Tuesday, November 20, 2012

VIDEO: Jessica Valeri in Tokyo


The Orchestra's final stop on tour.  It has been 15 years since the SFS has visited Japan's capital city, its biggest and liveliest by far.  The scale and size of this city could be overwhelming for the first timer, but after spending a week in China, Tokyo seems almost quiet in comparison.  There is a serene side to this city, graceful gardens and quiet temples in contrast with the skyscraper jungle not far beyond, and life seems a bit more orderly and restrained in comparison to our previous stops.

In Tokyo, the Orchestra is very much looking forward to performing in Suntory Hall, considered by many the best sounding concert hall in Asia, and one of the top halls in the world.  Mahler 5 was on the program tonight, and MTT and members of the Orchestra were ready to give this work, their calling card on this tour, one final and memorable performance.

Beautiful Suntory Hall in Tokyo

The anticipatory crowd filters in

SFS Media products a hit in the lobby

After an absolutely brilliant concert in what was indeed for most the best sounding hall on tour,  the audience reaction to Mahler's Symphony No. 5 was something I haven’t seen before.  Not so much by the volume but by the fact that they just wouldn’t stop applauding. Standing ovation after standing ovation, bow after bow, MTT finally took concertmaster Alexander Barantschik off the stage to signal to the crowd to go home.  He and the strings walked offstage and house lights went up.  Normally that does the trick.  But not tonight.  While MTT was beginning his meet and greet backstage and the congratulations flowing, we all noticed that the applause was not dying down.  Most of the orchestra, aside from a few brass and winds, was off the stage long gone.  But the crowd kept applauding. As if willing the Orchestra and its Maestro back for more. They certainly did not want to go home.  After another few minutes, we realized that they were not going anywhere, MTT  finally went on for another bow, the stage now mostly empty.  He even gave the handful of brass still left a bow themselves.  The audience still did not stop.  As the final brass exited, they got their own ovation.  But the clapping went on.  Several musicians came back onstage, cases in hand to also recognize the crowd and Michael took a final solo bow.  Many musicians felt this was the most profound ovation they have received as musicians and were humbled by the reaction.   The Orchestra loved the hall and clearly the crowd loved them. 

Many fans, like this group traveling all the way from Hokkaido came backstage
to congratulate MTT and the Orchestra

MTT with SFS Violinist and Japan native Naomi Kazama Hull and her mom

After a memorable night at Suntory, the Orchestra gets a well deserved morning off to recoup for the final concert.   But for 12 hearty souls known affectionately as "the team of the Century" a morning off in Tokyo meant playing softball for global bragging rights, in a game agains the Tokyo Philharmonic.  Having beaten the NY Phil and Philadelphia Orchestra in similar games last season, the SFS takes on another Orchestra also celebrating a century of music making, its Japanese counterparts from the capital city.  Baseball is equally as popular here, and the Tokyo Giants, like its San Francisco counterparts, won the title this year.  Game on!  The team ventures out to beautiful Ueno Park amidst a perfect fall day for nine innings of fun on Masaoka Shiki Memorial Field, named after the great 19th century haiku poet and baseball fan.  For those keeping tabs at home, final score:  SF Symphony wins it 23-3.  

Team SFS cheered on by its No. 1 fan
A beautiful day for a game

SFS takes the lead for good in the top of the 2nd inning

Safe at home after an opposite field inside the park home run.

Softball without Borders

To the victor go the spoils.  Tokyo Phil team captain presents
a fine bottle of Sake to SFS captain Mark Inouye

Softball makes one hungry.  A quick bite and off to the hall
The Orchestra's final tour concert is that night, in Tokyo's Bunka Kaikan, adjacent to Ueno Park and site of the morning's festivities on the baseball diamond.  The all Rachmaninoff program ends the tour.
Yuja Wang rehearses for the final concert

Tokyo's Bunka Kaikan concert hall

A final bow

Tour Manager Joyce Wessling (R) with Emma Casey of Askonas Holt and
our Presenter in Japan, Shohei Abe

MTT greeted by Betty and Hiro Ogawa, sponsors of the Tokyo Concerts

The final note has been played.
SFS musicians/Softball team members toast to a successful tour

