Francisco Symphony warm up at Davies for their Euro tour, series ends this weekend with Mahler’s No. 6

MTT--Michael Tilson Thomas-- and the San Francisco Symphony celebrate Mahler in performances of the 9th, 2nd and 6th Symphonies May 5-14, 2011. Photo: courtesy Michael Tilson Thomas

For all those lucky enough to nab tickets to Sunday’s sold-out performance of MTT leading SFS in Mahler’s No. 2, Resurrection, the performance did all the talking necessary.  No one knows how or why sometimes magic happens…but Sunday it all came together—orchestra, chorus, soloists (Karina Gauvin soprano and Jill Grove mezzo-soprano —I closed my eyes and floated in glory…aware of the distinctive sound coming from each and every section of the orchestra and singers and the wonderment of their combined flair and flow.  The SFS Chorus under Ragnar Bohlin’s direction though deserves special mention…its impressive entrance in the final (5th) movement was awesome–pure theatre–as its 140 members sang unaccompanied “Aufersteh’n” (“Rise again”) ushering in the resurrection theme and climax which soprano, mezzo soprano and full orchestra joined to bring the piece to end.   Something so near perfect raises the bar, even for MTT.  Now that he’s headed off with SFS and soprano Laura Claycomb and mezzo-soprano Katarina Karnéus for the big European tour (15 concerts in Prague, Vienna, Brussels, Luxemburg, Essen, Paris, Barcelona, Madrid and Lisbon), commemorating the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s death, it’s nice to know that we here at home got the smetana (that’s Czech for cream). 

There’s still time to grab tickets for MTT conducting SFS in Mahler’s 6th Symphony in A minor this coming Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at Davies Symphony Hall.  This is the third and final set of performances in the splendid Mahler series that has run at Davies since May 5, 2011.   Composed in 1903-04, Mahler’s No. 6–a passionate, relentlessly tragic and terrifying masterwork–culminates with “three blows of fate” sounded by a hammer in the last (4th) movement.  This is the very symphony that launched SFS’s recording cycle in 2001.  And, now ten years later, SFS has just finished the final recording of its complete Mahler cycle on its own label, SFS Media, including all nine of the Mahler’s symphonies, the Adagio from Symphony No. 10, and Mahler’s works for voice, chorus and orchestra.  The cycle has won seven Grammy® Awards, including three for Best Classical Album.  But, as Sunday’s unforgettable concert proved, nothing beats the excitement of experiencing music live.   Mahler’s No. 6 is replete with sudden juxtapositions of contrasting mood and tempo.  It opens with a grim march and is later filled with the sound of cowbells, harps and a portrait of Alma, Mahler’s wife.  I can’t wait.

And if find yourself in Vienna’s regal Konzerthaus on May 21-25, Tilson Thomas and the orchestra will perform Symphonies Nos. 2, 6, and 9 as part of the city’s Mahler commemoration, occurring just days from the 100th anniversary of Mahler’s death.

Michael Tilson Thomas, conducts San Francisco Symphony Mahler/Symphony No. 6 in A minor

Thursday, May 12 at 8 p.m.

Friday, May 13 at 8 p.m.

Saturday, May 14 at 8 p.m.

PRE-CONCERT TALK: Peter Grunberg will give an “Inside Music” talk from the stage one hour prior to each concert. Free to all concert ticket holders; doors open 15 minutes before.

AUDIO PROGRAM NOTES: A free audio podcast about Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 will be downloadable from sfsymphony.org and from the iTunes store.

BROADCAST: Portions of these concerts will be broadcast on Classical KDFC 89.9/90.3 FM on Tuesday, May 24 at 8:00 p.m.

TICKETS: $15-$140; available at www.sfsymphony.org, or by phone  (415) 864-6000, and at the Davies Symphony Hall Box Office, on Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street in San Francisco.  Performance: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

May 10, 2011 Posted by | Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: Lang Lang at Davies Symphony Hall

Lang Lang played Beethoven, Albeniz and Prokofiev to a sold-out audience at Davies Symphony Hall on January 18, 2011 as part of their Great Performers Series. Photo courtesy SF Symphony.

World-renowned pianist Lang Lang was in San Francisco this week for two special performances: a Davies Symphony Hall Recital on Tuesday, January 18th, under the auspices of the San Francisco Symphony’s Great Performers Series  and his 101 Pianists event Monday evening at San Francisco State University in which he joined 100 young Bay Area pianists in playing Schubert’s Marche Militaire. Both events were packed to capacity.

