Offstage
SAN FRANCISCO PERFORMANCES’ BLOG

5 Great People | 1 Good Question:
Cyrus Musiker

Cyrus Musiker Cyrus Musiker

Cyrus Musiker is a former editor, news anchor and reporter at KQED Public Radio, and the co-founder and co-host of KQED’s The Do List, covering Bay Area arts. After 34 years in public radio, he and his wife moved to Grass Valley in the Sierra Foothills, where he’s developing his hayseed skills, gardening with native plants, clearing defensible space, and making a happy home for Solomon the burro and Rocco the mustang, a few cats and a dog.

So what’s our One Good Question to ask Cyrus?

After picking thousands and thousands of interesting events for Bay Area listeners to attend, what is one of the most memorable art events you have ever personally attended and why did it affect you?

So many shows have stayed with me over the years, because of how they stripped away the pettiness and pretense of daily life, to find some ideal of truth and beauty to guide us.

Berkeley Repertory Theater’s recent revival (2018) of Angels in America wielded brilliant language in a sweeping epic of American history, paired with an intimate human sized drama full of pain and joy. I treasure tenor Nicholas Phan’s Rex Hotel salon recital from 2017, a San Francisco Performances show in which Phan sang with lyrical precision and talked with witty insight about the songs from his new album Gods and Monsters. And I still get chills thinking about Soprano Julia Bullock singing Leonard Bernstein’s Somewhere, as part of San Francisco Symphony’s semi-staged West Side Story in 2013.

But there’s one performance that stays with me most vividly, an appearance by the Ike and Tina Turner Revue at the Newport Folk Festival in 1968 (at least I think that was the year). They followed a ferociously uninhibited set by the late blues singer Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company, which I thought would be the evening’s highlight. But Tina Turner blew Joplin away. Ike’s tight soul band could build a song to a climax, and then take it still higher. And Tina Turner was the sexy, blazing star at the center, with her Ikettes mirroring her every high-heeled dance step and emotion. She sang Loving You Too Long, and did hilarious obscene things to the microphone, and then they played Aretha Franklin’s Respect, during which Tina talked about her impatience with Ike’s catting around, a regular part of their act. But there was always a tension to how she delivered her sermon, raw edge that previewed their later breakup over Ike’s abusive behavior.

“I’m gonna take a second because I want to talk about respect.” Tina spoke/sang. “I think it’s what most of us want. But you know we don’t always get what we want—especially us women.”

That performance has stayed with me because of the way it previewed Ike and Tina’s breakup, and her rise to stardom. But Tina also demanded we in the audience think about the meaning of each song, and I’m still thinking about it more than 50 years later.

Perspective from the Middle Ages

Brooklyn Bridge

According to the BBC, the life expectancy of a person born in the late 13th century was about 45, if they survived childhood and child bearing. During a brief visit to New York City last month, I was delighted to be surrounded by any number of people over the age of 45. From streets and subways to restaurants, museums and theaters, it was great to see people of all ages living, working and sharing experiences together.

You may be thinking, “Just take a look around at the next concert and you’ll see plenty of gray heads.” That’s true, and that’s why I was in New York to attend a gathering of Wallace Foundation grantees from performing arts organizations across the United States. Wallace had generously funded a four-year initiative called Building Audiences for Sustainability in which each grantee created a project they hoped would attract new, younger audiences. But not a single grantee, (including SF Performances) could tell a complete success story about the project. Did younger people attend these new and different programs? Yes. Did those same newcomers return for more “regular” programming? They did not. Apparently, there’s no alchemy for getting young people to performances. So what about sharing some inter-generational experiences?

Brentano String Quartet and Dawn Upshaw Brentano String Quartet and Dawn Upshaw

SF Performances has long followed an inter-generational approach to programming, bringing artists who are new discoveries as well as those who are more established and mature. Earlier this season we presented the exciting young Calidore Quartet for a second time, and on December 4 the renowned Brentano String Quartet performs for the sixth time on our series. The quartet will share the stage with the great soprano Dawn Upshaw, marking her ninth appearance with SFP since her debut in 1990. Here’s a video of Upshaw singing at the Kilkenny Arts Festival.

