This week, the San Francisco Symphony plays excerpts from Sergei Prokofiev’s gorgeous score for the ballet Cinderella, and Carl Neilsen’s delightful Violin Concerto. These concerts, led by French conductor Stéphane Denève, feature Danish-Israeli violinist Nikolaj Znaider as guest soloist, and there’s also a first performance by the Symphony from contemporary French composer Guillaume Connesson.
Stéphane Denève makes a welcome return to Davies Symphony Hall on his fourth visit as guest conductor of the Symphony. Music Director of the Royal Scottish National Orchestra from 2005 to 2012, he became Principal Guest Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 2014, and since September 2015 he has been Chief Conductor of the Brussels Philharmonic.
Maestro Denève is also the inaugural Director of the new Centre for Future Orchestral Repertoire (Cffor) in Brussels. This extensive online database for the Brussels Philharmonic is dedicated to promoting the finest 21st century orchestral compositions, with a view to including them in the Philharmonic’s repertoire, an undertaking which Denève sees as “a crucial task”. “For such a joyful, modern and exciting project,” he says, “Brussels is the ideal city and the Brussels Philharmonic its perfect vehicle. I can’t wait to start this thrilling musical adventure!”
Unsurprisingly, Stéphane Denève is passionate about inspiring the next generation of musicians and audiences, and regularly works with young people at both the Tanglewood Music Center and the New World Symphony.
Nikolaj Znaider, a highly versatile musician, is both an acclaimed virtuoso violinist and conductor. He has been Principal Guest Conductor of the Mariinsky Orchestra in Saint Petersburg since 2010, and prior to that appointment was Principal Guest Conductor of the Swedish Chamber Orchestra. He returns to conduct the Hallé and London Symphony orchestras every season, and regularly works with the Filarmonica del Teatro Comunale di Bologna.
Dedicated to supporting the next generation of musical talent, he was Founder and Artistic Director of the annual Nordic Music Academy summer school for 10 years, and he is chair of the jury for the 10th Carl Nielsen International Violin Competition.
Nikolaj Znaider is an enthusiastic admirer of Nielsen’s Violin Concerto which he says “keeps humor as a central part of its expression”, referring to what he calls “a twinkle in the eye”. He also describes the concerto’s slow movement as “exquisite”. It’s a work which Nielsen completed in 1911, whilst a guest in the Grieg household in Norway, to which he’d been invited by the composer’s widow, Nina, and Nielsen was accorded the privilege of using the small lakeside hut in which Edvard Grieg had composed much of his work.
Nielsen wrote the concerto for violinist Peder Møller, leader of the Royal Danish Orchestra, which premiered the work in December 1911, with the composer conducting, and Møller as soloist.
Guillaume Connesson is regarded as one of the more promising of the younger generation of French composers, with a style described as highly individual and generally accessible, with hints of Ravel, Messiaen and Stravinsky. A Glimmer in an Age of Darkness – the work which will be performed by the San Francisco Symphony for the first time – was commissioned by the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, and premiered in September 2005. That performance was conducted by Stéphane Denève, to whom the work was dedicated. Denève describes it as a “very moving, very tender, very comforting experience. It is a kind of hymn to the beauty of our universe, its potential of life, purity and beauty.”
Sergei Prokofiev started work on his score for the ballet Cinderella in 1941, while he and his wife were living “in the pine-woods at Kratovo, near Moscow”. Commissioned by the Kirov Opera and Ballet Theatre of Leningrad, the music was set to a libretto by Nikolai Volkov which in turn was based on Charles Perrault’s version of the tale which appears in the folklore of many cultures..
After the German invasion of the Soviet Union that year, Prokofiev set this score aside to join other composers in the defense of their land by writing patriotic songs and marches, and he turned again to his idea of an opera based on Tolstoy’s novel, War and Peace. Once the Allied victory over Germany seemed imminent, Prokofiev returned to the Cinderella score, completing it in the city of Perm, in the Urals, to which he had been invited by the Kirov Theatre.
In the autumn of 1943, he returned to Moscow where the Moscow Bolshoi Theatre had started to rehearse Cinderella – to the choreography of Rostislav Zakharov – from the 13 pieces which Prokofiev had already written, and it premiered there in 1945. It’s not entirely clear who danced the title role in the premiere, but it had been created on Olga Lepeshinskaya, and we know that Galina Ulanova achieved great success with it.
In this program we hear a selection of excerpts from Cinderella compiled by Stéphane Denève.
Stéphane Denève leads the San Francisco Symphony, and guest violinist Nikolaj Znaider, in Nielsen’s Violin Concerto, Prokofiev’s Cinderella and a work by Guillaume Connesson at Davies Symphony Hall on February 18, 19 and 20. For further information and for tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.
San Francisco Symphony
New York Philharmonic video clip
Nielsen Violin Concerto
Sergei Prokofiev: Autobiography, Articles, Reminiscences