Monthly Archives: July 2009

San Francisco Symphony’s “my classic Russian composers”

Last week, the San Francisco Symphony took on an international flair with their all-Russian Summer & the City program, called “my classic Russian composers”. Conductor James Gaffigan led the symphony in an outpour of emotion from the hearts of Russian composers. The stage was filled with more of the familiar faces of the SF Symphony for the larger orchestra that this romantic program required. But as Mike astutely observed in a comment in my earlier entry, the one-rehearsal-per-performance format didn’t serve this program in its best light. Despite its visible cracks, it was a fun concert for both my symphony newbie friend and I.

The evening opened with Mussorgsky’s fiery A Night on Bald Mountain. This piece narrates a story of evil spirits and their festivities and ends with church bells that break up the madness and ends with hope and peace. Made famous by Disney’s Fantasia, the SF Symphony’s version was a welcome version vastly different from the ostentatious Disney version. This performance strayed more to the careful and muted spectrum especially in the beginning until the horns came blaring in an impressive climax of the evil spirited orgy. The effect was deliciously messy, yet never stridently so.

Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto followed, with soloist Orion Weiss. Weiss made a huge impression when I saw him last year with the Marin Symphony in the Beethoven concerto with a highly individual and daring performance. In this performance, Weiss started out well with a big, round sound. However, he lost his footing in a technical run early in the first movement that also briefly lost the orchestra, and the piece never recovered. Weiss seemed to lose his confidence, and the volume range remained limited for the rest of the performance, and at times it was difficult to hear. The hesitant pace lagged, momentum fizzled. Overall, I found it an uneven performance with unclear intent. I did find myself wishing though that the piano sounded more off-the-cuff intense and spontaneous rather than awash in quiet introspection that swallowed itself whole. Still, a thoughtful and sensitive performer, Weiss infused a refreshing lean and elegant air to the extravagantly romantic concerto, and there were flashes of pure beauty. Clearly this was an incident that’s chalked up to limited rehearsal time and youth, and not an accurate reflection of his obvious musical talent.

The night ended with Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scherazade loosely based on the story of the Arabian Nights, which was my favorite piece of the night. The orchestra seemed to let go and let fly with lush melodies and warmth. For a few blissful moments, the music depicted hot desert perfumed air under an expansive starry sky with a hint of magic.

Other reviews:

San Francisco Symphony

Great Expectations



When I see something on stage that I’m familiar with, I always have an idea of how it should look or sound in my head. Do they do it like the original Broadway cast, or do they dance it like how Balanchine “intended” (another argument all in itself), or does it sound appropriately Liszt-y enough? It’s always satisfying to see or hear something like how I want it to sound like.

But it’s still my favorite when I see a performance that is different from what I expect, yet it convinces me that this is how it should sound like. It’s that lightbulb moment of something learned anew from a persuasive performance, a challenge for the audience viewer. It’s a peek into a performer’s heart, an individual stamp, an unexpected twist, and a fleeting work of art.

At the San Francisco Symphony, the all-Mozart program was one such performance, with new revelations uncovered around every corner in pieces I thought I already knew. Last night’s performance of the all-Russian program was a little unclear in its intent and statement despite the sold out house, yet not without its romantic passionate outpourings. More to come on this later.

The San Francisco Symphony’s Summer & the City season has been a really fun one. I find it easier to bring people that have never attended the symphony before, and although many usual symphony members are missing, I found it really fun to sit back and revel in the music. Many are familiar pieces from my childhood that I played in various youth orchestras, and my musical memories are strongly tied to growing up with them.

San Francisco Symphony’s Summer & the City ends tonight with a fun program of Americana classics, including James Earl Jones narrating Copland’s Lincoln Portrait.

Nicolas Blanc to Leave San Francisco Ballet

Nicolas Blanc and Maria Kochetkova in Balanchine's Jewels. © Erik Tomasson

Nicolas Blanc and Maria Kochetkova in Balanchine's Jewels. © Erik Tomasson

From the San Francisco Ballet:

Principal Dancer Nicolas Blanc has asked to be released from his contract with SF Ballet, for the 2010 Repertory Season. Said Blanc, who will return to Europe this summer, “it’s time for me to move to a new chapter in my life and to pass on what I’ve learned and experienced in my career as an artist. My six years with SF Ballet have been instrumental in my growth, not only as a dancer, but as a person; I’ve learned so much and am very grateful for this time with the Company and to the loyal audience that has followed me in San Francisco.”

I have to admit that my heart fell a little bit when I heard this news. He left an indelible impression on me this season, especially in the last program back in May. I wrote, “Principal Nicolas Blanc wowed with the fluidity of his turns and phrasing, alternating with intensity of sharply punctuated attack in Elo’s Double Evil, causing the audience to burst out into spontaneous

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applause. Not a particularly loud, flashy dancer, Blanc’s dancing is filled with nuanced detail and a quiet strength that is more than what it looks like at first glance. Watching him on Sunday made me want to see him onstage more often than I do.”

An always classy dancer, he was one of the reasons this season that makes San Francisco Ballet one of the best and versatile ballet companies in the world. As a fan, I wish him the best of luck in his future endeavors, and only hope to see him back onstage sometime soon.

Nicolas Blanc and Mark Morris rehearsing Morris Joyride. © Erik Tomasson

Nicolas Blanc and Mark Morris rehearsing Morris' Joyride. © Erik Tomasson

San Francisco Symphony’s “Final Fantasy” and an Ocarina Master Class and Orchestra

After tonight’s performance of San Francisco Symphony playing Nobuo Uematsu’s “Distant Worlds: music from Final Fantasy” – sure to attract technophiles everywhere in the Bay Area – a master class of the iPhone musical instrument, the ocarina, will be held. Led by creating company Smule’s Turner Kirk, the class will culminate in a group ocarina symphony performance, made up of symphony ticket holders (and iPhone and iTouch owners, presumably) of music from Final Fantasy. This would be really fun to see, and I wish I could be there. If anyone went, please report in the comments!