Jamie Barton Jamie Barton

A week later on December 11, rising star mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton returns for the second time, with a program featuring many women composers, including Nadia Boulanger. It’s interesting to note that Boulanger, celebrated composer, conductor and teacher (pupils included Aaron Copland, Quincy Jones and Philip Glass) became the first woman to conduct the Boston Symphony at the age of 51.

Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Jay Campbell Patricia Kopatchinskaja and Jay Campbell

In early November we presented the San Francisco recital debut of young violinist Bomsori Kim, and on January 26 we’ll welcome back Patricia Kopatchinskaja for more fiddle fireworks in a duo performance with cellist Jay Campbell. That concert will cover more than 1,000 years of music, with some interesting representation from the middle ages. Here’s a video of Kopatchinskaja playing folk music with her parents.

Lincoln Center Lincoln Center

During my recent trip to New York I got to see a few works of art, often created by artists in their later years. One was a Lincoln Center performance by the Paul Taylor Dance Company in a piece choreographed by Margie Gillis and set to movements of Bach’s Art of the Fugue, written in the last decade of his life.

Mark Rothko, No. 10 (1950) and The Metropolitan Museum Mark Rothko, No. 10 (1950) and The Metropolitan Museum

I also checked out the recently reopened Museum of Modern Art, and made a pilgrimage to some of Mark Rothko’s paintings in the signature style he developed in his late 40s. On my last day in NYC I sprinted up to the Metropolitan Museum with just enough time for a small exhibition of Dutch masters, including one of Rembrandt’s final self-portraits that spoke eloquently about age and experience.

Now I’m back and we’re entering that time of year when many of us will celebrate with generations of family and friends. If you love attending live performances, please consider giving that gift to someone who may be new to the concert hall.

Arts education has been absent from many schools for decades, and popular culture doesn’t put much value on classical music or other traditional arts. It’s up to all of us to introduce subsequent generations to these experiences. So rather than apologizing for our middle age, or even our golden age, let’s be the change we want to see in the audience by bringing younger people to concerts!

Wishing you peace and joy with friends and family of all ages this season,

Melanie Smith Signature

Melanie Smith
President, San Francisco Performances

Pat Metheny, LAGQ, and Road to the Sun

Los Angeles Guitar Quartet Los Angeles Guitar Quartet
Pat Metheny Pat Metheny

For their upcoming program, the Grammy-winning Los Angeles Guitar Quartet sets its sights on American Guitar Masterworks. It would be incomplete without a work by leading guitarist Pat Metheny, and not only is one of his works on the program, he composed it just for LAGQ.

Here’s what Metheny says about how Road to the Sun came forth:

“A few years back, I was flattered to have one of my compositions included in the LAGQ’s Grammy winning CD Guitar Heroes. The idea of writing a large-scale guitar quartet inspired by the talents of the LAGQ has been simmering somewhere in the back of my mind ever since. The thought of addressing the instrument in a more formal way under the auspices of what this quartet has come to embody was something I really wanted to do; it was just a matter of finding the time.

“After a particularly active touring schedule, I finally saw a window opening up in late 2015. With the approval of the guys and a few really useful tips from all of them, I jumped in, hoping to write a concert piece of 7 to 9 minutes.

“Two weeks later, I found myself with a nearly 25-minute, 6-movement treatise on the potentials of a multi-guitar format, blazingly inspired by the thought of hearing these four incredible guitarists play these notes. The piece just literally poured out. In particular, I decided to really embrace the instrument and ‘get under the hood’ of a bunch of things that I do with the guitar that are somewhat identified with my particular style. As much as those components provided an aspirational environment to work from, I was also reaching for the narrative element of storytelling that is always the imperative and primary function for me as a musician.

“With the piece now complete, it feels like an emotional journey to me, almost a road trip in scale and scope. Somehow, through the challenge of writing for this unique platform and aiming it towards the hands of these especially talented players, I was able to get to a very personal area of what music itself is to me.

“As I was writing, my mind would sometimes flash to the stunning views of the trip up to Glacier National Park on the famous ‘Going-to-the-Sun Road,’ right after hearing LAGQ play live for the first time at a festival in Montana. I am very excited to hear what William, Scott, John and Matt will do on their journey with this work.”

