On Tuesday the San Francisco Symphony held its opening night gala- an event which traditionally kicks off what is called "the social season" here in San Francisco, but more importantly it marks the beginning of new seasons for local performing arts groups- from now through the end of June there is always something to see or hear on a nearby stage.
The music typically takes a backseat at these kinds of events, a lesser priority than being dressed to the nines and being seen. I spotted Nancy Pelosi with a contingent of body guards and Willie Brown strolling solo among the City's movers and shakers who turned out for the event. Then there wasYurie Pascarella, who was without doubt the most wonderfully dressed woman of the evening. For the second year in a row I attended with Penelope, who makes these nights interesting because it seems she knows half the people in the house and they know her.
The program was a bit of an odd one, starting off with Berlioz's Roman Carnival Overture. The audience seemed to like it but for me it was a bit of a hash and devoid of the festiveness it was obviously meant to convey. Next up was the legendary Jessye Norman, who along with a couple of dozen members of the SFS chorus, sang Copland's In the Beginning- verses of Genesis. Yes, it was beautiful, but I found it to be a little tedious. Norman's voice however, was an amazing thing to behold live, though the nature of the piece caused my mind to wander around the hall- an easy thing to do when seated in a box (Thank you Louisa!).
After the intermission, essentially another opportunity to see and be seen, came what was for me the highlight of the event- Norman singing Duke Ellington songs backed by the orchestra. This was flat-out fabulous. Michael Tilson Thomas transformed the orchestra into the world's most lush-sounding big jazz band and they really hit every mark. Norman returned to the stage in a red gown and just floored the audience with a performance that was a master class in how to sing jazz- well, how to sing period. I have never heard a voice with such deep timbres and resonance. I kept trying to figure out if she was mic'd (it turns out she was, which is very disappointing to me) because I've simply never heard anything quite like her.
The band, I mean orchestra, had plenty of moments to shine during this set. Carey Bell had a brief but beautiful solo and then Mark Inouye stole the night from Norman with his solo during "It Don't Mean a Thing (If it Ain't Got that Swing) which I believe was played on a coronet rather than a trumpet. It was simply stunning and even Norman had to smile at his prowess (Inouye is also a jazz musician when he isn't performing with the Symphony).
Norman received a lengthy standing ovation, well-deserved, and then the orchestra concluded the program with Ravel's Daphnis et Chloe, Suite No. 2. MTT's takes on Ravel are something I really enjoy and this was no exception. I think Ravel is a vastly under-rated composer and once again MTT and the Symphony made an elegant case for his music. Large, lush tones filled the hall and it was a fitting finale. Especially because Norman singing Ellington was going to be a tough act to follow.
After it was over, we made our way across the street to the gorgeously decked out City Hall to enjoy the abundant and delicious food, drink and dancing for the next couple of hours. All in all, as to be expected, the Symphony put on one hell of an event and it was indeed a ball. And now for the serious stuff, which starts next week (after opening night at the opera- a carnival I'm going to have to skip). The Symphony has a large number of interesting programs this year buried among what looks to be on the surface a pretty conservative season as they gear up for next year's centennial- don't be fooled- there's going to be some great music at Davies this year and many of the concerts shouldn't be missed. I'll detail my own picks later this week.