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National Ballet of Canada & Neumeier’s “Nijinsky” come to San Francisco

The National Ballet of Canada in Neumeier’s Nijinsky.
(© Bruce Zinger) guest company

“The National Ballet of Canada’s production of John Neumeier’s Nijinsky is a triumph on all fronts.”
— Canada’s The Globe and Mail

While the San Francisco Ballet keeps busy in preparation for its epic *Unbound New Works Festival, with its twelve exciting new commissions, the stage at the War Memorial Opera House gets turned over to The National Ballet of Canada and their presentation of John Neumeier’s  Nijinsky. Watching this preview of Neumeier’s masterpiece, all I can say is, “Oh, wow. Give me more. And more!” Take a look for yourself.

Choreographer John Neumeier is the longtime artistic director of the Hamburg Ballet, on whom he set this ballet in 2000. Not only is Neumeier one of contemporary ballet’s most important voices, he is a world authority on the life and work of Vaslav Nijinsky, having maintained a lifelong interest in the artist. The National Ballet of Canada’s website shares this about the charismatic Nijinsky who stunned and entranced audiences for a brief ten years before retiring from the stage at age twenty-nine. “Renowned for his unforgettable stage presence, his astonishing technique and his groundbreaking approach to choreographic expression, Nijinsky shattered for all time not just the prevailing notions and expectations of the male dancer, but the limitations that convention had imposed on the range of dramatic possibilities in dance itself.”

Neumeier’s ballet draws from several aspects of Nijinsky’s life, presented in a meditative, non-linear fashion, that ultimately reflects the madness that will come to consume him. The ballet’s opening scene is set just after WW I in a hotel in St. Moritz, Switzerland, where the real-life Nijinsky offered the audience his final performance as a dancer. Through this, we, the other audience, become privy to the man’s memories, his genius, his choreography, important relationships and life events, premonitions, and the madness that seemed to have taken over the world, as well.

Guillaume Côté in Neumeier’s Nijinsky.
(© Erik Tomasson) guest company

The music accompanying the production, for my classical music enthusiast readers out there,  features Chopin’s Prélude in C minor, the first movement of Schumann’s Faschingsschwank aus Wien, Rimsky-Korsakov’s sumptuous  Schéhérazade (Movements I, III and IV), the “Adagio” movement from Shostakovich’s Sonata for Viola and Piano, as well as his Symphony No. 11.

Here’s what critics are saying about the production:

  • “A triumph of dramatic intensity… the National Ballet rises to the challenge of presenting John Neumeier’s Nijinsky, a spectacular, sprawling, surreal and often mind-bending homage to ballet’s most legendary male dancer.” — Toronto Star
  • Nijinsky soars to intense heights… a richly detailed production” — National Post
  • “Under the enlightened and demanding direction of Karen Kain, former great international ballet star, the company has earned its place at the highest level, enriching its repertory considerably by collaborating with the greatest choreographers of our time” — Danses Avec La Plume

Here is National Ballet of Canada dancer Félix Paquet explaining about what’s required from him as he portrays Nijinsky as the Faun and the Golden Slave, both iconic Nijinsky roles that are featured in Neumeier’s ballet. it’s fascinating and informative to watch.

Interested in going? Here are some details for you:

Where?  War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness, San Francisco
When?   April 3 to 8, 2018, 7 performances total
Purchase tickets online HERE or call (415) 865-2000
Run Time  2 hours, 25 minutes, with one intermission

Principal casting for the San Francisco dates of the production has been announced!  

Vaslav Nijinsky
Guillaume Côté (April 3, 6 at 7:30 pm/April 8 at 2:00 pm)
Skylar Campbell (April 4 at 7:30 pm/April 7 at 2:00 pm)
Francesco Gabriele Frola (April 5 at 7:30 pm/April 7 at 7:30 pm)

Romola Nijinsky
Heather Ogden (April 3 at 7:30 pm/April 8 at 2:00 pm)
Sonia Rodriguez (April 4 at 7:30 pm/April 7 at 2:00 pm)
Svetlana Lunkina (April 5, 7 at 7:30 pm)
Xiao Nan Yu (April 6 at 7:30 pm)

Serge Diaghilev
Ben Rudisin (April 3, 6 at 7:30 pm/April 8 at 2:00 pm)
Piotr Stanczyk (April 4, 5, 7 at 7:30 pm/April 7 at 2:00 pm)

Casting is subject to change

* San Francisco Ballet’s Unbound: a Festival of New Works  is a ground-breaking celebration of innovation within ballet, featuring twelve new commissions and world premieres, taking place in four programs, April 20 to May 6, 2018. Want to know more? Here’s a preview from the San Francisco Chronicle. For further information or to order tickets, go HERE.

