Category Archives: san francisco symphony

Coming up this week…

Maria Kochetkova in Balanchine's Coppélia. © Erik Tomasson

I’m leaving on a road trip, long enough to miss the entire run of Program 5 at San Francisco Ballet, the full-length production of Balanchine’s Coppelia! Please report back and tell me what you thought in the comments below – it should be a fantastic production. I will be seeing the SF Giants’ spring training games instead – so excited!

Other things on my radar: it’s a slightly random list, but somehow these events found their way into my consciousness:

  • San Francisco Symphony will be performing Dvorak’s New World Symphony and Mozart’s Violin Concerto #4 with Arabella Steinbacher from March 24-26. Click here for more info.
  • For the new music fans: Symphony Parnassus will be performing a world premiere with young composer Stefan Cwik, a “Piano Concerto” with San Francisco Conservatory of Music professor Scott Foglesong as soloist. Their concert also includes Astor Piazzolla’s “Suite Punta del Este” for Bandoneon and Orchestra and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Cool program, no? This orchestra is conducted by principal bassoon player for the SF Symphony, Stephen Paulson. This concert will take place on Sunday, March 27th, 2011 at 3pm at the Concert Hall at the San Francisco Conservatory. Click here for more information.
  • Sacramento Ballet presents a program titled “Icons and Innovators” including Balanchine’s The Four Temperaments, Lila York’s Celts, and Ron Cunningham’s Bolero. The program runs from March 24-27. Click here for more information.

What’s on your radar? Did you see any of the events listed above, and what did you think?

Have a great week, everyone!

Review: 2011 San Francisco Symphony and Chorus

Bach’s Mass in b Minor, BWV 232

San Francisco Symphony, image provided by the Mondavi Center

Yesterday, San Francisco Symphony came eastward for a second performance this year at the Mondavi Center, adding to the festivity of the occasion with the San Francisco Chorus in tow. The evening was dedicated to performing Johann Sebastian Bach’s Mass in b Minor conducted by Ragnar Bohlin.

First, a few words on the San Francisco Chorus (a group I’d only heard once before with the weird and tremendous Ligeti’s Requiem). The group was established in 1972 at the request of the symphony’s music director at the time, Seiji Ozawa. The 142 member chorus gives at least 26 performances each season, and is currently made up of 30 professionals and 112 volunteer singers (does this surprise anybody? I just assumed they were all professionals, but I was wrong).

Bach’s Mass in b Minor is considered a seminal piece in classical music, sacred music in particular. Lasting nearly two hours, it’s made up of different sections with a number of songs in each section. Bach first started writing parts of it in 1724 and finished writing the whole score in the late 1740s. Upon my first viewing of this piece, the different songs (gorgeous in itself) felt a little disjointed, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that Bach had written sections of it in different times. It’s a study of contrasts, going from grandiose orchestral resonances with the full chorus to small chamber ensembles with a solo or duet voice. The piece is cloaked in somber tones but with wonderful swells of hope throughout. It’s a piece that I felt needed more of my time to experience and to absorb fully, but the combination of the music and the subject matter was awe-inspiring.

The performance of Bach’s Mass in b Minor was a wonderfully balanced performance. The symphony was a smaller ensemble for this performance with the appearance of several baroque instruments (including the keyboard instrument (anybody know the name?) and the oboe d’amore (thanks for the tip, Patty!)), playing with a pointed but a discriminating presence. The large choral singing was nuanced and expressive, and the vocal soloists were a particular highlight. Mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor sang in warm, lush tones, tenor Nicholas Phan with a wistful quality wrapped in passion, and bass-baritone Shenyang with a unique elegance and precision that appearto be rare qualities in bass-baritone voices.  Soprano Ingela Bohlin’s voice didn’t appear to project very well to where I was sitting, but blended in lovely ways in her duet with mezzo-soprano Abigail Nims.

Some may find the length of the work to be difficult to sit through. But this baroque masterpiece is beautifully served by the San Francisco Symphony and the San Francisco Chorus, a testament to the power of the sounds of beauty and faith to last through the centuries.

