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Century-Old S.F. Symphony Is Younger Than Springtime

March 1, 2011

Highlights of the San Francisco Symphony's 2011-2012 centennial season were announced previously, but today's news is of the complete schedule, and it's stunning.

There was big news before: a parade of the country's biggest orchestras to Davies Symphony Hall, revival of the much-acclaimed American Mavericks project, commissions, premieres, star guest-artists, and more. But what we have now is all the details of a bold, unusual season of exciting programs and exceptional artists to celebrate the centennial.

Many specific attractions are to come, yet the whole of the season is greater than the sum of its parts: it's a season to cherish ... and attend. These concerts represent a rich cross-section of music; the orchestra has stepped up with a extraordinary assortment that challenges conventional assumptions of major symphony orchestra programming.

Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, Executive Director Brent Assink, and Artistic Planning Director Gregg Gleasner led a long, arduous planning process, which has resulted in a brilliant season of great music and famous artists. While looking back a century, the orchestra heads into the future with cutting-edge programming and in the vanguard of technology.

"In marking the orchestra's first hundred years," says SFS President John D. Goldman, "this season is the moment to define what this orchestra will be for its next hundred."

MTT, calling the occasion "an extraordinary thing, this moment in time," has commissioned works for the celebration, some in collaboration with other orchestras. The composers include SFS veteran John Adams, along with Thomas Adès, Mason Bates, Sofia Gubaidulina, and Meredith Monk.

In his 17th season at the head of the orchestra, MTT is continuing his advocacy of contemporary, 20th-century, and American music. He has scheduled such significant San Francisco premieres as violin concertos by György Ligeti and Esa-Pekka Salonen, plus Shostakovich's Symphony No. 14, which will complete SFS performances of all of that Russian composer's symphonies.

The "time" MTT speaks of includes new media and still-aborning innovations such as his YouTube Orchestra; the Keeping Score television programs, which continue in April of this year; and rehearsals, collaborations, and even performances through the Internet and HD electronics. The Symphony's opening gala, on Sept. 7, featuring pianist Lang Lang and violinist Itzhak Perlman, will be filmed, to be seen around the world on Public Television's Great Performances.

Both Esa-Pekka Salonen and Gustavo Dudamel are heading to Davies HallThinking big, S.F. Symphony is offering semistaged works, some with film and video projections, such as Debussy's Martyrdom of Saint Sébastian, the Bartók opera Duke Bluebeard's Castle, Adès' Polaris: Voyage for Orchestra, and — in honor of The City's past — Barbary Coast and Beyond, which promises a celebration of San Francisco's history in music from the mid-1800s through the Orchestra's founding and its early years.

The much-acclaimed American Mavericks program returns, both in Davies Hall and on tour to New York, Ann Arbor, and Chicago. MTT calls the approach to formerly neglected masterpieces by Aaron Copland, Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, Morton Feldman, and others a matter of "a courageous spirit. ... Anything goes, we'll just go for it."

“Mavericks" first appeared in 2000, winning raves. Four years before then, the Symphony engaged surviving members of the Grateful Dead in an unprecedented collaboration. And, just last week, sold-out performances of concerts featuring the premiere of Feldman's 1971 Rothko Chapel brought acclaim.

Partying With Friends

Six of the country's other old and renowned orchestras are joining the party in Davies Symphony Hall throughout the centennial season, each giving a pair of concerts, each bringing works it has commissioned.

Yuja Wang, dressed for Rachmaninov (new CD) and Prokofiev (with the SFS)The list of guest artists is impressive, beginning with violinist Joshua Bell, who takes one of the orchestra's Project San Francisco residencies this year. Other big-name violinists include Hilary Hahn, Leila Josefowicz, Christian Tetzlaff, and Pinchas Zukerman; pianists Emanuel Ax, Kirill Gerstein, Garrick Ohlsson, Horacio Gutiérrez, and Yuja Wang; and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

There will be singing stars galore, enough to make opera companies envious: Laura Claycomb, Sasha Cooke, Michelle DeYoung, Olga Guryakova, Alan Held, Katarina Karnéus, Jessye Norman, Sondra Radvanovsky, Dawn Upshaw, Dolora Zajick, and more. Among a score of illustrious guest conductors who will take the podium are former SFS music directors Edo de Waart (1977-1985) and Herbert Blomstedt (1985-1995).

In addition to Davies Hall concerts, the centennial celebration also features expanded music education programs in San Francisco public schools; formation of a new Community Music Program to foster amateur music-making; and free outdoor concerts.

Ticket costs are being kept to a reasonable level (not following the vertical upward line of gas prices and all-around inflation), and will range from $180 to $810 for a six-concert series, $720 to $3,240 for 24 concerts.

Edo de Waart — returning to Davies HallIn the coming season, the Symphony will unveil multimedia projects and archival exhibitions chronicling the institution's first hundred years, particularly an interactive historical timeline on its Web site, which will feature pieces of the orchestra's recorded archives from 1926 to the present along with videos, images, and other source materials. Chronicle Books will publish Larry Rothe's history of the San Francisco Symphony. SFS Media has also commissioned an hour-long film on the history of the orchestra. Exhibitions will be held at the San Francisco Public Library, the Museum of Performance and Design, and even the San Francisco International Airport.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].