Just as my last blog, “Debussy’s ‘Afternoon of a Faun,'” offered a teaser of this blog and this program at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House, I can’t resist ending this with a teaser of San Francisco Ballet’s forthcoming Unbound extravaganza. It’s going to be an amazing two weeks, chock full of amazing, innovative ballet. The following is a photo shoot that features the company’s dancers in poses from featured Unbound works that photographer Erik Tomasson turns into stunning art. Check it out!

Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun”


When I listen to Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” often referred to as simply “Afternoon of a Faun,” I’m reminded of the vertiginous feeling of gazing at a 3-D computer-generated picture, one that, once you’ve allowed your eyes and brain to shift slightly, draws you inside a world you previously hadn’t been able to see. Here, now, you’ve entered a phantasmagorical place, with spiraling, descending pathways and billowing shapes that your eyes can slide down or climb up, respectively. A world where the tried-and-true rules don’t apply. I don’t know about you, but I love the feeling, the sensations. It never fails to take me on an inner journey, far from my mundane thoughts, the dreary to-do treadmill of daily life.

It’s no surprise Debussy’s “Afternoon of a Faun”—or “Prélude à L’Aprés-midi d’un Faune” in its original French—is one of my favorite short pieces of classical music. It’s held me in its grips from the moment I first heard its opening solo flute notes, the responding call by a horn, a harp. Debussy was not a “follow the set rules” kind of guy. He was pretty much the opposite. In his compositions, the “rules according to my tastes” deliver volumes of sensation. A warm afternoon. A time long ago, back in the days of mythical creatures. Nymphs and fauns and lush foliage and shimmering waves of summer heat. Unexpected emotions rise, within the music and the listener both. Languor, sensuality, euphoria, curiosity, an awareness of the exotic. You are flung back to your own childhood, your adolescence, all awash in new experiences, colors, sensations. You are every place you’ve always wanted to be, your heart contracting and expanding, seemingly at the same time. For ten fleeting minutes, you let the music cradle you, transport you. Afterward, it leaves you disoriented and a little dizzy. You stumble away, back to the everyday world, your everyday life, and yet forever altered from the experience.

I like to imagine how the audience must have reacted in that opening performance in Paris, 1894. This was still the Romantic era, after all, with its conventions on tonality, scales, sequences. Audiences were used to hearing Beethoven and Brahms and maybe a little Wagner if they were feeling the urge for something turbulent. Chopin, a generation earlier, had dazzled with his pianistic originality, just as Saint Saens had managed to impart a touch of the exotic into his own compositions. But Debussy? He was young, still rather green, known to chafe against the constraints the masters before him, through the years, had mandated in musical composition. He loved literature and art, and for Prélude à L’Aprés-midi d’un Faune, he’d taken, as inspiration, a poem by one of France’s greatest poets at the time, Stéphane Mallarmé, and his 1876 creation, “L’Aprés-midi d’un Faune.” The poem was a work of art, having taken the poet a decade of deep searching, pondering, revising, to come up with a finished, published product that was, in his mind, music already. (Mallarmé was part of the “symbolist” movement of poetry, that, in a nutshell, strove to evoke, to illuminate, elaborate on the human condition,) So, here’s this 1894 concert hall audience, all expectant, knowing the poem: sensuous, story-like musings of a faun—mythical half man, half goat—and his erotic pursuit of two nymphs on a warm, drowsy afternoon. The lights in the concert hall darken, the musicians ready themselves, the conductor raises his baton, and you hear… this.

Stirred you, didn’t it?