For clips of Bach’s Mass in b Minor, check out Patty’s blog entry, here. San Francisco Symphony and Chorus continue their performance of Bach’s Mass in b Minor this weekend at their home symphony hall at the Davies. Check it out on their website including a very cool podcast to learn more about the work.

Mondavi Arts

Review: 2010 San Francisco Symphony at the Mondavi Center

Principal clarinet for the San Francisco Symphony Carey Bell

The San Francisco Symphony brought their “French Classics Program with MTT” to the Mondavi Center last night for their annual trek to the Mondavi Center. The wife of late Robert Mondavi, Margrit Mondavi, made her enthusiastic appearance as she waved to the audience that sells out every year for this special annual concert. There was this special appreciation in the air for a world-class symphony coming this far out east to play for an audience who only gets an opportunity to hear them once a year.

Michael Tilson Thomas was the debonair leader in directing a program of works by Ravel, Debussy, and Berlioz. Although I wouldn’t classify these pieces as “classics”, the theme of an all-French program seems like a good one with an obvious common thread. However, the presented pieces sounded very similar to my ears. No wonder, as the pieces were written within 1839 – 1909, with the first half of the program ranging from works written within 20 years, from 1809 – 1909. The first half of the concert sounded especially similar in style. Ravel’s Rapsodie espagnole was a mixed bag of influences, with dissonance, Spanish and jazz influences, enshrouded in mystery and sudden contrasts. Debussy’s Premiere Rapsodie for Clarinet and Orchestra and Fantasisie for Piano and Orchestra were all studies of singing, shimmery melodies and sharp contrasts, where lush melodies with longing dissonances prevailed. By the time that pianist Jean-Frederic Neuburger took the stage in the Fantaisie, my ears had grown so used to the style that it was hard not to think of the first half of the concert as one long piece. Berlioz’s Scenes forRomeo et Juliette, Op. 17, was a nice welcome change after the intermission, with more heft and angst and gorgeous melodies, with an especially lovely hymn in the violas and cello section. It did seem to drag on a bit, however, and pacing appeared to be a problem throughout the whole concert especially in the slow sections.

Despite a program that was less varied than I liked, it was clear that this was a very special night. The symphony has never sounded better, playing with a thrilling sense of energy and life. If there’s one thing that Michael Tilson Thomas does well, he does loud, rollicking sections with relish and a great sense of fun. Carey Bell is a gem, one of San Francisco’s best. Although the Debussy piece wasn’t the best showcase for his talents, Bell caught everyone’s attention with breathless control and lively virtuosity. His sense of unity with the orchestra clearly comes from a place of familiarity with the group. Pianist Jean-Frederic Neuburger played with a pleasing brightness, holding his own above the sounds of the orchestra.

The audience clearly appreciated the presence of an amazing orchestra coming out to tour at the Mondavi Center, with symphony members reaching out to the community earlier in the day to teach master classes at the university and high school orchestras. It’s a special relationship with the symphony and the Mondavi Center that I hope will only get stronger in the future.

The concert plays through Sunday back in San Francisco at the Davies Symphony Hall. Click here for more information.

San Francisco Symphony and its audience

An interesting quote from San Francisco Symphony conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas, about the symphony listening experience from the audience point of view (via the Wall Street Journal).

“In some places, there is a certain ritualistic aspect to it. The audience expects to have a certain kind of experience, which perhaps reaffirms certain nice and comfortable things from their life. The idea that you can shake it up a bit at the concert or experience something new is very particular to this area and this audience.”

I know that Thomas was trying to say that Bay area audiences are different, and perhaps the Bay area is better than most places, but I still see a lot of both groups of people at the symphony.

San Francisco Symphony’s summer season ends this weekend with a bang with a really fun program, starting with John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine, Chris Noth (“Mr. Big”) narrating Copland’s Lincoln Portrait, the original jazz band version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (super cool), and a collaboration with the UC Berkeley Marching Band for the hit Broadway tune “Seventy-Six Trombones”. Come early for music and dancing with the Martini Brothers, plus desserts and specialty drinks in the lobby. For more information, click here.

