Issue:  Vol. 48 / No. 3 / 18 January 2018

SF Symphony earns its hallelujahs


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The mighty "Amens" in the final chorus of Handel's "Messiah" still echo in memory, days after personally enjoying a last live concert of 2017 at Davies Symphony Hall with the San Francisco Symphony. The Yuletide tradition has become a heartwarming annual treat for regional music-lovers, regardless of religion or lack thereof. It creates an oasis of musical calm and reflection after a year of distressing world and local events.

The SFS 2017-18 season has already offered some great escapes, promising displays of performer diversity and occasionally daring artistic and intellectual statements during the first year of a hate-filled governmental regime. The San Francisco Opera has called it a wrap until the summer season, but the Symphony is hardly taking a breath before charging into 2018.

Since opening night in September, an obvious trend (actually, years in the making) has been flourishing at DSH. Involvement with local and world ethnic groups and LGBT society has manifested in some joyous concerts and the introduction of many new listeners to the rewards of the Symphony. Davies Hall often feels like a big and inclusive community center.

Visiting orchestras have also encouraged delighted new crowds to enter the welcoming doors on Grove Street. SFS Great Performers presented the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra with Zubin Mehta in October. It was an opportunity to see the well-loved maestro on the podium at DSH for, possibly, the last time. He was graciously self-effacing; we were all verklempt .

China National Centre for the Performing Arts Orchestra, with Liu Ja conducting, appeared in November as part of a six-city US tour. Virtuoso Wu Man was soloist in gay American composer Lou Harrison's Concerto for Pipa. When the fabulous instrumentalist announced her encore in both English and Chinese, the audience roared in unanimous approval.

Smorgasbords of international guest conductors are leading the SFS in programs featuring music of their homelands throughout the 2017-18 season. Notable appearances by young leaders Krzysztof Urbanski and Jakub Hrusa have already placed them on the radar for future consideration. Osmo Vanska's visit in October was a success, too. It is a long way to finding a replacement for MTT, but not too early to look at some possible contenders.

Other thrilling moments in the season so far have resulted from Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas' gift for creating an exciting musical celebration. The season-long Leonard Bernstein birth centennial has already brought some amazing performers and performances to DSH.

An all-Bernstein concert featuring Ragnar Bohlin's SFS Chorus in Chichester Psalms (thanks for that "Messiah," too!), and lustrous mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard and exciting bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, making his SFS debut, in "Arias and Barcarolles" turned into a memorably rip-roaring show. The closing set of Symphonic Dances from "West Side Story" had everyone, onstage and off, jumping to the great (also gay) composer's beat.

A young Michael Tilson Thomas with his mentor, conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein. Photo: Courtesy SFS

Leonard went on to a delightful all-Bernstein solo recital at the Herbst Theatre later in the month, and McKinny changed into Gold Rush gear for an important role at the SFO in the world premiere of John Adams' "Girls of the Golden West."

MTT continues his to-do list without batting an eye. There will be more Bernstein in January when an enticing cast offers the Scottish Opera edition of his legendary operetta "Candide." Meghan Picerno, soprano, is Cunegonde; Vanessa Becerra, soprano, is the saucy Paquette; Sheri Greenawald, soprano, portrays the hilarious Old Lady (what an unexpected and smart choice!); Andrew Stenson, tenor, is the innocently optimistic titular hero; handsome and gifted Hadleigh Adams, baritone, sings two parts: Maximillian and Captain; and another barihunk, Michael Todd Simpson, enacts all the rest as Narrator, Voltaire, Pangloss, Martin and Cacambo. Members of Ragnar Bohlin's SFS Chorus join in the fun Jan. 18-21. This should be a runaway hit, so getting online for tickets soon is a good idea.

The Bernstein Fest also offers "West Side Story" on screen, with the SFS performing the instrumental soundtrack conducted by David Newman, on Feb. 1-3. Needless to say, this will not be a sing-along, but obsessive fans of Lenny's (count me in) great score will certainly be mouthing the words.

Onward and upward, Resistors; enjoying great art is a great way to carry on. We will preview more of the SFS season, which runs through June, early in the new year.


SF Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas led the orchestra in Ives Symphony No. 3 this fall. Photo: Brandon Patoc

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