Geneva Anderson digs into art

Dmitri Hvorostovsky in recital at Davies Hall Sunday, May 25, 2014

Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky will be performing a program of Russian songs Sunday, May 24, 2014 at Davies Symphony Hall with his longtime artistic partner Ivari Ilja.  Hvorostovsky (52) was last heard in North America at the Metropolitan Opera last fall when he made his acclaimed role debut as Verdi’s “Rigoletto.”  This month, he will be inducted into the Gramphone Hall of Fame.  His most recent solo recording is “In this Moonlit Night” (Ondine, 2013).  In 1989, he won the prestigious BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition.  Photo: Pavel Antonov

Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky will be performing a program of Russian songs Sunday, May 24, 2014 at Davies Symphony Hall with his longtime artistic partner Ivari Ilja. Hvorostovsky (52) was last heard in North America at the Metropolitan Opera last fall when he made his acclaimed role debut as Verdi’s “Rigoletto.” This month, he will be inducted into the Gramophone Hall of Fame. His most recent solo recording is “In this Moonlit Night” (Ondine, 2013). In 1989, at age 27, he won the prestigious BBC Cardiff Singer of the World Competition. Photo: Pavel Antonov

A shout out to opera devotes.  Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, a.k.a. the “Silver Fox,” the “Siberian Express” is in town.  He will be performing a program of Russian classics Sunday evening at Davies Hall, accompanied by his long-time recital partner, Estonian pianist Ivari Ilja, the final concert in San Francisco Symphony’s Great Performers Series. There are plenty of great seats still available. There’s not much that can pull me away from gorgeous Sonoma County during a long holiday weekend but I’m not missing my first chance to experience this great singer live in recital, especially since I’ve been following him so avidly through the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD transmissions.  There are plenty of great seats still available and, unless the situation changes dramatically by Sunday (do check!), it will be possible to just show up at the Symphony Box Office prior to the performance and select tickets on the spot without having to pay additional fees.

Hvorostovsky, who is based in Russia, has been on his North American tour since mid-May.  He comes to San Francisco from L.A., where he performed Thursday at Los Angeles Opera.  For his West Coast performances, he is presenting a Russian program of Pushkin-inspired romances by Glinka, Borodin, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky and others as well as Shostakovich’s haunting late-period “Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti” from 1974.  The rarely performed work is based on chosen texts from Michelangelo (translated into Russian).  Every text has to do with the life and work of the artist, with his achievements, his set-backs, his loves and his sense of destiny.  The texts are arranged into a dramatic cycle of ten songs, with an eleventh hanging at the end, which trace an arc of the poet’s life and the entire cycle has resonances of Musorgsky and Mahler, two of Shostakovich’s heroes.

You may have noticed that the Green Music Center’s newly announced 2014-15 Season is devoid of opera, which so punctuated their fabulous first season.  This makes superstar Hvorostovsky’s presence in the Bay Area a treat to be savored even more.  The performance will be well worth the drive in the City.  Who can forget the great baritone’s last Met Opera Live in HD performance in December 2012 when he sang Renato (Count Anckarström) to Sondra Radvanovsky’s Amelia Anckarström in David’s Alden’s new production of Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera”?  (Both Hvorostovsky and Radvanovsky reprise their roles in the Met’s spring 2015 production of the opera with James Levine conducting.)  One of the pleasures of the HD transmissions is that they are almost as good as being there BUT when you’ve got the chance to experience an artist live and help create the magic, you don’t want to miss it because it will make all the artist’s subsequent performances that you see all the more resonant.  And, of course, a cinematic experience of an opera can be very different from the impression it makes in house because the camera focuses on the important details and often ignores the bigger picture.  Enough said.

My colleague, music critic Sean Martinfield, who writes for Huffington Post, was lucky enough to secure the only interview that Hvorostovsky granted for this Davies appearance. (click here for full interview)  Speaking on Shostakovich’s rarely performed Suite on Verses of Michelangelo Buonarroti, Hvorostovsky said— “The cycle is amazing.  Shostakovich wrote it for piano to begin with and then decided to re-write it for symphony orchestra which he dedicated to the first performer, Evgeny Nesterenko. The way it’s written for piano is so colorful that it sounds like an orchestra. The translation of the poetry of Michelangelo Buonarroti sounds incredible. There has only been one example, by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, who decided to sing the songs in the original Italian. I think it was a failure, because you have to move the accents and stresses. The way it sounds in Russian is so complete. It is a cycle where two geniuses meet with each other and create an amazing impact of classic and contemporary. It absolutely reflects the reality we live in now.”

In 2004, Hvorostovsky, who hails from Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, became the first Russian opera singer to give a solo concert with orchestra and chorus on Red Square in Moscow and the concert was televised in over 25 countries.  He has gone on to sing a number of prestigious concerts in Moscow as a part of his own special series, “Dmitri Hvorostovsky and Friends” inviting celebrated artists as Renée Fleming, Jonas Kaufmann, Marcello Giordani, Sumi Jo and Sondra Radvanovsky to join him. In 2005 he gave an historic tour throughout the cities of Russia at the invitation of President Putin, singing to crowds of hundreds of thousands of people to commemorate the soldiers of the Second World War.  He now annually tours the cities of Russia and the former Eastern Europe.  In the video clip below, from the famous Red Square Concert on June 19, 2013, Hvorostovsky is joined by soprano Anna Netrebko as Lev Kontorovich conducts the Masters of Choral Singing choir and Constantine Orbelian conducts the Russia State Symphony Orchestra. They sang Verdi, Puccini and Tchaikovsky, bringing the audience of 8,000 to a stunned silence with an aria from “Eugene Onegin. For the finale, Hvorostovsky sang “Dark Eyes,” one of the most famous Russian romances.


2014-15 Guest Vocalists at San Francisco Symphony: Soprano Ruth Ziesak and baritone Christain Gerhaher in Brahms’s A German Requiem (Feb 19-21, 2015); Soprano Dawn Upshaw in Ades & Upsahw (March 5-7, 2014); Mezzo Soprano Sasha Cooke and Soprano Joélle Harvey in Beethoven’s Missa solemnis (June 10-13, 2015); Soprano Karita Mattila in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony (June 17 and 19, 2015); Soprano Nina Stemme in Beethoven Festival Fidelio (June 25-6, 2015)  Tickets and subscription packages are on sale now.

Details: “Dmitri Hvorostovsky in Concert” is Sunday, May 25, 2014 at 8PM at Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco.  Tickets: $15 to $84; purchase online here, or, call (415) 864-6000. For more information, visit

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 holiday 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)

May 23, 2014 Posted by | Classical Music, Opera, 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

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