Review: San Francisco Symphony and Duncan Sheik’s Whisper House

It was a merging of two worlds at the San Francisco Symphony. In a daring program led by conductor Edwin Outwater, the headliner for the show was a suite from Duncan Sheik’s new musical Whisper House, arranged for orchestra by Simon Hale. Following the immense Tony award-winning success of Spring Awakening, this is Sheik’s second Broadway musical that recently played at the Old Globe in San Diego with lots of early buzz.

It’s easy to see how this suite could easily see the music backing a “a hybrid alt-rock concert-psychological ghost story” of ghosts telling a little boy about life and love through evocative stories both startling and touching. Atonal influences are sprinkled throughout, lending an eery tension and wavering longing. Duncan Sheik himself sang, as well as Holly Brook in ethereal tones.

As an element of a big picture, this score might work successfully in creating a compelling theatrical atmosphere. However in this setting, Sheik’s Whisper House was a bit of a fish out of water. Unfairly taken out of context, it was disorienting without a plotline as to what was going on and who the characters were as the audience was plunged into the songs with barely any warning.

It’s difficult to be scared of ghosts in bright house lights, which were on to allow for the audience to read the lyrics in the program, as the first song warns, “We’re here to tell you/ghosts are here for good/and if it doesn’t terrify you/it should!”. Also, without a sweeping storyline or characters you care about, lyrics such as “Steel your heart/Life is hard/Never easy/Believe me” fell a bit flat. Without the dramatic pull of a full production, it’s a bit inconclusive if the music is enough to stand on its own.

However, the orchestra provided a shroud of atmospheric sound that is never heard in a Broadway stage these days. The richness of Hale’s orchestration was easy to get lost in, and Sheik’s evocative melodies and themes are heart-tugging in a poignant deja vu sort of way. Sheik’s music encompasses a broad spectrum of influences that makes his vision for Broadway so visionary. Even though this might not have been the best setting for his music, it still made me curious about the musical itself.

Vivier’s Zipangu was the odd piece in the program, an experimental piece written in 1980 for a small string ensemble. Amidst the grating dissonance and unearthly harmonics, there is a hazy outline of variations on a theme and the semblance of a meandering development as Vivier explores the range of sounds that the strings have to offer, from string plucking to slides. An uneasy tension prevails, and is never quite resolved. It’s a piece that I’d picture in a smaller venue, played loudly and unapologetically, maybe at a smoky underground speakeasy or accompanying a Merce Cunningham dance performance.

Edwin Outwater led the San Francisco Symphony with admirable restraint. Gounod’s Ballet Music from Faust was refreshingly lacking in pretension, shaped

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with gentle dynamics in an interpretation that allowed the music to shine. Outwater coaxed a remarkable clarity and articulation from the orchestra. Even in the crowded stage that played Poulenc’s densely layered Suite from Les Biches, the orchestra played as one in a witty and exhilarating interpretation.

Even if the evening wasn’t to your taste, the spirit of adventure in the San Francisco Symphony is admirable and challenging. This new direction of welcoming artists outside the classical music world was also successful at recruiting a large percentage of younger people in the audience, the largest percentage of under 30′s that I’d seen in a long time.

San Francisco Symphony website

This week: January 25-31, 2010

Don’t you hate it when real life gets in the way of what you really want to do? It’s been particularly difficult to tear myself away from work and a semblance of a personal life these days. Throw in a family visit last weekend and a bridal shower this coming weekend, and things get nearly impossible. Anyways, some really good things are going on this week. If you attend any of these, please report back to tell me what I missed!!

