Listening to the Ballet, Watching the Music in Motion

Janos Gereben on January 2, 2019
SFB Music Director Martin West leads the Ballet Orchestra | Credit: Erik Tomasson

Ballet’s physical layout with “dancers above, musicians below” often contributes to balletomanes’ disregard for the music, something unfortunately matched with the neglect of dance by many symphony patrons.

SFB Orchestra Librarian Matthew Naughtin keeps the mighty engine of music humming

In an effort to bring the two sides together, here’s San Francisco Ballet’s 2019 season through the prism of the music on which the choreography is set — with thanks to S.F. Ballet Orchestra Librarian (and composer, author, violinist, and program annotator) Matthew Naughtin for revisions..

Programming the season is the work of S.F. Ballet Artistic Director Helgi Tomasson, who also has a hand in shaping musical content, along with S.F. Ballet Music Director Martin West, and whatever is preordained in great classical pieces.

Tomasson is looking forward to many works in the season — especially new ones — and to Sleeping Beauty, which he calls “a great testament to what this company is capable of; much of its choreography may look easy, but in fact demands a high level of technical dexterity that only the greatest companies can provide.”

The season opens on Jan. 25, with another full-length classic, which happens to be also a veritable panoply of “ballet-music composers”: the Helgi Tomasson-Yuri Possokhov-choreographed Don Quixote was composed by Ludwig Minkus, but the San Francisco production adds music by Delibes, Drigo, Glière, Pugni, Napravnik, Solov’yev-Sedoy, and others.

SFB Orchestra horns Bill Klingelhoffer, Brian McCarty, Keith Green, and Kevin Rivard | Credit: Natalie Parker

Program 2, Feb. 12–23, on the other hand, is an all-classical music affair, George Balanchine’s Divertimento No. 15 set on the Mozart Divertimento in B-flat Major; Benjamin Millepied’s Appassionata on Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, and David Dawson’s Anima Animus on Ezio Bosso’s Violin Concerto No. 1 (“Esoconcerto”).

Shinji Eshima and Lorena Fejoo show what happens when a musician is allowed out of the orchestra pit

Contemporary music dominates most of Program 3, with Helgi Tomasson’s The Fifth Season set on music by Karl Jenkins; Cathy Marston’s Snowblind moving to works by Amy Beach, Philip Feeny, Arthur Foote, and Arvo Pärt; and Harald Lander’s Etudes set on music arranged and orchestrated by Knudåge Riisager.

Program 4, The Sleeping Beauty, March 9–17, is set on the classic Tchaikovsky, of course. His Opus 66 premiered in 1890 at the Mariinsky Theater. It’s his longest ballet score, nearly three hours of music, only part of which is used in recent times.

Program 5, March 27 – April 7, is a musically and choreographically mixed repertory program of recently created works: Trey McIntyre’s Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem, set on songs from Chris Garneau’s album El Radio; Christopher Wheeldon’s Bound To, with selections from Keaton Henson’s album Romantic Material; and the world premiere of Yuri Possokhov’s Narcissum, to music by Handel, arranged by Daria Novo (who is contributing additional original music).

From Copland’s music for Justin Peck’s Rodeo, Program 6, March 29 – April 9, goes far and wide. Liam Scarlett uses Rachmaninoff’s The Isle of the Dead for a yet-untitled ballet and Arthur Pita’s Björk Ballet is choreographed to songs by Björk Gudmundsdottr

SFB Orchestra clarinetists Andrew Sandwick, Ginger Kroft, and Natalie Parker

John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid returns as Program 7, April 19–28, set on music by Lera Auerbach. The rich, complex score includes use of a theremin and SFB Orchestra bassist Steven D’Amico is not alone in his anticipation: “I am really excited to have the return of one of the great theremin performers in the world, Carolina Eyck.”

The season in San Francisco closes with Program 8, May 7–12. Alexei Ratmansky’s acclaimed Shostakovich Trilogy is set to the composer’s Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major, Op.70; String Quartet No. 8 (orchestrated by Rudolf Barshai as Chamber Symphony); and Piano Concerto No. 1.

The company then leaves on a tour to London and a series of performances in Saddler’s Wells, May 29 – June 8, beginning with the Shostakovich Trilogy. Program B will have Edward Liang’s The Infinite Ocean, Marston’s Snowblind, and Pita’s Björk Ballet.

Program C: Stanton Welch’s Bespoke, Scarlett’s Hummingbird, and Justin Peck’s Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming. Program D offers McIntyre’s Your Flesh Shall Be a Great Poem, Wheeldon’s Bound To, and Dawson’s Anima Animus.

Among low strings: bassists Steve D’Amico and Shinji Eshima; former principal cellist David Kadarauch, bassist Jon Lancelle, current principal cellist Eric Sung, cellist Nora Pirquet