Postponed by the pandemic for a full year, San Francisco Symphony is finally fulfilling — digitally, at least — some of new Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen’s vision for innovative presentations. This vision includes some brand-new ideas as well as an expansion of existing ventures such as the SoundBox series from Michael Tilson Thomas’s quarter-century at the helm. The season also makes extensive use of the innovative Collaborative Partners program.

Digital programming from February through August includes the SoundBox series, the CURRENTS series, and some free programming, all available via the new SFSymphony+ initiative.

SFSymphony+

A new, on-demand streaming service, SFSymphony+ is membership-based and launches Feb. 4. SF Symphony CEO Mark Hanson calls it “the exciting next step in the San Francisco Symphony’s evolution, as we further broaden our local and global reach through the release of new, bespoke digital content designed specifically for virtual audiences.”

Salonen told SF Classical Voice:

I’m very proud of what we have achieved with SFSymphony+. The challenge with digital programming is to create something that has its own identity, an essential uniqueness that allows it to function as a self-contained piece of art.

To achieve that, it’s not enough just to capture a great performance by strong musicians, or even to have interesting programming. Instead, every member of the organization — on the performance level, on the production level, on the administrative level — needs to be working in harmony, drawing upon one another’s talents and strengths.

“What we’ve created for SFSymphony+ could not have been realized in a traditional live setting. My hope, once live performances do resume, is that we can sustain the dialogue between digital and live performance to create something that audiences will find compelling and valuable — not only in the Bay Area, but across the world.”

Priced at $120 for the entire season (Feb. 4 – Aug. 31), SFSymphony+ memberships provide access to premium original content, including the seven new SoundBox programs, five new CURRENTS episodes, and other special projects to be announced. Access to individual SoundBox and CURRENTS episodes can also be purchased for $15 per episode. Premium episodes remain available for on-demand streaming indefinitely after purchase.

Some SFSymphony+ content will be available free of charge, including the 2021 Chinese New Year Virtual Celebration: Year of the Ox on Feb. 20, and newly-recorded chamber music performances by SF Symphony musicians. Previously released programs include Throughline: San Francisco Symphony — From Hall to Home, the Día de los Muertos and Deck the Hall virtual celebrations, and the first four episodes of CURRENTS.

SFSymphony+ is available now for browser-based streaming worldwide via sfsymphonyplus.org and coming soon to app and TV services (Apple TV, Amazon FireTV, Chromecast, Roku, smart TVs), smartphones, and tablets.

Salonen and the Collaborative Partners | Courtesy of SF Symphony

SoundBox

There will be seven SoundBox programs, released once a month February through August (with the exception of June), each going live on Thursdays at 10 a.m. PST. Salonon is curating three programs, with others by Collaborative Partners Julia Bullock, Destiny Muhammad, Nico Muhly, and Claire Chase.

Kicking off the series on Feb. 4, Salonen curates and conducts a program titled Nostalgia, featuring works composed in the last decade including Freya Waley-Cohen’s Conjure, Missy Mazzoli’s Vespers for Violin, and Caroline Shaw’s Entr’acte. The program is underwritten by Priscilla and Keith Geeslin. Keith is president of the San Francisco Opera Association. Priscilla B. “Prisca” Geeslin was elected President of the San Francisco Symphony in December 2020.

On March 11, Julia Bullock presents a program Lineage, an audio and visual snapshot of how lineage can inform, influence, impact and express itself in a musical context. This program, originally scheduled to take place last spring and postponed due to the pandemic, has been adapted from live performance to a digital format.

Julia Bullock | Credit: Michael Orenstein

Asked about the digital season and her participation, Bullock shared her thinking about the season with SF Classical Voice:

There’s a lot of discussion — and for myself, internal debate — about how best to utilize the opportunities of virtual concerts as it currently straddles this hybrid between live concert and highly produced audio/visual albums. Is there room for that conversation to continue evolving? Absolutely!

I know as I’m becoming more aware of technologies and new apps for how to translate recorded sound into physical space, a lot more will be possible in terms of “immersion” over time.

I’ve always experienced SoundBox as an exploratory environment where site and sound become intensely amplified to create an immersive experience, while also offering something dynamic, because of how material is organized and shared. Obviously, the physical space at Soundbox can’t be replicated virtually, but the desires and values for Soundbox remain intact.”

