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Geneva Anderson digs into art

San Francisco Symphony performs with MTT at Weill Hall this Thursday, September 12, 2013

Grammy award-winning pianist Yefim Bronfman, or “Fima,” performs with SFS at Weill Hall on September 12, 2013.  No stranger to the Wine Country, the passionate pianist has a wine named after him—Fimasaurus—a blend of cabernet and merlot produced by John Kongsgaard in Napa Valley.  Chocolate, cassis, and saddle leather lead its aromatic profile. Photo: Dario Acosta

Grammy award-winning pianist Yefim Bronfman, or “Fima,” performs with SFS at Weill Hall on September 12, 2013. No stranger to the Wine Country, the passionate pianist has a wine named after him—Fimasaurus—a blend of cabernet and merlot produced by John Kongsgaard in Napa Valley. Chocolate, cassis, and saddle leather lead its aromatic profile. Photo: Dario Acosta

As an appetizer to the delights that await us at Weill Hall in its second year, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) heads North this Thursday, September 12, for “MTT conducts Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1,” the first in a four concert series at Green Music Center (GMC) scheduled for the 2013-14 season.  In his only GMC performance this season, Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT), who became SFS Music Director in 1985, will lead SFS in a program that includes the highly-anticipated West Coast premiere of young Canadian conductor Zosha Di Castri’s “Lineage.”  Di Castri, 28, is the first recipient of a New Voices Commission a program conceived of by MTT in collaboration with SFS, the New World Symphony Orchestra and publishing house Boosey & Hawkes.  The headliner is renowned guest pianist, Yefim Bronfman, who joins SFS for Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto, one of the musical icons of Russian Romanticism and one of Bronfman’s signature offerings. SFS also plays Prokofiev’s otherworldly, outrageous, and over-the-top Third Symphony, based on material from the composer’s daring opera The Fiery Angel.

Program—Michael Tilson Thomas conducts SFS, with guest artist Yefim Bronfman

Zosha Di Castri

Lineage (New Voices Commission)

Tchaikovsky

Piano Concerto No. 1

Prokofiev

Symphony No. 3

Concert is approximately 1 hour and 40 minutes, including intermission

Inside Music at 7 PM:   Composer Zosha Di Castri and Peter Grunberg, musical consultant to SFS and Musical Assistant to MTT, will give an informative talk.  Free to ticketholders.

Yefim Bronfman— Affectionately known as Fima, Yefim Bronfman has been a frequent guest of the San Francisco Symphony since 1984.  He last performed with MTT and the Orchestra at Davies Symphony Hall and the Green Music Center at Sonoma State University in December 2012 in concerts of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5. Among his recent recordings is one of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 with Mariss Jansons and the Bayerischer Rundfunk (2007) on Sony. He performed Magnus Lindberg’s Piano Concerto No. 2, commissioned for him, with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic and released on the Da Capo label. This year The Wall Street Journal praised Bronfman as “a fearless pianist for whom no score is too demanding,” and added, “…a more poetic touch has lately complemented his brawny prowess.”

Zosha Di Castri talks with Jeff Kaliss of San Francisco Classical Voice about “Lineage.” Video by Beth Hondi

Zosha Di Castri— The inaugural New Voices composer, Zosha Di Castri is a Canadian composer and pianist living in New York. She is currently pursuing doctoral studies in composition at Columbia University, studying with Fred Lerdahl and teaching composition, electronic music, and music history.  Her work has been performed in Canada, the US, and Europe by the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, the Internationale Ensemble Modern Akademie, L’Orchestre de la Francophonie, the NEM, JACK Quartet, L’Orchestre national de Lorraine, members of the L.A. Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony Orchestra, and Talea Ensemble.  She has participated in residencies at the Banff Center, Domaine Forget, the Nouvel Ensemble Moderne’s Forum, and the National Arts Centre’s summer program.  She was named a laureate of the 3rd International Composer’s Competition for the Hamburger Klangwerktage Festival, won two SOCAN Foundation awards for her chamber music in 2011, and in 2012, tied for the John Weinzweig Grand Prize for her first orchestra piece Alba, commissioned by John Adams and Deborah O’Grady and premiered at the Cabrillo Festival in 2011. Recently, her work Cortège garnered her the Jules Léger Prize for New Chamber Music.

