Monthly Archives: July 2008

A Passport to France with the San Francisco Symphony

Champagne, Hell, and the Loveliness of Regret with a French twist
7/24/08 Performance with the San Francisco Symphony with pianist Inon Barnatan

Last Thursday, the San Francisco Symphony presented a prix fixe menu of pieces by French composers. Associate conductor James Gaffigan has previously explained in the post performance Q&A’s that they only have one rehearsal on average per program for the Summer in the City series, and so these programs, as expected, aren’t filled with complex esoteric pieces but light classical fare that especially newer audiences might relate more to, which also is perfect for summer. Conducted by James Gaffigan, this program was as effervescent as sparkling champagne.

The soloist of the evening was a young pianist Inon Barnatan playing the richly hued Saint Saens’ Piano Concerto No. 2. In the first movement, Barnatan established the right balance of solidarity and drama, but the technical aspects got the better of him, preventing the music to sing fully. There were some technical cover ups and wildly fluctuating uneasy tempos especially when the melancholy melody first appears. However, he played with increasing confidence as the piece progressed. The highlight of his performance was his featherlight runs, perfect for the soft pastel colors of this piece, especially in the second movement where his fingers skimmed across the keyboard evenly, barely touching the keys. He dug into the high energy of the third movement with a bold sense of humor and sudden contrasts. In the third movement, there is a hailstorm of octaves that sweep down the entire keyboard; Barnatan let loose and played it loud not because it was best musically but because it looked like a lot of fun to play it that way, and it was equally fun to watch. In addition to his display of subtle musicality, his collaborative interaction with Gaffigan brought a cohesive unity between the soloist and the symphony.

Inon Barnatan

Although the program was of French composers, the evening began in Spain with Bizet’s Carmen Suite No. 1. Gaffigan led the symphony out of its usual interpretation as the epitome of the melodramatic, and instead produced a lighter, cleaner, and more flirty rendition of this piece which added an unexpected shot of energy to the piece. The second half of the program was filled with familiar selections by Offenbach, including his Overture to Orpheus in the Underworld and the Intermezzo and Barcarolle from the Tales of Hoffman. Offenbach’s selections were bathed in a shimmery wash of color, and playfully endearing in its familiarity. And in what version of hell/the underworld includes the “can can”, except in the world of the French?

The program ended with Ravel’s La Valse, or as conductor Gaffigan introduced it as, the waltz from hell. It was a regal grand waltz with a darkness that builds, stemming from its oddly pleasing tension that arose from a gentle dissonance that initially sneaks in. The dissonance is never jarring nor attention grabbing, but calmly sculpts the phrases and deepens it. The tension grows to a furiously discordant climax, with the theme reappearing in an eery whisper. This is how I picture the perfect accompaniment to the roomful of waltzing ghosts in Disneyland’s Haunted House. Spinning and glorious with a life lived in the moment with nothing to lose, a last dance of your life. Body parts fly, bones clink.

SF Symphony

Capitalism, yellow journalism, and a fragile dream of a lifetime

Counterargument to SF Weekly’s cover article, “Blood, Sweat, and Tutus”

A few days ago, a rather sensationalistic article was published in the SF Weekly, titled “Blood, Sweat, and Tutus:Tear your knee, wrench your back, pirouette, and bow: dancing at the San Francisco Ballet”. It was an article that addresses the sensitive issue of dancers getting injured, and their fears of being fired from an ever-watchful administration. In short, although the article brings up valid and important points, I felt that the article could have been written in a more practical manner to point to possible solutions, instead of sensationalizing the situation and pointing fingers at causes that may not necessarily the reason for the situation.

In an ideal world, a company would be overflowing with funds. There would be money to hire lots of dancers to cover lots of roles, so dancers don’t have to dance as often but get lots of breaks. If dancers get injured, the company would have more than enough money to keep them on and pay them full time until full recovery. No one would ever be let go, and there would be money to hire more dancers if dancers are injured.

But as we all know, we live in a capitalistic society that favors the bottom line over idealism. The problems are worsened by the unfriendly financial environment for arts organizations, where funding is never enough. In many occupations, an employer has a right to let an employee go if he or she cannot fulfill the duties of the job. Some exceptions exist – as a friend brought up, police officers are guaranteed a desk job or payments for the rest of their lives if they are injured on the job. The big difference between the police department and a ballet company however, are that police departments are guaranteed funding through tax money. Arts organizations are not. Is it heartbreaking? Yes. Is it compassionate? No. Should it even be happening? No. But given its reality, what other choice does a company have?

