American soprano Renée Fleming makes a welcome return to Davies Symphony Hall this week, in a series of concerts featuring the music of Debussy and Canteloube. A 2012-13 Project San Francisco artist, Ms Fleming is accompanied by the San Francisco Symphony, led by Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas, as part of the Symphony’s Great Performers series.
One of today’s most acclaimed singers, Renée Fleming made her San Francisco Symphony debut in 2002, as soloist in Michael Tilson Thomas’s ‘Poems of Emily Dickinson’, a cycle he composed for her, and in 2005 she appeared at his 60th birthday gala.
Much in demand for the current season, Ms Fleming appears in recital with mezzo-soprano Susan Graham on a return visit to San Francisco later this month, a presentation which then takes her to Carnegie Hall. She appears at Carnegie Hall again, and at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, in André Previn's ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’, playing Blanche DuBois - a role she created in the world premiere at the San Francisco Opera in 1998.
Later in the season, Ms Fleming premieres a new work by Anders Hillborg with the New York Philharmonic under Alan Gilbert, and presents the finale of her Perspective series, ‘Vienna: Window to Modernity’. She appears - in Vienna again - as the Countess in Richard Strauss’ ‘Cappriccio’, and at the inaugural concerts of Christian Thielemann as Principal Conductor of the Dresden Staatskapelle, and Yannick Nézet-Séguin as Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. These performances are followed by recitals in a number of major cities, including Paris, Geneva, London, Vienna, Beijing and Taipei.
Known as ‘the people’s diva’, Ms Fleming was named 2012 Singer of the Year by the German Echo awards, and in addition to appearances on the world’s greatest opera stages and in concert halls, she is now embracing a range of other musical forms and media. Over the past few seasons, Ms Fleming has hosted a wide variety of television and radio broadcasts, including the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series for movie theaters and television, and Live From Lincoln Center on PBS.
The first work on the program of this week’s concert is Debussy’s ‘Jeux’, which was commissioned by Serge Diaghilev for his Ballets Russes in the summer of 1912. It premiered on May 15, 1913, at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, with scenario and choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky, and scenery and costumes by Léon Bakst. The principal dancers were Nijinsky, Tamara Karsavina and Ludmilla Schollar. The conductor was Pierre Monteux - who also conducted the first performances by the San Francisco Symphony, in December 1946.
‘Jeux’ is followed by ‘C’est l’extase’ - a world premiere, commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony. It’s a suite of seven songs by Debussy, set to the poems of Paul Verlaine (1844-96), and arranged, linked and orchestrated by Robin Holloway. Six of the songs - ‘C’est l’extase’, ‘Il pleure dans mon coeur’, ‘L’ombre des arbres, ‘Green’, ‘Spleen’, and ‘Chevaux de bois’ - were composed by Debussy between 1885 and 1887, and published together in 1888. Debussy then revised and republished them in 1903 under the title ‘Ariettes oubliées’ (Forgotten Songs). The seventh, ‘Mandoline’, was composed in 1882 and published in 1890.
Robin Holloway, who currently lives in Cambridge, England, completed this setting - his Opus 118 - in September 2012, on commission from the San Francisco Symphony, with the support of the Phyllis C Wattis Fund for New Works of Music. He is known to San Francisco Symphony audiences through compositions such as his orchestration of Debussy’s ‘En blanc et noir’, his Viola Concerto, and the ‘Clarissa Sequence’ and Fourth Concerto for Orchestra, all introduced here under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.
French composer Joseph Canteloube was a native of the Auvergne, a rugged, hilly region of central France. Many of his early memories were linked to the folk music of the area, and by the time he left the Schola Cantorum, where he was educated, he was well equipped to pursue the path for which he would become famous - collecting regional French folk songs and publishing them in arrangements for the concert hall. The most famous of these collections are the ‘Chants d’Auvergne’, a collection of songs from the Auvergne region, arranged for soprano and orchestra or piano, published between 1923 and 1954, and sung in Auvergnat, a variety of the Romance language, Occitan.
Two of these songs, 'Baïlèro’ and ‘Malurous qu’o uno fenno’ were first performed by the San Francisco Symphony in July 1940. The most recent performances, led by Michael Tilson Thomas, were given on a European tour in January 1999. This week’s concerts mark the first San Francisco Symphony performances of ‘La delaïssádo’.
The final work on the program is Debussy’s ‘La mer’, on which he started work in the summer of 1903 and completed in March 1905, although he continued to make revisions to the work for many years. It’s thought that summer weeks spent on the beaches of Cannes gave him his passionate love of the sea - its unpredictability and ever-changing nature in particular. “I was destined for a sailor’s life,” he wrote, “and it was only quite by chance that fate led me in another direction.”
Debussy wrote ‘La mer’, three symphonic sketches for orchestra, whilst living in the seaside town of Eastbourne on the south coast of England, to which he’d escaped with his mistress - the singer Emma Bardac, for whom he’d left his wife. This relationship is said to be part of the reason that the work was initially not well received at its premiere in Paris in October 1905. Another reason cited was that the piece had been inadequately rehearsed, but Parisian critics were also aware that this work was different from Debussy’s previous works.
According to SF Symphony program annotator, the late Michael Steinberg, “Some who had been among the composer’s most dedicated allies were now among the most disappointed of observers, specifically because ‘La mer’ moved so decisively away from the mist‑washed, unmuscular delicacy that had been so valued by the Debussyists”. Nevertheless, it did eventually become one of Debussy's most admired and frequently performed orchestral works.
For detailed program notes, information on tickets and to listen to sound clips, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.
Renée Fleming’s performances with the San Francisco Symphony take place on:
Thursday, Jan 10, at 8:00pm
Saturday, Jan 12, at 8:00pm
Sunday, Jan 13, at 2:00pm
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