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SF Symphony's shining opener

by Philip Campbell

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony kick off the 2018 Opening Night Gala concert. Photo: Drew Altizer
Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony kick off the 2018 Opening Night Gala concert. Photo: Drew Altizer  

The San Francisco Symphony's 107th season opened last week with typical flair and excitement. The stylish Gala mixed light-hearted music, tapas and free-flowing drinks with a chance to greet friends and colleagues and celebrate Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas as he enters his penultimate year on the podium at Davies Symphony Hall.

MTT hasn't got time for nostalgia just yet, and he made it clear from the moment he appeared. After a warm ovation he launched into the 2018-19 season with the national anthem, followed by a brief spoken introduction and performance of Liszt's infectious "Mephisto Waltz" No. 1 for Orchestra. It was an unusual but entertaining choice for a curtain-raiser that immediately set the tone for a night devoted more to cheerful vibes than serious or lengthy compositions. The coiffed and lubricated first-nighters were already chomping at the bit for intermission anyway, and MTT is a showman who knows a popular program is best on opening night.

The guest artist extraordinaire was the maestro's old chum and everyone's favorite fiddler, Itzhak Perlman. He brought a joyful focus to the proceedings with six young violinists from the Perlman Music Program in tow. The training program was originally founded by Perlman's wife, Toby. Seeing the master with his talented charges all-in-a-row was heartwarming.

Itzhak Perlman addresses the audience during the San Francisco Symphony's 2018 Opening Night Gala. Photo: Drew Altizer  

Hearing them was cheering, too, and the repertoire was perfect. Bach's D Minor Concerto for Two Violins not only allows chances for virtuosic playing, but also walks an agreeable line between serious and light-hearted music. Perlman took one solo role, with Kristin Lee, Sean Lee, Doori Na, Michelle Ross, Eric Silberger and Hannah Tarley taking turns on the second. It proved a surprisingly seamless listening experience that was also charming visually. Bartok's Ruthenian Dance from "44 Duos for 2 Violins" was the brief and stirring encore, with all seven players feverishly enticing the audience to rise.

After an extended intermission and plentiful selfies, the orchestra grabbed attention again with Gershwin's stirringly rhythmic "Cuban Overture." It lost steam at times, but it was a good way to start.

The next set might just as well have been piped in through the DSH sound system: add mood lighting and stir. Still, the good-natured crowd responded well to Perlman's second appearance, in selections from old-time romantic film scores including "Cinema Paradiso," "Out of Africa," and "Schindler's List."

The real gem shone in the all-too-brief return to Latin America and Carlos Gardel's sinuous tango "Por una cabeza," used in the film "Scent of a Woman." The title translates to "By a head," as in winning by, but the show's finale was arguably the champ.

We have heard Gershwin's colorfully elated "An American in Paris" umpteen times before in the past year alone, and wondered at including it yet again for the Gala. MTT has the composer in his soul, and his cracking crew can play the jaunty score blindfolded by now, so, considering the attention span and patience of the opening night audience, porquoi pas?

The sights of Gershwin's Parisian joyride, seen with wide American eyes and expressed tunefully with Tin Pan Alley sophistication, remains forever fresh, regardless of frequent hearings. When those intoxicating melodies return, they're irresistible. The musicians of the SFS were in idiomatic harmony with MTT, and Principal Trumpet Mark Inouye's solo was predictably hot. If it wasn't to be an all-Gershwin Gala to start the season, this turned out a pretty good programming choice after all.

This week, star pianist Yuja Wang brings her own special glamor and some Gallic zest to DSH as she joins the maestro for Ravel's jazzy Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Lighting designer Luke Kritzeck and video designer Clyde Scott will also be on hand for the concert, planned as a Global Climate Action Summit affiliate event.


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