The competitive nature of the field that drives dancers past their physical comfort zones isn’t the fault of any one administration, but of the field itself. Competition is always tough in a field where there are more people who want to dance than there are jobs. It’s even harder for people who fight their way up to the top of the elite status of principal dancer. In the article, dancer Quinn Wharton states that he continued to dance because “the idea of stepping down and ceding his big breaks to the throngs of dancers nipping at his heels would be as instinctually unthinkable as a dog refusing steak”. But is this not the nature of all competitive fields? In the field that I know best, my own, a comparable situation might be to getting an all-too-rare interview at one of the top medical schools in the country, such as Harvard or UCSF. If I had been unable to attend that interview, whether the reason was injury, job related or not, I would sacrifice a huge irreparable stepping stone to my career because there are thousands who are more than willing to take my place. I know too many stories of sabotage, including spitting in another person’s experiment to screw up their lab results, in the pre-med world. Competition is tough, but sadly and heartlessly no less severe than other equally competitive fields.

Part of the problem that San Francisco Ballet has been put under the spotlight is not due to the fault of its administration, but as an accidental result of its meteoric rise in prestige as a world class ballet company. Dancers, even really great ones, want to dance with the company. More competition brings more pressure, which leads to trying to stand out from the crowd and pushing past comfort zones, and leading to more injuries. Can anyone blame the company for being too good, or too popular, or too prestigious?

Don’t get me wrong. No one should ever have to dance or function through a disc herniation. No one should be denied medical care because they fear for their job. No one should ever be told that they’re being let go without the truth (as the dancer who was let go in the article for being told that he wasn’t “versatile”, although it was obvious that it was because of his injury). No one should be let go in an impersonal flippant manner, without acknowledgment and respect especially for a situation beyond their control. Administrations should be challenged and questioned by the public that they are doing everything possible to prioritize the health and well being of their dancers. In addition, articles like this can be helpful to question traditional ways of thinking. In the medical profession, it was articles such as this that revealed the horrendous state of affairs that set healthy laws like setting limits on residency working hours to 30 hours at a time and no more than 80 hours a week, so that a patient’s life will not be in the hands of a sleep deprived doctor. Articles like this can bring about positive change if done in a practical way. But I didn’t think that posting pictures of toe shoes covered in blood and painting the SF Ballet administration to be a lone bloodthirsty lion roaming to pick off wounded gazelles in a herd helped anything because it reeks of a partiality to a foregone conclusion. The causes run much deeper than a single organization – I don’t think anyone really believe that this problem only exists in SFB and if not worse, at other prestigious dance companies and all throughout the dance world.

Solutions? Of course it’s tough, given the facets of this situation that are unchangeable and multifaceted, including competition, capitalism, limited resources, and multiple organizations from unions to dancers to the administration to the government. The most obvious solution is increased arts funding and keeping vocational rehabilitation and disability funding through the state. However, the solutions need to go deeper than the obvious, including not only preventative medicine but also prevention in ending of careers. A big help would be to provide education and alternatives for dancers if their careers end earlier than expected, so dancers have options to follow other desired career paths.

If you object to the way that injured dancers are treated and want to do something about it, the most immediate way I see of anyone helping out is to buy a ballet ticket. Give money to an organization so that you can support medical care for dancers and their careers and other programs such as education for them. Vote for state funding for the arts and vocational rehabilitation and disability. Pointing fingers at an administration constrained by finances, union laws, and audience demand for healthy present dancers doesn’t accomplish a lot.

Reading the responses to this article, I also see that I’m not the only one who feels that this article was a bit one-sided and overly dramatic (click on “show/hide comments”).

Anyways, I also recommend that you read the article (albeit with a grain of salt) also for the fun stories that are included. Tiit Helimets dancing the lead of Don Q while simultaneously drunk and high off of eight cups of coffee? Hilarious! (although probably unnecessary for the article’s point.)

My deepest heartfelt wishes extend to Julianne Kepley and other dancers who are out due to their injuries at the SF Ballet. Many speedy returns for her recovery and her soon appearance on the War Memorial stage.