5 Great People | 1 Good Question:
Composer & Pianist, Jake Heggie

Jake Heggie Jake Heggie

Jake Heggie is the composer of the operas Dead Man Walking, Moby-Dick, It’s A Wonderful Life, If I Were You, Great Scott, Three Decembers and Two Remain, among others. “Arguably the world’s most popular 21st-century opera and art song composer” (The Wall Street Journal), he has also composed nearly 300 songs, as well as chamber, choral and orchestral works.

The Metropolitan Opera recently announced it will produce Dead Man Walking during its 2020-21 season in a new production by director Ivo van Hove, conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Great Scott was a 2019 Grammy Award nominee for Best New Classical Composition.

Heggie was awarded the Eddie Medora King prize from the UT Austin Butler School of Music and the Champion Award from the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. A Guggenheim Fellow, the composer has served as a mentor for Washington National Opera’s American Opera Initiative as well as Chicago Opera Theater and CU Boulder. Jake Heggie lives in San Francisco with his husband, Curt Branom.

SF Performances has been fortunate to work with Jake, most recently when we presented his Camille Claudel: Into the Fire in 2012.

So what’s our One Good Question to ask Jake?

Like many artists, you work on projects around the world. Is there anything about San Francisco that uniquely helps you create your art or inspires you? And was your Camille Claudel: Into the Fire which we presented March 3, 2012 with Joyce DiDonato and the Alexander String Quartet, created here in SF?

I’m lucky enough to have operas and songs of mine performed all over the globe, but I compose everything here in San Francisco. I’ve tried composing on the road, but it never works. I need to be home in my own environment with my family and friends, my piano and things around. I find San Francisco an incredibly inspiring place to live and work: for its beauty, peace, proximity to water, the air, the light, the hills. Plus, there’s a level of anonymity—being “off the radar”—here that helps me enormously. I’m essentially a very private person. In my studio, I don’t have to think about what’s new or different around me or nearby: I’m entirely focused on what’s happening in my head and heart so that I can get it onto the page. The time creating Camille Claudel: Into the Fire was very rich. I was composing it exactly eight years ago, in the fall of 2011, and knew it was going to be performed by my great friend Joyce DiDonato with the extraordinary Alexander String Quartet. I had wanted to write something about Claudel’s life and work since 1989, when I first learned about her through the movie starring Isabelle Adjani and Gérard Depardieu. Having great artists like Joyce and the Alexanders to write for is an immense gift—and that was all made possible by Ruth Felt and SF Performances. The piece has been recorded twice and performed all over the world. Students have written papers about it, and it has given Claudel a voice and presence with an even wider audience. That is enormously gratifying.

Learn more about Jake Heggie at: jakeheggie.com

“Combining Strength with Grace”: Debussy’s L’isle Joyeuse

Claude Debussy Claude Debussy
Richard Goode Richard Goode

Our anniversary season is full of memorable and significant pieces of music, and we kicked it all off with some of the most famously difficult piano works. In our opening concert, Natasha Paremski performed Ravel’s Gaspard de la Nuit, which was written with some intent to be harder than Balakirev’s Islamey, another work she tackled that evening.

We now find another notoriously complex work on a program. Richard Goode performs Debussy’s L’isle joyeuse in our gala concert. “This piece seems to embrace every possible manner of treating the piano, combining as it does strength with grace, if I may presume to say so.”

Here’s the story by Eric Bromberger in our program notes:

L’isle joyeuse dates from 1904, a year that brought the best and worst of times for Debussy. He had finally achieved success with his opera Pelléas and Mélisande, and now he was hard at work on La Mer. That year he also abandoned his wife for Emma Bardac, a singer and the estranged wife of a wealthy banker, and his despairing wife shot herself. This unhappy incident, and Debussy’s failure to pay any of her medical bills, cost him a number of friendships.

Debussy had left his wife in June 1904, and he spent that summer with Emma on the Isle of Jersey off the Normandy coast. It was here that he composed L’isle joyeuse. Debussy drew his inspiration from an 18th century painting, L’Embarquement pour Cythère by Antoine Watteau. Watteau’s painting depicts the moment of departure of a group of revelers for the island of Aphrodite, goddess of erotic love, and Debussy sets out to capture the sensual expectancy of that scene.

