Monthly Archives: March 2016

Elgar, Enigma and Easter

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While my first choice for classical music on Easter will always be Handel’s Messiah, which I elaborated on HERE last year, there are a few other wondrous, utterly memorable pieces that conjure up the same rush of powerful spirituality, a sense of Easter Sunday grandeur. There’s the Gustav Holst choral piece I’ve sung in choirs, a gorgeous SATB arrangement of “Three Days,” but let’s save that for next year. Because Elgar’s Enigma Variations contains a piece (“Nimrod”) that is is so stirring, so spine-tingling in its glorious climaxing moment, you can feel the power of the divine surging through you, all around you. Most decidedly “death has been conquered; arise and go forth” music.

I remember falling in love with this piece of music, years back. The thunderbolt of it struck me as I sat in my car in a parking lot that was situated on a hill and looked out onto the gently rolling green foothills. Beyond them, a slightly bluish-green, were the craggy, redwood-studded Santa Cruz Mountains, not yet our home at that time, but beckoning, even then. It was springtime, approaching Easter. I’d turned off the car engine but was reluctant to leave the beautiful music, that I’d listened to several time prior, but never with this kind of attention, the way it seemed to be in synch with the beautiful scenery.  And as the music built in intensity, such a rush of emotion swept over me, it would have tipped me over if I hadn’t been sitting. You know how it is, when a piece of music stirs your soul so much it hurts? It brings tears flowing up and out, only it’s a good pain, an absolutely beautiful kind. Even the tears feel mystical, other-worldly, like self-generated baptismal waters. I listened to that piece through, tears streaming out of me, and at its conclusion, I sat back, dazed, spent, filled with both gravity and joy. Wow, was all I could think. That’s some music.

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Easter likely hadn’t been on Elgar’s mind when he wrote his Enigma Variations. It was more of a game, of sorts, these fourteen variations on a theme, with each variation representing one of his friends or a situation in some way. “Nimrod” is Variation no. 9. Its inspiration, Augustus Jaeger, was a music editor and a good friend of Elgar’s. He was the best sort of friend a composer could have: he advised Elgar and wasn’t afraid to severely criticize him, if necessary. Elgar appreciated and respected the man and his words. Jaeger is German for “hunter,” and Nimrod is a Biblical character (great-grandson of Noah) referred to as “a mighty hunter before the Lord.” This, if you ask me, is a bit of a stretch in having a piece named after you, but I guess that’s the enigma part of the equation. Anyway, here’s the part that’s so powerful to me, and actually, I only learned this bit recently. Jaeger became the one to encourage him as an artist when he was at his lowest, helping him rise above setbacks, bouts of depression, discouragement. The deliverer of the stern criticism was precisely the person who could pull Elgar up from the depths of artistic despair.

Wow. No wonder the piece sounds like it does. It’s packed with the intensity of being on the teetering edge of despair, of hope. And then this powerful thing rises up, and up, and up, and the music grows in volume and the brass section ramps it up, and wow. It’s like God is speaking. Tell me what you think, dear reader.

Now, the Easter comparison. Okay, so I’m a Catholic, and Holy Week is always a big deal, starting with Palm Sunday, which recounts both Jesus’ triumphant arrival in Jerusalem, disciples in tow, beaming from ear to ear, because Jesus’ three-year ministry of healing and preaching and performing miracles is SO ramping up, going gangbusters, and here was what they’d been waiting for—the reward, the praise, the adulation, this rock-star-concert adoration of Jesus and his group. Anyway. Jesus is much more humble, of course, and starting to get a bad, bad feeling that the week is not going to end well. And sure enough, it ends horribly, with the crowd turning against him, cowed by the high priests and the mucky-mucks of the community.  Jesus is arrested, questioned, tortured, and the disciples scatter in horror, incapable of comprehending what went wrong. Three years of so much good, leading to this. Less than nothing. Watching from the distance as their hero, their Lord, their idolized teacher was crucified, right up there with a pair of common criminals.

So. That’s the somber place where the music starts. It’s a Good Friday sort of piece of music. Beautiful but decidedly elegiac. And yet, there’s a comfort within the music that starts to grow, and grow, and grow.

Because Easter Sunday happens. Because death does not conquer all, there. Because what is good, pure, powerful, eternal, will rise again to life.