Di Castri’s work includes interdisciplinary collaborations in the realms of electronic music, sound installation, video, performance art, and contemporary dance. Her latest mixed-media works include Akkord I for flute, piano, electronics, and large sculpture, and a collaboration with choreographer Thomas Hauert of the ZOO Contemporary Dance Company on a new piece for electronics and dance at Ircam in Paris. She is also creating a new evening-length work for ICE in collaboration with David Adamcyk for ICElab 2014.

 

Details:  “MTT conducts Tchaikovsky” is September 12, 2013 at 8 PM at Green Music Center. Tickets $156-$20.   Advance ticket purchase for SFS at Green Music Center must be made through the SFS Box Office Box Office at (415) 864-6000 or online here.  You can choose your seat yourself only by phone; if you purchase tickets in advance online, best available seating will be assigned.  Tickets can also be purchased on September 12 in person at the Green Music Center Box Office one hour before the performance.   As of Tuesday morning, there was amply orchestra seating available.

For more information about San Francisco Symphony, visit http://www.sfsymphony.org/index.aspx

For more information about the Green Music Center, visit www.gmc.edu.

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September 9, 2013 Posted by | Green Music Center, Symphony | , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Nutcracker:” the holiday classic runs through December 27, 2011, at San Francisco Ballet—ARThound talks with two participating Sonoma County musicians

Val Caniparoli is the toymaker, Drosselmeyer, in Helgi Tomasson's “Nutcracker,” at San Francisco Ballet December 9- 27, 2011. © Erik Tomasson

Nutcracker season is here and San Francisco’s Ballet’s production, which opened last Friday, is one of the best in the country.  Its sumptuous blend of Tchaikovsky’s music, exquisite dance, and Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson’s ingenious bow to San Francisco─setting the ballet in San Francisco on Christmas Eve during the 1915 Pan Pacific International Exhibition─make it a unique treat.  And there’s nothing like the festive experience of dressing up and celebrating the season at the stunning grand War Memorial Opera House.  For the musicians in the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, the experience is also one of endurance.  This year, the orchestra, under the direction of SF Ballet Music Director Martin West, will perform the beloved production 30 times throughout December, often twice daily, and it’s estimated that close to 100,000 people will attend.  For listeners in the audience, it’s impossible to imagine that Tchaikovsky’s score ever palls.  Parts of it are so familiar─the Sugar Plum Pas de Deux or the Danse des Mirlitons or the March of the Toy Soliders─that they are steeped in our subconscious and always enchanting.  Aside from its difficulty─it’s Tchaikovsky─one of the challenges Nutcracker presents for musicians is simply keeping it fresh performance after performance. The orchestra finished up with Carmen at San Francisco Opera and began rehearsing Nutcracker the first week of December and had a rehearsal with the actual dancers just prior to last Friday’s opening performance.  I spoke with two Sonoma County musicians in the orchestra who have each played countless Nutcrackers─bassoonist Rufus Olivier, of Sebastopol, and cellist Ruth Lane, of Petaluma and our conversations are below.   If you’re attending the ballet, especially with children, a wonderful opportunity exists before each performance to walk right up to the pit and meet and greet and observe the musicians in the orchestra who play such an integral part in the magic of the ballet.   

San Francisco Ballet Orchestra Principal Bassoonist Rufus Olivier, of Sebastopol. Olivier has played the “Nutcracker” for over thirty years at the San Francisco Ballet and will perform it thirty times this season. Olivier has recorded many movie, video, CD and TV soundtracks including Disney’s “Never Cry Wolf” and he won a Grammy for the soundtrack “Elmo in Grouchland.” Photo: Geneva Anderson

Rufus Olivier, Principal bassoonist, SF Ballet and Opera Orchestras, is a Sebastopol resident and is one of two bassoonists with the ballet orchestra.  Even before arriving in the Bay Area, Olivier had quite a reputation.  In 1975, Zubin Mehta, the music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, gave the 18 year old Olivier a chance to play a concerto with the orchestra and he did such a good job that, afterwards, Mehta immediately offered him a co-principal position.  Olivier went on to play with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra under Neville Marriner, and the Goldofsky Opera Tours.  He moved to the Bay Area in 1977 and by 1980, he was the youngest principal to ever play in the SF Opera Orchestra and started playing Nutcracker in San Francisco some 30 years ago with Christensen’s production which predates both Martin West and Helgi Tomasson.  Olivier studied under David Breidenthal of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and currently teaches at Stanford one day each week.  Olivier has been guest soloist with numerous orchestras all over the world.   He has recorded many movie, video, CD and TV soundtracks including Disney’s Never Cry Wolf and San Francisco Opera’s Grammy-nominated CD Orphée et Eurydice, and he won a Grammy for the soundtrack Elmo in Grouchland.  Olivier’s son, Rufus David Olivier, is also an accomplished bassoonist.

