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Classical Girl’s Top 10 [and then some] violin concertos

Violin Concerto CD               

The violin concerto repertoire is so rich and satisfying, I’m embarrassed to admit that, prior to becoming an adult beginner on the violin in 2005, I was only familiar with a few of them. This, from a self-proclaimed classical music fanatic. Whoops.

But maybe that’s you, too. Now, I know some of my readers are violin peeps and this list of top violin concertos will not produce any surprises, but I have a hunch there are plenty of you out there, more ballet-oriented, who are more familiar with piano repertoire. Or maybe you’re a newcomer to classical music in general. This is the list for you.

One thing I should add. Most of these hail from the Romantic Era and beyond. You therefore won’t see works before 1806, before Beethoven’s opus burst forth, eras that would include concertos by Mozart (five of them, written in his late teens), Vivaldi (something like 230) Bach (two for solo violin, one for two violins). Also I didn’t include Paganini (who wrote six) who, like Beethoven, sort of straddled the Classical and Romantic Era.

So, without further ado, here are my personal faves, in no particular order. If the composer has more than one violin concerto, I’ve highlighted the one I prefer. If you click on the composer’s name, it will bring you to a YouTube link of the concerto.

The Classical Girl

Classical Girl’s Top 10 [and then some] violin concertos

  1. Tchaikovsky (in D major, Op. 35, 1878)
  2. Brahms (in D major, Op. 77, 1878)
  3. Sibelius (in D minor, Op. 47, 1905 – A staggering piece of work – my blog + link HERE)
  4. Bruch (No. 1 in G minor, Op. 26, 1867; No. 2 in D minor, Op. 44, 1878; No. 3 in D minor, Op. 58, 1891 – and all three are worthy! Blogged about Bruch HERE)
  5. Korngold (in D major, Op. 35, 1945)
  6. Beethoven (in D major, Op. 61, 1806 – Note to self: blog about this one SOON)
  7. Barber (Op. 14, 1939)
  8. Saint-Saëns (No. 3 in B minor; his No. 1 and No. 2 aren’t often performed)
  9. Mendelssohn (in E minor, Op. 64, 1845)

And this is where it gets very tricky, because there are SO many wonderful violin concertos still, so here are ten contenders for my 10th spot:

  1. Shostakovich (No. 1 in A minor, Op. 77, 1955; No. 2 in C sharp minor, Op. 129, 1967)
  2. Britten (Op. 15, 1939)
  3. Dohnányi (No. 1 in D minor, Op. 27, 1915: No. 2 in C minor, Op. 43, 1950)
  4. Bartok (No. 1, BB 48a, 1908, but published posthumously, 1956; No. 2, BB 117, 1938)
  5. Dvorák (in A minor, Op. 53, 1879)
  6. Wieniawski (No. 1 in F sharp minor, Op. 1853; No. 2 in D minor, Op. 22, 1862
  7. Goldmark (No. 1 in A minor, Op. 28, 1877; he composed a No. 2 that was never published)
  8. Berg (Written in twelve-tone, Op. ?, 1935)
  9. Prokofiev (No. 1 in D major, Op. 18, 1923; No. 2 in G minor, Op. 63, 1935.
  10. Schumann (in D minor, published posthumously) The Stravinsky VC really belongs here but I am sentimental about the Schumann and its otherworldly story – I blogged about it HERE

And yes, I know, you violin peeps are sitting up now, exclaiming, “Wait! No Lalo? No Viotti? No Khachaturian or Elgar?” Glazunov. Hindemith. Ligeti. Nielsen. Szymanowski. Previn. Walton. And Vieuxtemps certainly deserves to be on the list; he wrote a whopping seven violin concertos. And then there are the hard-on-the-ear but well respected concertos that deserve a mention, like the Schoenberg, the Schuman (note, spelled with only one “n,” an important differentiation to recognize). Berg’s concerto, while atonal, somehow manages to conjure something beautifully expressive and bittersweet – no small feat!

And STILL there are more. That’s the fun thing about really getting to know the violin concerto repertoire, and the violin repertoire in general. There are always more treasures to discover.

