Sunday, February 18, 2024

British Icons at the SF Ballet

Everything was beautiful at the San Francisco Ballet last week when they presented their second program of the season, British Icons.
They were presenting two ballets from the early 1960s by a pair of British choreographers, Sir Kenneth MacMillan and Sir Frederick Ashton, whose work has been more known through reputation than actually seen in San Francisco. The gentleman above was attending the show for the second night in a row because he was so enamored of the hour-long Mahler song cycle, Das Lied von der Erde, which forms the score for MacMillan's Song of the Earth.
The woman above had seen the ballet 40 years ago performed by the Royal Ballet and had flown to San Francisco from Southern California just to revisit it.
The song cycle is one of Mahler's last works, with a tenor and an alto singing alternate movements depicting drunken revelry and pastoral joys before leaving the world through death in the long, final Abschied movement . The texts were loosely based on Chinese poetry translated by German writers, with the music and the choreography occasionally gesturing toward the Eastern pentatonic scale. The hour-long score is almost unrelievedly dark, and Mahler supposedly confessed to conductor Bruno Walter, when hesitating about putting the piece before the public, "Won't people go home and shoot themselves?" (All production photos are by Lindsey Rallo.)
Although most of the ballet was abstract, there was a slender narrative involving a male protagonist being gently stalked by Death and taken away from his female counterpart. (Pictured above are Isaac Hernández, Wei Wang, and Wona Park from opening night. We saw the final performance where Joseph Walsh and Esteban Hernández assumed the two male leads.)
The dancing and the choreography were consistently fascinating but the real thrill for me was hearing the music played so well by the SF Ballet Orchestra under conductor Martin West, and the two wonderful young singers, Gabrielle Beteag and Moisés Salazar, whose voices easily soared over the huge orchestra. Beteag (above) in particular was extraordinary, filling the huge opera house with creamy, impassioned sound.
The second ballet, Marguerite and Armand, was created by Ashton for the pairing of Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn at the Royal Ballet, and from this short YouTube clip, it's easy to see why it was a sensation. Coming after Song of the Earth, however, this condensed version of the Camille story that's the basis of the opera La Traviata felt a bit silly and trivial. It probably should have opened the evening rather than ended it.
The music was fun, though, an orchestration of Franz Liszt's 1853 piano sonata in b-minor, played with verve by Britton Day (above).
The new Artistic Director of the company, Tamara Rojo, appeared onstage at the final curtain call, microphone in hand. We were wondering if she was going to say something about the recently revealed $60 million anonymous donation by a longtime patron of the ballet who was thrilled by the new energy and direction that Rojo is bringing to the company. Instead, she was there to announce the elevation of a Soloist to Principal Dancer, something I have never seen done onstage before.
The announcement seemed to come as a total surprise for Jasmine Jimison, who had just danced the role of Marguerite with partner Isaac Hernández as Armand. (Both are pictured above with conductor Martin West.) It was a lovely moment for the ballerina and the audience besides.

1 comment:

Lisa Hirsch said...

Britton Day, son of Tim Day and Robin McKee!