With over 30 seasons of Nutcrackers under your belt, how do you keep it fresh?  

Rufus Olivier: First of all, it’s Tchaikovsky and very, very good music.  Second, Tchaikovsky keeps you on your toes─it’s very hard─ and that’s takes care of keeping it fresh.  That’s pretty much it.

What is the most challenging part for you as a bassoonist?

Rufus Olivier:   There’s two—in the very beginning, in the first minute or two, there’s the woodwind interlude where there are these wild triplets, very high, and technically hard.  And then there’s the Arabian Dance (Act II) which is musically hard and, by that, I mean it’s hard to put across the expression that I would like to convey, which is actually harder than being technically proficient.  You can work through technical issues but it’s very hard to get to the point musically where I can make someone feel something that I want to convey and I want the dancers to feel something so that they dance better.  If I play it more expressively, maybe sweetly, then anything can happen with the dancers and with the audience and they won’t know why but they will feel it.  At a certain point in one’s career, the competition is with oneself.  You’re not competing with anyone except yourself and you are challenging yourself all the time.  All of my colleagues are trying, all the time, to sound as good as they can sound.

With Helgi Tomasson’s production, are there any cuts to the original score? 

Rufus Olivier: Yes. The original score would come in at over three hours and Helgi’s production comes in at about 2 hours, but all the important and well-known parts are there and, actually, he’s added some things that weren’t in the previous production.

How aware are you of what the dancers are doing? 

Rufus Olivier: I can’t see the dancers at all and completely reply on Martin who is watching the stage and I am watching him.  Unlike the opera, I can’t hear anything.

What is the most challenging thing about playing the bassoon in an orchestra? 

Rufus Olivier: Coming in when you’re supposed to (laughing).  There are so many things you have to do and you are operating at a very high level of consciousness.  By the time you reach the level of the opera, symphony or ballet, it’s almost automatic but your ears are everywhere.  You are hyperaware even though your heart rate may be at rest.  Everything can be hard but trying to play in tune with other instruments can be challenging and so can solos and dealing with conductors who can be crazy at times. And, when you’re not playing, whether it’s 3 bars or 20 bars, you can’t leave, you’ve got to sit there and be engaged and stay awake and count so you know when to come in. 

What are the great bassoon solos in orchestral music?

Rufus Olivier:  Two of the most famous symphonic solos for the bassoon include the theme for grandfather in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and the opening solo in Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring.

What performances are you looking forward to musically in the coming season? 

Rufus Olivier: We are playing RakU, which is one of the pieces written by our bass player Shinji Enshima. (RakU is part of the SF Ballet’s Program 6, and plays March 23-April 3, 2012. Click here to read more.)  The piece just premiered last year and one day it may well be one of the premiere bassoon solos. 

San Francisco Ballet Orchestra Cellist Ruth Lane, of Petaluma, in the pit before Thursday’s performance of “Nutcracker,” which runs through December 27, 2011. Lane’s cello, which is painted with images of the Sistine Chapel, was custom made for her by her husband, Anthony Lane of Lane Violins in Petaluma. Photo: Geneva Anderson

Ruth Lane, cellist, is a Petaluma resident and has been playing with the San Francisco Opera and Ballet Orchestras since 1990.  This is her 6th year of playing Nutcracker for an entire season’s run and she is one of six cellists in the ballet orchestra.  Prior to that, she played several performances annually as a substitute musician.  Lane has performed Nutcracker under Music Directors Dennis de Coteau and Martin West and under various guest conductors.  Lane came from a family that was passionate about classical music and started studying cello at age 10 and received her Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees from USC.  In addition to the Bay Area, Lane has been heard in recital in the Los Angeles, and London.  She is a member of the Bay Area’s Temescal String Quartet and she performed this September in Petaluma in “The V Concert” (click here to read ARThound’s coverage.)  Strad magazine calls her “a cellist of scrupulous intentions and dexterous manual coordination . . . unimpeachable intonation and admirable poise.” (as quoted on the Temescal String Quartet page.)

What are the most important and challenging parts of Nutcracker for cello? 