  1. San Francisco Symphony: MTT plays Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23: Do you think he calls himself MTT? I really wanted to go see this. A marvelous program at the symphony, continues through Saturday. The program includes a Stravinsky Octet for Wind Instruments, Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 with Michael Tilson Thomas as the piano soloist, and Stravinsky’s Pulcinella with a fantastic line up of singers including Eric Owens, an amazing artist that stood out even in the standout cast in SF Opera’s Porgy and Bess last summer. This program might be a fun one to watch from the cheap center terrace seats – piano performances are good for these because you get a great view of the keyboard and MTT’s expressive actions. It might not be fun for the singers though, as they face forward. Read sfmike’s take on it, here.
  2. San Francisco Ballet’s Swan Lake closes at the end of this week. My review from last year is here. I will be watching Sarah Van Patten on Saturday afternoon – she hit it out of the park last year in Pointe Magazine’s top 12 favorite performances of the year.
  3. Christopher Wheeldon’s company Morphoses completes their West Coast tour this week with their last show in Santa Barbara on January 29. I’ll be reviewing them soon (hopefully tonight). The company and their repertoire is amazing and challenging – if you want to see the future of ballet, go see it. And for goodness sakes, don’t leave before the last piece, Wheeldon’s Rhapsody Fantasie, as a friend of mine did – it was my favorite piece of the program. I couldn’t help myself, but I saw him strolling in the lobby where nobody recognized him. In a supremely fangirl-y moment, I introduced myself and got to ask him a few questions (one was, “What does Continuum mean?”). I hope I wasn’t rude because I didn’t mean it that way at all, but he was equally nice and charming and so so intelligent, and I was thrilled to meet a choreographer I so admire. SFB principal Pierre-Francois Vilanoba was also spotted in the house.
  4. Fiddler on the Roof with Harvey Fierstein opened this week.

I’m sure I’m missing a million events, but as I’m up to my neck in graduate work, these are the things that have been on my radar recently. What else am I missing out on?

2009 San Francisco Symphony Opening Night Gala

Pianist Lang Lang

Pianist Lang Lang

Last night at the opening night gala for the San Francisco Symphony, the Davies Symphony Hall sparkled with the usual glamor and glitz of concertgoers dressed in their finest to celebrate the opening of the season. Despite the glittering decadence and the appropriate celebratory atmosphere, I sensed an undercurrent of respect acknowledging the current economic situation that has been especially hardhitting for the arts. This sensitivity seemed to be reflected in the programming as well, with a rather cautious program geared towards appealing to the familiar.

Led with stylish charm by Michael Tilson Thomas, the program opened with three waltzes – Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1, Ravel’s La Valse, and Richard Rodgers’ Carousel Waltz. These waltzes were not your mother’s normal antediluvian tame tunes. Playful rhythms and a pulsing momentum shaped the Mephisto Waltz, setting the stage with brisk anticipation. Ravel’s haunting La Valse built to a rollicking climax, fraught with suspense and regret the entire way. Rodgers’ Carousel Waltz opened with gentle, atonal chords that quickly morphed into a Broadway-esque chick flick of a high school romance blossoming on a hot summer night at the fairgrounds. The effect was lushly romantic.

Even though the three waltzes were different, nostalgia was the common thread. Waltzes conjure up images of tradition and days gone by, and there’s a comfort in experiencing up the good old days. Who doesn’t love a waltz? I grew up listening to Strauss waltzes and the Waltz of the Flowers in the Nutcracker, and my date and I spent intermission humming familiar waltzes that we knew.

Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 yanked the audience to the 20th century featuring the celebrity pianist Lang Lang. Famous for performing at the opening ceremonies of the Beijing Olympics as well as making People Magazine’s 2008 Sexiest Men Alive list, he is well-known for his infamous ostentatious style. Technically beyond belief, Lang Lang perfectly captured the brashness of the Prokofiev concerto. There were moments of heartstopping beauty in the quieter sections, played with sensitivity and tenderness. But overall, I thought his playing lacked clarity and direction. His playing was very in-the-moment, with no sense of the overall structure of the piece. Each moment alone was beautiful, but I felt a bit like being jerked from one measure to the next. The second movement also began to sound tediously unvaried in volume and style, where I craved more contrast and character. But there’s no denying that Lang Lang has passion to spare spilling through every pore, and he’s really fun to watch. (I was admittedly disappointed he wasn’t wearing his self-designed gold-emblazoned Adidas kicks however.)

Put together a series of familiar (yet slightly edgy – it’s still San Francisco, after all) waltzes and a celebrity pianist that everyone knows, and you’re guaranteed an evening of content customers. It’s nothing revolutionary, yet a solid showcase for the San Francisco Symphony nonetheless. In this economic climate, people seem to prefer comfort over risky innovation. It’s also guaranteed to satisfy the audiences who rarely attend classical music performances, yet still continue to support the arts. And that alone is cause to celebrate.

Other links:

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.

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!