Whether you are Christian or atheist, Catholic, Quaker or Buddhist (in truth I consider myself to be a hybrid of these), whether music is your religion or maybe science is what defines you and your relationship to the world, I challenge you to listen to this and tell me it doesn’t stir you in some deep, ultra-powerful way. And to sneak in a little of the theological vibe, here it is on the organ, played beautifully by Diane Meredith Belcher.

Happy Easter season (don’t forget, it’s 50 days, not just one day, which really helps me out here, since the flu delayed me horribly here in posting this) to all of you, and I hope you enjoy this piece of spiritually inspiring music, in whichever way that spirit manifests itself in you.

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San Francisco Ballet’s Swan Lake

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson's Swan Lake. (© Erik Tomasson)

Yuan Yuan Tan and Tiit Helimets in Tomasson’s Swan Lake.  (© Erik Tomasson)

San Francisco Ballet patrons love their story ballets, and the most beloved is surely Swan Lake. Whether it’s because of, or in spite of the 2010 film, Black Swan, seeing this ballet at least once seems to be on everyone’s bucket list. Next to Nutcracker, this is what draws the non-ballet-goer to the ballet. Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson likely considered this when restaging the production in 2009, still largely faithful to the 1895 Petipa/Ivanov masterpiece which, everyone agrees, simply can’t be surpassed. Many have tried; restagings abound. This is Tomasson’s second effort, in fact, after his tremendously successful 1988 restaging. He’d taken over the San Francisco Ballet just three years earlier, while the company was still considered green, regional level. The production was a game-changer for all. New York Times dance critic Anna Kisselgoff reported that it “puts the San Francisco Ballet on the international dance map,” which it did, alongside Tomasson’s careful attention to all the right detail in the ensuing years. (You can read her review HERE. 28 years later it’s still a great read.)

Last Saturday night, the lobby of San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House felt like a New Year’s Eve party. People were dressed in their finest, buzzing with enthusiasm, eager to spend a night watching ballet. In that crowd were balletomanes, donors, longtime subscribers, and yes, the new-to-the-ballet individuals. For whom Tomasson created a story prologue in the 2009 restaging. Now the first-time viewer gets to see how Odette falls prey to the evil sorcerer, Von Rothbart, and gets turned into a swan.

Want more of the story details, dear befuddled reader who has come here to glean more information prior to your own foray into the world of ballet and seeing Swan Lake? Here you go.

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Siegfried is a prince whose mother informs him, on the eve of his 21st birthday, that he needs to settle down and get hitched. He has a restless, romantic spirit, and isn’t too happy about Mom’s dictate. After an evening of celebratory festivities, he heads out into the night, crossbow in hand. He spots a group of swans overhead and shortly thereafter sees Odette, beautiful queen of the swans. She is entrapped, like her flock of female subjects, in this swan body because the sorcerer Von Rothbart put a curse on all of them. By day, they must do the swan thing, and it’s only at night that they turn back into humans. It’s a rough existence, as you might imagine. Only True Love can break the curse. And if that True Love is betrayed, well, she and her swan minions are screwed, forced to live out their lives as swans, 24/7. Seeing Odette, the prince is instantly smitten. Dancing with her, infatuation deepens into love. He wants no other bride after that, none of the foreign princesses his mother presents to him the next night at his birthday ball. But Von Rothbart, understanding Siegfried’s love for Odette has the power to ruin his perfectly wonderful evil world, appears at the ball. Using sorcery, he delivers an Odette look-alike, his daughter Odile, who, as the infamous Black Swan, seduces the prince, deceiving him into believing yes, this is his beloved! He agrees to marry her, all excited-like, but once a vow is made, he catches a glimpse of the real Odette outside, agonized, just as Von Rothbart and Odile reveal their true selves. And, well, all is ruined. Except that true love, as in most such story ballets, will prevail.