If you’re like me, you might wonder what sort of mystical alchemy was involved, that Debussy’s music can do so much more than, say, Brahms, whose music is decidedly masterful and at the top of its craft. I think It has to do with the fact that, like the symbolist poets, there was a drive to consider the vast sprawling world of inner feelings, the human condition, the resolutely ineffable. It’s interesting to note that the French poets of this time, which Debussy so admired, considered music to be the pinnacle of art — not necessarily the music you hear in a concert hall, so much as the “music” that arises from the finest of art works. Mallarmé’s reaction to Debussy’s turning his poem into “real” music is debated–some say he was pleased, and complimented Debussy on the effort. Others say he mildly resented that his poem, so full of “music” already, was now eclipsed by Debussy’s music. The guy had a point. Who hears the title “Afternoon of a Faun” and thinks, “Ah, yes, that poem! Mallarmé’s opus!”

Care for 10 interesting factoids about Debussy? Here you go!

  • He was born Achille (pronounced as a “shhh”)-Claude de Bussy in 1862.
  • In spite of an aristocratic-sounding name, he came from a poor family and was schooled at home (while his siblings were shipped out), obtaining private piano lessons more by unexpected circumstances and good fortune more than planning and good funding.
  • He was accepted to the Paris Conservatory of Music at the age of 10, where, over the next eleven years, they would endlessly chide him for “courting the unusual” and encourage him to deliver something “more befitting of his great talent,” which was to say, the same old thing they’d been hearing for generations.
  • He was the 1884 recipient of the highly prestigious Prix de Rome, which gave him a four-year residence at Rome’s Villa Medici, which he hated, and was miserable, and [barely] lasted two years before returning to his beloved Paris, where he lived for most of his life.
  • While he resisted much of the traditional schooling that came his way, both in music and academia, as an adult, he read voraciously and enjoyed socializing with the literati. He was a frequenter of Stéphane Mallarmé’s famous Mardis (Tuesdays) salon, the place for poets, artists and literary minds to gather in 1890’s Paris.
  • His musical inspiration came frequently from poetry. I’ve shared, in past blogs HERE and HERE the way this shows up in the works, “Clair de Lune” and “Beau Soir.”
  • Debussy had originally planned for this work to be three part: a prelude, an interlude, and a paraphrase finale. Sidetracked by work on his opera after he’d completed the Prelude, he dropped the idea of two more parts.
  • Wagnerian opera, and Javanese gamelan music, fascinated and engaged the young composer, each playing a part in his artistic development, leaving an imprint that would resurface in his music.
  • Even though Debussy’s work was considered by many to be the peak representation of musical impressionism, he himself disliked that term, and saw himself as a “modernist.”
  • He died during the final year of World War I, unable to have a public gravesite funeral service because of the constant aerial bombing of the French capital by the Germans.

Above all, Debussy was a composer who defined a moment—that in which the classical music world would begin to question all rules of harmony and composition. “Works of art make rules; rules do not make works of art,” he once famously said. While he’s still considered by most to be a Late Romantic composer more than of the Modern school, you can see him and his style’s clear demarcation. Tchaikovsky and Brahms, Dvorák, Grieg, Liszt, all came before. Bartók, Prokofiev, Ravel, Sibelius, Shostakovich and Stravinsky all came after. Pierre Boulez famously pronounced Debussy’s “Prelude to an Afternoon of a Faun” to be “the beginning of modern music.”

I find it so fitting that Debussy’s ground-breaking “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” should be utilized, eighteen years later, by another legendary, ground-breaking artist. In 1912, ballet phenomenon Vaslav Nijinsky, then with Serge Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, created his ballet, “Afternoon of a Faun.” He was the lead dancer; no one else could have done it justice. No one else could have so shocked the public, foretelling a new, modern realm of dance to come. The vitality, originality and willful disdain of long-held rules that Nijinsky brought to his art makes him seem like Debussy’s twin. And for Nijinsky, much like Debussy, the newness and overt sensuality of the opening performance in Paris shocked and disturbed some of spectators. This was not the art they’d come to know and had grown familiar with. This was new and vivid, with all sorts of new flavors and textures to consider. It didn’t just stir the soul, it stirred… other parts.

