“Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien” – At Davies Symphony Hall, Featuring Damian Smith of SF Ballet, January 12th–14th

Sean Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) will lead the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus in Claude Debussy’s rarely performed complete original music for Le martyre de Saint Sébastien January 12th–14th at Davies Symphony Hall. The concerts will feature performances by soprano Karina Gauvin, mezzo-sopranos Sasha Cooke and Leah Wool, and Frederica von Stade as narrator. For this production, the SFS’s performance of Debussy’s sweeping score will be accompanied by a newly created multi-media treatment by imaginative, critically acclaimed director-designer Anne Patterson that features projected visuals and staged elements meant to bring the pageant-like, gothic, nature of the work to life. The featured vocalists will perform in costumes of Patterson’s design. Janáček’s Sinfonietta, last performed by MTT and the SFS in 1999, opens the concerts.

SAINT SÉBASTIEN. Andrea Mantegna (1457–59)

Debussy composed the music for Le martyre de Saint Sébastien in 1911, the same year as the San Francisco Symphony’s founding.  At the debut, the music accompanied a five-act play depicting the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian. For the SFS concerts the orchestra will perform the music in a presentation specifically designed for concert performances and sanctioned by the play’s author, Gabriele D’Annunzio, and composer Claude Debussy. The orchestra will perform Debussy’s score with selected passages from the play recited by narrator Frederica von Stade.

Click here to order tickets on-line: MTT Conducts Debussy

Le martyre de Saint Sébastien was written as a vehicle for the Russian ballerina and Belle Époque figure Ida Rubinstein, a colorful member of the Ballet Russe and the muse of numerous visual artists and musicians. In the spirit of the original ballet, for MTT and the SFS’ performances, video of a dancer performing new original choreography will be projected onto custom-made screens of a special, string-like material above the Davies Symphony Hall stage. Choreography for the pre-recorded projection will be created by Myles Thatcher, a member of the San Francisco Ballet Corps de Ballet and choreographer known for the experimental silent-film comedy The Glitter Emergency.

DAMIAN SMITH. Photo, Davis Allen

It will be danced by San Francisco Ballet Principal Dancer Damian Smith. MTT conducted the London Symphony Orchestra in a highly-acclaimed recording of Debussy’s complete work in 1993, and led the last SFS performances during his first season as Music Director in 1995. Saint Sebastian, a Christian martyr venerated in the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches, is said to have been killed during Roman emperor Diocletian’s persecution of Christians. Sebastian was a head archer who was shot to death by his own troop of archers, an image often represented in Renaissance paintings many of which depict his piercing with an erotic charge.

MTT shares his enthusiasm for the music and the story of Debussy’s Le martyre de Saint Sébastien:

“The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian is one of my favorite pieces,” says Michael Tilson Thomas.  “It’s an incredible mixture of beautiful harmonies, soaring voices, lush orchestral landscapes, and the spoken word…Every time I come back to this piece, I feel hypnotized being inside of it again. It is somehow touching, heartbreaking, haunting, and uses very simple ideas in the orchestra with a kind of glowing hue to take you from the quiet prelude to a dazzling climax when the saint enters into heaven. What could be better?”

Soprano Karina Gauvin made her SFS debut in May 2011 in performances of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2. Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke is a frequent collaborator with the SFS who last appeared with the orchestra in Mozart’s Requiem and Feldman’s Rothko Chapel in February 2011.  Mezzo-soprano Leah Wool makes her debut with MTT and the Orchestra in these performances. She was soloist in the SFS Chorus’ performances of Duruflé’s Requiem in May 2011. Narrator Frederica von Stade has had a storied career as a mezzo-soprano, appearing many times with the SFS Orchestra since her debut in 1975.



Anne Patterson is a visual artist, designer and director based in New York City.  Her innovative strategy of integrating scenic, lighting, and projection elements within the traditional symphonic hall is revolutionizing the concert experience. Her creations have been seen by audiences at Avery Fisher and Alice Tully Halls at Lincoln Center, the Juilliard School, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Philadelphia Orchestra, Atlanta Symphony, and Arena Stage. She has designed fourteen operas, including one world premiere and three US premieres for the Aspen Music Festival. Patterson’s sculptures and paintings are in public and private collections in the United States and London. In 2006 she collaborated with composer Mason Bates to create Mercury Soul, first performances held in San Francisco in February 2008 and May 2009 featuring musicians from the San Francisco Symphony. This is her first artistic partnership with MTT.

Projections are created by New York-based Adam Larsen who has designed images for Hal Prince’s LoveMusik (Broadway), The Gospel at Colonus (Herod Atticus, Athens), world premieres of The Women of Brewster Place (Alliance/Arena Stage) and Christmas Carol 1941 (Arena Stage) and recently The Wind Up Bird Chronicle (Ohio Theater) and Love Lies Bleeding, a ballet based on the life of Elton John (Alberta Ballet).  Lighting design is by Brooklyn-based Matthew Frey. He has created lighting designs for the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Playwrights Horizons, Soho Rep, New York Theatre Workshop and Berkeley Repertory Theater.


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