Give each one a listen and let me know which one is your favorite. As for me, if I had to be stranded on a desert island with a CD player [and somehow, magically, a lifetime supply of batteries] and only three concertos, I think it would have to be the Sibelius, Brahms and Mendelssohn. Yikes. Tough choices. Maybe the Beethoven would have to switch out one of the latter two. With the Tchaikovsky next in line. Only please don’t make me choose.

I could tell a story about each and every one of these concertos and/or their composer’s creative journey, but that would make for a hell of a long blog. Instead I’ll give each one its own blog, at which time I’ll return here and leave the link. In the meantime, here are a few blogs I enjoyed reading that offer great details on their own Top 10 picks (you’ll see a lot of similarities).

  • Stephen Klugewicz at The Imaginative Conservative HERE.
  • Gramophone UK HERE

SFB’s “Frankenstein” is well worth checking out

Joseph Walsh in Scarlett’s Frankenstein.
(© Erik Tomasson))

It was the perfect setting, weather-wise, for attending San Francisco Ballet’s Frankenstein last Saturday night, following Friday’s North American premiere of this co-commission with the Royal Ballet. Storm clouds scudded over the darkened February skies, recent rains abated, an uneasy truce between storms that you knew would not last. Frankenstein weather. Something big was about to happen.

People tend to draw their Frankenstein acumen through one of two sources: the 1818 Gothic classic by Mary Shelley, or the 1931 movie adaptation (or, truth be told, through Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein). The latter group might not be aware of the love story the original contains, nor the chaos wreaked because of love withheld. Choreographer Liam Scarlett calls his production, “a story of betrayal, curiosity, life, death, and above all, love.” This is Scarlett’s first full-length ballet; at only thirty, creator of the acclaimed 2014 Hummingbird, among others, he’s currently the Royal Ballet’s artist in residence. Employing the talents of John Macfarlane’s stage and costume design, David Finn’s lighting and Finn Ross’s projection design, this production is a feast for the eyes.

One of the benefits of attending the second night of a production is seeing the second cast. They were brilliant, to the last. In addition to powerful performances from Max Cauthorn and Lauren Strongin, as Victor Frankenstein and Elizabeth Lavenza, and Taras Domitro as The Creature, Julia Rowe and Angelo Greco delivered memorably as well. Act 1, set in late 18th century Geneva, allowed us to witness the metamorphosis of two young friends—Victor and the orphaned Elizabeth taken in by the Frankenstein family—who grow to fall in love. Cauthorn and Strongin paired wonderfully as young adults in love in a tender, lyrical pas de deux, replete with rapturous back arches, leaps, partnered turns that morphed into lifts. Both are dancing well beyond their rank—Cauthorn is in the corps and Strongin is a soloist—and surely promotions are imminent. (Please, Mr. Tomasson, promote Max Cauthorn now. Tonight. He’s earned it.) **Editor’s note on March 13th – Cauthorn’s promotion to soloist was just announced! Yippee! Big congrats, Max!

As this story goes, the death of Victor’s mother in childbirth throws a pall over the household on the eve of Victor’s departure to medical school. There, at Ingolstadt University, the grieving Victor takes keen interest in his professor’s lectures on the possibility of reanimation. Macfarlane’s circular anatomy theater set is spectacular, period-specific, featuring an 18th century replicate electrostatic machine, with wires and tubes and such that emit staticky  pops and snaps.

One of the ballet’s structural problems reveals itself around this time. At close to three hours, the production runs long. The fifty-minute first act has five scenes (and a prologue). Although the story delivered up to this point preps the audience nicely for what is to come, it might prove overlong to those anxious for the “real” drama to begin. Instead, ensemble dancing within each scene often seems presented to assure plenty of “ballet” and not just pantomime exposition. That said, a medical students’ cavort was charming, and soon a quartet of solemn-faced nurses in long skirts joined them, assistants to the Professor (James Sofranko). It began to feel odd, though, within this academic, institutional setting. Some places, like churches, libraries, psych wards, don’t lend themselves aesthetically to ballet. The presence of a cadaver splayed out behind the dancers on an observation table likely didn’t help. And there is simply no way to watch someone dance with a dismembered limb or a brain in a jar without it seeming either creepy or hilarious, or a mix of both. Which may not have been the goal.