The ocarina reminds me of a flute, but perfectly in tune. You blow into it, and change the keys with different fingering. I wonder if you can create vibrato, or if it does it for you? Pretty cool!

Summer and the Symphony: Gaffigan, Denk, and Mozart

Last Friday night, I finally got a chance to attend my first San Francisco Symphony’s Summer & the Symphony series this year for an all-Mozart program conducted by James Gaffigan. The sunflowers were in full bloom in the lobby, and the gentle stylings of a lobby piano player added to the festive atmosphere. When I picked up my tickets at the box office, a really nice ticket office guy gave me a sponataneous serenade of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene”. Who knew that a serenade was included in the price of a ticket?


Look, Mozart came! We couldn't decide if he was hired by the symphony or if he dressed up by his own free will.

It was an artful experience to watch conductor James Gaffigan lead an all-Mozart program. Gentility and delight abounds in Mozart’s music, where even in its maelstrom, stormy moments, you always know that the sun will shine again very soon. Gaffigan was the night’s master sculptor, lovingly shaping every lilting phrase with care and consideration. Unexpected charm lurked around every corner, giving Mozart’s overplayed music new life and a current freshness.

The opening overture to The Magic Flute had a cultivated yet buttery suaveness, interspersed with reverent, hymnic overtones. Mozart’s Elvira Madigan Concerto No. 21 followed, with pianist Jeremy Denk as Gaffigan’s perfect partner-in-crime. Every mindful detail in this concerto took off in meticulous flights of fancy in Denk’s thoughtful hands. I admit this has never been my favorite piano concerto, especially the second movement which I usually find painfully static. This performance miraculously made it my favorite for the night – Gaffigan coaxed a gently propelling bass line which gave movement to the impossibly slow melody. Denk made the piano sing like a wind instrument, with never ending phrases and notes that seemed to hang in mid air, and the melody weaved a slow yet mesmerizing spell.

Being the summer however, lots of familiar faces in the symphony were missing especially amongst the principals. The tightness of the group suffered a little bit, especially in the beginning moments of the final selection for the night, Mozart’s Symphony No. 40 in g minor. However the evening ended on a high note, with a spontaneous encore with Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, as Gaffigan introduced, to end the evening not in a minor key but with “musical champagne”. This surprise encore seemed to disarm the audience of their “good concert behavior”, as people behind me hummed to the familiar melody and the audience clapped along. Rather than being annoyed as I usually might, I found myself wanting to sing along as well. To everyone’s delight, Gaffigan walked off the podium in the middle of the piece and let the orchestra play by themselves, as he sat behind the orchestra on the floor to enjoy the music. This move even had the fidgeting children in the center terrace to sit up and pay attention, and Gaffigan even gave them an affable wave. It was a fun moment that had everyone smiling as they left the auditorium, and a perfect end to a warm San Francisco summer evening.

San Francisco Symphony

American Ballet Theatre’s Veronika Part on the Letterman Show

Happy Friday, everyone! This is a cute interview with David Letterman and the lovely ABT principal Veronika Part. It was a huge score for introducing ballet into mainstream America, and it had me watching the Letterman show for the first time in years. She’s a gorgeous and super tall girl, and she must make quite a striking presence onstage. I liked the respect that Letterman had towards Part and her talent in a world that he knows very little of. He made me laugh when he mentioned that this is the first time a ballet dancer has ever been on his show, other than Richard Simmons. :) (That was a joke he made in his monologue.) For more photos and discussion, check out Swan Lake Samba Girl’s take.


And… I’m back! I hope everyone had a very happy July 4th weekend. Sorry I’ve been MIA for the longest time away since I started this blog – this makes for a great argument for how bloggers who blog for free will never replace newspapers and its paid journalists. Real life gets in the way, and when push comes to shove, it’s difficult to prioritize blogging over career and personal life. For a thoughtful analysis of blogging and journalism, click here at Dancing Perfectly Free.

A crappy iphone photo of lovely fireworks over the Berkeley Marina, with the Golden Gate Bridge on one side, and the Bay Bridge on the other.

A pixely iPhone photo of lovely fireworks over the Berkeley Marina, with the Golden Gate Bridge on one side and the Bay Bridge on the other.

The last thing I caught onstage at the War Memorial Opera House was a stellar production of Porgy and Bess at the SF Opera, with an amazing ensemble cast and the incomparable Eric Owens. His voice not only embodied vocal power, but also seemed to personify inner strength and fortitude as well. Also, the standing room experience was an absolute riot. I’ve never seen the elderly move with that much urgency (opera fans are truly the most devoted, I think), windmilling their arms to prevent anyone from passing them. I found myself in the balcony standing room, but was thrilled at the quality of sound up there. To my vocally inexperienced ears, the voices sounded miked, and I had to remind myself that the singers had no microphones. Many thanks to sfmike for procuring a highly desired standing room ticket.

Even though it’s summer, there are lots of great things coming up. The San Francisco Symphony’s Summer in the City is going on right now, with great soloists and programs. Don’t miss James Gaffigan conducting an all-Mozart program this Friday, with pianist Jeremy Denk (blogger at think denk) in the Elvira Madigan concerto. Pianist Orion Weiss will be performing later this month as well.

The Stern Grove Festival is great for families with free outdoor performances by the San Francisco Ballet (the only chance to see them off-season, unless you live in China for their tour this summer) and the San Francisco Opera in August. It’s a gorgeous, casual outdoor setting to experience a unique San Francisco tradition.

What did you see this summer?