Sunday, November 18, 2012

VIDEO: Amos Yang Beijing Master Class


The San Francisco Symphony makes its long awaited debut in China’s historic capital, Beijing.  It is a city of extremes, from the picturesque Forbidden City, harking back to Ming Dynasty emperors, to the giant portrait of Chairman Mao portrait overlooking Tiananmen square and its own and more recent ominous history.  We arrive as the Communist Party Congress has just anointed a new leader,  Xi Jinping. Aside from much international media coverage about the new regime, the timing has meant very high security measures and spotty internet connections for the usually well-connected Orchestra, with much access to our usual media blocked, with severe restrictions on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and anything Google.  SFGate and NYTimes.com withdrawal for many.  Television and phone calls home that mention the transfer of power mysteriously cut out.

But one thing censors and filters cannot block or, at least should not block, is great music.  Chinese audiences and their enjoyment of western classical music is growing and a very visible example of this commitment is the very impressive National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, or as it is affectionately called, “the Egg.”  More on this incredible structure later.  In Beijing, members of the Orchestra also give master classes at the local Conservatory, Beijing's Central Conservatory.  This is an important part of the SF Symphony's touring plans, not just to perform in a city and leave, but where possible, engage with young musicians and students for a cultural exchange of ideas.

Assistant Principal Cello Amos Yang (left) with a student

SFS Principal Bassoon Stephen Paulson (right) in his Master class

MTT also works with the student orchestra and conducting students.

SFS Dir. of Artistic Planning John Mangum
at the Central Conservatory

After the morning of master classses, MTT and SFS musicians take part in the Asia Society's US-China Forum on the Arts and Culture, aimed at cultural exchange.  The concert included members of the SFS, Beijing Central Conservatory, tour soloist Yuja Wang, Chinese artists performing on traditional instruments such as the guqin and sheng, the SFS Jazz ensemble, and friend of the SFS, writer Amy Tan.

SFS percussion perform music by Steve Reich

Writer Amy Tan performs John Cage with members of the SFS

A little four hand piano with MTT and Yuja Wang

SFS Jazz Ensemble with the SFS' Scott Pingel on bass, Mark Inouye
on trumpet and Ray Froehlich on drums

And now, to the Egg.  The building is as impressive from the outside as the inside.  With its gleaming curved shell, its wide open lobbies and warm and welcoming interior, the NCPA is a stunning structure.

Arriving for the concert: SFS Board Member Ge Wang (left)
and Amy Tan with Lou DeMattei (center)

The wide open spaces of the NCPA lobby

The concert itself was a triumph, with the Beijing audiences wildly appreciative of the Orchestra's debut performance in the capital.   Anticipation for the concert had been building steadily, and the concert was sold out. In attendance were US Ambassador Gary Locke and his wife Mona, China Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Cui Tiankai, and San Francisco's First Lady, Anita Lee.   For tour soloist and Beijing native Yuja Wang, it was a homecoming, her parents in attendance at the NCPA. After the concert, SFS President John Goldman hosted a dinner for the Orchestra and dignitaries in attendance near the Forbidden City.

John Goldman, MTT and US Ambassador Gary Locke

L-R:  Ambassador Locke, Yuja Wang, Amy Tan, Mona Locke

SFS Musicians enjoying the reception

John Goldman with Yuja Wang

More SFS musicians after the Beijing debut
Yuja Wang with her parents, who live in Beijing

Jay Liu in SF Chronicle

SFS Associate Principal Violist Jay Liu is featured in today's SF Chronicle in a wonderful tour piece.

SF Symphony violist savors taste of home

 November 19, 2012

Taipei --
- Settling into an upholstered chair at a fancy restaurant in downtown Taipei, Jay Liu orders simple snacks: pan-fried pork buns, sliced chicken and savory fried bran dough.

As dishes arrive, Liu points to the sizzling, sesame-dotted buns, an upscale reinvention of Shanghai street food. His singular focus is impressive for a man who, in two hours' time, will be onstage leading the San Francisco Symphony's viola section through Prokofiev and Rachmaninoff, part of a tour running from Hong Kong to Taipei to Shanghai to Beijing and finally Tokyo. "These buns are special - you can't get them done properly in America, even San Francisco's Chinatown."