San Francisco Ballet in Scarlett’s Frankenstein.
(© Erik Tomasson))

But finally, after a tavern ensemble frolic, the long awaited moment: Victor’s return to the anatomy lab that stormy evening, his inspired efforts, the patched-together cadaver being raised to the skies as lightning flashes all around, the machine exploding in a pyrotechnic dazzle, accompanied by Lowell Lieberman’s wonderfully dramatic commissioned score. It was spectacular, operatic in its intensity.

Taras Domitro, as The Creature brought to life, delivered an unforgettable performance. Costumed in an unearthly pale unitard with the to-be-expected stitches and gashes and blood speckles that worked brilliantly and showcased Domitro’s superb form and musculature, he brought a nuanced vulnerability to the role. You could almost love this Creature. You’re certainly stirred to pity at his plight, as Victor recoils in horror and rejects his creation. The Creature’s “other-ness” was cleverly depicted in quirks: little head rolls, cocking the head in a not-normal way. We, as the audience, get to follow his evolution. In the beginning, he can hardly walk, but learns by observation and imitation. By the final act, he has discovered how to effortlessly fit in to a crowd of waltzing revelers, employing a “blink and you’ve missed him” ninja presence that rattles Victor terribly, who continues to reject this horror he’s created. The power The Creature now holds is formidable—but what powers The Creature, in turn, is the childlike longing to be accepted, loved by his creator, to not be so alone.

The story doesn’t end well, as you probably know (unless your reference is Young Frankenstein, which ends quite adorably). Victor’s attempts to block out his deed and The Creature fail. The Creature’s failed attempts at love and acceptance have curdled into maniacal rage. And yet, still the longing. In the final scene, Elizabeth’s sorrowful pas de deux with The Creature (who has learned to perfectly imitate Victor’s movements) is so poignantly danced by both, it breaks your heart to watch. So does the ensuing pas de deux between The Creature and Victor, desperate and grappling, overflowing with raw emotion. These two final pas de deux showcase Scarlett’s choreographic brilliance, and the dancers at their best. Utterly unforgettable.

Vitor Luiz in Scarlett’s Frankenstein.
(© Erik Tomasson)

I loved this ballet. I didn’t love it because I thought it was a perfect ballet and did everything right. I loved it because it was a great story to slip into, with fabulous sets, music and dancing, and the honest human—or inhuman—emotions conveyed. In its scope and appeal, it’s very cinematic and, as such, holds tremendous potential to draw in new viewers, particularly males who might not otherwise consider going to the ballet on the grounds that it’s too girly. Even my teen son told me, “now that’s one ballet I would go to.”

Do yourself a favor and check it out.

Is Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 lowbrow?

Sergei Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Op 18 is the kind of music that grips you by the collar and draws you into its world instantly, with its rich orchestral textures and dramatic fervor. I’ve loved it for years. Decades. Last weekend I attended the San Francisco Ballet’s Program 1, and was dazzled by the program’s second ballet, Jiri Bubeníček’s “Fragile Vessels,” set to—you guessed it—Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2.

Thoughts vary about Rachmaninov’s Late Romantic music, produced during an era that had begun testing its boundaries (think Mahler) or breaking them entirely (think Schoenberg and his atonality, his twelve-tone technique). Rachmaninov wanted nothing to do with that. He saw himself as “the last of the Romantics” who reflected the philosophy of Old Russia “with its overtones of suffering and unrest, its pastoral but tragic beauty, its ancient and enduring glory.” Many classical music purists today consider Rachmaninov’s music to be excessively sentimental, admittedly lush but too similar-sounding once you’ve heard one concerto. The tremendous popularity of his Piano Concerto No. 2, in fact, seems to argue their case that it’s, perhaps, a bit lowbrow for classical tastes.

