San Francisco Symphony's delightful gala opens season

I cannot compare from firsthand experience the San Francisco Symphony's 102 season-opening galas since 1910, but Tuesday's event was definitely among the best of the 19 I have heard at Davies Symphony Hall under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.

Programming the dressy, expensive fundraising gala is difficult, striking a balance between too many soothing warhorses (Tchaikovsky gets overly familiar after a while for most everybody) or demanding works challenging the festive, merrymaking crowd.

But Tuesday, the mix was balanced, entertaining and satisfying.

Between pre-concert libations and post-concert dinners, civic leaders (led by a tuxedoed Mayor Ed Lee), society swells and captains of industry heard and heartily applauded a series of fine-to-excellent performances.

Bracketed between two symphonic works, the evening featured soprano Audra McDonald in rare form — which would have been appreciated more without amplification that turned deafening at times, especially after the intermission. McDonald's bright, beautiful voice is powerful enough even in the big barn of Davies; alas, it all came through electronics.

Speaking of warhorses, the concert-closing work was the ever-so-familiar Gershwin piece “An American in Paris,” performed under MTT's uniquely knowing mastery of the jazz-classical-American idiom. Yet it was the opening work, still a novelty 88 years after George Antheil wrote it, that created a stir and big, appreciative applause.

“A Jazz Symphony” is what its name says, but it's unexpectedly packed with excitement and brilliance. It featured stunning solo piano passages by Robin Sutherland and breathtaking virtuoso work by principal trumpet Mark Inouye's mischievous exploitation of the composer's instruction “to use all the tricks of the trade and ad-lib.”

Well-behaved audiences don't interrupt music in a concert hall with applause, but that rule went by the wayside in response to Inouye's riffs and improvisations.

McDonald sang four songs by Leonard Bernstein in the first half, mixed up with Kander/Ebb's “First You Dream,” Sherman Edwards' “He Plays the Violin” (with special assistance from concertmaster Alexander Barantschik), Styne-Merrill's “The Music That Makes Me Dance,” two standard favorites, Styne/Comden & Green's “Make Someone Happy,” and, after admitting reluctance to sing something “everybody knows,” the Loewe-Lerner “I Could Have Danced All Night.” She even turned the refrain over to the audience, which complied happily and loudly.

The soprano's smooth legato, clear diction, and unaffected charm in speaking and singing delighted her many fans and won her new admirers. Imagine if we could have heard her without amplification!

The usual Wednesday gala event was moved up one day so as not to conflict with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year.

“A Jazz Symphony” and “An American in Paris” will repeat at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, with the addition of music by Ives and the Barber Violin Concerto with soloist James Ehnes.

S.F. Symphony

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday

Where: Davies Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave.

What: “A Jazz Symphony” and “An American in Paris”

Note: Friday is nearly sold out, but the newly added Saturday repetition has plenty of tickets and special pricing, from $30 to $121, with the orchestra section ranging from $38 to $78.

Tickets: (415) 864-6000,

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