First violin section
The first violin section of the San Francisco Symphony | Credit: Kristen Loken

Can the arts change a community? The San Francisco Symphony thinks so. Since the completion of Davies Symphony Hall in 1980, there has been a longstanding tradition of celebrating local community groups and nonprofits before each season’s opening night gala at an event called the “All San Francisco Concert,” with the Ellen Magnin Newman Award given to a local Bay Area nonprofit.

This year’s All San Francisco Concert and opening night gala, on Sept. 22 and 23, respectively, feature the African-American Shakespeare Company (AASC), a collaboration that came about through the Symphony’s community contacts.

At an open house for the new AASC rehearsal space, a collection of neighbors, colleagues, and supporters gathered. Among them was an attendee of the SF Symphony. L. Peter Callender, who’s been artistic director of AASC for 13 years, mentioned to the attendee how he would love to collaborate with the Symphony again. Callender first performed with the SF Symphony as a narrator for Beethoven’s Fidelio under the orchestra’s previous music director, Michael Tilson Thomas. Then, AASC was invited to participate in a program at Davies in 2019 with the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. With that history, the open-house attendee took the idea of another collaboration to the SF Symphony’s senior artistic director, Phillippa Cole, and contacted Callender four days later, saying the orchestra was interested in working together.

L. Peter Callender
L. Peter Callender | Credit: Sorcha Augustine

“I’m just thrilled that the African-American Shakespeare Company will get a chance to showcase what we can do at the Symphony itself,” said Callender. “I hope the Symphony audiences will then say, ‘Wow, I had never heard of the African-American Shakespeare Company. They’re just around the corner. Let’s go see what they do.’ That’s what a good collaboration is all about.”

For the All San Francisco Concert and opening night gala, nine actors, plus special guests and Bay Area dignitaries, will surprise and delight concertgoers by bringing characters from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, along with Felix Mendelssohn’s incidental music for the play, to life.

Callender is quick to inform people that part of his casting ethos is not to typecast but instead to tap participants to “play roles they wouldn’t ordinarily play.” He explained: “Art changes the perception of who you are and where you are. As creative artists, when you [the audience] come into the theater, we want you to be transported someplace. … By the end of the show, we want you to talk about it and see if it changes your perspective on life or on a specific topic or issue. I think that’s what art does.”

Another Bay Area community group will also be at the center of the All San Francisco Concert on Sept. 22. When Davies Symphony Hall first opened, Ellen Magnin Newman — now life governor — founded the committee over which she now presides as honorary chair. The monetary award of $10,000 given in her name is a cap on the annual community event that welcomes local groups and nonprofits to the Symphony — both to exhibit and display information about their organizations in the lobby on the way into the hall and to attend as guests, relishing the music and the performance.

“This committee is part of the SF Symphony’s mission to really bring music and make music possible for everyone and be as inclusive as we can,” said Cynthia Inaba, co-chair of the All San Francisco Concert. “This particular concert is open to all the wonderful organizations and nonprofits as a lower-cost or free concert, so we can celebrate all the work they are doing, and it’s just for the community. It’s a community event.”

San Francisco Symphony
The San Francisco Symphony in Davies Symphony Hall | Credit: Brandon Patoc

Each year, the All San Francisco Concert committee researches and presents nonprofits in consideration for the award, whittling the list down to a final three and, ultimately, a winner that best exemplifies commitment of service to its community. COVID put a twist on the process as finalists and committee members transitioned to Zoom. In 2021, the All San Francisco Concert opened back up in person after going online only in 2020.

This year’s Ellen Magnin Newman Award recipient is the Bayview Opera House (BVOH), a longtime nominee (and interestingly enough, AASC was a finalist this year, too). Built in 1888, the Bayview Opera House was renovated in 2014 and reopened in 2016. In 1968, the building was named San Francisco Landmark #8.

Ashley Smiley, program manager for the Bayview Opera House Ruth Williams Memorial Theatre, as the venue is formally known, shared what the award means to her: “It’s a beautiful thing to have that light being shone on us. The San Francisco Symphony is the San Francisco Symphony. I’m a born and raised San Franciscan. I definitely understand the magnitude [of having] an organization with such distinction and a huge platform take our little selves and put us on that platform and have folks understand that we are out here and we’re doing this work,” she said.

Bayview Opera House
The Bayview Opera House Ruth Williams Memorial Theatre | Courtesy of SF Symphony

All San Francisco Concert co-chairs Robert Melton and Inaba said BVOH’s time had finally come after the theater had demonstrated such resilience in previous years.

“The Bayview Opera House is an anchor to Bayview-Hunters Point,” said Melton. “The community really relies on them for their art and culture — all ages actually, from youth to adults.”

Inaba dovetailed on that idea, saying, “They were able to keep so many programs going. They were able to pivot really fast. They were able to preserve a community during a really stressful time, in so many different ways, to multigenerational audiences.”

Smiley described how BVOH is the arts and cultural center for Bayview — a “safe haven and launchpad” for a community rich with visual artists, writers, dancers, playwrights, and event producers. But, she added, many people don’t know it exists.

“If we as BVOH can help bring that into the light and be able to show people how much talent is in Bayview, it would greatly change the way that people inside and outside of San Francisco perceive Bayview-Hunters Point,” said Smiley. “We can create this amazing generation of young Black and brown folks who understand their body, understand their voice, understand their power and that there are different pathways to achieving their dreams.”

A scene from A Midsummer Night’s Dream
A scene from the African-American Shakespeare Company’s 2017 production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream | Credit: Jay Yamada

That accessibility of the arts is at the core of what the African-American Shakespeare Company is all about, too. As Callender said, “Shakespeare and the classics — when it comes to the African American diaspora, these plays belong [as much] to us as they belong to everybody else in the world, whatever language, whatever culture.”

Both Melton and Inaba became involved with the All San Francisco Concert several years ago, wanting to get engaged with the SF Symphony, help out, and give back. Their jobs are in the arts (art curation and museum education, respectively).

“I grew up in the city and went to public school, and the Symphony would come to our school, and we would go to a Symphony concert,” said Inaba. “This is a really great way for me to reconnect with the Symphony.”

Inaba also extolled how creative the SF Symphony has been both in their outreach — her 10-year-old son is now engaging with the Symphony through school — and in terms of programming — offering movie-music concerts and (Melton pointed out) the upcoming Día de los Muertos celebration.

Melton added, “I like what they’re doing with reaching out to these cultural organizations, the movies, just really mixing the Symphony up. When you think of the Symphony, you think of just the music, but there’s this whole other layer. It expands what you think of the Symphony. I think of it as art exhibition,” he said. “There’s something for everyone — all the senses.”

Inaba and Melton’s work through the All San Francisco Concert has broadened their, and the committee’s, awareness of Bay Area nonprofit work, as well as helped continue to cultivate longstanding relationships with local organization.

Melton concluded, “The San Francisco Bay Area is a hub for creativity, and creativity fosters so many things: understanding about one another, bringing people together.”

For tickets to the San Francisco Symphony’s opening night gala on Sept. 23 (with proceeds supporting the orchestra’s artistic, education, and community programs), head to the Symphony’s website or call (415) 503-5351.