SF Symphony in Davies Hall on May 6, 2021
Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the San Francisco Symphony in a program for First Responders at Davies Symphony Hall on May 6, 2021 | Credit: Stefan Cohen

For the 350 or so audience members scattered around Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday, May 6, to hear the first live performance by an ensemble of the San Francisco Symphony in over a year, there surely were a range of gratifying moments and sensations.

For some, just entering the long-vacant auditorium may have been enough to reawaken musical memories and appetites. For others, the lively gait of Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen on his way to the podium quickened anticipation for evenings and seasons ahead. The first sweetly poignant bars of Sibelius’ Rakastava (The Lover) undoubtedly sent shivers up more than a few spines.

My own breakthrough moment came a little farther into the program’s opening number. It was the sound of a Sibelius chord softly dissipating at the end of a phrase. That may seem like a modest thing to single out, but for this listener at least, it captured what we’ve been sorely missing since the pandemic mute descended — the immediate encounter with live music in a shared acoustic space. There and only there do we fully experience the communion that vibrating strings and columns of air, along with percussion’s thumps and shimmers, can induce in our bodies, minds, and souls.

In this first in a series of limited-audience performances continuing through June 25, the San Francisco Symphony is back.

Thursday’s 75-minute program, which was repeated the next night, was dedicated to Covid first responders, many of whom were in attendance (along with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi).   Salonen chose a program of Nordic and American works, beginning with the Sibelius and ending with extracts from Grieg’s From Holberg's Time. Works by the Americans George Walker and Caroline Shaw were sandwiched around the Dane Carl Nielsen’s Little Suite for strings in the middle.   Pandemic protocols limited the forces to masked string players and timpanist Edward Stephan.

Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the San Francisco Symphony | Credit: Stefan Cohen
Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the San Francisco Symphony in a program for First Responders at Davies Symphony Hall on May 6, 2021 | Credit: Stefan Cohen

The evening’s musical peaks emerged in the concert’s center section. Salonen, in his first live stint leading his new ensemble, sculpted a performance of Walker’s 1946 Lyric for Strings that was by turns tender and urgently voiced. Then the ensemble burrowed into the Nielsen, giving its three movements a shapely depth of field. The violas exuded a burnished umber tone. Dynamic shifts were limber and decisive. A brief burlesque passage led to an exultant and unified close.

Shaw’s Entr’acte, a work first composed for string quartet in 2011 and subsequently transcribed for string orchestra, cast a spell of eerie enchantment and beguiling wit. At the outset, woozy phrases collided and collapsed into each other, followed by a section of percolating pizzicati. That in turn gave way, in this eventful piece, to wispy moans and sighs, a reprise of the opening measures, and a pensively lyrical cello solo by Peter Wyrick.  

The strings handled it all with responsive aplomb. The humor came through, and so did the humanity. Salonen, who has made a minor specialty of pandemic re-openings — he led the New York Philharmonic’s first live outing last month in a program that included both the Shaw and Sibelius pieces on this bill — was an assured and engaging presence.

SF Symphony in Davies Hall on May 6, 2021
Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the San Francisco Symphony in a program for First Responders at Davies Symphony Hall on May 6, 2021 | Credit: Stefan Cohen

Was everything in peerless form on this reunion night at Davies Hall? It was not, and that, too, contributed to the affecting nature of the evening. The Symphony’s players hadn’t gathered in these numbers to perform for a very long time. Listening to them reaching to find each other, in sometimes tentative entrances and cutoffs and occasional ragged textures, served to remind one and all what a remarkable, collective enterprise music-making at this level is.

The masks will come off, eventually. The woodwinds and brasses will make their presence felt. Great and unforeseeable things lie ahead, under a director brimming with big ideas and the resources to pull them off. For now, we can all be grateful for how far we’ve come and what we’ve got. Did anyone, even a few months back, think there would be live concerts at Davies Hall this soon?

When the musicians launched into the Grieg, a staple they know well, there was an air of vigor and swagger in the first movement and a long, singing line in the second. Even as they faltered some later on, the message came through. We’re all getting there, it said, and doing it together.

Audience for SF Symphony in Davies Hall on May 6, 2021
Audience at the San Francisco Symphony's First Responders Concert at Davies Symphony Hall on May 6, 2021 | Credit: Stefan Cohen

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