But we’ll leave this blog to Debussy. Not only does Nijinsky deserve his own blog, the National Ballet of Canada will be coming to San Francisco in April to perform “Nijinsky,” John Neumeier’s evening-length ballet about the man, his art, his madness. The Classical Girl is SO looking forward to this production. I’ll be posting a blog preview of the production in the week to come. (Editor’s note: it’s done and you can read it HERE.) In the meantime, however, I can’t resist giving you a flavor of what happens when Debussy and Nijinsky–and we mustn’t forget Stéphane Mallarmé’s poetry–put their considerable talents together for an unforgettable “Afternoon of a Faun.” The dancer is Rudolf Nureyev, another legend that some day I’ll devote a blog to. This recording is old, which, in my mind, only adds to its sensuous, evocative allure. I can feel Nijinsky’s presence all the more clearly.

All right, I have to add one more. It’s taken from the 1980 Herbert Ross film, Nijinsky. So it’s Hollywood’s version of Nijinsky premiering “Afternoon of a Faun” in Paris’ Theatre du Chatelet. It’s really good, and allows you to see certain nuances up close. But, be warned. The end of the ballet is… racy. But so was Nijinsky. Pushing those borders. And so was Debussy. All for art. Give it a look, if you dare. (Warning, this music will stay in your head ALL DAY once you’ve left this page. My apologies.)

Okay, one last thing, and this time I mean it..

Mallarmé’s 1876 masterpiece poem is damned long. But it’s lush and sensuous, and, really, you sort of do need to read the poem in order to understand what both Debussy and Nijinsky were striving to put into music, and movement, respectively. This is one of several translations that exist from the original French. If you read and find it lacking, please do share a translation you feel is better.

L’Aprés-midi d’un Faune

These nymphs, I would perpetuate them.
So bright
Their crimson flesh that hovers there, light
In the air drowsy with dense slumbers.
Did I love a dream?
My doubt, mass of ancient night, ends extreme
In many a subtle branch, that remaining the true
Woods themselves, proves, alas, that I too
Offered myself, alone, as triumph, the false ideal of roses.

Let’s see….
or if those women you note
Reflect your fabulous senses’ desire!
Faun, illusion escapes from the blue eye,
Cold, like a fount of tears, of the most chaste:
But the other, she, all sighs, contrasts you say
Like a breeze of day warm on your fleece?
No! Through the swoon, heavy and motionless
Stifling with heat the cool morning’s struggles
No water, but that which my flute pours, murmurs
To the grove sprinkled with melodies: and the sole breeze
Out of the twin pipes, quick to breathe
Before it scatters the sound in an arid rain,
Is unstirred by any wrinkle of the horizon,
The visible breath, artificial and serene,
Of inspiration returning to heights unseen

O Sicilian shores of a marshy calm
My vanity plunders vying with the sun,
Silent beneath scintillating flowers, RELATE
‘That I was cutting hollow reeds here tamed
By talent: when, on the green gold of distant
Verdure offering its vine to the fountains,
An animal whiteness undulates to rest:
And as a slow prelude in which the pipes exist
This flight of swans, no, of Naiads cower
Or plunge…’
Inert, all things burn in the tawny hour
Not seeing by what art there fled away together
Too much of hymen desired by one who seeks there
The natural A: then I’ll wake to the primal fever
Erect, alone, beneath the ancient flood, light’s power,
Lily! And the one among you all for artlessness.

Other than this sweet nothing shown by their lip, the kiss
That softly gives assurance of treachery,
My breast, virgin of proof, reveals the mystery
Of the bite from some illustrious tooth planted;
Let that go! Such the arcane chose for confidant,
The great twin reed we play under the azure ceiling,
That turning towards itself the cheek’s quivering,
Dreams, in a long solo, so we might amuse
The beauties round about by false notes that confuse
Between itself and our credulous singing;
And create as far as love can, modulating,
The vanishing, from the common dream of pure flank
Or back followed by my shuttered glances,
Of a sonorous, empty and monotonous line.

Try then, instrument of flights, O malign
Syrinx by the lake where you await me, to flower again!
I, proud of my murmur, intend to speak at length
Of goddesses: and with idolatrous paintings
Remove again from shadow their waists’ bindings:
So that when I’ve sucked the grapes’ brightness
To banish a regret done away with by my pretence,
Laughing, I raise the emptied stem to the summer’s sky
And breathing into those luminous skins, then I,
Desiring drunkenness, gaze through them till evening.

