Saturday, October 02, 2021

SF Symphony Gala Re-Opening

The San Francisco Symphony presented a Gala Re-Opening on Friday evening that was extraordinary in every sense of the word. I have been attending these lavish shindigs since 2009 when the arts publicist Louisa Spier (above left) invited me because she liked this blog. (To her right are our dates, my new spouse Austin and Louisa's Cal Performances colleague, Tiffani.)
The tented dinner party for wealthy donors in the adjoining Lake Louise parking lot was canceled this year on account of the pandemic. This allowed for the concert to take center stage for a change, which was serendipitous because it was exciting and filled with unfamiliar music.
Michael Tilson Thomas struggled with the formula for this event over the decades, sometimes programming "serious" music and other times veering towards light pops, usually with a superstar soloist as an anchor. Last night was completely different, starting with the setup of the orchestra, with all the strings on stage right and all the winds and brass on stage left, facing each other. Instead of beginning with long speeches followed by a rendition of The Star Spangled Banner, we were offered a disarmingly short speech by a woman saying, "Hello, I am the Prin---," and she stopped, restarting with "I was about to say, I am the Princess of the San Francisco Symphony but I meant to say I am Priscilla Geeslin, the President of the San Francisco Symphony." The gaffe was met with laughter and applause.
The new music director, Esa-Pekka Salonen, arrived onstage and without a word picked up a baton and launched the orchestra into Berkeley composer John Adams' 1996 Slonimsky's Earbox. It was a perfect 15-minute opener, in a great, propulsive performance.
Next up was Estancia, a 1941 ballet suite by the Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera that was accompanied by dancers, a delight to see and hear. I sometimes wish every concert hall performance of ballet music would do the same.
The local modern dance troupe, Alonzo King LINES Ballet, performed on a thrust stage with choreography by the 69-year-old King.
The music is fun, sounding like a rowdier, Latin version of Copland's Rodeo, with a percussion section that made the audience want to rise up and dance like a gaucho themselves.
The bass player/vocalist/self-professed musical healer esperanza spalding has been collaborating with the octagenarian jazz saxophone player and composer Wayne Shorter, and their 2013 Gaia was the centerpiece of the evening, a 25-minute work that was sort of a concerto for jazz quartet and orchestra. Spalding not only played bass but sang throughout to her own libretto.
Unfortunately, amplification at Davies Hall has always had its issues, and not only was every word she sang unintelligible but the amplification was too hot. The other members of the jazz quartet were Leo Genovese on piano and Terry Lyne Carrington, with the uncredited Ravi Coltrane showing up to play saxophone. The jazz sections worked better for me than the orchestral, but it was an interesting oasis from the hard-driving Adams and Ginastera pieces.
The finale was Noche de endantamiento by the Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas. He wrote a score for the film La noche de los Mayas in 1939, a year before drinking himself to death. In 1960 a champion of Revuelta's work, Yves Limantour, created a four-movement suite from the film score and this was the wild, final movement. Besides having four different percussion ensembles at the back of the orchestra improvising off of each other, there was even a moment when one of the brass players rose to play a haunting solo on a conch shell.
The party afterwords on Grove Street and in the Lake Louise parking lot, renamed the Nosh Pit, was delightfully uncrowded compared to previous years, and still filled with beautiful young women in striking outfits.
The food was gorgeous and plentiful, including monster paella pans.
There were local minor celebrities galore, like the composer Nathaniel Stookey above and the singers Chung-Wai Soong and Sylvie Jensen below.
The evening felt like an authentic renaissance and a cultural rebirth of the neighborhood.


  1. It was a stunning concert and so perfect the way it began and ended. Festive begins to describe the atmosphere. Brilliant performances and I’m hypnotized by the dancer Adji Cissoko with Alonzo King’s LINES. Her grace, fabulous extension and expression were a marvel to watch! So sorry we didn’t run into you in the Nosh Pit! ❤️

  2. Thank you Michael! Yours is the only article (other than my own) to give José Yves Limantour the credit he deserves! Sadly, this is yet another sign that program notes are not what they used to be.