Is Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 lowbrow? Certainly it’s extremely accessible to non-classical music lovers. It’s appeared in pop culture through movies, plays and songs throughout the 20th century. I myself was only nineteen when I fell wildly in love with it. The music so aptly described all those larger-than-life feelings and emotions exploding within me. I ate it up, right alongside Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Dvorák’s New World Symphony. In an era of LP and cassette tape music, those were three of the dozen cassette recordings I listened to incessantly. The latter two, I can’t bear to listen to anymore; they are now definitely “pop classical” to me, which nonetheless constantly fills the concert halls. But Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is different. Thirty-five years after I first heard it, I’m fascinated by its complexity and colors, its harmonic richness, its passion coupled with aching nostalgia.

I did a little digging around to find out more about Rachmaninov (and BTW, his name can be spelled with a “v” at the end or an “ff” – both are an acceptable translation from Cyrillic) before I set off to write this blog. Otherwise, how to explain why I liked this concerto so much? Did I even know why? Music with this kind of emotional depth tends to have a story behind it.

Rachmaninov (1873 – 1943), I learned, had been born into a noble family in Russia which owned numerous estates. While both parents enjoyed the piano, they didn’t see that as a potential career for the six-year-old Sergei who was already showing extraordinary aptitude for the instrument. (Ironically, they deemed it too lowbrow.) But the family had other problems. Dad enjoyed the high life, improvidently so, and the family fortune was slowly whittled away to one last estate, Oneg, in northwestern Russia, where Sergei spent his earliest years. Soon that, too, had to be sold to cover debts, and in 1882 the family moved into an apartment in St. Petersburg. Sergei was admitted to the St. Petersburg Conservatory, but it was a poor fit and he was not an easy, compliant student. Nor a good one, as family troubles continued. In 1883 his sister died of diphtheria. In 1884, his parents separated. The next year, on the advice of a musician cousin, his mother shipped Sergei off to the Moscow Conservatory, to a regimented household where he continued his studies. There, he lived a strict life with Nikolai Zverev, his teacher, and two other students, which, in the end, served him well. It had perks, too; during this time he met and interacted with musicians, artists, and notably, Tchaikovsky, who became a mentor of sorts and helped get him into an advanced counterpoint class. Buoyed by his success in the ensuing years, and his interest in compositions, Sergei told Zverev he wished to pursue composition, and could he please have more private space in the house?

Zverev, who only saw the young Sergei as a pianist—although a prodigiously good one—told him something like, “Don’t be a fool. You’re a pianist, not a composer. Know your place. And get back into that room with the two other boys.” Unfortunately, this spelled the end of their relationship. Sergei moved out and into the home of a nearby relative, and continued on with his studies. (Zverev would not speak to him for the next three years.) He continued to excel, finishing his studies early, composing and performing his First Piano Concerto. For his final examinations, he won the Conservatory’s ultra-prestigious Gold Medal for his composition of a one-act opera, “Aleko.” Even old Zverev became tearfully proud of him, all ill feelings forgotten.

Here’s the thing. Young success, extraordinary success, is a mixed blessing. Rachmaninov was flying high, beloved for not just his composition talents, his virtuoso playing, but now, it turned out, he was a great conductor. How great was that?! There was no place for him to go, but up, up, up! 

So, post-graduation, he proceeded forward, writing small pieces that people loved (they were crazy about his Prelude in C-sharp minor, written when he was nineteen; it drew international acclaim), concertizing in ways people loved (everywhere, audiences begged for an encore of the Prelude in C-sharp minor – it got kind of annoying). He set his sights on bigger things, and devoted considerable time to composing his Symphony No. 1 in D-minor. This, then, he decided, would be his grand entrance into The Really Big League, right up there with Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. He was ready.

Well, I think you can guess what happened. The premiere of his Symphony No. 1 in D-minor was a total disaster. Not just the music was at fault; an incompetent (and possibly drunk) Glazunov took the podium as conductor and did a wretched job leading the under-rehearsed orchestra. Further, Glazunov had made his own cuts in the score, and several changes in the orchestration, none of which made sense musically. Rachmaninov, sitting in the audience, helpless, was in agony. He couldn’t even listen to it; he fled the concert hall.