I caught his performance at Davies Symphony Hall on Tuesday evening, my first time to hear him live.  The program featured Beethoven’s Piano Sonatas No. 3 and 23; Iberia Book 1 by Isaac Albéniz; and Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata No. 7.  This was basically a run-through of the most popular sonatas from his best-selling Live in Vienna album recorded in 2008–his second live recorded recital after his best-selling Live at Carnegie Hall in 2004.  It’s also a program he has been touring with.

Lang Lang, now 28, has two decades of performances and celebrity under his belt.  In 2008, over five billion people watched him play in the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics, where he was seen as a symbol of the youth and the future of China.  He is said to have subsequently inspired over 40 million Chinese children to learn to play classical piano – a phenomenon coined by The Today Show as “the Lang Lang effect.”  But as much as audiences love Lang Lang for his zeal, critics waver, praising his technical virtuosity but panning his flamboyant gyrations,  interpretation and lack of emotional connection to the music.

I came expecting something bold and spectacular.  I’d read that at his last concert in San Francisco, for an encore, he played Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” on his iPad using the Magic Piano app and the audience went wild.  Tuesday’s performance was energetic but nowhere near what my imagination had conjured in terms of showing-off.

Lang Lang conducted a workshop with 100 young Bay Area pianists practicing Schubert's Marche Militaire at San Franacisco State University's McKenna Theatre as part of his 101 Pianists event on Monday, November 17, 2011.

Lang Lang quietly walked onto the stage, sat down at the piano and started immediately with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 3 in C major, a very challenging piece.  It didn’t take long for me to become immersed in the beauty of his playing.  Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.3 in C major, written in 1796, in four movements, roughly 24 minutes, is often referred to as Beethoven’s first virtuosic piano sonata.  It’s very demanding, especially the first movement and very emotive in the second, Adagio, movement.  Lang Lang nailed the energetic second movement and then brought it to a tempered soft close. 

Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, the Appassionata, composed in 1804-5, followed immediately.  It is widely considered one of the masterworks of the composer’s middle period, very dense, evocative and meant to be played with the unrelenting ferocity that Lang Lang is often criticized for.  This was one of the first pieces written after Beethoven became fully aware of his progressive and irreversible deafness and was written during the period that he was labeled with the madman/genius image.  The Appassionata was also the first piece he wrote after having received a state of the art piano as a gift from the Érard piano company. Beethoven’s statement– this is very beautiful music that is also testing the crap out of this piano, as it is my own hearing.  How did Lang Lang do?  Respectfully well.  The piece was about twenty three minutes long.  Almost immediately, I felt myself floating away on a cloud orbiting the concert hall channeling the very deep despair that Beethoven himself must have felt. When I landed, I noticed Lang Lang’s the left hand stationary in space as the right played…the right hand then slowly and weirdly directing, coaxing the left.  There were moments too when he seemed to be acting with sensitivity to accentuate that he was playing with sensitivity.  It looked like a guy trying way too hard to manufacture feelings he didn’t have and importantly, we felt that.  And this is the core of the debate about Lang Lang.  It’s completely subjective, but the antics took away from my experience of a piece played exquisitely. 

The highlight came after the intermission with Albéniz’s Iberia, Book One in three movements, a century (1905-1909) and miles apart stylistically from Beethoven.  From the first muted bars of Evocación to El Corpus in Sevilla, Lang Lang excelled at this beautiful and richly textured piece thought by many to have been truly mastered only by the great Spanish pianist Alicia de Larrocha.  Book One’s three movements are typical of the entire piece—poetic middle episodes, incisive rhythms, bold harmonies, and infused with local color.  Evocación is dreamlike with a very powerful climax in the middle section which Lang Lang mastered.  El Corpus in Sevilla, one of Iberia’s most popular segments, employs a march tune from the Spanish town of Burgos.  The great procession is at first distant and then ushered in by the piano imitating drumbeats that grow louder and louder and the excitement builds.  The movement grows quieter in its mid-section, gets festive again, and then ends with a long serene coda all mystery and poetry.  Lang Lang’s body movements and hand gestures punctuated the silences as well as the counter-rhythms.

He closed with Prokofiev’s revolutionary and explosive war sonata, Sonata No. 7 in B flat major, Op. 83 a piece he was clearly at ease with but passionately banged the heck out of, ending in a flurry of speed.

He encored with Rachmaninoff’s D-Major Prelude, Op. 23, No. 4, then followed with a gorgeous Chopin Etude. 

