By Iris Kwok
Special to The Examiner
The San Francisco Symphony kicked off its summer season Friday with a live performance of American music at Davies Symphony Hall. It was the orchestra’s third concert since its return to performing for indoor audiences without social distancing requirements.
The evening’s highlight was a stunning performance of Quinn Mason’s 2020 “Reflections on a Memorial,” a somber piece exploring feelings of grief and mourning. While perhaps an unconventional choice for a Fourth of July-themed family concert – the annual outdoor Independence Day Stern Grove show had the same program — it felt particularly suitable following a year of unfathomable loss.
Mason, in attendance, shook hands with conductor Edwin Outwater and received a well-deserved round of applause.
The orchestra’s exuberant rendition of John Williams’ Olympic Fanfare and Theme, a piece about human spirit stretching to prove itself, seemed to be a reference to the resiliency of a city emerging from the darkest days of the pandemic as well as a nod to the Tokyo Olympics, which are scheduled to begin later this month.
“If you’ve been following the story of the symphony orchestras coming back into the world of live concerts, you know we’ve started carefully and cautiously, with a small audience, fewer members on the stage, one by one,” Outwater said. “We are now in full bloom. We have brass, we have percussion, we have woodwinds, we have the full spectacular sound of the San Francisco Symphony, so I’m so happy to be here.”
Maddy Cowan, 25, a student physical therapist at University of California, San Francisco who was among members of a socially-distanced audience in May in Davies Hall, said, “As great as that first concert was, I missed the full orchestra because of the way it just hits you in the chest. I mean, nothing really compares to it.”
Outwater said that being away from concert stage for a year was “like being in the world’s weirdest waiting room.” Over the months, he said, Morton Gould’s Pavanne from “American Symphonette” No. 2 would frequently come to his mind. “You’ll see what I mean,” he added, and the audience chuckled when the orchestra played the delightfully bouncy piece, evoking feelings of anticipation and reminding me of a jazzy version of Ravel’s famed “Bolero.”
Pianist Aaron Diehl joined the orchestra for the 1924 original jazz band version of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and principal clarinetist Carey Bell impressed with the sultry and smooth opening cadenza. Then Outwater suddenly took a brisk tempo, catching some orchestra members by surprise. Diehl caught on quickly and seemed at ease as he tackled the solo jazz passages.
The program also included Jennifer Higdon’s Cathedrals from “All Things Majestic,” which evokes the experience of walking through a national park; Aaron Copland’s Saturday Night Waltz and Hoedown from “Rodeo”; and Carlos Simon’s “The Block,” inspired by Romare Bearden’s paintings of life in Harlem.
Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes Forever” closed the concert, with some in audience failing miserably to clap along to the beat, but enjoying themselves nonetheless.
After more thunderous applause, when the lights came back on, I felt as if I were being jolted away from a wonderful 75-minute long dream.
But I’m not too worried. Like second violinist Polina Sedukh, who said she missed performing “tremendously” and is excited for the next few weeks, I’m looking forward to coming back next Friday, when music director Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto and Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2.