With celebrity guests, sparkling decor, special branding, and, of course, great music, the gala opening of the San Francisco Symphony’s 108th season Wednesday evening in Davies Hall was extraordinarily festive, and for good reason. It was the last “first night” for Michael Tilson Thomas, who’s leaving the orchestra’s top job in June after 25 years.
As the logo MTTXXV (looking like that of a pro sports franchise) and photos of the maestro through the decades were projected on screens at the side of the stage, MTT entered the hall with a flourish, walking down a center aisle while the horns played Mouret’s “Rondeau,” aka the “Masterpiece Theatre” theme.
After taking the podium, MTT, 74, said, “It’s really great to see you! It beats the hell out of the alternative. And we’re still having a great time.” He acknowledged important symphony patrons past and present before inviting the audience to participate “lustily” in the traditional sing-along of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The show began with Glinka’s regal, fast-paced 1842 Overture to “Ruslan and Ludmila,” before moving to more recent selections. Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny and the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, led by Ragnar Bohlin, performed music from Aaron Copland’s “Old American Songs” and the chorus sounded great on the premiere of Gordon Getty’s 2015 “Shenandoah.”
MTT mentioned that he personally knew four composers represented in the intermission-free program: Copland, Getty (a “champion” of the San Francisco Symphony, MTT said) and Benjamin Britten, whose dynamic Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Purcell wonderfully showcased all sections of the orchestra, with woodwinds sounding particularly good. (Note: For the occasion, the orchestra’s female musicians dressed in colorful gowns, rather than the traditional black.)
After MTT joked that Beethoven wasn’t among the composers he has known, the concert’s main program concluded with the final movement of Symphony No. 9, the mighty “Ode to Joy” featuring the chorus and soprano Susanna Phillips, mezzo soprano Jennifer Johnson Cano, tenor Jonathan Tetelman and McKinny. It’s a treat to hear the familiar melody live, as well as read the English translation of the lyrics —the full package an example of “tremendous exaltation,” said MTT, who also paid tribute to concertmaster Alexander (Sasha) Barantschik, and thanked the orchestra’s musicians for giving him the “committed, heartfelt and emotional” contributions he asks for.
Key to the festivities were appearances by famous friends, colleagues and fans. Cellists Yo-Yo Ma and Margaret Tait, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, soprano Audra McDonald and MTT’s husband Joshua Robison (the evening’s co-honoree) were among those wishing MTT well via video, while symphony executives and representatives from the 49ers, Giants, A’s and Warriors presented the conductor with team jerseys and flowers.
Also on hand, perhaps accounting for armed guards positioned on Grove Street outside the hall, were House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Gov. Gavin Newsom and San Francisco Mayor London Breed.
The concert’s encore, with a “Beach Blanket Babylon” cast member wearing a hat commemorating MTT’s tenure, was a sing-along of “San Francisco,” by Bronisław Kaper — the fourth composer known to MTT.
Afterward, glamorously attired ticketholders made their way to Grove Street and the party tent adjacent to the hall, where premium spirits flowed freely and bites from some of The City’s notable eateries were served; Monsieur Benjamin’s potato and leek croquettes were to die for.