In all, I came away in awe of Lang, who like Elvis, does it his way.  Lang Lang was off the very next day (Wednesday) to play for President Obama and first lady, Michelle Obama, at a lavish State Dinner honoring Chinese President Hu Jintao.  Lang Lang will play four-hands with Jazz legend Herbie Hancock and “My Motherland,” the theme song of a famous 1956 film called Battle on Shangganling Mountain set during the Korean war.

Details: next up in the Great Performers Series is Russian opera baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky in solo recital of songs by Fauré, Taneyev, Liszt, and Tchaikovsky on Sunday, February 13, 2011, 8 p.m., Davies Symphony Hall.  Tickets: $15 to $83. Box Office: (415) 864-6000 or http://www.sfsymphony.org

Lang Lang’s next Bay Area performance is this Sunday, January 23, 2011, 7:30 p.m., at the “Master Piano Series: an Evening with Lang Lang,” at California Theatre, 345 South First Street, San Jose.  Tickets: Sold Out.  Check for last minute availability.

January 19, 2011 Posted by | Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

review: Blind Boys of Alabama at Davies Symphony Hall, December 19, 2010, Bluesy Gospel for the Season

The Blind Boys of Alabama performed "Go Tell It on the Mountain" at Davies Symphony Hall on December 19, 2010. Photo: Courtesy Blind Boys of Alabama.

Last night’s performance by the the Blind Boys of Alabama at Davies Symphony Hall was magic— head-clearing, heart-opening, let loose and dance magic that got hearts pounding and spirits flowing.  The Blind Boys got together way back in 1939 at the Alabama Institute for the Negro Blind and while some of their original members have passed, they have found their way through nearly seven decades by belting out impeccable harmonies that beautifully blend old time gospel spirituals with blues, rock, reggae, and country.  You may have seen them on Letterman or PBS.  They have received 5 Grammy Awards, been celebrated by The Grammys and The National Endowment for the Arts with Lifetime Achievement Awards and inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame.  The group currently includes vocalists Jimmy Carter, Bishop Billy Bowers, and Ben Moore, and drummer Eric (Ricky) McKinnie, lead guitarist Joey Williams, and Tracy Pierce on bass. The main focus was on the core trio of vocalists, especially lead singer and founding member Jimmy Carter, a spry octogenarian, who opened by telling the audience that the Blind Boys don’t like to perform for conservative audiences.  The reverie of claps and whoops in response assured him that San Francisco was cool enough to take whatever they had to offer.  

 Though designated a Christmas concert, the Blind Boys didn’t promote that theme too hard.  Of the evening’s five holiday songs, only three were well-known standards.  Ben Moore’s soft and tender delivery of “Silent Night’’ gave souls pause while “Go Tell It on the Mountain’’ was a jazzy, organ-dominated blues that got people clapping—gospel (off beat) and normal style.  It was “Amazing Grace” set to the acoustic guitar chord sequence of “House of the Rising Sun” that transfixed the crowd.  So unexpected was this combo, that at first it was impossible to tell there was a familiar spiritual in the lyrics.  At the end of the song, founding member Jimmy Carter held a note full force for what seemed like a minute and then he did it again later– cocky and joyous.  For the most part, the trio mainly remained seated front and center until it was time to step up and grab the microphone and sing and then each shimmied and rocked in his own way.  Jimmy Carter told us all he was hungry and that about sums it up…these men are in their golden years but still hungry for life.  During a lively rendition of “Look Where He Brought Me From,” Carter walked the aisles of the symphony hall with a string of dancing audience members in toe.  While the Blind Boys might have sensed it, the crowd itself was a spectacular and wildly colorful seasonal site to behold—bold red jackets, lots of velvet, fur, and big glittery jewelry melded with traditional upper crust diamonds and tuxes.  And in the upper tier, two luscious ladies tightly packed into low-cut bright red halter dresses stood on their chairs and swayed with hands raised high to heaven, evangelical style.  Special guest acclaimed soul/blues singer Ruthie Foster opened the concert.

“Go Tell It on the Mountain” will next be performed in Los Angeles on December 20 (tonight) at the Walt Disney Concert Hall. 

Details: Davies Symphony Hall annual “Holiday with the Symphony Series” runs December 2-31, 2010.  The series has two remaining performances:  “Twas the Night” (Wed, Dec 22, 2010 – Fri, Dec 24, 2010) and New Year’s Eve Masquerade Ball with the San Francisco Symphony (Fri, Dec 31, 2010) (For details on New Year’s Eve pre-concert dinner packages, call patron services (415) 864-6000.) (For details on special hotel packages, call (800) 441-1414. )   Tickets: www.sfsymphony.org

December 20, 2010 Posted by | Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment