Music News: May 21, 2013

May 21, 2013

Ragazzi's Quarter-Century Celebrations

May 21, 2013

Ragazzi: concentrating and dedicated Photos by Curtis FingerRagazzi Continuo, the Ragazzi Boys Chorus alumni, had their concert last week, and now it's the turn of the current Ragazzi to celebrate the organization's 25th anniversary. They'll be making their Bing Concert Hall debut on June 9, with "Sing It Forward: A Silver Celebration," which features a commissioned work by Cris Grases, and chorus favorites from the past 25 years' repertoire.

An important Peninsula center for music education and performance for boys and young men, ages 7–18, the chorus currently has 170 singers from 86 schools in 26 Bay Area communities.

Behind spectacular figures — thousands of boys, hundreds of concerts — there are moving individual stories about what it means to belong to the group. One boy, who had recently suffered a loss in his family, told Ragazzi advocate-publicist-fairy godmother Carla Befera: "Things happen in people's lives. I was completely destroyed a couple of months ago, but going into rehearsal the next day, I cracked a smile and felt a lot better."

Of course, boys will be boys, and when you ask about their experience with the group and their reasons for participating, you get equal measures of sincerity, whimsy, and youthful wisdom:

* "I get a lot of girlfriends by singing them love songs." Ben Vogel, 13, Palo Alto (saying what many famous tenors would never admit).

* "What I like about Ragazzi is if you start singing something slow and mellow you start feeling the same way. Music makes you feel different like that. I also like it because once you learn to do it, you become obsessed with it and when other people hear how good you are, they say, 'wow!' That makes me proud." Jack Pine, 9, Burlingame

* "I learn something new every time I sing." Michael Sacco, 10, Redwood City.

* "Ragazzi is a great experience for those who want to sing, be a gentleman, and have fun." Ryan Brouchoud, 10, Redwood City.

* "I like the sound of music — it's cool, calm, awesome, and Ragazzi is a super cool choir that sounds great." Finn Platkin, 10, Burlingame.

* "Ragazzi is a place that is another safe haven that protects you from the calamities of the outside world." Benjamin Goya, 14, San Mateo.

* "Ragazzi is a place where you can come together to be greater than any one person." Henry Phipps, 13, Woodside.

* "Ragazzi is the perfect environment to learn and sing music, make lifelong friends, be yourself, and let your passion for music run wild." Jamie Holmstrom, 14, Woodside.

RagazziThe extent of Ragazzi's work is impressive. Over a relatively short span of 25 years, the chorus has offered approximately 3,000 "boy-years" of training — some boys stayed only a year or two, but many remained with the program for up to 10 seasons or more. Executive Director David Jones estimates about 2,000 boys have had Ragazzi training (ranging from 1 semester to 22 semesters).

Having put on about 10 basic public performances per year for the holidays, spring, and so on, the estimated total is over 250. Ragazzi have performed with San Francisco Symphony, Opera, San Jose Opera, and other organizations, with some 400 such joint appearances. Groups of Ragazzi have toured in the U.S. and abroad, including Canada (1990), Russia (1992), Eastern Europe (1995), Italy (1998), Japan (1999), the British Isles (2001), Spain and Portugal (2004), Australia and New Zealand (2007), British Colombia (2008), Quebec (2010), and Cuba (2011). This summer, the group will tour South Korea.

Says Ragazzi Artistic Director Joyce Keil, who founded the organization after working with the San Francisco Boys Chorus as an assistant:

I am moved by the stories I am hearing from our graduates as to how Ragazzi has impacted their lives. I have always loved music and specifically singing and I wanted to share this musical joy with boys because when I was teaching high school, I found it so hard to recruit male singers.

I have learned that putting the boys together, alone, without girls makes it safe for them to explore their voices and their emotions. Beyond that, through Ragazzi, in addition to their musical achievements, they have created life-long friendships and developed other skills like discipline, focus. We just had to build it; they have come by the hundreds.

Pacific Boychoir Triennial: Vespers

May 21, 2013

Pacific BoychoirRemarkably, every three years, Pacific Boychoir presents Rachmaninov's epic Vespers or All-Night Vigil. The work's original premiere was by a boys choir in Moscow in 1915.

In 2007, Pacific Boychoir became the first choir in America to reproduce the original performing forces, resulting in a SFCV verdict that "The sheer sonic experience was chilling."

Along with Wesley Rogers as tenor soloist, the Bay Area's finest choral tenors and basses augment the choir, which will number 100 male voices. Also on the program is Arvo Pärt's The Beatitudes, with guest organists Ben Bachmann and Rudy de Vos taking turns.

The first performance is in Grace Cathedral on May 24, the second in Oakland's Cathedral of Christ the Light on May 25.

Mary Magdalene: Controversy and Passion

May 21, 2013

Nathan Gunn and Sasha Cooke in <em>Mary Magdalene</em> Photo by Henry FairNow that Dan Brown's symbolist sleuth Robert Langdon is chasing clues of the Inferno, it's possible to forget that before Brown's The Da Vinci Code, Edgar Saltus' 1891 Mary Magdalene: a Chronicle Gospel of Luke, Mary Magdalene, and the Drama of Saints: Theatre, Gender, and Religion in Late Medieval England, following up Ann Graham Brock's Mary Magdalene, the First Apostle: The Struggle for Authority and Katherine Ludwig Jansen's The Making of Magdalene: Preaching and Popular Devotion in the Later Middle Ages have all remained matters of academic interest only.

As to the official Church of Rome status, Pope Benedict XVI's 2010 book for children, Friends of Jesus, unceremoniously omitted Mary, apparently still regarding her as someone too controversial.

But then there was Brown's bestseller, with 81 million copies, double what Jonathan Livingston Seagull accomplished in 40 years — and the film, defying horrendous reviews (165 negative ones of the 214 counted) brought in $750 million. Now, Mark Adamo's opera is about to open in the War Memorial, for a run from June 19 through July 7, and John Adams' take on the subject is getting performances around the world.

Before Brown, outside a limited amount of religious scholarship, Mary was known only as one of Jesus' disciples, the only woman among them, who was present — significantly — at both of the New Testament's most important moments: the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. She was even said to be the first witness of Jesus' rising.

In Brown's novelistic version, disputed by most scholars, Mary is also represented as royalty, the writer of The Gospel of Mary, smeared by the early Church, and also intended by Jesus to lead the Church.

Creative team for the opera: David Gockley, Mark Adamo, costume designer Constance Hoffman, director Kevin Newbury, set designer David Korins. Photo by Cory WeaverAt a panel discussion Sunday evening in the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, the composer, principal cast members Sasha Cooke (Mary Magdalene) and Nathan Gunn (Yeshua) discussed the opera, not shying away from the many religious controversies inherent in the subject. SFO Director of Music Administration Kip Cranna moderated the discussion.

Right up on top of the libretto, it says: "Adapted from the texts of, and research on, the Canonical and Gnostic Gospels." Following quotes from Wagner and Emerson, there is this from J.S. Spong, a retired American Episcopelian bishop, who has been calling for a fundamental rethinking of Christian belief, "away from theism and traditional doctrines."

Why is there still a continuing sense, ranging from unease to revulsion, that arises in us when we hear the suggestion that Jesus might have been married? I suggest that far more than any of us realize, we are subconsciously victimized by the historic negativity toward women that has been a major gift of the Christian church to the world.

Adamo told the well-filled hall at the JCC that in creating the libretto, "with 120 footnotes," and giving interviews, he has reached the state of "not being a Biblical scholar, but I play one on the radio." In swift flights of historic and scholarly narration, he exhibited impressive knowledge of the subject, and acknowledged his intention to free the material "from orthodoxies."

A large production in an opera house, Adamo said, is "a safe place to talk about dangerous things."

Participants in the JCC panel discussion: Gunn, Cooke, Adamo, Kip Cranna Photo by Janos GerebenAdamo, raised as a Catholic, but open and comfortable in the (welcoming) atmosphere of the JCC, was emphatic and passionate about a work denouncing "the negativity towards sex and women that poisons [the canonical gospel] tradition ... the sacrality [sic] of erotic love." To applause evoked by his committed passion, Adamo said he will "not shy away" from presenting Yeshua (Jesus' Hebrew name) and Mary Magdalene in a love scene, where she says:

I can tell you what I’ve learned from you.
About how to live;
About giving and receiving love,
And how it’s better to give;
About how love is not the same thing as desire,
And how desire can lie. But—
I can’t say I don’t desire you.
And I won’t try.

In the opera's Prolegomenon (a preliminary discussion rather than a prologue), there is a montage of news coverage (reminiscent of Nixon in China) in 1948 as the Nag Hammadi scrolls — found three years before — are first published, telling radically different stories from the canononized (and later) New Testament versions. These came after finding Coptic texts of the Greek originals of the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas.

Adamo presents scenes of love affairs where Mary seeks meaning, not acting as a prostitute, a sin she was accused of for centuries until finally, in 1969, any mention of her as a sinner was omitted from Roman Catholic liturgical materials. (Still no "friend," according to Pope Benedict.)

Among numerous lectures and events in advance of the opera premiere, on Sunday, June 9, beginning at 9:30 a.m., Grace Cathedral will host a conversation with Adamo and Cooke, hosted by the Very Rev. Dr. Jane Shaw. The free forum is presented in partnership with San Francisco Opera.

Your 'Best Five Minutes'?

May 21, 2013

Boito Blame Jeff Dunn for latching onto this sentence in Scott Cantrell's review of the Dallas Symphony's performance of Britten's War Requiem last year, conducted by Jaap van Zweden:

"No five minutes' worth of Western music is more emotionally moving or more beautiful."

With all due (and sincere) regard for Britten, the absolutist nature of the statement provoked my response and that of a small circle, and now the subject is to be thrown open to the distinguished readers of the column.

My own immediate reaction was, from the top of my head, five minutes' (or more) worth of:

- Götterdämmerung
-
"Mondscheinmusik" from Strauss' Capriccio
- Opening the fifth door, Bluebeard's Castle

- Magic Fire, Die Walküre
-
Recognition Scene from Strauss' Elektra
- "So tanzen die Angel" from Schoenberg's Gurre-Lieder
- Lots and lots of Boito's Mefistofele (opening the San Francisco Opera's fall season), such as "Giunto sul passo estremo" and the powerful Finale

And, of course, a zillion others.

Lisa Hirsch brought up an important point about the choice of the Bartók: "The fifth door is the giant, loud C major. I don't exactly think of it as emotionally moving/beautiful, more one of the greatest pure thrills. What Cantrell is saying is that nothing is more beautiful or emotionally moving than the Britten. The phrasing implies that the section has equals."

Orestes and Elektra reunited Guess I tend to equate thrilling and moving, but the subject really bears discussion. Lisa's top-of-the-head picks:

- Schubert quintet
- Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, slow movement
- Brahms's Fourth Symphony, slow movement

Jeff pitched in by agreeing with the choice of Götterdämmerung (we both meant the Redemption Theme in the Finale), adding a few, ahem, interesting picks:

- Rouse, Gorgon
- Barber, "Sure on this Shining Night"
- Elgar, The Apostles conclusion
- Strauss, Elektra conclusion
- Vaughan Williams, 1st Symphony, especially passages leading up to and including "O God Transcendent"
- Berg, conclusion to Wozzeck
- Puccini, snow love scene in Fanciulla del West, Madama Butterfly trio

(There was quick agreement in the circle about the virtues of Act 3 of La bohème, not the most popular part of the opera, but emotionally-musically perhaps the most moving.)

Michelle Dulak Thomson took up the Puccini "five-minute" thread:

The bit in Butterfly. Weird. I admire Puccini, love a great deal of it (La Bohème, Tosca, Butterfly), though ... what the heck is it? The usual "set it in six flats, because it's special" Puccini move? (Had to look it up: five sharps.) The magnanimity? I just don't know why that one hits me in the gut.

And she went on to consider some (self-described) "hopelessly hackneyed" choices:

Mahler's "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen." Berlioz' "Absence" (from Les Nuits d'ete). The last variation of the slow movement of the Brahms Second String Sextet. Handel's "As with rosy steps" from Theodora. The second variation of the Heiliger Dankgesang from Beethoven's Op. 132. Um, too many things from the St. Matthew Passion to count. And even in Britten, I'd put "When most I wink, then do mine eyes best see" from the Nocturne above "Let us sleep now."

One of these has haunted me from the first time I heard it, to the point where I can easily sing it myself from memory (and have, for once, memorized a Shakespeare sonnet). The other is a very lovely stretch of music that I would be happy to hear again, but don't feel compelled to.

LiebersonFrom his Brno perch, in the town of Janáček and Korngold, though he mentions neither (is Marietta's Lied chopped chicken liver?!), Charlie Cockey pondered the matter:

There are so many pieces and passages mentioned that I would second and include, among them almost any well sung La bohème, numerous places and artists; the Bartok fifth door (definitely an overwhelming moment); the Mahler "Ich bin der Welt abhanden bekommen" among them (the first time I heard the RückerliederLord only knows how many decades ago, Flicka sang it. The closing number and the breathless extended hush that preceded the applause was so perfect I have often since wondered if perhaps she changed the sequence to end with this song).

I find it hard to divorce "thrilling" from "emotionally moving", and have to add a couple of my own:

More than five minutes I'm sure, but who was counting: the ecstatic end of Messaien's Saint Francis d'Assisi in the Berkeley Symphony's concert performance one special night — all the idiophones doing two-handed double-malleted criss-crossing glissandi, every instrument in the orchestra working away like mad and suddenly you realise the chorus has been singing I couldn't breathe and afterward couldn't get up from my seat for a good 10-15 minutes — and was not alone: Pockets of stunned audience were frozen in place around Zellerbach, and kudos to the staff who bothered us never to please leave or anything.

Handel's aria "As with rosy steps the morn" from Theodora, at least when sung by Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Can't remember how often I've listened to this, and every single time I am rendered helpless.

(If that quote I inserted in the Messiaen mention sounds familiar, it's from My First 2000 Years by George Sylvester Viereck, Paul Eldridge, though they had something else in mind than musical ecstasy.)

Tenth Birthday for Eos Ensemble

May 21, 2013

Eos performers Saturday night: founder-director Craig Reiss on the left, clarinetist-composer Jose González on the right Photo by Janos Gereben Eos is the Greek goddess of dawn (Aurora is the Roman equivalent), but in San Francisco musical circles, it's an unusual and special chamber-music ensemble.

San Francisco Opera and Ballet violinist Craig Reiss recruited a dozen colleagues a decade ago to "play music we want to play, in the company of colleagues and friends."

Saturday night, Eos celebrated the anniversary at Old First Concerts with a rich, generous program. Opening the concert was the premiere of a work commissioned for the occasion: Jose González Granero's Preludio.

González, who became S.F. Opera's principal clarinetist at 25 three years ago, was joined by Reiss, violinist Wenyi Shih, violist Caroline Lee, and cellist Thalia Moore.

The eight-minute-long Preludio is a mature, entertaining, excellent work. Although González hails from Spain, his composition had a Viennese Fin de siècle sound — mellow, melodic, and refined.

Eos EnsembleInto the hush of the strings González' clarinet entered with a big sound, somewhat out of balance. Playing settled down, to a playful, harmonic conclusion.

Although they played the night before at the Opera Orchestra's Cal Performances concert, the Eos-ians took on Beethoven's long and demanding Septet for Winds and Strings, Op. 20, and did themselves proud. Joining Reiss, Lee, González, and Moore for the Beethoven were bassist Ken Miller, bassoonist Rufus Olivier, and hornist Kevin Rivard.

The concert's second half presented Muriel Maffre's choreography for Stravinsky's L'Histoire du soldat, danced by Kimberly Braylock. Mary Chun conducted a spirited performance by the ensemble, which also included Adam Luftman (trumpet), Bruce Chrisp (trombone), and Rick Kvistad (percussion). Former Adler Fellow tenor Matthew O'Neill served as the Narrator.

S.F. Ballet Takes Cinderella to New York

May 21, 2013

San Francisco's Cinderella to the Big Apple Photo by Erik TomassonThe biggest hit of San Francisco Ballet's just-concluded season, Christopher Wheeldon's spectacular Cinderella, will be on the company's 11-day residency in Lincoln Center, the first in five years.

During the first week, Oct. 16-20, the company presents several mixed-bill programs, with works by Edwaard Liang, Serge Lifar, Wayne McGregor, Mark Morris, Alexei Ratmansky, company artistic director Helgi Tomasson, Yuri Possokhov, and Wheeldon.

From October 23 to 27, the company presents the New York premiere of Wheeldon’s Cinderella. Expecting high demand for tickets, there will be special pre-sale offers from Audience Rewards and Travelzoo, before sales to the general public starting June 10.

"After five years, we are thrilled to return to New York — one of the company’s favorite tour destinations," says Tomasson. "This fall we are especially excited to bring eight New York premieres including Cinderella."

Program A on Oct. 16 and 19 offers Tomasson's Trio, Wheeldon's Ghosts, and McGregor's Borderlands. Program B, at the Oct. 19 matinee, adds Lifar's Suite en Blanc to Trio and Ghosts.

Program C, on Oct. 17 and 18, features Ratmansky’s From Foreign Lands, Morris’ Beaux, Possokhov’s Classical Symphony, and Liang’s Symphonic Dances. Program D, at the Oct. 20 matinee, will have Suite en Blanc, Ratmansky’s From Foreign Lands, and Symphonic Dances.

Pacific Musical Society Finals on Sunday

May 21, 2013

Pacific Musical Society's annual competition — the organization's 102nd — is coming up on May 26 in the San Francisco Conservatory, from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free. The schedule calls for instrumental performances from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m.; pianists from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.; and vocalists from 2:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Twenty-five young artists, ages 8-25, drawn from 13 Bay Area counties, compete for over $20,000 in prize money in the three categories.

Judges for the competition are pianist Ruth Slenczynska, mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, opera director Lotfi Mansouri, soprano Olivia Stapp, and conductor Michael Morgan.

The winners' concert and awards ceremony will be held on June 5, beginning at 6 p.m., in association with Music at Kohl Mansion in Burlingame's Kohl Mansion.

New Century Goes Operatic and (Even More) Innovative

May 21, 2013

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg Photo by Christian Steiner There seems to be no limit to the adventurous spirit of Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg's New Century Chamber Orchestra. Already distinguished by excursions into bold commissions and the current series of "symphonic" concerts, beyond what is considered the traditional scope of a string orchestra (that is, chamber music), New Century's next season will include:

- Donizetti's Rita, with San Francisco Opera Adler Fellows
- A world premiere violin concerto by Michael Daugherty
- Jazz classics from Gershwin and Ellington
- Contemporary works by Clarice Assad and Samuel Jones

Besides his new work, Daughterty will also be featured in performances of his solo and chamber works, including Viva for solo violin, Sing Sing: J. Edgar Hoover and Elvis Everywhere for string quartet and tape.

With Herbst Theatre closed for renovation, San Francisco venues for the next season will be varied: the JCC, S.F. Conservatory, and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. New Century will also make its debut at Stanford’s Bing Concert Hall, and have a return engagement at Cal Performances’ "Fall Free For All" in Zellerbach Hall.

Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg will reprise Clarice Assad’s Dreamscapes, a work commissioned by NCCO. On the same program, the orchestra explores the theme of legacy with music by Tchaikovsky and his student Anton Arensky, in addition to a work honoring the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President Kennedy: the 1963 Elegy by Samuel Jones.

The season concludes in March with another first-time collaboration, featuring Chanticleer performing works by Kurt Weill, Duke Ellington and George Gershwin, and a medley by the German Comedian Harmonists.

Conservatory Composition Winners

May 21, 2013

Award winner Justin Ralls Photo by Danita PappasSan Francisco Conservatory of Music has named the winners of three annual composition competitions. The honorees receive recognition, financial support, and world-premiere performances of their works. Tree Ride, a piece for orchestra by graduate student Justin Ralls, has won the Conservatory’s Highsmith Competition. The annual Hoefer Prize goes to composition department alumnus Ryan Brown (2005), who will write a work for the New Music Ensemble. And Alpine Scenes, a piano trio by graduate student Nathan Campbell, was selected to receive its premiere at the 2013 Shanghai-San Francisco International Chamber Music Festival held in Shanghai.

The competitions are open to current students and recent alumni, "showing a department that cares about supporting its students both inside our building and once they leave our halls," said Composition Department Chair Dan Becker.

Endowed by James Milton Highsmith, the award named for the donor is granted each year to an orchestral work. Justin Ralls’ work will be performed in the Conservatory Concert Hall this fall. Ralls is a first year graduate student studying with department chair Becker. He received a degree in composition cum laude from Boston Conservatory and is also co-founder of the Contemporary Portland Orchestra Project.

The Hoefer Prize, funded from a bequest by former Conservatory trustee Jacqueline Stanhope Hoefer, will support Ryan Brown to write a new work for the BluePrint New Music Ensemble, to be performed and recorded under the direction of Nicole Paiement.

The Conservatory’s newest composition award is a consequence of the three-year-old Shanghai-San Francisco International Chamber Music Festival. A joint project of the Conservatory and its sister school, the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, the annual festival features new chamber works written by students from both schools. Nathan Campbell was chosen to represent San Francisco at this year’s festival in Shanghai.

From Merola to S.F. Ballet School Showcase

May 21, 2013

Ballet School students perform Balanchine's <em>Western Symphony</em> Photo by Erik TomassonSan Francisco Opera founder Gaetano Merola (1881–1953) should also have credit for creating both the San Francisco Ballet and the company's renowned school. Here is the story on the eve of the 80-year-old S.F. Ballet School's Showcase series at Yerba Buena.

First, about the Showcase: It will take place May 29-31 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater, and will feature class demonstrations and repertory works, for the benefit of the school’s scholarship and financial aid programs.

The advanced-level students will perform Stone and Steel, a work by S.F. Ballet Corps de Ballet member and former school student Myles Thatcher; highlights from Marius Petipa’s Paquita; Christopher Wheeldon’s Danses Bohémiennes; and Light Line, an all-new work by school faculty member Parrish Maynard.

“Student Showcase is a culmination of each student’s training and dedication to learning the art form,” said Ballet School Associate Director Patrick Armand.

Gaetano Merola, founder of all Following the May 30 performance, a cocktail reception and dinner at the St. Regis San Francisco, is expected to raise additional funds. The variety of luxury packages available among live-auction items includes a VIP trip to New York for S.F. Ballet’s opening night of Cinderella there (see item above).

And now, the history of the school, with thanks to Lauren White for the research:

San Francisco Ballet and the San Francisco Ballet School were both established in 1933 as a single institution by Gaetano Merola, to answer the need for an academy that would train dancers to appear in opera productions.

San Francisco became the only city in the country, other than New York, to claim a ballet school as an auxiliary to an established opera company. Adolph Bolm was appointed director and ballet master for the company, which occasionally presented all-dance programs. But San Francisco Ballet truly began to take shape as an independent entity when Willam Christensen became company ballet master. Two years later he appointed his brother Harold, director of the school.

In 1942, Willam and Harold Christensen bought the school from San Francisco Opera, which could no longer provide financial support to the ballet operation. As a result, the San Francisco Ballet Guild was formed in order to maintain the company. Willam Christensen was named artistic director of San Francisco Ballet, and Harold continued on as director of the school.

Harold, like his brothers Willam and Lew, the three men most responsible for guiding the company and the school for some 45 years, was American trained. He was the preeminent educator among the brothers who directed the development of ballet in the Western United States for an entire generation. Under Harold's guidance, the school evolved into one of the country's finest classical academies.

Scholarship programs were initiated and the faculty grew to include numerous prominent classical ballet teachers. Harold directed the school for 35 years, developing many dancers who went on to careers with San Francisco Ballet and other prestigious companies. When Harold retired in 1975, Richard Cammack became the new director of the school. Cammack oversaw the school's move into its current state-of-the-art facility in 1983.

Helgi Tomasson assumed leadership of the school after becoming artistic director of San Francisco Ballet in 1985. In 1986, Tomasson invited former San Francisco Ballet ballerina Nancy Johnson to head the School, a role she held until 1993, when he appointed Lola de Avila to the School's newly established position of associate director. De Avila left the position in 1999 at which time Gloria Govrin was appointed the School's associate director. De Avila returned to the position of associate director from 2006 to 2012.

Today, the school boasts a distinguished international staff, headed Armand, a trainee program for advanced-level students, a dedicated student residence, and an extensive scholarship program. Of the current company, over 50 percent of the dancers received all or part of their training at the School, and many San Francisco Ballet School students have gone on to dance with professional companies nationally and internationally.

Now, 80 years after its founding, San Francisco Ballet has indeed achieved Gaetano Merola's original goal of elevating San Francisco to a "high position in the realm of dance."

The Improbable, Triumphant Return of Levine

May 21, 2013

LevineFighting tremors, spinal problems, Parkinson’s disease, and the consequences of falls last year, James Levine is soldiering on, pledging to return to his Metropolitan Opera post next season. His comeback concert last week was an unqualified success, reviewed by Martin Bernheimer in The Financial Times:

It was hardly business as usual when the MET Orchestra visited Carnegie Hall on Sunday afternoon. James Levine was back.

The beloved overachiever, now nearing his 70th birthday, has conducted 2,441 performances (an unprecedented record) with the Metropolitan Opera — essentially his Metropolitan Opera. Still, he has been missing from action since May, 2011, and many observers sadly feared New York had seen the last of him. After all, he has endured an alarming series of ailments, illnesses, accidents and surgeries. For most impractical purposes, he is now confined to a wheelchair.

It is, however, no ordinary wheelchair. It is a customised, motorised wheelchair. On this happy — OK, delirious — occasion, he drove it slowly from the wings to a special podium equipped with an elevator. Two aides helped him ascend. The capacity audience greeted him, of course, with a standing ovation, and for once the mass gesture was genuinely appropriate.

If all goes as hoped, Levine will preside over three operas next season at Lincoln Center plus three more Carnegie Hall programmes. Hope springs internal.

He has never been a particularly histrionic maestro and, it is said, he usually reserves his essential emoting for rehearsals. But here he seemed remarkably agitated, leading his devoted followers with sweeping gestures and generous cues. The results, despite a few pardonably rough ensemble edges, were often rousing, always poignant.

The festivities began with a shimmering performance of the Lohengrin prelude, a nice nod to Wagner on the occasion of his 200th birthday. The festivities ended with the massive stresses and heroic sprawl of Schubert’s 9th Symphony, played with taut propulsion, abiding grace and dynamic flair.

In between, Levine served as a sensitive partner for Evgeny Kissin in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4. The poetic firebrand, impetuous yet introspective, received, and deserved, a standing ovation of his own. He responded with a lengthy encore, raging through the riotous Beethoven rondo best known as "Rage Over a Lost Penny."

This wasn’t just a concert. It was a celebration.

Liszt Society Festival at the Conservatory

May 21, 2013

The Ives Quartet is featured at the Liszt FestivalOne of the most prominent and distinguished self-promoters in the history of music will be well promoted next week when the American Liszt Society Festival is held at the S.F. Conservatory, May 30 through June 1.

The three-day event of concerts, recitals, and lectures will celebrate the man whose Lisztomania, along with Paganini, created the prototype of a rock star. The Wagner and Verdi bicentennials will be marked in the context of Liszt's career and friendships, along with the 150th birthday of composer and conductor Felix Weingartner.

This year's festival is called "Franz Liszt: Anniversaries and Connections," highlighting Liszt's role as benefactor, friend, and kindred spirit to many fellow composers, some legendary. William Wellborn, director of the festival and a Conservatory faculty member, says: "Liszt encountered nearly all of the important musicians of his day and lent his own particular brand of generosity and support to many of them."

The Wagner Society of Northern California is co-host of the festival.

LA International Liszt Competition winner Asana Onishi will perform at the closing concert Tickets for individual concerts are $10, registration for the entire festival is $125. The opening event at 9:45 a.m. May 30, features music by Charles-Valentin Alkan (1813-1888), In the Shadow of Liszt, with Wellborn and Gwendolyn Mok among performers. Among the lectures and recitals that day is an 6 p.m. concert of Liszt transcriptions of Wagner operas.

On Friday, a lecture and a recital (by Stephan Möller) focus on the Wagner-Mathilde Wesendock connection. In the afternoon, the Ives String Quartet performs the Verdi String Quartet in E Minor, followed by Liszt transcriptions of Verdi operas. An exception to the Conservatory venue, Friday evening at 8, Old First Concerts will host a recital by Antonio Pompa-Baldi.

A lecture-recital at noon on Saturday features a sesquicentennial salute to Felix Weingartner. More Wagner transcriptions follow in the afternoon, with performers from various universities. In the evening, winners of the 2012 Los Angeles International Liszt Competition — including Christopher Son Richardson, Asana Onishi, Jason Kim, Sofija Nedic, Nandani Maria Sinha, Judith Neslény, and Alex Chien — give the concert concluding the festival.