Priscilla Geeslin, the new chair of the San Francisco Symphony board, could barely get the words out. “My heart is racing,” she said, looking visibly troubled on stage at Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday, May 6th. “I am so excited to be here!
She was not alone. No soul among the 360 or so guests scattered around the room could have sensed something different.
The string music program was short (75 minutes without intermission) and relatively moderate. But in its own way, it was a party bomb.
It was the first live music event in the longtime home of the orchestra in over 14 months. It was the first concert to take place in person under the direction of the new Music Director, Esa-Pekka Salonen. It was a reaffirmation that even a global pandemic couldn’t completely silence the sound of music.
Sometimes in our darkest times it might have felt like this day would never come. Yet we were here again, sharing the common gift of live music almost as if the past year had been a bad dream.
The truth struck me a few minutes after Geeslin, as Salonen led a staff of 25 musicians – all string players with a single percussionist – through the smooth and velvety harmonies of Sibelius’ “Rakastava” (“The Lover”). Suddenly, I felt my chest twitch in silent sobs and I knew I would come home.
As with any return to familiar ground after a long absence, the event felt both professional and slightly surreal. Everything in Davies was as we left it. I spent a few happy minutes before the concert reconnecting with the bailiff’s staff, whose presence is always a welcoming element of any visit.
But there was also something odd and dreamy about the experience – not least the fact that 360 people, widely distributed between the rows of the downstairs orchestra section and the dressing rooms, barely make one. breach in Davies’ 2,743 sieges.
For the opening program, the Symphony invited medical professionals, first responders and community leaders, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It was a wonderful gesture of gratitude to those who have done so much to guide the Bay Area through this perilous episode, as well as a suitably gradual next step for the complex return to concert life.
It also meant that the feeling of exuberant celebration was more conceptual than visceral. Everyone in the hall applauded, but the truly thunderous bursts of applause will have to wait until next week, when the Symphony opens concerts to the ticket-buying public.
Fortunately, San Francisco recently moved to the yellow state level for reopening. For this reason, the Symphony this week increased the concert capacity to 50% of the hall from the 35% previously announced. That translates to 1,371 seats, according to a spokesperson for Symphony.
In the meantime, Salonen led his fellow string players – themselves spread across the concert stage – through a series of pieces designed to show off their flexibility and elegance even under adverse circumstances.
Joining the Sibelius in a Nordic vein were Nielsen’s “Little Suite”, Op. 1 and “From Holberg’s Time,” Grieg’s elegant nod to 18th century music. America was represented by George Walker’s surprisingly adorable “Lyric for Strings” and Caroline Shaw’s delightfully witty “Entr’acte,” which culminated in a haunting solo from associate principal cellist Peter Wyrick.
It was easy to see the constraints behind the programming. Salonen limited himself to music for a small string ensemble as woodwinds and brass still operate under more stringent restrictions, and he chose music that the orchestra was already familiar with (like the Shaw, which featured in the the orchestra’s recent SoundBox virtual program). But it was heartwarming to see him make room for African-American and female composers, voices that had been under-represented for too long in the orchestra’s activities.
And in the end, the repertoire choices mattered less than the sheer festive triumphalism of the moment. Orchestral musical creation is back! Who can say what will follow?