L’isle joyeuse opens with a brief passage marked Quasi una cadenza, built largely on anticipatory trills. The main theme quickly appears, so full of triplets and dancing dotted rhythms that it seems to spill over with an almost arabesque elegance. The music, in rondo form, is fast and festive, and Debussy soon moves to a gently-rocking 3/8 meter, perhaps intended to suggest the motion of the boat (he marks this section “undulating and expressive”).

Gradually the tempo accelerates, the music becomes more animated, and L’isle joyeuse rushes to a sonorous close. Debussy was proud of L’isle joyeuse and wrote to his publisher: “This piece seems to embrace every possible manner of treating the piano, combining as it does strength with grace, if I may presume to say so.” Later he offered an even more succinct evaluation of this music: “Lord, but it’s difficult to play!”

How the Alexander String Quartet and Robert Greenberg Saturday Series Developed “a Lovely Life of Its Own”

Alexander String Quartet with Robert Greenberg Alexander String Quartet with Robert Greenberg

For 25 years, thousands of audience members have savored Saturday morning musical conversations with Ensemble-in-Residence, the Alexander String Quartet (ASQ) and Music Historian-in-Residence Robert Greenberg. But this fascinating series may never have happened if not for an unprecedented partnership.

“It began in the late 80’s,” says Founder and President Emeritus Ruth Felt. “Jane Galante, a Trustee of the Morrison Music Center at SF State, talked with me about her goal of having a resident string quartet. I also thought a resident quartet would be great for SF Performances and could establish the beginning of an arts education program.”

A joint national search soon identified the Alexander String Quartet, a young and internationally acclaimed ensemble. This unusual alliance—between a public university and a private non-profit presenter—made it possible for both to have a resident string quartet.

In its first season, 1989–90, the New York-based Quartet was in San Francisco for eight weeks. The ASQ’s openness to working in high schools, and to designing a curriculum combining music with other subjects, helped to fulfill a need in the SFUSD’s deeply ravaged music education program. The first year was highly successful and the residency was expanded to additional schools in need. Following that, the ASQ relocated to San Francisco in order to dedicate most of their non-touring time to the residency. Adult music education soon followed.

Inspired by a popular series in Paris, Felt proposed a weekend morning series. The ASQ invited musicologist/composer Robert Greenberg to create lectures about the socio-political context of Beethoven’s works. The series grew quickly and in 2003 it moved to the larger Herbst Theatre from the Cowell Theater at Fort Mason. In addition to Beethoven, over the years the series has explored the work of Haydn, Bartók and Shostakovich, among many others.

The success of the series has always been due to its uniqueness. The non-traditional performance time, the in-depth exploration of the lives and historical context of great composers, and the on- and off-stage chemistry between the quartet and Bob Greenberg have made it a one-of-a-kind experience for audiences. According to Greenberg, “The series has taken on a lovely life of its own. We have a loyal following, we can do almost any music and they’ll come, whether it’s Mozart or 20th century repertoire.”

This year, the Alexander String Quartet and Robert Greenberg present a seven-concert series on Beethoven’s string quartets. The series runs through May, 2020.

5 Great People | 1 Good Question:
Dianne Nicolini, KDFC DJ

Dianne Nicolini Dianne Nicolini

Welcome to our 40th Anniversary season blog where over the course of the season we will be asking five close friends of SFP, one good question each. Enjoy their responses!

KDFC’s midday DJ Dianne Nicolini is a native and current resident of Oakland and earned her degree in Dramatic Art at UC Berkeley. She got her start in radio at Classical KXTR in Kansas City. Returning to the Bay Area in 1983, she began announcing for Classical KKHI. She became the midday host on KDFC in 1995, and still looks forward to going into the studio every day. For ten years, she was the host of the SF Symphony broadcasts worldwide and from 2009 through 2017, was the host of the SF Opera’s internationally-syndicated broadcasts. She was inducted into the Bay Area Radio Hall of Fame in September of 2016. In 2005, then-Mayor Gavin Newsom declared December 15th Dianne Nicolini Day in San Francisco. (“That and $10 will get you an Irish Coffee at the Buena Vista!” says Nicolini.)