Ruth Lane:  We don’t have any solos and I am one of six cellos and we are all playing the same music.  Woodwinds have the solos and the strings, which are a quieter instrument, tend to be like a chorus—it’s all the instruments together that create this blanker of sound that you recognize as the orchestra.  The cellos play throughout but, in Act 1, we play what used to be a bear dance but is now a solider dance.  We also play a lot in the battle scene and also in the Russian Sailor’s Dance.

All Tchaikovsky is challenging because he writes for the breadth of the cello and its very passionate music, so it really takes your all to play it well.  You’ve really got to draw on that emotional level of interpretation beyond the technical.  Performing a piece like Nutcracker so many times and trying to really keep it vital is very demanding emotionally.

With so many Nutcrackers under your belt and so many coming up, how do you keep it fresh night after night?  

Ruth Lane: What I always draw on is the audience.  Every night, at least 30 children with their parents will come up to the orchestra pit before the performance and they are pointing and waving and they are so excited.  It’s so different from the opera performances where some of the front row is falling asleep.  This just doesn’t happen in the Nutcracker.  We’re always joking about how the age goes down by about 20 to 30 years across the board, from the performers to the audience, when you go form opera to ballet and the Nutcracker is just full of children. It’s that and the music itself which requires a lot from you.

How aware are you of what the dancers are doing? 

Ruth Lane: From where I sit, I can usually see the dancers from the chest up, so I see them moving up and down.  I follow the conductor and it’s his job to keep the orchestra and the dancers all together.  I really like Martin West in conversation with Tchaikovsky─it’s passionate but he doesn’t tend to go overboard.   He keeps the tempos up.  Martin is very very good at coordinating the action he is seeing on stage with the sounds that come out of the pit.  I haven’t worked with anybody who is as good as doing that as he is. 

What’s your favorite ballet in terms of music?

 Ruth Lane:   Well, Nutcracker has some of the greatest music but my very favorite ballet is Romeo and Juliet by Prokofiev which we are also performing later this season. The cellos do the love scene on the balcony, which is incredibly emotional and passionate, which keeps coming back again and again. 

The scene on the back of Ruth Lane’s exquisite custom-made cello was inspired by a dream her husband Anthony Lane had. Lane, a highly respected violin maker, drew the basic design and artist Margrit Haeberlin did the actual painting and the cello was Lane’s gift to his wife. Photo: courtesy Anthony Lane Violins of Petaluma.

I know that some string instruments are extremely valuable and are meticulously handcrafted.  Is there anything special about your cello? 

Ruth Lane:  Yes, my husband, Anthony Lane of Lane Violins, custom built my cello for me about 10 years ago and it’s got a wonderful sound and is beautifully decorated with painted images from the Sistine Chapel and the life of a violin maker. I’ve really enjoyed this special gift.

What’s the biggest challenge during the Nutcracker? 

Ruth Lane:  It’s stamina.  The Nutcracker and Tchaikovsky in general require a lot of muscle when playing the cello.  For example, the Pas de Deux (Act II), at the end, is so rigorous that I have to know when to lay back and when to really pull out all the stops.

Do you have a favorite part? 

Ruth Lane:  I’ve always like the Trepak or Russian Sailor’s Dance (Act II) and the Pas de Deux (Act II) at the end.

Two Great SF Ballet Orchestra Nutcracker Recordings: 

 Tchaikovsky: The Nutcracker (1991) with Denis de Coteau.  This recording is groundbreaking.  The San Francisco Ballet Orchestra collected money from each individual musician and recorded this on their own at Skywalker Ranch in 1988.  They were the first group to record and self-produce Nutcracker and received all royalties. 

Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker- San Francisco Ballet (2008) with Martin West, available as a DVD of the ballet performance or as a CD of the music.  

Details:  San Francisco Ballet performs at the historic 1932 War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave, San Francisco. Nutcracker runs December 9 through December 27, 2011.

Tickets: $22 to $275 available (415) 865-2000 or  www.sfballet.org/nutcracker

Parking:  Civic Center Garage (on McAllister Street between Larkin and Polk); Performing Arts Garage (on Grove between Franklin and Gough streets); Opera Plaza Garage (valet only, 601 Van Ness, enter on Turk).

Arrival Time:  Plan to arrive early to enjoy the sumptuous atmosphere and to ensure that you are seated.  The theater enforces a no late seating policy and guests will not be seated after the lights have dimmed. Latecomers will be asked to stand until there is a break in the program, and will be seated at management’s discretion. 

Run-time: Two hours with a 20-minute intermission.

December 18, 2011 Posted by | Classical Music, Dance | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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