Festival, show tunes ring in S.F. Symphony’s 2015-16 season

Stars and show tunes sparkled in Davies Symphony Hall on opening night of the San Francisco Symphony’s 104th season.

While festivities typically are high and programs are light at the orchestra’s gala concerts, this year’s performance on a Thursday (the new Friday) seemed even more buoyant than usual, perhaps due to the band’s recent return from a successful international engagement.

Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas, now in his 21st season, greeted the bejeweled crowd: “Hey, great to see you! What did you do this summer? We just got back from a spectacular European tour.”

He even did an imitation of Marlene Dietrich before summoning the audience to stand up for the musicians – for their superlative work and talent – and for a particularly rousing rendition of the national anthem.

Italian composer Ottorino Respighi’s smashing 1928 “Roman Festivals” – a four-movement piece depicting ancient and modern celebrations in the Italian city – opened the concert, and it couldn’t have been a more perfect selection for a gala.

Seemingly every instrument imaginable was onstage, and plentiful percussion (various drums, triangle, cymbals, bells, tambourine, tam-tam, glockenspiel, xylophone, ratchet, wood blocks) was prominent throughout. Brass players on an upper tier, not with the orchestra, were especially effective.

The vocal stars came out for the show’s second act of favorites from Rodgers and Hammerstein and Lerner and Loewe following the gorgeous instrumental “Carousel Waltz” from “Carousel.”

Baritone Nathan Gunn’s buttery rich “Some Enchanted Evening” from “South Pacific” left this listener wishing he had another solo, but sadly, he returned only to join Kelsey Grammer and soprano Alexandra Silber (as Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle) in entertaining selections from “My Fair Lady.” (It would have been great to hear Gunn sing “On the Street Where You Live.”)

Casting TV’s famed Frasier in Rex Harrison’s iconic role was spot on; Grammer’s interpretation of the phonetics professor was familiarly crusty and comic in “Why Can’t the English?,” “I’m an Ordinary Man” and “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face.” Silber soaked up the spotlight in a lively “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” (MTT played spoons for a bit) and “I Could Have Danced All Night,” which was reprised in an audience singalong.

The evening’s surprise guest was mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe (currently playing Mrs. Lovett in San Francisco Opera’s “Sweeney Todd”), whose version of “Carousel’s” inspirational “You’ll Never Walk Alone” elicited another of the evening’s multiple standing ovations.

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