Julianne Kepley before her knee injury. Photo from the article by Herbert Migdoll.

Julianne Kepley before her knee injury. Photo from the article by Herbert Migdoll.

Welcome to my new home!

Aaron Orza, Rory Hohenstein, and Matthew Stewart in Filling Station. © Erik Tomasson.

Hello readers! Thanks for joining me at my new home – my own domain name! Woohoo – it feels so grownup. I finally bit the bullet, made a financial investment, and acquired a domain name. This took two after-2 AM late nights, lots of swearing, lots of failed imports/exports, sizing almost every single image individually, absolute confusion, and a vow to learn CSS. Well most of it was just stressing out on my part while someone else did all the work – almost everything was done by a guardian angel who now knows all the passwords to be able to hack into my blog successfully. Thanks AK, I totally couldn’t have done this without you!! I owe you a jade cocktail at the very least – no more gin martinis, I promise.

Forgive the mess – still trying to clean up a lot of links, youtube vids, and lots of little loose ends. I was reminded of how hard programming is. I don’t see how anyone without a masters in computer science can acquire a domain name successfully.

Lots of interesting things coming up – a conference, some more good shows, and possibly even an exclusive interview. Stay tuned!

Please update your links! Welcome to . :)

Child Prodigies: Inspiration and Youth

With Piano Soloists Conrad Tao and Peng Peng

Peng Peng (left, photo by Peter Schaaf) and Conrad Tao (right, photo by J. Henry Fair)

Last Thursday, the San Francisco Symphony featured two young pianists that got me thinking about child prodigies. I walked in with more than few misgivings. First, I feel that too often child prodigies are presented as a circus act. In addition, I personally would much rather see a top artist with mature artistry over a five year old playing fast, any day. I also have problems with the way that prodigies may be forced into an unnatural childhood; as an adult, I can’t do something I like for 8 hours in a row, not to mention practicing. Coincidentally, on my commute to the symphony, I caught an interview with 9 year old child prodigy Marc Yu over the radio on NPR. Click here on “Listen Now”; I was uneasy by how contrived everything sounded, from the careful proclamation that he has lots of friends and lots of time to play and how his lifestyle is actually much better than normal public school attending kids, to the eerie use of the phrase, “dining with the Muses or other gods” in speaking of his future engagement of playing with Lang Lang. What nine year old TALKS like that?? Also, it might serve to present his skills in playing a faster, more technical piece that doesn’t require such deep introspection, like the Chopin nocturne in C sharp minor that he chose to play. Despite my misgivings, I couldn’t resist when I saw that the two young soloists, 13 year old Conrad Tao and 15 year old Peng Peng, were playing the Mozart Concerto for Two Pianos with the San Francisco Symphony. I have a soft spot for this piece, as I played this with a full orchestra (not with the SFS, except in my dreams) with my twin sister at the creaky old age of 17. So I went to check it out.

All my cynicism about child prodigies flew out the water when I heard them play. The technical demands of Mozart are difficult enough due to the transparency of the music where every mistake sticks out like a flashing neon sign, but this didn’t phase the young soloists, as they tackled it with flying colors. I was more struck by the maturity of their artistry, and how different the two players were. Each player brought their own flavor to their own parts and in the words of Paula Abdul, made it their own. Conrad Tao was more logical in his playing, with a light attack and a gentle consideration in the shaping of his phrases, which was perfect for Mozart. Peng Peng was more lyrical and poetic, using bigger contrasts which added intrigue. Peng Peng would perform quick runs up the keyboard with the notes growing softer and would disappear into thin air, and the effect was breathtaking. If Tao was more logical and grounded, Peng Peng was more heavenly. If Tao had more technical clarity and consistency, Peng Peng had more poignancy and sensitivity. I found that this individuality added interest, yet I feel like the piece really calls for two pianists who sound like they are playing as one. Minor details such as occasional rushing (ah, the eagerness of youth), losing steam and strength especially in the high energy third movement where fast runs or the melody (especially in higher registers) weren’t crystal clear seemed completely insignificant compared to the fact that these soloists really displayed an astounding unique artistry in their performance. The notoriously difficult cadenzas were executed flawlessly as the lightning quick runs passed from one piano to the other seamlessly. More than anything, they made this piece sound like a ton of fun, this performance being one of the most colorful renditions that I’ve heard of the piece. What they lacked in brilliant articulation and force, they made up for in enthusiasm and the risk to infuse it with their own personalities. As an encore, the two pianists played a rousing two piano rendition of Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” arranged by the players themselves (based on Horowitz’s one piano version), which had everyone to their feet. Needless to say, Tao and Peng Peng really displayed a maturity in their playing well beyond their age, and even impressed a cynic like me.