The program also includes Nina Simone’s “Revolution” and “Images,” Collaborative Partner Esperanza Spalding’s “Little Fly,” Aruán Ortiz’s “Mompouana,” selections from Francis Poulenc’s Rapsodie Nègre, Ricky Ian Gordon’s Litany and other works.

A scene from a SoundBox program curated by Julia Bullock | Courtesy of SF Symphony

SoundBox continues on April 15 with Patterns, exploring minimalism in music. Curated and conducted by Salonen, with SF Symphony musicians and pianist Elizabeth Dorman, it features the world premiere of Salonen’s Saltat sobrius, based on Perotin’s Sederunt principes. The concert also includes Steve Reich’s Clapping Music, Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel im Spiegel, and Terry Riley’s In C, Salonen playing the toy piano.

Harpist and jazz vocalist Destiny Muhammad curates the May 27 concert, joined by drummer Leon Joyce, Jr., bassist Ron Belcher, and SF Symphony musicians in performances of music by Ambrose Akimusire, Mary Lou Williams, William Grant Still, and Arthur Cunningham, and Muhammad’s own composition Hope on the Horizon, arranged by Matt Wong for harp, voice, and string quartet.

Nico Muhly’s concert on July 8 features choreographer and dancer Emma Lanier and includes performances of Inti Figgis-Vizueta’s Inbhir; Muhly’s Motion, and his arrangements of Orlando Gibbons’s “See, See the Word is Incarnate,” Meredith Monk’s Fat Stream; and the world premiere of a work by Lukáš Janata. Claire Chase presents her event on Aug. 8, and the final SoundBox program of the season, curated by Salonen, will be released Aug. 26.

Behind the scenes during filming of a CURRENTS episode, curated by Zakir Hussain | Courtesy of SF Symphony

CURRENTS

The CURRENTS series explores Indian Classical, Native American, Zimbabwean, Persian, and Klezmer musical cultures. The series returns on Feb. 18 with a program exploring the relationship between classical and Indian musical cultures, curated by tabla player and composer Zakir Hussain. On April 1, composer Jerod Impichchaachaaha’ Tate explores the intersection of classical and Native American musical cultures, featuring performances of his own compositions, as well as music by Rochelle Chester and Louis W. Ballard. The May 6 episode focuses on the music of Zimbabwe, curated by members of the Chinyakare Ensemble. CURRENTS dives into Persian music on June 17 with composer and multi-instrumentalist Mohammad Nejad as curator. The final episode of the season on July 29 looks at Klezmer musical culture and is curated by chromatic button accordion, cimbalom, and piano player Joshua Horowitz, with Veretski Pass.

SF Symphony’s Chinese New Year Virtual Celebration: Year of the Ox | Courtesy of SF Symphony

Free Content

Chinese New Year Virtual Celebration: Year of the Ox is co-chaired by Tiffany Chang and Nanci Nishimura and presented in partnership with the San Francisco Arts Commission. This season’s virtual program focuses on themes that coordinate with the Year of the Ox — prosperity, unity, and growth. The free event is released on Feb. 20, also broadcasting locally on NBC Bay Area at 4 p.m.

Works featured on the program include Chen Yi’s “Romance of Hsiao and Ch’in” from Romance and Dance, Zhou Long’s Chinese Folk Songs, Julian Yu’s “Flower Riddle” and “Dry Boat Dance,” Yao-Xing Chen’s “Gallop of Warhorses,” Yuan-Kai Bao’s “Little Cabbage,” and Wenying Wu’s arrangement of the traditional tune “Tajiks Festival.” Performances feature conductor Ming Luke, Bay Area erhu player Tao Shi, yangqin player Wenying Wu, pianist Samantha Cho, and members of the San Francisco Symphony.

Also free is a series of chamber-music concerts featuring ensembles composed of SF Symphony members. The first set of chamber performance videos will be released on Feb. 4, with the launch of SFSymphony+. These will include performances of Ludwig van Beethoven’s String Trio No. 3 in G major, Opus 9, No.1, Shinji Eshima’s Bariolage, Andrés Martin’s Synchronicity, and Florence Price’s Five Folksongs in Counterpoint.

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