The Danish String Quartet appears Nov. 10 | Credit: Caroline Bittencourt

Little did we know back in 1980 that a grand concert by André Watts, produced by Ruth Felt, will be remembered four decades later both for what it was and for what it foreshadowed: the birth of an important local and regional performing-arts organization, now internationally known.

André Watts, Ruth Felt, and James Schwabacher at the reception following San Francisco Performances’ inaugural concert in 1980

Felt, previously a senior assistant to the legendary SF Opera General Director Kurt Herbert Adler, actually launched her San Francisco Performances the year before, but it was the Watts recital — performed gratis by the pianist — that helped to put the organization on the map.

Felt, who retired from SFP in 2016 at age 77, wanted the organization “to present internationally acclaimed and emerging performing artists, introduce innovative programs, and build new and diversified audiences for the arts through education and outreach activities that also strengthen the local performing arts community.” Forty years on, all that still defines SFP. Felt’s dizzying accomplishments included presenting debuts of such stars as Yo-Yo Ma, and annual presentations of the Paul Taylor Dance Company.

Angelika Kirschschlager performs Feb. 20, 2021 | Credit: Nikolaus Karlinsky

Highlights of San Francisco Performances’ 41st season, Oct. 2–May 4, include an all-day Beethoven marathon, on Dec. 12; a cavalcade of contemporary works by composer-pianist Timo Andres, on Jan. 29, 2021; guitarist Assad Brothers, on Jan. 30; and mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager, accompanied by Julius Drake, on Feb. 20.

The season features 12 debuts, a world premiere, some 35 events, and 72 artists in chamber music, piano, guitar, vocal recitals, and special events.

SFP President Melanie Smith says the season marks “our 41st year of giving great artists a place to create their most personal performances and providing audiences with a meaningful connection to their art. The season is about the influences and influencers of music, from both yesterday and today, and how they often come together to become something even more compelling and timeless.”

A special distinction of the season is the return of the Alexander String Quartet, now with violist David Samuel, playing “The Art of the Quintet” programs, on Jan. 30, Feb. 13, Feb. 27, April 10, and May 10. The quartet and guest artists explore music for five at the 10:00 a.m. Saturday concerts, which also include commentary by Music Historian-In-Residence Robert Greenberg.

The ASQ first played on SF Performances’ Vocal Series with Elly Ameling and Rudi Jansons at the 1989–1990 vocal series, and since that time has played on the main stage series either in their own right or as collaborating artists at least every other season.

“The Quartet inaugurated our continuous Saturday Morning Series with Robert Greenberg in 1994,” says ASQ cellist Sandy Wilson. “Initially at Fort Mason’s Conference Center A and now well into its third decade, it moved into Herbst Theater.

The current quartet: Zakarias Grafilo, violin; Sandy Wilson, cello; Frederick Lifsitz, violin; Paul Yarbrough, viola | Credit: Shirley Singer

“Having spent the last nearly 40 years traveling the world’s concert stages away from our friends and families, having a home base to call our own — and our very special hometown crowd — means more to us than we can ever say.

“The warmth and support, and the familiar smiling faces that greet us when we gather for our SF Performances Saturday Morning ‘school’ concerts with Bob Greenberg sustains us all. Even when the worst tribulations an itinerant musical ensemble might encounter assail us, there’s nothing like coming home.”

Melanie Smith adds: “The Alexander String Quartet has called San Francisco Performances its home for 30 years. During that time they have continued to create deep and inspiring connections between the music, musicians, audiences and the public through performances and education activities as SFP’s ensemble-in-residence.”

Lawrence Brownlee performs at the Oct. 2 gala | Credit: Shervin Lainez

The SFP season opens with a gala on Oct. 2, featuring tenor Lawrence Brownlee in “Crooners” — an homage to legendary vocalists from the ’50s and ’60s. The event in the Veterans Memorial Building, which includes a cocktail reception and dinner, is the organization’s major fundraising for its education and outreach programs.

The Danish String Quartet appears on Nov. 10, in Herbst Theater, with a program of quartets by Mozart and Shostakovich, followed by an arrangement of Nordic folk music. Violinist Jennifer Koh, cellist Jay Campbell, and pianist Timo Andres present Andres’s Winding Stair, Small Wonder on Nov. 17. Andres returns on April 29, 2021, with countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo and the Attacca Quartet.

As part of SFP’s PIVOT Festival, trumpeter Sean Jones pays tribute to Dizzy Gillespie on April 16, collaborating with dancer/flutist/vocalist Brinae Ali, pianist Zaccal Curtis, bassist Boris Curtis, drummer Obed Calvair, and turntablist Wendel Patrick. Another festival event is the Bay Area debut of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain on April 17.

Besides Andres, performers in the season’s Piano Series include Jonathan Biss, on March 5, and Natasha Paremski, on April 10.

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