Despite my suspicions regarding child prodigies, there is something profoundly inspirational about them as well. With Tao and Peng Peng, I got the idea that these two players are really doing something that they truly love doing. I could be wrong, but it was especially telling in the Off the Podium post performance discussion, where they had obviously thought a lot about what they do, and why they do it. Other audience members apparently felt the same way, as I saw more than a few groups of children attend the concert, especially visible in the Center Terrace seats. It was definitely the most number of younger kids I’ve seen at a symphony concert.

The Mozart two piano concerto was one of three Mozart pieces the symphony performed that night. The concert opened with selections of ballet music from the opera, Idomeneo. Conductor James Gaffigan opened by introducing Mozart and narrating certain moods from the music, which my seatmate appreciated, as it felt like Gaffigan was teaching the audience how to deduce certain moods and emotions from the music that they hear. It does encourage more active listening especially from people newer to classical music. The ballet music was typical Mozart – elegant, graceful, and bathed in a warm rosy glow. The ballet music was extremely descriptive, lending easily to be classified into different moods (angry music, pretty music, sad music). The program ended with Mozart’s Symphony No. 41, “Jupiter”. The symphony surged through its different colors, change of keys, and rapid modulations with invigorating assurance. The second movement featured gentle muted strings; I didn’t hear any of the “pathos” that the program notes indicated, just a sweet melancholy. Unsettling chords and swells resolve quickly so tension was never around for long. This concert wasn’t the most diverse Mozart program and started to feel a bit one-note towards the end. There was no strident Mozart, or scary Mozart, or anything atypical Mozart, just his normal classy, playful, warm self. But what was presented was animatedly emotive, and it inspired my seatmate to listen to more Mozart. If this was the point of this concert, then San Francisco Symphony succeeded completely.

A side note: for those of you who haven’t attended the Off the Podium post performance question and answer sessions, I recommend it highly. You can really ask all the questions you want, because there have been some pretty stupid questions and chances are yours won’t be the worst, and it feels like a lot of people are there to listen, not to necessarily ask any questions. Click on the comments to read a story that occurred to me at the Off the Podium.

Recommended recordings:

  • Mozart: Concerto No. 10, K365; Concerto No. 12, K414; Trio, K502: including the Mozart Two Piano Concerto with Peter and Rudolf Serkin. A sparkling rendition as sharp and as present as a glittering diamond.
  • Evegny Kissin‘s recording of the Chopin Piano Concertos when he was 12: my preferred piano prodigy recording of choice – definitely not the worst recording out there, definitely not bad.

Other reviews:

San Francisco Symphony website

The Creme de la Creme: Artists and the Ivy League

Clockwise from top left: Harvard grad Stefan Jackiw, Columbia grad Alisa Weilerstein, Columbia grad Alicia Graf, and Stanford grad Jon Nakamatsu

It seems to be a trend these days – elite artists graduating from equally elite colleges. Some examples are in the picture above – rising stars and recent soloists with the San Francisco Symphony Stefan Jackiw and Alisa Weilerstein who has a degree in Russian history. Van Cliburn piano competition winner Jon Nakamatsu received a bachelor’s in German studies and a master’s degree in Education at Stanford University, and he was a full time working high school German teacher before winning the Van Cliburn competition. He surprised everyone by winning without ever attending a conservatory. Alicia Graf is a superstar dancer in the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, who graduated with a degree in history from Columbia University.

What changed? It’s a comforting trend in a society that values all around personal development. Yet at the same time, the trend seems to be a risky one. An Ivy League education seems to be fitting for an artist who wants options, who isn’t sure about a full time commitment to a field that’s notoriously tough to stay afloat. However, the risk is a less-than-full development of a very specialized art and competition with conservatory trained artists who are all striving to stand out from the crowd. It makes sense to me that if an artist knows that they want to pursue music or dance as a career, they throw all their eggs in one basket and go to Juilliard to train with the best teachers in the world.