O nymphs, let’s rise again with many memories.
‘My eye, piercing the reeds, speared each immortal
Neck that drowns its burning in the water
With a cry of rage towards the forest sky;
And the splendid bath of hair slipped by
In brightness and shuddering, O jewels!
I rush there: when, at my feet, entwine (bruised
By the languor tasted in their being-two’s evil)
Girls sleeping in each other’s arms’ sole peril:
I seize them without untangling them and run
To this bank of roses wasting in the sun
All perfume, hated by the frivolous shade
Where our frolic should be like a vanished day.

I adore you, wrath of virgins, O shy
Delight of the nude sacred burden that glides
Away to flee my fiery lip, drinking
The secret terrors of the flesh like quivering
Lightning: from the feet of the heartless one
To the heart of the timid, in a moment abandoned
By innocence wet with wild tears or less sad vapours.
‘Happy at conquering these treacherous fears
My crime’s to have parted the dishevelled tangle
Of kisses that the gods kept so well mingled:
For I’d scarcely begun to hide an ardent laugh
In one girl’s happy depths (holding back
With only a finger, so that her feathery candor
Might be tinted by the passion of her burning sister,
The little one, naïve and not even blushing)
Than from my arms, undone by vague dying,
This prey, forever ungrateful, frees itself and is gone,
Not pitying the sob with which I was still drunk.’

No matter! Others will lead me towards happiness
By the horns on my brow knotted with many a tress:
You know, my passion, how ripe and purple already
Every pomegranate bursts, murmuring with the bees:
And our blood, enamoured of what will seize it,
Flows for all the eternal swarm of desire yet.
At the hour when this wood with gold and ashes heaves
A feast’s excited among the extinguished leaves:
Etna! It’s on your slopes, visited by Venus
Setting in your lava her heels so artless,
When a sad slumber thunders where the flame burns low.

I hold the queen!

O certain punishment…
No, but the soul
Void of words, and this heavy body,
Succumb to noon’s proud silence slowly:
With no more ado, forgetting blasphemy, I
Must sleep, lying on the thirsty sand, and as I
Love, open my mouth to wine’s true constellation!

Farewell to you, both: I go to see the shadow you have become.

The Classical Girl turns five!

The Classical Girl, as you longtime readers might know, was a concept I’d created on the eve of 2013. A New Year’s resolution of sorts. My ballet novels were long completed, out being shopped, and I missed researching and living inside the dance world terribly. I knew, as a writer, that it was good to enforce some assignment-like work into my writer’s life. So I dove in, headfirst. I shared more of that story in my two other anniversary posts, The Classical Girl Turns One Year Old and The Classical Girl Turns Three. Thinking of starting a blog of your own?  Wondering how your early visitor numbers compare to someone else’s? You’ll find out there.

As a five-year recap, here are a few stats…

  • 196 posts created and shared
  • 207,951 visitors (in the past 3 years because my Google Analytics data only covers that)
  • 552,000 page views (in the past 3 years, because, see above)
  • 819 comments (+ 80 via email)
  • 10 pages (from the original 6)

New since my last anniversary update

  • A giving program
  • A second novel that was named a Kirkus Indie Books of the Month Selection for January 2017, as well as being on the Top 100 Indie Book of 2017 list, and a third novel forthcoming.
  • Four dance seasons of reviews of ballet performances and dance articles (for a total of six seasons, including 2017-18).

Wondering what the top 10 blogs are? Here you go — click on the title to get to the article.

  1. What do ballet dancers eat? – 80,188 views
  2. 10 odd facts about pointe shoes – 37,500 views
  3. 10 reasons ballet dancers hate Black Swan – 17,500 views
  4. Pianist Yuja Wang’s very short dresses and very big talent – 17,500 views
  5. Ballet Q & A – 11,457 views
  6. Ballet in Paris: I dare you – 9,519 views
  7. Ulyana Lopatkina and her swans – 7424 views
  8. 10 things you didn’t know about tutus – 6937 views
  9. John Cage’s “As Slow As Possible” – 5896 views
  10. Ohad Naharin’s “Minus 16” – 5818 view

Enough business talk. I’m celebrating, and you can celebrate with me. From now till midnight on Friday (Saturday, 8am GMT, 3am Eastern, 7pm in Australia) my two ballet novels, OFF BALANCE and OUTSIDE THE LIMELIGHT, Books 1 and 2 of the Ballet Theatre Chronicles, are FREE! Just click on the titles above.



