Resistance was futile in the face of the San Francisco Symphony’s opening night gala on Friday night, Sept. 23. Between the orchestra’s well-played performance of the complete Midsummer Night’s Dream incidental music by Felix Mendelssohn and the African-American Shakespeare Company’s winning, semistaged traversal of Shakespeare’s play (very abridged), there was just too much charm.
Adding to the occasion, the audience was ready to party like it was 2018. The pandemic hasn’t gone, but the concertgoers were no longer feeling the effects, and they came out in force — a much younger group than you’re probably imagining — dressed every which way from the nines to “can’t be bothered but glad I’m here.” President Priscilla Geeslin was on hand to give the welcoming speech and right behind her were the gala committee co-chairs Navid Armstrong and Jeremy Gallaher. There was dancing in the streets, but that was the after-party.
Although the orchestra itself cannot yet celebrate a return to normalcy — orchestra members are still living with the reduced salaries forced on them by the pandemic shutdown — the signs of impending recovery were there in the presence of four new orchestra members taking their seats, including principal cello Rainer Eudeikis, violists Katrazyna Bryla-Weiss and Leonid Plashinov-Johnson, and associate principal and E-flat clarinet Matthew Griffith. There are still many openings in the orchestra left to fill, but the new players give hope for the future.
The orchestra’s task here was not too heavy, a calculated choice since on Saturday they were scheduled for a Florence Price violin concerto and Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra. But under Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen’s baton, the Symphony performed Mendelssohn’s music well, and there were some cool touches, like the careful articulation between the staccato note and the accented note in the Overture’s braying-ass motif. Nothing in this score has been left unexamined, a consequence of it being performed so often, but you can either play it with attention to detail or not, and the orchestra was mostly on its mettle here. A special shout-out goes to associate principal horn Mark Almond, who contributed a perfectly phrased solo in the Nocturne.
It was a terrific idea to bring the music together with the play so that the audience could hear how well Mendelssohn chose his spots and how he used recall and thematic development to underscore the play. Just the suite itself doesn’t give you the full picture.
L. Peter Callender, artistic director of AASC, has been concentrating on directing for more than a decade, but it took just one speech for his Shakespeare chops to make themselves known. He’s still the best classical actor residing in the Bay Area that I’ve seen. And what a voice. The younger members of AASC were excellent, and since there were only two, let’s name them: Devin Cunningham read Demetrius and Flute, and Rodney Jackson was outstanding as Lysander and Peter Quince. In an unfamiliar role, Lisa Vroman was not the star soprano of the evening but instead was brilliant as Helena and hilarious as Snout.
But Vroman was not the only guest star here. Jonathan Moscone, for 16 years the director of California Shakespeare Theater in Orinda and currently the executive director of the California Arts Council, was a kilt-wearing Puck, much gentler than your average mischief-maker but still quite funny. Debbie Chinn — normally behind the scenes as managing director of CalShakes, then Opera Parallele, and now currently the managing director for Anna Deavere Smith’s Pipeline Project, Girls (which is based on comprehensive community-based research focusing on what has been branded “the school-to-prison pipeline” for girls 13–24) — was Hippolyta and Titania. Chris Sullivan, a well-recognized television and film actor, was a big-voiced and very funny Bottom. And let’s not forget to mention Tyra Fennell as Hermia and Snug, whose day job is director of commissions and community relations for Mayor London Breed, and the local celeb narrators, Raj Mathai of KNTV (NBC) and culture reporter Tony Bravo of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Making the most of a cross-Grove Street connection, the two vocal solos were sung by Adler Fellow sopranos Anne-Marie MacIntosh and Elisa Sunshine, supported by the SF Symphony Chorus. Both have voices that demand to be heard more widely, and they displayed sterling musicianship.
Corrections: As originally published, this review credited the horn solo to Robert Ward. It was, in fact, Mark Almond. Also Tyra Fennell is not an actor with AASC but a member of the mayor’s office of San Francisco. We regret the errors.