At the same time, in a post performance Q&A with the San Francisco Symphony last year, there was a second violinist on the panel who attended Juilliard, but admitted that if he could change one thing, he would have attended a college with broader options. I was curious about his answer, especially coming from a musician who devoted his career to his art, and is making his living off of it. Is the cost that comes with a richer education worth the risk of possibly not being where you are now?

What are the advantages of an academic education that can further artistry? Does studying Russian folk history help you dance a more nuanced Giselle? Does the study of Tschaikowsky’s life and cultural history help you interpret his music better?

The lovely Alicia Graf, with Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater

Let me know in the comments if there are other Ivy League educated artists that I’m forgetting.

Festival Opera’s Il Trovatore

Noah Stewart (as Manrico), Hope Briggs (as Leonora) and Scott Bearden (as
Count di Luna). Photo by Robert Shomler

As a person fairly new to opera, I found that I gravitated towards the lighter operas. I liked comedic ones (such as Barber of Seville which I saw at the Met, or Donizetti’s La Fille du Regiment), or my favorite, Mozart operas. The Marriage of Figaro with the LA Opera was the first one that captivated me; I found its themes surprisingly modern. The ones that I had a harder time with were the heavier Romantic ones. In high school, I saw Aida at the LA Opera, where the ‘young sexy slave girl’ was an obese post-middle aged woman with paint on her face. Her ‘hot sexy ardent young lover’ was an obsese post-middle aged man who had difficulty moving around too far or too fast. There were some aspects of the production that kept me from appreciating the music, I think. And everything was so heavy and so long. I don’t remember much else aside from that. With this experience, I can’t even imagine what Wagner must be like. It just sounds like punishment.

So to be genuinely honest, I probably never would have went out of my way to go out and seek another Verdi opera (a tragedy, on top of that) on my own. But when I was kindly invited to attend Festival Opera’s Il Trovatore, I grabbed a friend and went.

The biggest impression of the evening was that I surprisingly fell in love with Verdi. Verdi capitalizes on opera’s strengths and avoids its pitfalls. There are certain emotions that translate so much better in song than through spoken word, such as passionate love, or a cry of anguish. Verdi capitalized on the strengths of this genre to personify love in song. Verdi manages to avoid the pitfalls that I feared. Although this opera is a tragedy, the music isn’t all about heavy and long drawn out phrases or sustained notes. There was an unexpected lightness written into the music, in the form of quick staccato notes in Leonora’s aria (sorry, I don’t know the names of any of the arias), or quick running triplets as a motif. And who can resist love being sung in soaring song? It was a great balance.

The plot of the story is, as my friend put it, a cross between Romeo and Juliet and a soap opera. The last 30 seconds of the show literally include the words, “He was your brother”, referring to a man who was killed by another. Throw in mistaken identity, thwarted love, jealousies, love deferred, and slow acting poison, and you have the plot. But who watches opera for the plot? The music more than made up for it.

The talent onstage was equally impressive. Standouts included Kirk Eichelberger as Ferrando, with nice projection and precision in fast slurred notes and the right amount of darkness. Hope Briggs sang the role of Leonora with a deep honeyed sweetness. There was no real subtlety in details, but her unabashed passion in her love songs gave me chills. Noah Stewart as Manrico personified his character well, with an alluring hint of danger and sexiness. The character of Manrico wears many hats during this opera, from threatening menace to dutiful son to ardent lover, and Stewart rose to the occasion admirably. Patrice Houston fully embodied every note she sang, indulging in the richness of the music. Scott Bearden sang the role of Count Di Luna. Despite his impressive accomplishments listed in his biography, he sounded bright even when he was threatening Manrico. Even at his most passionate Bearden sounded softly romantic, and it was unconvincing that his love for Leonora was a love that moves mountains. I also cringed when Bearden cracked a note and had pitch problems at the end of one of his arias. Overall, it was a great cast, and they served the material well.

The orchestra, under the enthusiastic direction of Michael Morgan, also sparkled. Conductor Michael Morgan was especially fun to watch, as he seemed to thoroughly enjoy the music. Not to the point of distraction, I found myself watching him sometimes to feel more aligned to the music.