How about some bubbly for this five-year celebration of ours?


And something decadent but elegant?


Something savory? Good idea!


If you’re on a diet and can’t enjoy these cyber-goodies, well, how about some food for thought:


And speaking of Africa, I’m putting the finishing touches on my newest novel, A Dancer’s Guide to Africa, forthcoming in October, and can’t wait to share the cover with you. Stay tuned!

Thank you, dear readers, for helping me celebrate five years of The Classical Girl. I literally couldn’t have done it without you!

10 tips for fledgling classical music lovers

I love when people contact me to express their interest in classical music. And 2018 is already turning out to be a banner year for such requests. I think it’s fantastic. It’s as if all these fine minds of ours, regardless of creed, political slant or affiliation, are seeking out new vistas and perspectives, discovering something that is unequivocally beautiful, soulful, thought-provoking, and can be discussed in a ways that don’t divide us. Or at least allow for discourse like the following: “Okay, you think the elegance of the Classical Era can’t be beat, but you have to admit that my favorite, the Mainstream Romantics, allow for gorgeous emotion to arise. And we can both agree that classical music isn’t as stuffy or boring as we’d once thought!”

So this blog is devoted to all of you out there, dipping your toe into the classical music waters, not sure if you’re up for the full swim, but willing to wade around a bit. Hop in—the temperature is just right! So without further ado, here are…

10 tips for the fledgling classical music lover

  1. Buy compilation CDs. Or borrow them from your library. Or YouTube them. There are so many opportunities to hear classical music for cheap these days, it’s amazing. Go to your local music store; I guarantee you there will be a few dozen CDs with prices $2.99 and below. Don’t regularly go to a local music store, or your town doesn’t have one? Find one. Go to it. Do it. They are great places to browse and are a slice of a disappearing Americana. That said… On Amazon, I found this: It’s a 10-disc box set of classical compilations; I own three of the CDs and I had no idea there was a ten-disc set. For a good used copy, several of which are priced around $8.00 with shipping, it’s a staggering deal. It has both the ultra-familiar pieces and unique ones, many of which are simply movements from a sonata, a symphony, a concerto. So, once you decide which one you really like, look for the longer version. And did I mention that THIS IS A REALLY GOOD BARGAIN? Seriously, check it out.
  2. Get a classical music reference bible. I can’t tell you how often I consult mine, and what a pleasure it is. I bought mine a long time ago; it’s called Building A Classical Music Library, by Bill Parker. Some of the recordings the author suggests are likely dated now, but since classical music is rather timeless, it’s all still largely relevant. The author has a very easy-to-read style as he talks about the composers, dividing them into their respective eras. This alone has been a great reference tool for me. Before reading it, I wouldn’t have known whether Chopin, say, or Dvorak or Debussy were Early Romantic, Mainstream Romantic, or Late Romantic. (The answers: yes, yes and yes, respectively.) So, you get a fun little story about each composer, the pieces that made them famous, and recording suggestions. To buy, click on the above title or click HERE.
  3. Go to freebie classical music events, often done at lunchtime within a city’s civic center area, or in a church with nice acoustics. And for any performance you plan to attend, do a little research in advance. Wikipedia is great for learning quickly about any composer, any piece of music. It’s easy, and will allow you to better appreciate what you’re hearing. And you’ll get to impress your friends with your knowledge.
  4. Bookmark an HD digital or online classical music station on your devices. There are dozens, if not more. I listen to KAZU HD classical . Classical music 24/7, no commercials. On my car stereo, I just rediscovered a classical music station broadcast by a university nearby – what a win! Alas, there are fewer and fewer radio stations that broadcast classical. But in an increasingly wired world, you’ve got all of the Internet. And for offline time, you have…
  5. Podcasts. Most include a few minutes or more of talk, followed by a music excerpt or longer work. A great way to learn and listen while driving/walking/tuning out noisy people in public. A few to check out include Classical Podcasts, Classical Classroom, BBC Radio3 (scroll down from the landing page).
  6. Buy a season subscription to the symphony. Not just one ticket–make the investment of one season. It might feel extreme at the time, but you’ll be glad you did it. You sorta need to sit through something you wouldn’t have otherwise cherry-picked for your listening experience. (Speaking from the voice of experience here, having done both.) Granted, you’ll want the subscription series to include the works you prefer to hear. But chances are, there will be one concert you might not have otherwise attended, and that usually means three music selections new to your ears. (San Francisco Symphony allows you to switch around concerts during the season, as well, so you can cherry-pick AND have a subscription experience. I’m guessing a good number of professional orchestras work that way for their subscribers.)
  7. Read the Amazon reviews of classical music CDs. These days, when I want to research a composer or a specific work, I first get the scoop via two sources: Wikipedia and Amazon reviews. Most of the people who leave reviews on classical music CDs at Amazon are amazingly well-educated on classical music and specifics of the work in question. Quite a few are former classical musicians, I sense. Others just really, really know classical music. I don’t always agree with their opinions, but I learn a whole lot, and that’s what matters to me.
  8. Listen to the basic classical music favorites that are, face it, overplayed. “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik”, Pachebel’s “Canon in D”. Et cetera. Then move on. Don’t stop there. Frankly, those classics are … boring. Well, let’s say this. No one becomes a classical music lover from hearing those. Listeners are sucked in by hearing Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 or the first movement of the Korngold Violin Concerto, or the soundtrack of the movie Amadeus. Which is why I will make a pitch again for that most excellent CD compilation set. (
  9. Figure out what eras are your favorite. Examples might be Baroque, Classical, Romantic, Mainstream Romantic, Late Romantic, Modern. (That book I suggested buying makes learning this SO much easier.) Now, check out composers from that era you’ve maybe never heard of before. I myself have discovered new composers this way, like Reinhold Glière, Howard Hanson, Carl Nielsen. There’s a good chance you’ll like their stuff. It’s always worked for me.
  10. Challenge yourself from time to time and listen to an era you’re not familiar with. (Perk: it will make you love your preferred era even more.) Once again, a symphony subscription is great for this. It’s where I first heard the work of composer Alban Berg, even though I’d thought I’d prefer the other two musical works presented. And, almost forgot to mention – read the program notes while you’re waiting for the symphony to begin. They are delicious little stories that will make you appreciate the work even more. Case in point, the Berg Violin Concerto.)

