With Esa-Pekka Salonen, expect the unexpected, and at Friday night’s San Francisco Symphony season opener it was true, almost to a fault. Surely, he would present something different from the traditional classics-and-audience-favorites gala, but the Symphony’s 2021 “Re-Opening” went beyond expectations.
The conductor, who from 1989 through 2009 turned the LA Philharmonic inside out and eventually led it to international preeminence, outdid himself with something so utterly different that at the closing percussion orgy of Silvestre Revueltas’s Noche de encantamiento from the film score of La noche de los Mayas, some in Davies Hall’s capacity audience might have experienced a sensation of sameness.
For 110 years, SF Symphony season openings offered Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, lately Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet repeatedly, musicals, star singers and instrumentalists, and the like. None of that this time, only 90 minutes of “different” and challenging works ... and more diversity than in the past century of the Symphony put together.
First, a bit of chronology: Former SF Symphony President Sakurako Fisher (who was honored Friday night) announced in 2018 that Salonen had been chosen to succeed Michael Tilson Thomas as Music Director after MTT’s 25-year tenure. Salonen planned a great first season, which was wiped out by the COVID-19 pandemic, along with MTT’s grand exit concerts.
Waiting out the worst of the pandemic in his native Finland, but not resting, Salonen returned to San Francisco this year, and led a memorable first concert in his new capacity, and later closed the grievously abbreviated season, while planning an adjusted 2021–2022 season.
It was that season’s gala performed on Friday, the evening opening with a work a bit more familiar than the rest of the program, John Adams’s Slonimsky’s Earbox (1995), one of his most robust and complex orchestral suites. It has defiant ostinato passages and orchestral outbursts, but also a few subtle and glorious melodies, which had to satisfy conventional fans of symphonic music for the rest of the evening.
What was especially striking at the beginning and throughout the evening: the amazing top form of the entire orchestra, as if the past 18 months of travails didn’t happen. Unlike the acoustical problems across the street on the rare occasion when the orchestra is onstage, rather than in the pit, the way Davies Hall is set up, you can see and hear every part of the orchestra — even with the unusual seating arrangement Salonen called for, which placed all strings on one side.
Front seats of the orchestra center were removed for a large thrust stage for (unidentified) dancers of the Alonzo King LINES Ballet performing King’s vigorous choreography for four sections from Ginastera’s 1941 ballet Estancia (Ranch).
The origin of the work was a commission from the Lincoln Kirsten-George Balanchine American Ballet Caravan (forerunner of New York City Ballet) given to Ginastera, Brazil’s Francisco Mignone, and Chile’s Domingo Santa Cruz — all choreographed by Balanchine but not performed because the Ballet Caravan disbanded. Ginastera extracted the four sections performed by SF Symphony, called Danzas del Ballet Estancia.
The fascinating but mismanaged main attraction of the concert was Wayne Shorter’s 2013 Gaia, a work said to “incorporate philosophical and spiritual elements.” Reminiscent of progressive jazz, the work is a concerto with the orchestra, narrator-vocalist-bassist esperanza spalding (her name is in lowercase now), pianist Leo Genovese, Terri Lyne Carrington on drums, and saxophonist Ravi Coltrane.
What interfered with the appreciation of the music was excessive, intrusive amplification, which distorted the sound of the solo instruments and made the extensive lyrics completely incomprehensible. Lots of talent and good intentions were sidelined by an unfortunate technical mishap.
Salonen will continue leading subscription concerts on Oct. 7–9, with a program featuring the U.S. premiere of Hannah Kendall’s Tuxedo: Vasco ‘de’ Gama, the San Francisco premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Graffiti, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.