Knowing when and where Luciano Pavarotti first sang “Nessun dorma” onstage in a performance of Puccini’s “Turandot” may be handy on “Jeopardy.”
The answer comes from conductor Riccardo Chailly, who will lead Leipzig’s Gewandhaus, the world’s oldest orchestra, in two concerts in Davies Hall this week. The Gewandhaus was formed in the 1740s, two dozen years before Beethoven’s birth.
Chailly, meanwhile, turns 57 Saturday — the day before the first San Francisco concert. On this tour, he returns to The City for the first time in 33 years.
As he speaks about that first-and-only appearance here, Chailly provides the quiz answer, without prompting: “It is a great pleasure to return to San Francisco for the first time. I am coming back still with a fresh memory of the ‘Turandot’ production I conducted as a young fellow, with Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballé making sensational role debuts in the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production.”
It was a historic moment in San Francisco Opera history. I am glad I was there — along with Prince Charles, although he in the center box, me in standing room — but apparently Oct. 29, 1977, is in Chailly’s memory as well, even from the distance of a quarter century.
The spotlight was on two of the greatest singing stars of the day, making a joint debut appearance. Down in the pit, there was Chailly, age 24, making his own conducting debut in a brilliant performance.
(That’s the same age as Gustavo Dudamel was when the Venezuelan first conducted at the BBC Proms, and a year younger than Leonard Bernstein was when his last-minute substitution for Bruno Walter leading the New York Philharmonic in 1943 earned him a page-one review in the New York Times.)
Milan-born Chailly, a precocious conservatory student, was a teenage assistant to Claudio Abbado at La Scala and playing drums in a rhythm-and-blues band. He went on to lead the Royal Concertgebouw for two decades, and conduct major orchestras and opera houses around the world.
While Chailly hasn’t been back to The City, the Gewandhaus Orchestra has several times during its 33-year touring history, led by a familiar figure: San Francisco Symphony Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt, music director here from 1985-95, headed the Gewandhaus from 1998-2005.
Chailly took over from him as “Gewandhauskapellmeister” in 2005.
This week in Davies Hall, Blomstedt will overlap with Chailly and the Gewandhaus, conducting the orchestra as it performing works by Haydn and Beethoven.
IF YOU GO
Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig
Presented by San Francisco Symphony
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 7 p.m. Sunday; 8 p.m. Monday
Tickets: $15 to $100
Contact: (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org
Note: Sunday’s program includes Chopin Piano Concerto No. 1 and Dvorák Symphony No. 9; Monday’s is Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5, and Symphony No. 7. Pianist Louis Lortie is guest soloist.