The press had a field day. César Cui, noted music critic, wrote, “If there were a conservatory in Hell and if one of its talented students were to compose a symphony based on the story of the Ten Plagues of Egypt, and if he were to compose a symphony like Mr. Rachmaninoff’s, then he would have fulfilled his task brilliantly and would delight the inhabitants of Hell. To us this music leaves an evil impression with its broken rhythms, obscurity and vagueness of form, meaningless repetition of the same short tricks, the nasal sound of the orchestra, the strained crash of the brass, and above all its sickly perverse harmonization and quasi-melodic outlines, the complete absence of simplicity and naturalness, the complete absence of themes.”

The poor reception, and Rachmaninov’s own destroyed faith in his abilities, sent him into a deep depression, a dark, creative-less funk. Perhaps, he mused bitterly, composing wasn’t meant for him, after all. And so, for three years, he wrote nothing, composed nothing. He continued to receive invitations to perform as a pianist—because, remember, he was an extraordinary soloist. His strengths and good reputation as a conductor also earned him work, which helped him get by. But only when, with encouragement from family, he sought out the services of psychologist Dr. Nikolai Dahl, who used hypnotherapy in his practice, did he climb out of that dark place. And it was in this reborn creative space that he composed his Piano Concerto No. 2 (which he dedicated to Dahl). Its premiere, on Nov 9, 1901, was a hit.

And how.

So. To those who claim Rachmaninov is overly sentimental, too dramatic, even lowbrow? Oh, dear reader, I will have to differ. This composition came from a place of incredible substance. No wonder I hear passion, despair, hope rising, triumphant vindication in the music. No wonder I’ve never tired of hearing this wonderful piece of music, in thirty-five years.

Give it a listen. Made even better by the performance of my favorite pianist, Yuja Wang. She and her performances are mesmerizing in so many ways. (Yuri Temirkanov conducting the Verbier Festival Orchestra, July 2011)

And if you’re STILL thinking Rachmaninov’s music all sounds too familiar, a one-trick-pony kind of composer, listen to “The Isle of the Dead.” Amazing. https://youtu.be/dbbtmskCRUY

And his “Symphonic Dances.” Op. 45. Gasp! Where has this been all my life? How did this gem escape me? https://youtu.be/otJmf3pyb1E

And you’re still not tired of clicking on links and hearing about Rachmaninov’s music, you can read my blog, “Madness, SHINE and the Rach 3” HERE.

 

New to 2017: Classical Girl Giving

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“Help save the world” sounds like a rather ambitious 2017 New Year’s resolution, so I won’t call it that. But there is this new thing rising in me that I feel compelled to share.

It all started last spring. With my son turning seventeen, and a trio of Really Challenging Years behind us, something in me began to relax, or maybe wake up, to the fact that this world of ours comes with a host of Really Big Problems to try and help solve. Or maybe my daily mindfulness meditation practice starting yielding its own results. Point being: I heard the whisper of a call.

Now, I will argue that devoting oneself to passive tasks such as writing about the arts is not completely off the mark in the department of “helping to save the world” and/or make it a better place. If everyone spent their time immersed in work they found relevant, nourishing, challenging, important, I’m willing to bet we’d all live on a more peaceful planet.

That said. You tell people you served two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa, and it will produce a different reaction from when you tell them you’re a blogger who devotes big chunks of your day to waxing lyrically about the performing arts—preferably the fuddy-duddy classical stuff from the 19th and early 20th century.

Did I tell you I served two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Africa?

T in Africa2

But that was another life entirely. Decades ago. Writing novels and raising a family claimed that space in my heart, it would seem. Until one day last May, after a Diablo Ballet performance, when I was talking with the company’s artistic director, Lauren Jonas. Art has a way of clearing out my inner clutter to begin with, and it had been a delightful, artful program. Lauren was telling me about a new extension of their PEEK* outreach program. This endeavor, funded by a California Arts Council grant, brought Lauren and PEEK’s associate director, former company dancer Edward Stegge, into Juvenile Hall, where they presented movement classes to at-risk incarcerated 15-to-17 year-old girls as part of their in-house Court School Program.

Diablo Ballet had been one of only eight organizations receiving awards for this highly competitive and limited-funds program, called JUMP StArts*. Lauren told me she’d been thrilled. “When I co-founded Diablo Ballet, back in 1993,” she said, “something like this had always been a part of the plan, the dream.”

