San Francisco Symphony joyously returned to Davies Symphony Hall for live performances Thursday evening after a pandemic-induced 14-month absence, and the celebratory mood palpable in the hall among the musicians and audience could be described as a masked ball — as in, everyone was prudently masked but having an absolute ball.
The reduced-capacity audience at Davies included Bay Area hospital and medical professionals and regional representatives of community centers and cultural districts, recognizing and thanking them for their key roles in supporting the public during the pandemic.
“There’s nothing more exhilarating than experiencing live music with other people,” said Brianna Negrete, a music therapist at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospitals. “The absence of live music, this past year, left a hole in my life. When I was given the opportunity to safely attend a live performance by the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall my heart skipped a beat. This is one performance I know I’ll never forget.”
Indeed, the concert was memorable. Before it started, there was a salute to first responders and an announcement that the audience included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who graciously acknowledged the recognition from her stage-adjacent box seat. Applause seemingly commensurate with a full house repeatedly erupted throughout the hall, particularly after Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen appeared onstage.
After elbow bumps with SFS members, Salonen smartly led the scaled-back ensemble, strings and percussion only — sounding in top form despite their long absence from Davies — in an inspiring program of works by Jean Sibelius, George Walker, Carl Nielsen, Caroline Shaw and Edvard Greig.
The musicians, reasonably spaced from one another, nonetheless came together in concert for an authoritative, warmly serene offering of Sibelius’ “Rakastava” (The Lover) Op. 14 — based on folk poetry of the composer and Salonen’s native Finland — that easily filled the house.
Salonen then expressed his own thanks to the first responders before continuing with a touching offering of “Lyric for Strings” by Walker, who was the first African-American to win a Pulitzer Prize for Music. In the context of the pandemic, Walker’s pensively elegant opus evoked the memory of those people who have been its victims, and yet it projected undertones of hope for the post-pandemic future.
SFS proceeded with a glowing account of Nielsen’s three-movement “Little Suite for Strings” Op. 1, which was originally composed for string quintet, and the ensemble’s full-bodied sound was excellent, especially in its energetic delivery of the finale.
The program’s diversity broadened with the presentation of a work by a female composer, namely the beguiling “Entr’acte” by Shaw, who in 2013 at age 30 became the youngest person to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music. “Entr’acte,” though grounded in classical and baroque music, sprouts multiple modern string expressions, culminating in a solo cello’s haunting farewell.
In contrast with the cello’s lonely adieu in the Shaw composition, cellist Barbara Bogatin succinctly expressed what it has meant for the musicians to perform together again before an audience.
“We love playing music together whatever the context, but having our audience there in person makes the heart connection so powerful,” Bogatin said. “We all suffered so much in this difficult year, and we’re grateful to share some musical joy as we slowly return to communal activities. A sports team can play to a stadium of cardboard cut-outs but when the fans are in the seats, that’s when the magic happens.”
The program completed with a radiant, silky rendition of Grieg’s “Holberg Suite,” a tribute to the writer and Grieg’s fellow Norwegian Ludvig Holberg. The lively ending set an upbeat tone for SFS, whose return to Davies will, thankfully, be followed by many encores to come. The season continues on Thursdays and Fridays through June, with guest conductors and the return of Salonen.
“When we recently learned from state and city leadership that we could finally begin giving concerts for live audiences again, we immediately got to work on the plan to gather our musicians and audience together in response to what our community wants and needs,” said San Francisco Symphony CEO Mark C. Hanson prior to the concert. “There is nothing that compares to experiencing music together in a physical space.”
IF YOU GO
San Francisco Symphony
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 7 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, through June 25
Tickets: $45 to $95
Contact: (415) 864-6000, sfsymphony.org
May 13-14: Pianist Jeremy Denk performs and directs music by Bach, Mozart, William Grant Still’s “Out of the Silence” and Gerald Finzi’s “Eclogue” for Piano and Strings
May 20-21: James Gaffigan leads the U.S. premiere of Freya Waley-Cohen’s “Talisman” and works by Schoenberg and Barber
May 27-28: Ken-David Masur conducts Somei Satoh’s “Saga,” Qigang Chen’s “L’Eloignement” and Tchakovsky’s “Serenade for Strings”
June 3-4: Joseph Young leads Jessie Montgomery’s “Banner,” Carlos Simon’s “An Elegy: A Cry from the Grave” and Rodion Shchedrin’s arrangement of Bizet’s “Carmen” Suite
June 10-11: Joshua Weilerstein conducts Bohuslav Martinů’s Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano and Timpani; Florence Price’s String Quartet in G major and Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings.
June 17-18: Esa-Pekka Salonen leads U.S. premiere of Daniel Kidane’s “Be Still,” Bernstein’s “Serenade” and Bach’s “Brandenburg” Concerto No. 3 featuring violinist Augustin Hadelich
June 24-25: Salonen leads Mahler’s “Adagietto” from Symphony No. 5, Jessie Montgomery’s “Strum” and Richard Strauss’ “Metamorphosen”