So what’s our One Good Question to ask Dianne?

You have no doubt heard many inspiring stories from your listeners about the role classical music plays in their daily lives. What is your favorite story?

Wow. It’s tough to zero in on just one story. In fact, we’re presenting our KDFC Love at First Listen Week right now, in which we ask the listeners to tell us how, where, when they got hooked on classical music. As you can imagine, the great stories just keep pouring in.

In terms of music’s role in their daily lives, our listeners most frequently describe listening to us while driving to and from school, soccer practice, etc. with their kids and how the classical music keeps everybody in the car calm and happy. Plus, it might even teach them a little something along the way!

The most memorable and moving stories for me are about how the music can be a balm in difficult times. Listeners have described going through illnesses or the loss of a loved one, and how the music had a healing effect on them. Whether they were recovering from a broken leg or a broken heart, something beautiful from Beethoven, Mozart, Debussy, or Philip Glass can be the perfect prescription.

Recently, I met a special needs teacher who said she listened to us every day in her Hayward classroom. Her gratitude for the music and the positive atmosphere it fosters in her daily life is one of the many reasons I love my job!

Music, Poetry, Philosophy, History:
The Art of Song

Jamie Barton Jamie Barton

There is perhaps no other genre that creates as unique a bond between performer and audience as the vocal recital. Rooted in an intimate exchange of music, poetry, philosophy and history, this sublime and centuries-old art form engages today’s audiences with a vast repertoire from classics to groundbreaking new compositions.

San Francisco Performances has been a champion of the vocal recital for four decades, and the genre is emblematic of our unique approach to creating sustained opportunities for connections between artists and audiences. The legendary Swedish soprano Elisabeth Söderström inaugurated our vocal series on March 10, 1981. The next season, iconic American mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade made the first of many appearances with SF Performances and returned eight times over the years for recitals both on the main stage and the Family Matinee program.

Mark Padmore Mark Padmore

Von Stade’s frequent returns underscore another important aspect of our programming: presenting important established and emerging artists and giving our audiences opportunities to follow their career arc over many seasons. Since those early days, distinguished vocalists who have found a welcoming home with SF Performances include Håkan Hagegård, Elly Ameling, Hermann Prey, Dawn Upshaw, Barbara Bonney, Thomas Hampson, Matthias Goerne, Christopher Maltman, Ian Bostridge, Mark Padmore, and Christian Gerhaher. Beginning in 2001, our Vocal Artists-in-Residence Christòpheren Nomura, Jessica Rivera, Nicholas Phan and Dashon Burton have further enhanced audiences’ experience of art song through illuminating and entertaining education initiatives.

Dawn Upshaw Dawn Upshaw

Along the way, vocal artists have demonstrated that the recital is not cemented in the past. While the vast classical repertoire is not vanishing from programming, today’s recitalist is helping audiences to discover new compositions as well as new approaches to the classics. In December, Dawn Upshaw joins the Brentano String Quartet performing rarely heard works by Ottorino Respighi and Arnold Schoenberg for string quartet and soprano. Jamie Barton has curated a program celebrating 20th-century women composers and also celebrating her queer identity with a set of songs by men that she presents as a bisexual woman.

Benjamin Appl Benjamin Appl

On the classical side, Christian Gerhaher returns with his longtime recital partner Gerold Huber offering an all-Mahler program, once again mesmerizing audiences since his first appearance in 2014. Mark Padmore and Marc-André Hamelin make an eagerly awaited return in April with what is sure to be a passionate reading of Schubert’s Winterreise. And of course, no season would be complete without at least one vocal debut—this May we welcome Benjamin Appl, described as “the current front-runner in the new generation of Lieder singers” (Gramophone Magazine, UK).