Lauren shared a few details about the program, that had begun in mid-July the previous year. Once inside the facility, she and Eddie were screened and fingerprinted, given a list of things they could and could not do. They’d been told what colors they should not wear, questions they could not ask. They had to be accompanied by guards and were warned that some of the girls might have difficulty expressing themselves, and/or might start fights.

And then the once-weekly program started. Not dance classes or lectures, so much as movement creation exercises, discussions that taught the teen girls about themselves, their bodies, the self-esteem within them Lauren believed could be coaxed out, and a healthier self-expression. After just one session, Lauren and Eddie knew they had found something extraordinary. Some weeks they brought a musician along for live music, like Bolivian guitarist Gabriel Navia, which the girls loved. Sometimes they brought other dancers, like company member Amanda Farris, whom the girls had seen on the cover of the Diablo Ballet magazine. Here she was now, beautiful, famous, and so warm, so accessible! Venezuelan company member Rosselyn Ramirez was another great hit with the dancers. During one movement exercise, she assured a particularly difficult girl that the way she was doing the movement was perfect. The girl clasped her hands together and turned to her neighbor. “Did you hear that?” she said in a hushed, awed voice. “She said I was perfect.” Which, when Lauren recounted this to me, made my throat squeeze up.

 

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(*PEEK = Performing Arts Education & Enrichment for Kids)
(*JUMP StArts = Juveniles Utilizing Massive Potential Starting with Arts)

The program ran from July to February. Lauren had already begun searching for additional grants in the hope of keeping the program annual (which they received – yay! – and this second year’s program continues through Feb/early March 2017). She and Eddy agreed that it had been one of the most rewarding experiences they’d ever had.

Her own quiet excitement, enthusiasm, deep commitment, was like a big gong within me. It was a real I want to join the Peace Corps moment, like I’d had at age twenty. It all came rushing back to me, the desire to be more, do more, to try and make a bigger difference in the world.

On my drive home from the performance, a reality check settled in. I’ve come to understand that I am not an extraverted do-er. I had a tough time in the Peace Corps, truth be told. My introverted side took over in a major way and, if I can be honest here, I didn’t do anything noble in the least. My greatest achievement was sticking out my two years and letting the host nationals observe on a daily basis that white, privileged Americans could be bumbling and stupid, make mistakes right and left, and not have any more answers than they did. Outside my teaching hours (English to high school students) I took comfort in writing, being alone. I spent hours journaling, reading, vicariously immersed in someone else’s misadventures, processing and chronicling my thoughts and feelings.

But there’s room in the world for both, right? The world needs the do-ers, the performing artists, activists, leaders and such. But it needs its observers, processors and scribes. Those who can help spread the word and offer support, financial or otherwise.

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Which is what brings me to my 2017 New Year’s resolution. I hereby announce the creation of Classical Girl Giving. I am still in the process of figuring out precisely what this entails, but my thought is to offer a modest quarterly donation to foundations to help support worthy ballet-based [or influenced] dance companies and projects. The inaugural recipient of the Classical Girl Giving project is, no surprise, Diablo Ballet, to help support their PEEK Extension program.

Beyond that? Yikes. I’m a little intimidated. Giving, as it turns out, is harder than just writing a check and handing it over. Where on earth do I start? Who’s behind the funding of grants that choreographers, artistic directors and arts administrators need in order to fund an outreach program? Which foundation deserves a shout-out over another? So much to learn. But Pema Chödrön, my favorite Buddhism/meditation/inspiration writer says it best: start where you are.

So. Here I am, bumbling and all, and let’s call this list a work in progress, shall we? What I’ve accrued here (with much help from choreographer/dancer/artistic director Robert Dekkers – thank you SO much!) are names of foundations that support dance companies and projects through grants. Some accept outside donations, others maybe not. Maybe I give straight to the dance company, maybe not. This list will likely change as I learn more; it might become multiple lists, one for readers who’d like to support the arts, one for dancers and choreographers looking for funding. Currently it favors California and the San Francisco Bay Area, but if you want to recommend a worthy foundation based elsewhere, please do. Are you a choreographer, artistic director, an arts nonprofit administrator who has a different foundation to suggest? I’d LOVE your help. You can either contact me privately or leave a message below in “comments.”