On a side note – lots have been written about the audience at the Lesher Center for the Arts. I too noticed the unnerving loud unwrapping of candy throughout the opera, and unluckily, I happened to be sitting next to a woman who needed to leave her seat and walk over me, TWICE, during the first act. (She sat somewhere else for the second act.) She also ripped a part of her program, slowly and loudly, during a quiet spot in an aria to spit out her gum. I didn’t notice any cell phones going off though. I was surprised there was no announcement at the beginning, reminding people to turn off their cell phones or to unwrap any hard candies or lozenges, as they do in Jersey Boys and other shows I’ve been to. The audience may benefit greatly with this reminder.

Being the third largest opera company in the Bay Area, Festival Opera impressively accomplished its lofty goals of bringing great material to the people of Walnut Creek who might not want to make the trek out to San Francisco, nor pay the prices for it. The cast served up an excellent rendition of this opera, convincing me what a musical gem this opera is. What a treat that an opera company not in the middle of a big city can still serve its community with a moving performance.

Other reviews:

Festival Opera. Remaining performances of Il Trovatore on Fri July 18 (evening) and Sun July 20 (matinee)

San Francisco Symphony with violinist Stefan Jackiw

Updated: July 13, 2008

Stefan Jackiw, a young hot violinist and a soloist with the San Francisco Symphony. And by hot I mean “buzzworthy”. Not necessarily “good-looking”. Of course not.

It didn’t even cross my mind to worry about bringing an IT startup techie college friend and symphony neophyte to an evening of Bach, Mendelssohn, and Mussorgsky at the San Francisco Symphony. Although the three pieces on the program were written before the year 1900, certain pieces have the ability to transcend time and to sound freshly current. I’ve talked about masterpieces before on this blog, and what it means for something to be classified in the level of “legendary”. Timelessness has to be a big factor in defining a masterpiece, and no matter when it was written, who can resist the seduction of a sweeping, thoughtfully-detailed musical performance?

The San Francisco Symphony looked sharp in their crisp white ice-cream-man “Summer in the City” series uniform, with associate conductor James Gaffigan on the podium. It’s a delight to see him lead with ease and confidence, bringing out details such as emphasis on a second violin counterpoint in the Bach piece, or the soaring melody in the cellos in the Mendelssohn violin concerto. I find myself looking forward to concerts with Gaffigan standing in front, and seeing what he has in store for the night.

Bach is a Baroque (i.e. very old) composer that is known for his technical and intellectual and not particularly external emotional style, characteristic of the Baroque period. In fact, my mom finds Bach very boring, as his pieces tend to be more cerebral rather than expressive. Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in d Minor, orchestrated by Stokowski, seems to be an exception, filled with angst, urgency, and fire. The uninhibited timing in its opening call to listen up foretells of the improvisational madness that follows, going off into tangents off of the main theme. By definition, the fugue centers around a theme. A conversation ensues, with the violins talking, and the winds responding and the cellos chiming in. The contrast between the voices added interest, and the secondary melodies were featured lovingly. The strings have never sounded more lush nor more unified.

Bach’s Toccata and Fugue, as interpreted by Disney

The Mendelssohn Violin Concerto in e Minor followed, featuring soloist Stefan Jackiw. In a string of young soloists that the SF Symphony has featured in the last few times I’ve seen the symphony, he was hands down my favorite out of the bunch. Being such a dramatic piece, there is always temptation of being overindulgent in its gut-wrenching drama, yet Jackiw successfully presented a clean yet deeply emotional performance. There were no extra bells or whistles, just a dazzling purity that left me quietly moved. His playing belied an underlying intelligence in his highly detailed performance. A lightning fast passage was never a passage without purpose; Jackiw took the time to emphasize certain notes instead of barreling through them. Vibrato was gently added to the end of a long sustained note. Quieter moments were savored. He let the melancholy music speak for itself, and played with a maturity beyond his age. It was absolutely astounding, and a very impressive debut with the San Francisco Symphony.

