Arts Listings

SF Symphony Series Brings Music to the Masses

By Galen Babb, Special to the Planet
Tuesday March 13, 2007

There is no sound quite like that of an orchestra warming up before a performance. Even for the classical music novice, the scattered sounds of violins, tympani, cellos and brass running through a chaotic mesh of notes and rhythms is enough to build anticipation for what awaits, for the drama and emotive power of supreme musicianship. 

But for many, the experience of a symphonic performance often seems out of reach, either financially or intellectually. The common perception, right or wrong, is that classical music is for the elite, for those with more time and money than the rest of us. 

The San Francisco Symphony, aware of this perception, has sought to mitigate it with their 6.5 Series, an ongoing program of Friday night performances with several features geared to bridge the culture gap. The performances start early, at 6:30 p.m., and tickets start at $25, a nearly 50 percent discount off the regular starting price.  

That’s all well and good, and it certainly helps to bring the experience of the symphony closer to many who otherwise might not have the cash to venture into Davies Hall, but it does little to break down the intellectual barriers. Thus the symphony has added another touch: The evening’s conductor will actually talk to you, introducing each piece, explaining the circumstances behind its creation, its place in the pantheon of the classics of classical, as well as its themes and instrumentation and the pleasures and difficulties that confront the modern orchestra that attempts to perform it. In other words, they’ll tell you just what the hell is going on here and why you should care.  

The San Francisco Symphony has an advantage in this area, for music director Michael Tilson Thomas is not only one of the nation’s foremost conductors but is also considered one of classical music’s greatest ambassadors. His “Young People’s Concerts” with the New York Philharmonic have been compared to Leonard Bernstein’s concerts of the 1950s that inspired a generation of classical music lovers.  

On Feb. 9, Thomas, or MTT as he is known, conducted the orchestra in a performance of Hector-Louis Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’été (Summer Nights), Opus 7, a program of six love songs setting to music the poetry of Théophile Gautier. To perform the pieces, Thomas introduced mezzo-soprano Susan Graham. 

In his introduction, MTT explained the circumstances behind the songs and briefly discussed their musical and lyrical themes before asking the audience to hold their applause between the songs, stating that the silences between were as much a part of the performance as the music itself. He requested that the audience use that pause to reflect on what they’ve just heard and to clear the mind in preparation for the next—a prospect made challenging by a scattered chorus of several hundred long-suppressed coughs from throughout the auditorium.  

But that too was entirely in keeping with the evening’s light tone, a tone set early by MTT’s impromptu opening remarks, which roused a wave of laughter as the conductor botched the title of Berlioz’ Roman Carnival Overture and had to be gently corrected by the string section. If you could cram an orchestra into your living room for a casual performance, this is what it might feel like. 

The evening’s all-French program also included Debussy’s Nocturnes and Dukas’ The Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  

The Jan. 26 performance featured Lawrence Foster conducting Gerhard’s Concerto for Orchestra. As he stepped up to the podium, Foster pre-emptively pardoned himself for his expository talents, deferring to Michael Tilson Thomas as the master of audience relations. 

“It is intimidating to be on the same box as MTT, who is the master of explaining pieces,” Foster said, but made the point moot just as quickly, with a lucid and informative introduction to Gerhard’s piece that included demonstrations by various sections of the orchestra as to how the piece would highlight each instrument. Again, the mood was casual, the musicians clearly enjoying the chance to spotlight the talent and work that goes into their performances.  

The evening also included Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 20, with Foster conducting and featuring the acclaimed pianist Radu Lapu. Lapu delighted in the opportunity to present the virtues of Mozart; the performance emphasized the dynamics between the pianist and the orchestra, with Lapu turning toward the musicians as their parts echoed and commented on his own. At one point Lapu ran a scale of notes down to the lower register and glanced at the orchestra as the musicians perfectly blended their sound with the fading piano note, an appreciative smile sliding across Lapu’s face as the sound drifted into silence. The audience was appreciative too—they called for three encores. 

Beginning Wednesday, Associate Conductor James Gaffigan will lead the symphony and pianist Yundi Li in a series of performances running through Saturday that will feature Brahms’ Symphony No. 3, Liszt’s Piano Concerto No. 1 and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2. The Friday performance will again be part of the 6.5 Series, with Gaffigan culling pieces from the other programs and leading the orchestra and soloists through examples that will help provide context for and insight into each work.  




6:30 p.m. Friday, March 16 at Davies Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. $25-$114. (415) 864-6000.  


Photograph: James Gaffigan will lead the orchestra and pianist Yundi Li in the San Francisco Symphony’s next 6.5 Series performance.