All right, there you go. Ready to start your journey? To get you pumped up, here are a few compositions or symphony/concerto excerpts I think anyone would love. If the title is hyper-linked, I’ve written about it, and clicking the link will send you to the other blog and embedded music.

  • Claude Debussy: Clair de Lune, Beau Soir, Girl with the Flaxen Hair, Afternoon of a Faun
  • Dvorák: Romance in F-minor. “Klid” (Silent Wood)
  • Mozart: anything from the film Amadeus. Get the CD. What, you’ve never seen the movie?! Get the DVD along with the CD
  • Anything by Frederic Chopin
  • Schubert’s Impromptu #3 in G-flat major
  • Violin Concertos: Brahms, Korngold, Bruch, Mendelssohn, Tchaikovsky
  • Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 1 (“Winter Daydreams”), Schumann’s Symphony No. 3, (“Rhenish”).
  • Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Scheherazade” and Edvard Grieg’s “Peer Gynt”
  • Saint Saens: “Danse Macabre”, Symphony No. 3 “Organ Symphony”, “Introduction and Rondo Capriccioso”
  • Rachmaninov Piano Concerto No. 2

It is excruciatingly hard to pick only one or two of the above suggestions to embed. And, interestingly, I’m choosing one that has grown overfamiliar to me, but was undeniably a piece of classical music that had me swooning with delight, utterly transporting me. So, here you go…

And finally, one that haunted me after hearing it in an art-house movie theater, decades ago, and I only re-discovered it by chance, two years ago. My idea of sublime.