Retrospective/Perspective: An Anniversary Season Opens With a Display of Musical Fireworks

Natasha Paremski and Alfredo Rodríguez Natasha Paremski and Alfredo Rodríguez

Our 40th anniversary season opens in a performance by Natasha Paremski and Alfredo Rodríguez layered with meaning. Continuing with our theme of “Perspective/Retrospective,” the program brings well-known works from the canon (Prokofiev’s Visions fuigitives, Ravel’s Gaspard de la nuit, and Balakirev’s Islamey) to an interpretation by young artists—one who will perform the works in the style in which they were written and one who will offer a modern jazz interpretation.

The excitement is palpable from this creative interplay of old and new, young artists with classical works, traditional playing and a contemporary reading. Indeed, it reflects our legacy, our promise to our audience, and, not to be too commercial about it, our brand.

The interplay between a traditional performance of these works followed by a jazz improvisation is made even more intriguing by the fact that these works are some of the most difficult to perform. These are demanding, difficult pieces, known for the level of mastery required to play them. For both artists, the program is a technical challenge and a test of stamina. Yet, these are works that allow the artists’ gifts to shine.

Milij Aleksejevič Balakirev Milij Aleksejevič Balakirev composed Islamey with the intent of turning it into a symphony

The program notes make no bones about the complexity of the works:

Islamey has become famous not just for its exotic color and excitement but also because it is so difficult for the performer. The music sends the pianist flying across the complete range of the keyboard, employs gigantic chordal melodies that require huge hands, and goes at a dizzying speed…Balakirev was a first-rate pianist, but even its creator found Islamey too difficult to perform.”

As you re-enter the worlds of work, school, or even the changed light and air that autumn brings, I hope you will join us at a concert.

And Ravel deliberately set out to raise the bar:

“It should be noted that Gaspard de la nuit is music of stupefying difficulty for the performer, and this was by design: Ravel consciously set out to write a work that he said would be more difficult than Balakirev’s Islamey…Ravel’s effort to write blisteringly difficult music for the pianist succeeded brilliantly. From the complex (and finger-twisting) chords of Ondine through the dense textures of Le gibet (written on three staves) and the consecutive seconds of Scarbo, Gaspard de la nuit presents hurdles that make simply getting the notes almost impossible.”

The display of musical fireworks in this program and by these artists marks a truly celebratory opening for a season full of “Retrospective/Perspective.”

À la rentrée

September at the Lake

It’s that time of year. In England it’s known as blackberry season. Here it’s back to school. But I like the French expression, “à la rentrée,” which means a return from summer holidays to ordinary activities. It can also mean a fresh beginning, and for us, that’s a new season of performances.

The Boat On Its Final Summer Voyage and the last of the summer peaches The boat on its final summer voyage and the last of the summer peaches

While we’re now getting into the loveliest Bay Area weather of the year, the signs of fall are everywhere. The grape harvest has begun, we’ve taken a final boat ride across the lake, and I’ve picked the last peaches of summer. I also just got back from the annual Western Arts Alliance (WAA) conference, where a highlight this year was meeting Michael Novak, the new Artistic Director of the Paul Taylor Dance Company.

We’re excited about the return of the Taylor company in February. These performances will be part of a legacy tour, honoring the late Paul Taylor, but they will also celebrate a new era. Novak is a next generation artistic leader who brings a fresh perspective, as both a former Taylor dancer and as a scholar of modern dance. He has a bold creative vision for the future. SF Performances’ 40th anniversary season is the perfect time to welcome him, and the company, as we too look forward and backward. Here’s a video of Michael Novak talking about his new role.

And speaking of next generation artists, we have a few coming up this fall, as we present the debut of the Z.E.N. Trio on October 18. These three musicians, who also perform as soloists, are quickly becoming known for their brilliant and imaginative concerts. Here’s a fun video of them playing Brahms. The young Calidore Quartet will also return on October 21. We first introduced them last season, in collaboration with pianist Inon Barnatan. This time they’re on their own, performing works by Haydn, Caroline Shaw and Beethoven. They’ve been taking the chamber music world by storm, and here they are performing one of Caroline Shaw’s pieces in a Tiny Desk concert.

