Esa-Pekka Salonen and SF Symphony deliver opening night like no other
To say that a new era for the San Francisco Symphony has started at Davies Symphony Hall is true as far as it goes. But that doesn’t show how transformative this event was, or how much music director Esa-Pekka Salonen reimagined the old tense traditions of the season opening gala.
In a late inaugural event on Friday, October 1, delayed for a long painful year by the COVID-19 pandemic, Salonen finally got the chance to show Symphony patrons what his leadership will look like. The short version is: Like nothing we have experienced so far.
The evening’s lineup, dubbed â€œRe-Opening Night,â€ was fierce and dynamic, without a musical note from the standard repertoire. At the heart of the night was an expansive stylistic hybrid of Wayne Shorter, blending jazz and orchestral styles and featuring the inimitable bassist and singer Esperanza Spalding, winner of a Grammy. There were dancers from the Alonzo King Lines Ballet, performing on a big push stage.
Even the details showed that someone had given a lot of thought to the question, “Do we really have to proceed as has always been done?” The program lasted 90 tense minutes without an intermission. There was an elaborate lighting display. The traditional song of the national anthem had been quietly abandoned.
What if you think (as I admit, on a brief occasion or two), “Well, orchestral audiences are pretty traditional, are they going to go for that?” “- Think again, please. The mood at Davies was buzzing, the audience obviously eager to try all kinds of things they hadn’t even considered before.
Friends, we are going to have the adventure of a lifetime.
Perhaps the only concession Salonen made to the convention was to open the proceedings with a curtain raiser by John Adams of the Bay Area, and even that was in keeping with the overall tone of nervous excitement of the evening. “Slonimsky’s Earbox” is a bubbly phantasmagoria of ideas ranging from growling big band to spotty minimalist patterns, all tossed into the blender and performed at high speed. The orchestra’s crisp and brilliant performance has never been less than fascinating.
After that, the program became even more unknown. Spalding, one of eight collaborative partners Salonen has brought together to help her shake things up to their fundamentals, said a few eloquent words about how “excited, grateful and nurtured” she and her colleagues needed to be. participate in this event. before embarking on the undulating musical textures of Shorter’s â€œGaiaâ€.
Written in 2013 for the Los Angeles Philharmonic, it’s a thrilling and elusive 25-minute tapestry that slides the show between the orchestra and a jazz quartet including Spalding, Argentinian pianist Leo Genovese, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. (recently named Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts) and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane.
The orchestral writing is densely worked, with a few basic harmonic motifs which are increasingly elaborated, like a trellis invaded by vines; the quartet’s evocative episodes lighten up the sounds in a seductive way. (In form, if not in its musical language, the piece functions like a baroque concerto.)
And through it all was Spalding, in a white shirt aptly emblazoned with the caption “LIFE FORCE,” delivering long, distended vocal lines that arched into the stratosphere and descended in dizzying curls. There were words, but I didn’t catch any; the bouncy form of Spalding’s singing was all that mattered.
Equally striking was the presence of the dancers from Lines, bringing together two of the Bay Area’s largest performing organizations in an eagerly awaited artistic summit.
King’s choreography for four movements from Alberto Ginastera’s ballet “Estancia” was a kinetic ride, breathtaking vertical extensions from the opening movement to the soft roundelay of “Wheat Dance”, with a trio of performers weaving like the three Graces of antiquity. The full set of nine members came together for a powerful physical blast in the latest “Malambo”.
For sheer explosive grandeur, however, nothing could touch the final offering of yet underrated Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas – a multi-faceted percussion extravaganza taken from his 1939 film score â€œLa noche de los Mayasâ€.
Then, just like that, it was over – tumultuous applause, a few grateful greetings and no reminder. Anyone who wants to know more will have to return to Davies in the months and years to come, as something new and beautifully unpredictable is brewing.