San Francisco Ballet waltzes into 2018


Tchaikovsky’s “Waltz of the Flowers” is still looping through my mind, even as the curtain closed for the last time on San Francisco Ballet’s Nutcracker last weekend. I’m crazy about this production; I’ve raved about it HERE and HERE. You can see my Bachtrack review of this year’s opening night performance HERE. I like to attend the production a second time, later in the run, which gives me the opportunity to see different casts. The Dec 27th matinee performance was fantastic, as fresh as opening night, due in part to a sublime rendition by the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra, Martin West conducting. Standouts included Angelo Greco’s Nutcracker Prince, Nathaniel Remez’s King of the Mice, Frances Chung and Vitor Luiz as Queen and King of the Snow, Mathilde Froustey’s Sugar Plum Fairy, all of Spanish Dance (Lauren Parrott, Natasha Sheehan, Davide Occhipinti, Mingxuan Wang, Adrian Zeisel – who, WOW, might still be a student with the ballet school). I could go on and on. In fact, I will; scroll down to the bottom of this blog for more mentions.

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

But the performance I found particularly unforgettable was Ana Sophia Scheller with Angelo Greco in the Grand Pas de Deux, which produced a visceral reaction of wow, this is a dazzler in me. Beautiful adage, fabulous solos, great onstage chemistry between the two dancers. Just before the adage ends, when the music turns tender, almost sorrowful, the way the two of them connected, with eye contact and something more elusive, gave me prickles. It made me feel like I was watching something extraordinary. Certainly they both have extraordinary talents. She is new, a principal, and he was promoted to principal last season. Thrilling, to watch a new partnership take hold. It’s a very exciting time for the San Francisco Ballet, with so many promotions announced in 2017 (and, regrettably, departures of favored dancers). In fact, before we get on to what the company will be delivering through their repertory season, let’s talk about its 2017-18 company roster. It incorporates ten promotions, eight new company members, and six apprentices. Here’s the SFB’s announcement:

“Soloist Jennifer Stahl has been promoted to principal dancer, and Isabella DeVivo, Jahna Frantziskonis, Esteban Hernandez, and Steven Morse have been promoted to soloist. In addition, SF Ballet Apprentices Alexandre Cagnat, Shené Lazarus, Davide Occhipinti, Nathaniel Remez, and Isabella Walsh have been promoted to the corps de ballet. Ulrik Birkkjaer and Ana Sophia Scheller join the Company as principal dancers and Solomon Golding, Gabriela Gonzalez, Blake Johnston, Madison Keesler, Wona Park, and Joseph Warton have joined SF Ballet as corps de ballet members. Ethan Chudnow, Anatalia Hordov, Carmela Mayo, Swane Messaoudi, Larisa Nugent, and Benjamin Pearson of San Francisco Ballet School have been promoted to the rank of apprentice.”

A bit about the new principals. Copenhagen-born Ulrik Birkkjaer, is coming from The Royal Danish Ballet, where he’d been a principal dancer. Ana Sophia Scheller, born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, is coming from the New York City Ballet, where she’d been a principal dancer. While I haven’t had the chance yet to see Birkkjaer perform, I can happily confirm that Scheller is marvelous.

And now on to what the 2017–18 season looks like. Following a Jan 18th gala, it begins on Jan 23rd with The Sleeping Beauty, and is followed by five programs (more details HERE) and finally, “Unbound: A Festival of New Works,” for which a dozen international choreographers are creating inventive, daring works for the dancers. San Francisco Ballet says, “We’re celebrating the San Francisco spirit of curiosity, experimentation, and invention with Unbound—a festival of 12 world premieres spanning 4 programs over 17 days.”

In short, it’s going to be a very exciting year for the San Francisco Ballet. But don’t take my word for it – check out their website HERE.

PS: those other dancers from Wed 12/27 matinee performance that deserve mention? Here you go. Elizabeth Mateer in Arabian Dance, supported by Sean Orza and Henry Sidford. Act I Dancing Dolls Mingxuan Wang and Natasha Sheehan. Angela Watson as the adolescent Clara. Chinese dancer Steven Morse. French dancers Anatalia Hordov (kudos to her – she is an apprentice this year and fit right in), Blake Johnston, Isabella Walsh. Russian dancers Benjamin Fremantle, Sean Bennett, Alexander Reneff-Olson. The way they burst through those paper, life-sized Faberge eggs in perfect unison, the millisecond the music commences? Too much fun.

Esteban Hernandez in Tomasson’s Nutcracker. (© Erik Tomasson)