Modest Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition closed the program. This piece was written to honor the passing of an artist friend, Victor Hartmann. Based on Hartmann’s paintings and orchestrated by Maurice Ravel, Exhibition is comprised of a series of short sketches, as illustrative as the paintings that inspired them. There is nothing cryptic about these musical sketches, which are as colorfully descriptive as a bright Georgia O’Keefe painting. The piece opens with “Promenade” which presents the grandiose theme that reappears in multiple forms throughout the work. A picture of cattle (“Bydlo”) is represented by the lower strings playing a lumbering melody. In the “Ballet of the Chicks in Their Shells” (a costume design for a ballet) a playful harp and flute play a light and flirty tune. In “The Great Gate of Kiev”, the theme reappears in its full glory, with each note of the melody presented to the audience on a platter, accented for emphasis with a beat of the timpani, in case we couldn’t hear it. Subtlety is not a theme here, but bright clarity, however simple or one-note, is a refreshing change from complex uncertainty. This piece featured some standout soloists – on trumpet, Bill Williams (acting principal) played with a haunting croon uncharacteristic of a classic brassy trumpet sound. A lone uncredited saxophone played with a sultry sexiness of a smoky underground French cafe, which left me wondering why the saxophone isn’t utilized more often in a symphony orchestra. In all, the Mussorgsky was played with an expansive generosity of spirit.

Hartmann’s painting of the Great Gate of Kiev. From Wikipedia

This night at the symphony proved to me how classics can still sound vividly contemporary. To me, a night like this holds the key to marketing to younger audiences. Gimmicks aside, great music will always be great music that everyone can enjoy and come back for more. Thanks to an oustanding orchestra and a highly skilled conductor, it was an amazing night at the symphony, as refreshing as the cool summer breezes that flit around the symphony hall.


Newly promoted Sofiane Sylve and Anthony Spaulding in van Manen’s Two Pieces For Het (for Rachel) at the gala last year. © Chris Hardy

San Francisco Ballet announces dancer promotions

San Francisco Ballet has announced the promotion of five Company members and the addition of seven new dancers for the 2009 Repertory Season. Jaime Garcia Castilla has been promoted from soloist to principal dancer, and Dana Genshaft, Pauli Magierek, Garen Price Scribner, and Anthony Spaulding have been promoted from corps de ballet members to soloists. Sean Orza and Jeremy Rucker, both apprentices during the 2008 Repertory Season, join the ranks of the corps de ballet. In addition, Taras Domitro and Ivan Popov join the Company as principal dancers, and new corps de ballet members include Isaac Hernández and Suzy Spaulding. Also, Sofiane Sylve, who performed with the Company as a guest artist last season, will join San Francisco Ballet as a principal dancer for the 2009 Repertory Season. The Company roster now stands at 73 dancers.

Definitely some surprises (good ones!), and some well deserved promotions! I’m really happy about Garcia Castilla’s lightning fast promotion to principal; it’ll be thrilling to see him in more lead roles with his wonderful mellifluous musicality that seeps through every role he takes. The four corps promotions to soloist are all well deserved, but I’m particularly excited about Scribner and Genshaft, two dancers that really stood out for me this year. And Sofiane Sylve, previously with NYCB, is returning! I hardly saw her dance this year, so it’ll be great to see her dance again. I see lots of dancers with really impressive backgrounds – do I sense the standard is getting higher?? Domitro is joining from the Ballet Nacional de Cuba, and Popov is joining from the Kirov. Hernandez is the gold medal winner for the USA International Ballet Competition 2006, coming from ABT II.

I’m really looking forward to some great dancing this year. Enough with the break already! I’m itching for the season to begin again.

For the entire press release, click here.

Matt’s Peripatetic Youtube Dance Video

(I just like that word and had to use it in my title.)

I found this Youtube video through the NY Times article which states,

“The title is not misleading. “Dancing” shows a guy dancing: a big, doughy-looking fellow in shorts and hiking boots performing an arm-swinging, knee-pumping step that could charitably be called goofy. It’s the kind of semi-ironic dance that boys do by themselves at junior high mixers when they’re too embarrassed to partner with actual girls.”

I was caught off guard when I found the vid strangely moving.

I was trying to pinpoint exactly why – maybe it’s a testament to how the setting can really complete a performance. But it’s also the choreography as well – the disarmingly genuine dorky dancing of a regular guy doing what he clearly loves doing, even if he’s not very good at it. It’s pretty funny how easily such a simple truth can be so disarming.

My favorite is of him in Istanbul, and at the DMZ in Korea with the unsmiling policeman.

I found the outtakes hilarious. Love the captions.