Shanghai's history is as tricky as its cuisine. For a native like Liu - raised in a Westernized family and trained at the European-style Shanghai Conservatory - "the city of my youth no longer exists in Shanghai. All the fast development, the big streets and shiny buildings are nothing like what I remember," though a few colonial buildings that became his high school survive.

But a visit to Taipei - inaccessible for decades on the other side of the Cold War's "Bamboo Curtain" - feels more like a homecoming. "When I got my American passport in 1997, the first thing I did was visit Taiwan." He gestures out the window, toward Taipei's distinctive alleyways and dingy, low-key architecture: "This reminds me more of home."

And it's not just the buildings: Facing Communist expropriation, much of Shanghai's financial elite decamped to Taipei in 1949 along with Chiang Kai-shek's defeated Nationalist Party. Their iconic culture came with them: stylish qipao dresses, warbling LPs, glamorous pinup calendars, cosmopolitan writers and musicians, cafe culture and the haute cuisine chefs who saw no future under communism.

To this day, the most authentic Shanghai food can be found in exile enclaves like Taipei. We are sitting in one such restaurant now. Founded by a refugee in 1949, it is decorated with photos of prewar Shanghai and stylishly antique accents.

"The flavors here are so much more subtle and authentic than most restaurants in Shanghai itself - the real traditional flavors," Liu explains, savoring a lightly sauced dish of leeks.

He would know. Liu's family decided to remain in Shanghai under the Communists (though one aunt joined the exodus to Taiwan). As members of the intelligentsia, they were prime targets in the Cultural Revolution, which broke out four years after Liu's birth in 1962. But music saved them.

"We were very, very lucky," he explains. "My father was a high school physics teacher and self-taught violinist. He would wake me up every morning with the Beethoven Violin Concerto. We had violins, a piano, scores at home" - just the sort of bourgeois items targeted by marauding Red Guards. "But we survived; our neighbors did not denounce us. They had all taken music lessons from my father."

Another stroke of luck landed Liu in the Shanghai Conservatory's Affiliated Middle School in 1978, when schools reopened after a full decade of Maoist upheaval. "I was fortunate - it was difficult to get into that school if you were not the child of faculty or came from a professional musical family."
Studies at the high school smoothed the way into the conservatory, where "I switched to the viola - it is a bigger instrument, and as a taller person, I was better able to handle it."

China's gradual opening up put Liu on a path that eventually brought him to America - he has played viola with the Symphony for over 20 years. Meanwhile, tensions across the Taiwan Strait have eased, and since 2008 it has even been possible to fly direct from Taipei to Shanghai, between the onetime Cold War rivals' biggest cities.

We pay the bill and Liu is off, out the door and back to the hotel to change into his tuxedo. He will play two concerts in Taipei, and then he and his San Francisco colleagues will hop a direct flight to the next stop of the tour: a glittering Shanghai he barely knows.

Nick Frisch is a freelance writer in Taiwan. E-mail: datebookletters@sfchronicle.com

Read more: http://www.sfgate.com/music/article/SF-Symphony-violist-savors-taste-of-home-4048610.php#ixzz2CdrIhm00

Saturday, November 17, 2012

VIDEO REPORT: Tom Hemphill backstage in Shanghai

SF Symphony percussionist Tom Hemphill reports in from backstage at the Shanghai Oriental Art Center, showing us a few of the Asian inspired instruments he'll be utilizing in the upcoming performance Lou Harrison's "Family of the Court" from Pacifika Rondo.

VIDEO REPORT: Chen Zhao in Shanghai

Friday, November 16, 2012

Photo Essay: Shanghai Master Classes

In Shanghai, several SF Symphony musicians took time out of their tour schedules to teach master classes at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music, engaging eager young musicians in some valuable one on one and group lessons.  The students were enthusiastic and appreciative.  SFS trombone player John Engelkes, an avid photographer, provided this brilliant photo essay on the day's events.  Thank you John !