The San Francisco Symphony Returns in Grand, Adventurous Style

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A jazz bassist sings, accompanied by an orchestra.
Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the San Francisco Symphony in the Re-Opening Night Concert featuring esperanza spalding, a jazz trio, and dancers from Alonzo King LINES Ballet on October 1, 2021 at Davies Symphony Hall. ( Drew Altizer Photography)

The San Francisco Symphony kicked off its re-opening gala concert on Friday night with an unusual piece of music: Slonimsky's Earbox, composed in 1995 by Bay Area composer John Adams. In new music director and conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen's capable hands, the whimsical work kept listeners on edge through each dynamic twist, with spiraling melodies that unfurled like fern fronds, blossoming percussive chimes and strings swaying like reeds.

The vertigo-inducing composition was off-kilter in the best way: it reflected the past year and a half of the world's own dynamic twists, and set the tone for an evening, and a season, that expands the orchestra's explorations of modern and contemporary work.

The centerpiece of the program, which the orchestra performs again at Davies Symphony Hall tonight, Oct. 2, was jazz saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter's Gaia (composed in 2013), starring powerhouse bassist and vocalist esperanza spalding. Taking the stage in a casual, all-white ensemble, spalding was joined by Ravi Coltrane on saxophone, NEA Jazz Master Terri Lyne Carrington on drums and pianist Leo Genovese. Calling Wayne Shorter her "mystic," spalding spoke about the earth mother reverence at the core of the piece. "It's an invitation to travel with her through the veins and hair and passageways, and remember our infinite connection to Gaia," she told the audience.

spalding intoned Gaia with an explosive energy and vocal range radiating from the depths of her diaphragm. The jazz trio's steady rhythm, and punches of drama from the orchestra, conveyed a visceral feeling of nature's constant cycle of creation and destruction.

A jazz quartet bows before an audience.
Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the San Francisco Symphony in the Re-Opening Night Concert featuring esperanza spalding, a jazz trio, and dancers from Alonzo King LINES Ballet on October 1, 2021 at Davies Symphony Hall. ( Drew Altizer Photography)

Featuring spalding so prominently in the concert hinted at the role of the San Francisco Symphony's eight collaborative partners, an interdisciplinary cohort of artists that Salonen appointed when he joined the Symphony in 2020, and the orchestra's deepening relationship with genres and cultures that lie beyond the typical Western classical repertoire.

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The rest of the program attested to that multicultural sensibility. Dancers from Alonzo King LINES Ballet, dressed in minimalist, silk outfits in earth tones, accented the performance of Argentinian composer Alberto Evaristo Ginastera's 1941 Estancia suite. The piece alternated between big, bombastic and quietly subtle sections, which the dancers' athletic jumps and lithe, graceful movements brought to life.

Male and female ballet dancers gather in a symmetrical formation in front of an orchestra.
Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the San Francisco Symphony in the Re-Opening Night Concert featuring esperanza spalding, a jazz trio, and dancers from Alonzo King LINES Ballet on October 1, 2021 at Davies Symphony Hall. ( Drew Altizer Photography)

The night ended with standing ovations for the orchestra's performance of Mexican composer Silvestre Revuelta's La noche de los Mayas, a piece that's almost all percussion, which pays homage to the Indigenous drumming traditions of the Americas. With strings, brass and woodwinds majestically embellishing the steady beat of bongos, a deep conga, tumkul, xylophone and numerous other percussion instruments, La noche was brought to its climax by a player who stood up and let out a deep bellow from a conch shell. These pre-colonial instruments and beats invited the audience to consider an entirely new lens through which to look at what we consider canon.

After the concert, the intergenerational, diverse crowd buzzed with a palpable excitement from the adventurous musical ideas on stage. After Salonen's debut 2020 season was derailed by COVID shutdowns, the evening was a hopeful new beginning for the San Francisco Symphony's next chapter.

An illuminated orchestra seen from the back of the concert hall.
SF Symphony Re-Opening Night Gala on October 1st 2021 at Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco, CA. ( Drew Altizer Photography)

A broadcast of the SF Symphony's Oct. 1 performance will air on KQED Channel 9 as part of PBS' Great Performances series on Nov. 19, 2021.