San Francisco Symphony performs at Frost Amphitheater | Credit: Brandon Patoc 

For as long as SF Symphony summer seasons have existed — perhaps half of the orchestra’s 111 years — programming has always wavered between music meant to attract new (and younger) audiences and music serving the subscriber base. To call the alternative to classical “pop” is incorrect, but choices are limited.

To illustrate the summer season alternatives, there were all-Beethoven concerts during Herbert Blomstedt’s directorship; new-and-American music concerts led by Michael Tilson Thomas; James Conlon’s sensational ultra-romantic series with rarely performed music by Zemlinsky, Franz Schreker, and Liszt (Dante Symphony) ... and seasons of all or mostly “light music.”

Among memorable summer seasons was 2021, which also signified the orchestra’s emergence from the pandemic shutdown.

The 2023 summer season, running from July 4 to Aug. 5, is well balanced between those two approaches. For example, there is Anna Rakitina’s conducting debut on July 13 with Rachmaninov’s Piano Concerto No. 2 (Denis Kozhukhin, soloist) and Elgar’s Enigma Variations, but also runouts to the Shoreline Amphitheatre for a Fourth of July concert and to Stern Grove, featuring the funk band Lettuce, on July 23.

As with everything in music, distinctions are tricky and seldom verifiable when presented as either/or. Case in point is the Stern Grove July 4 concert. The event’s programmer and conductor, Edwin Outwater, told SF Classical Voice:

One fun behind-the-scenes aspect of our July 4 concert is that we’ll be featuring our SFS musicians in solo settings playing American classics. I can’t wait to hear our own players take on Carnival of Venice and “Orange Blossom Special.”

I’ve worked with Capathia Jenkins many times and she is a truly thrilling vocalist and will be up to the task of taking on the Aretha Franklin songbook. I always love seeing families and many first-timers come to the Shoreline and hear the SFS for the first time.

Edwin Outwater conducts a "SoundBox" program | Credit: Stefan Cohen​​​

On the larger issue of “classics or pop,” Outwater — SFS resident conductor from 2001 to 2006, former SFS Director of Summer Concerts, and music director of the Kitchener-Waterloo Symphony in Ontario, Canada for 10 years — has this to say:

I really don’t think of programming in terms of specific audiences, and am certainly not concerned about genre, highbrow vs. lowbrow, or about what others think is “appropriate” for a given concert.

I try to put together programs featuring music of high quality, arranged in a way that will inspire and entertain audiences in the moment, and will hopefully give them a lot to think about and remember when they leave the concert.

It’s less about what is on the program and more about how the audience experience will unfold. Music unfolds in time, and so do entire programs of music. That dynamic [that] audiences experience is what guides me, much more than the static idea of arranging pieces on a program that look good on paper.

Another example from Outwater is the “Golden Age of Cinema” concert he will conduct on July 21-22:

“This concert is really right up my alley, digging deep into music that doesn’t fit easily into any genre. While [it’s] all technically film music, many of the pieces on this program have become concert works in their own right, like Bernstein’s [suite from] On the Waterfront.

“Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo [score] is now making its way more and more onto classical programs as well. I’m also so happy to include the Korngold Cello Concerto, which is really music from the Bette Davis/Claude Rains potboiler film noir Deception. Before there was Tár there was Deception and I recommend it highly to any classical music fan.”

Summer’s guest performers include Aída Cuevas (“The Queen of Mariachi”), R&B star Maxwell, the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus, and Steve Hackman conducting his Tchaikovsky X Drake, a symphonic synthesis that blends the music of hiphop artist Drake into Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.

Alexi Kenney | Courtesy of the artist

Besides a “Sing-a-long-a Sound of Music” [sic], summer film concerts include Ratatouille, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and The Batman. Four concerts — July 7, 14, 21, and 28 — take place in Frost Amphitheater, co-presented by Stanford Live and SF Symphony.

A noteworthy classical summer concert is the July 6 program, Joshua Weilerstein conducting the orchestra in the Sibelius Violin Concerto, with Alexi Kenney as soloist; Dvorák’s Symphony No. 9, “From the New World” and the SF Symphony premiere of Pavel Haas’s Study for Strings.

Kenney told SF Classical Voice about the concert:

I couldn’t be more thrilled to be making my debut with the San Francisco Symphony this summer. In a way, it’s the orchestra that led me to become a musician. I spent several years playing in the YO [including as its concertmaster], which, beyond being a world class musical experience, offered tickets to SFS concerts every Saturday, which I always took advantage of.

I’m from Palo Alto, so these concerts are doubly meaningful because my parents will be able to attend practically in their backyard at Frost Amphitheater.

The Sibelius Concerto is a special piece for me: it’s been my companion since I first learned it in high school and has marked many important moments throughout my life: it was my college audition piece, the first concerto I ever played with orchestra, and one of the first pieces I played post-pandemic.

As much as I’ve played it, my love for the piece has deepened over time. There’s nothing else quite like it in the violin concerto repertoire: it’s one of the most intimate pieces I know but also one of the grandest. It’s unbearably dark and yet blindingly bright, and filled with so much humanity and emotion.

The soloist acts in opposition to the orchestra for so much of the work, and in doing so creates an almost glacial tension that releases into bursts of pure fire. It’s also as much a concerto for orchestra as it is for violin, so playing it with such an amazing ensemble is a joy.