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For this 2009 restaging, Tomasson collaborated with costume and set designer Jonathan Fensom, Tony Award nominee for his Broadway theater production designs. Fensom wanted to push the boundaries on respecting Swan Lake’s classicism, yet lifting it, making it more sophisticated. In many ways he succeeded. In other ways, it lacks. The set is nicely uncluttered. Fensom chose one dominant scenic element for each set, keeping it striking, symbolic. In Act I, large wrought iron gates lead out onto palace grounds. Act II features an enormous full moon backdrop and a huge slab of black rock — a shore? — that poses more questions than it answers (such as, if this is the shore, where’s the lake?). For Act III, we have a grand central staircase, that looks more Art Deco than 19th century. (The original production is set a few centuries back.) Beautiful costumes for royalty and the swans alike, except for Michael Ward’s regrettable feathery caps—literally, like swim caps—on the swans, which, as one reviewer wittily pointed out, makes everyone look like Liza Minnelli.

But the contemporary treatment (which includes Jennifer Tipton’s effective lighting) clears the space for the dancing, which, along with the music, is superlative. Among the night’s many standout performances were pas de trois dancers Dores André, Sasha de Sola and Wei Wang in Act I. Foreign princesses in Act III, each representing the flavor of their country: Jennifer Stahl as the Spanish princess, with partners Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and Steven Morse. Rebecca Rhodes as Czardas Princess, partnered by Sean Orza. Norika Matsuyama as the Neapolitan Princess, with Diego Cruz. Russian Princesses Elizabeth Powell and Lauren Strongin, who offered sprightly fare with partners Myles Thatcher and Wei Wang.

Swan Lake’s corps de ballet is a huge part of the production’s beauty, and few corps de ballets look as lovely and polished as the San Francisco Ballet’s. They are a joy to behold when the full ensemble of thirty swans fills the stage. The corps are unsung heroes from a technical perspective: the audience is unaware (rightly so) of the effort required to hold still, right leg tucked back, for minutes at a time. Over and over, the dancers run in, strike a pose, and hold, and hold. So incredibly effective and such a stirring sight. Jennifer Stahl and WanTing Zhao as the two Swan Maiden danced well, as did the quartet of cygnets (Ellen Rose Hummel, Lauren Parrott, Julia Rowe and Emma Rubinowitz). If people recognize only one scene from Swan Lake,  this is probably it, parodied countless times, the melody popping up in advertisements since commercials started popping up.

Here’s a link. You’ll nod and say yes, of course.

Carlo Di Lanno makes a winning Prince Siegfried. A soloist hired in 2014, he takes this role and makes it his own with technical precision and a fluid, masterly stage presence that leaves little doubt that he will soon be promoted to principal. Sofiane Sylve as Odette/Odile was a thrill to behold. Beautiful technique, gorgeous arms, with bird-like flutters and mannerisms that were never overdone. Beautiful extensions and refinement. Her feet, wow. The way her back foot in sousous began to quiver ((Oh, be still my heart; what is this feeling?!) before she bourréd hastily away from Siegfried. And later, the way she draped herself against Siegfried seemed to embody love and pure longing. Sometimes you watch a lead couple enact an admirable performance of two people in love but you never really buy it. This felt like the real deal; their chemistry was palpable. Really, great casting here.

The music: another “oh wow.” I could write an entire blog about how Tchaikovsky’s score stirs me. The tragic thing is that Tchaikovsky died thinking Swan Lake had been a failure (as, indeed, the 1877 poorly choreographed and received version had been). The ballet and its score was only revived in 1895 with the Petipa/Ivanov version. Suffice to say, it’s a masterpiece, and if, like myself, you love classical music with a gorgeous symphonic sound, this is the ballet for you. Merit also is due, of course, to the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, led on Saturday night by conductor Luke Ming. A great time to mention that the Orchestra won two Grammys this past month. Read all about it HERE. Exciting times for this well-deserving orchestra, which celebrates its fortieth anniversary this year, as well. New concertmaster, violinist Cordula Merks, delivered gorgeous violin solos on Saturday night, during the White Swan and Black Swan pas de deux respectively.

The Swan Lake run is over, alas, but fear not. Another full-length story ballet, Coppélia, is just around the corner. This one is fun, fantastical, candy-colored and hilarious. You can order tickets online HERE. Dates are March 8 – 13, with two shows on both Saturday and Sunday. Here’s a taste:

PS: Just discovered this: a lovely trailer of the production showing Yuan Yuan Tan as Odette/Odile, partnered by Tiit Helimets as Prince Siegfried. What’s YOUR opinion on the feather caps?