And without further ado, in alphabetical order…

10 great foundations that help champion and sustain dance and the arts

  1. California Arts Council (‘Artists in Schools’ Program and JUMP StArts Program)
  2. Dancers’ Group
  3. East Bay Fund for Artists
  4. The Fleishhacker Foundation
  5. The Rainin Foundation
  6. San Francisco Arts Commission
  7. San Francisco Foundation and Grants for the Arts
  8. The Schubert Foundation
  9. The Phyllis C. Wattis Foundation
  10. Zellerbach Family Foundation

SFB from Nuts to 2017

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Okay, so I’ve reviewed San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker before. Like, well, five times. It’s a little humbling when you pen a shiny new review, only to discover that you’ve unwittingly used much of the exact same wording in past reviews. Actually, it’s embarrassing, or would have been, if I hadn’t caught myself before submitting THIS REVIEW of Nut’s opening night to Bachtrack. And when it came to penning a few words here, for The Classical Girl, whaddya know, the same thing started happening.

So let’s do this instead of risking self-plagiarism, not to mention boring you. What changes annually in an established production is the casting and the dance performance. Costumes, lighting, scenic design, the musical score—no changes. You can find my “baseline” review HERE, complete with links to past reviews. Read first… or not.

And now, without further ado, here are 14 Really Great Things worth mentioning

1) The gorgeous set: an Edwardian house with a posh living room, circa 1915, that I really want to live in. Act 1 just flies, with pantomime and dances that are elegant and unfettered. It’s why I can watch this production over and over.

2) Grooving on the little kids in the audience, hushed and wide-eyed and totally absorbed in everything happening, especially Drosselmeyer’s magic. Their hushed intake of breath when the Nut doll turned life-sized in a clever shifting of boxes (or however they do it. Six times now, and I still don’t get some of the “magic” tricks. Isn’t that so cool? Bravo, SFB.)

© Erik Tomasson

© Erik Tomasson

3) Rubén Martín Cintas’ Uncle Drosselmeyer, particularly compelling as he rose from within the fog during Clara’s dream, at the commencement of The Best Music Ever, and where he made Very Psychedelic Things happen.

4) The Best Music Ever = as the Christmas tree keeps growing and growing, Drosselmeyer does his mysterious stuff, and the music reaches this thundering crescendo. In a lightning-fast set change, furniture and wrapped presents are whisked away, replaced by wildly oversized ones and in the blink of an eye we’ve all been shrunk to mouse size. Best. Moment. Ever. Kudos to the incomparable San Francisco Ballet Orchestra and music director Martin West.

5) Opening night’s Mouse King’s (Alexander Reneff-Olson) antics. So entertaining, I kinda started rooting for him. Hilarious, too, was Dec 27th matinee’s Mouse King, Benjamin Freemantle, when he grabbed a big hunk of cheese and gnawed on it, dropping it in shock at the BOOM of the cannon the toy soldiers set off. Never noticed that detail before. Crack me up.

6) The snow. And more snow. And more. Opening night’s Snow Queen and King Mathilde Froustey and Carlo Di Lanno were equally sublime, in this brilliantly staged Land of Snow.

Jennifer Stahl in Tomasson's Nutcracker. (© Erik Tomasson)

Jennifer Stahl in Tomasson’s Nutcracker.
(© Erik Tomasson)

7) Little scuttling ladybugs, in the Act II opener, so cute you could scream. Wonderful use of the kids from the SF Ballet school, whose dancing is genuinely enjoyable to watch.

8) Sofiane Sylve’s elegant, never-too-sugary Sugar Plum Fairy. Quietly perfect.

9) Seeing corps dancers Isabella DeVivo and Mingxuan Wang dance Snow Queen and King on Dec 27th matinee. Occasional unsteadiness, but otherwise a delight to watch them, the way they ended each passage and/or step with regal finesse. I’ve seen DeVivo in soloist roles before; she made my 2016 promotion wish list (http://wp.me/p3k7ov-Cn) but I’ve never seen Mingxuan Wang in a big role. Wow, he did great. Give him more!