Late summer on Clear Lake Late summer on Clear Lake

Back to desks and school also means a return to our artist residencies. Since 1989, our resident artists have worked directly with students and teachers in public schools around the Bay Area, providing much needed arts education and helping to build new audiences. The scope of these residencies reflects SF Performances’ commitment to making the arts an essential part of everyone’s life. This fall we begin two new four-year residencies, with jazz pianist Alfredo Rodríguez, who performs a program with Natasha Paremski on September 27, and with guitarist Jason Vieaux. Jason’s residency follows in the footsteps of our first Guitarist-in-Residence, the great Manuel Barrueco, who worked with us in that capacity from 1997–2001. Manuel returns for a concert on October 13, as does Jason on October 26. Here’s a video of Jason playing a work by Tarrega.

As you re-enter the worlds of work, school, or even the changed light and air that autumn brings, I hope you will join us at a concert.

 

Welcome back to the performance season!

Melanie Smith Signature

Melanie Smith
President, San Francisco Performances

The Three Graces of San Fruttuoso

The Three Graces

What sparks joy? I’m asking that often these days. Just back from a few weeks of travel, it’s time to settle in for the rest of the foggy summer. But I’m still savoring and learning from my travel experiences. I had the opportunity to revisit favorite works of Renaissance art in Florence, and to discover others in Siena. But the ancient Classical world is still very much on my mind.

Ruins at Ostia Antica Ruins at Ostia Antica

I ended my trip at the astonishing site of Ostia Antica, the ruins of a 3,000 year old seaport town about 15 miles from Rome. Among the treasures encountered there was a beautiful statue of the Three Graces—Euphrosyne (Joyfulness and Mirth), Algaea (Splendor) and Thalia (Beauty).

I had already run into them (by Botticelli) at the Ufizzi gallery in Florence, and I had also spotted them in some extraordinary frescoes, still relevantly titled Allegory of Good and Bad Government, by Ambrogio Lorenzetti in Siena’s town hall. The Graces of Ostia Antica were the most antique, but perhaps the most memorable for me were the contemporary “graces” I found outside the abbey of San Fruttuoso on the Ligurian coast.

Scene from Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government Scene from Lorenzetti’s Allegory of Good and Bad Government

You can only visit San Fruttuoso by boat, or by taking a rugged hike over the Portofino promontory. We opted for the boat, being careful to make the last ferry of the day. Otherwise, you’re stuck for the night. (Maybe not such a bad fate?) Founded by the Order of Saint Benedict, most of the abbey dates from the 11th century. There’s not much else, other than a 16th century tower, a café and restaurant, a shingle beach, and fishing boats. And it’s magical. It was there on a tiny pebbled beach that I met the graces I will never forget—three Italian women “of a certain age,” who bobbed and danced in the water like something out of an oracular vision. Completely unselfconscious and uninhibited, they laughed with abandon, celebrating their perfect moment of friendship, sun, sea and sky. They embodied an ageless joy and grace, and they inspired it in me and others around them.

San Fruttuoso San Fruttuoso

We need more of that joy now.

This fall at San Francisco Performances, we have a lot to celebrate. In October, Richard Goode will perform at our 40th anniversary gala concert. He’ll play Debussy’s L’Isle Joyeuse, and I’ll likely be remembering the joys of San Fruttuoso that night. L’isle Joyeuse was inspired by Watteau’s painting L’Embarquement de Cythère, in which a group of revelers travel to the Greek island Cythera, one of the mythological birthplaces of Venus/Aphrodite (mother of the Graces). Pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin returns next April for another celebratory concert. While he’ll play a different program then, here’s a video of him playing L’Isle Joyeuse.

Homer’s Lotus Eaters inhabited another joyous isle, where their diet induced a state of blissful lethargy. However, calling some a “lotus eater” today isn’t necessarily a good thing, so I’ll stay with Tennyson’s description of that island, in his poem of the same title, “There is sweet music here that softer falls/Than petals from blown roses on the grass.” Composer and guitarist Andrew York, a founding member of the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, wrote a piece for the group also called The Lotus Eaters. It’s lighthearted and playful. Here’s a video of the LAGQ, performing the piece with Andrew.

The LAGQ will be back in November, with another fun program of American music, from Aaron Copland to Frank Zappa. I hope you’ll join us that evening, and for many more delightful concerts coming up this fall!

 

Wishing you much joy this summer,

Melanie Smith Signature

Melanie Smith
President, San Francisco Performances