ARThound

Geneva Anderson digs into art

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.

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January 22, 2014 Posted by | Classical Music, Green Music Center | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 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