10) In Spanish Dance, seeing former trainee and new corps member Natasha Sheehan living up to the buzz she’s generated.

11) WanTing Zhao in Arabian Dance on opening night. She owns this role. Sexy, sinuous, classical, mysterious, like something out of an opium-laced dream. And she arrives onstage inside an oil lamp carried onstage by her partners Daniel Deivison-Oliveira and Anthony Vincent. Way cool.

12) The pleasure of watching Max Cauthorn (also on my promotion wish list) continue to dance really well, particularly in Russian Dance on Dec 27th matinee. And speaking of Russian…

13) Finally learning when not to blink as the Russian Dance commences (a millisecond before the music) and the three dancers leap out from their respective papered Fabergé eggs. Gotta see it to appreciate it. An iconic holdover from a past staging, choreographed by Anatole Vilzak.

14) Hansuke Yamamoto dancing as Nut Prince on Dec 27th matinee. A longtime soloist, it was wonderful seeing him in this lead role. He might fall short of the powerhouse presence of some of the company’s male principals, but in its place he offers such graciousness, likeability, and clean technical work, with feather-soft landings to the jumps. Paired nicely with Koto Ishihara in the Grand Pas de Deux, whose performance was a solid notch up from last year, where she seemed a touch green, tentative in her pirouettes and presentation. Very rewarding to watch a dancer like this mature and develop artistically.

I love the way artistic director Helgi Tomasson gives his younger, newer dancers an opportunity to shine in solos during the Nut run. Here are castings and pairings that I wish I could have seen as well (some of which didn’t actualize due to injuries):

Sugar Plum Fairy

  • Jahna Frantziskonis
  • Norika Matsuyama
  • Elizabeth Mateer (new this year)
  • Isabella DeVivo

Queen and King of the Snow

  • Koto Ishihara, Francisco Mungamba
  • Elizabeth Mateer, Steven Morse
  • Norika Matsuyama, Hansuke Yamamoto
  • Isabella DeVivo, Max Cauthorn

Grand Pas de Deux

  • Lauren Strongin, Wei Wang
  • Julia Rowe, Angelo Greco (new this year)
  • WanTing Zhao, Tiit Helimets

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The company’s 2017 repertory season begins on Jan 24th with Program 1, featuring Tomasson’s “Haffner Symphony,” Bubeníček’s “Fragile Vesssels” and Justin Peck’s “In the Countenance of Kings.” Program 2 follows right on its heels on Jan 26th and features Ratmansky’s “Seven Sonatas,” Possokhov’s “Optimistic Tragedy” and Forsythe’s Pas/Parts 2016 (which I reviewed HERE.) Performances of these two programs are intertwined, date-wise, and will finish on Feb 4 and 5 respectively. And then, look out, because Frankenstein, a co-production with The Royal Ballet, opens on Feb 17th and you’re right in thinking this is going to be one unique, talked-about production. (Read my review of it HERE.) I’ll be leaving links for future program reviews here, as well. Look for those in mid-and-late March.

Want to know about new dancers and promotions for the 2016-17 season? Here you go!

Promotions/Level

  • Carlo Di Lanno                 Principal
  • Sasha de Sola                   Principal (just promoted! Effective Jan 2017)
  • Francisco Mungamba       Soloist
  • Julia Rowe                           Soloist
  • Wei Wang                            Soloist
  • WanTing Zhao                    Soloist
  • Blake Kessler                     Corps de Ballet (from apprentice)

New Company Members/Level

  • Ludmila Bizalion                Corps de Ballet
  • Angelo Greco                      Hired as soloist, promoted Feb 2017 to principal (Yay! Congrats!)
  • Elizabeth Mateer                Corps de Ballet
  • Aaron Robison                    Principal Dancer
  • Natasha Sheehan              Corps de Ballet (from SFB trainee program)

New Apprentices

  • Alexandre Cagnat
  • Shené Lazarus
  • Davide Occhipinti
  • Nathaniel Remez
  • Isabella Walsh

Congratulations to all San Francisco Ballet dancers and trainees on another successful Nut run, and I look forward to seeing all of you dance in 2017!