Symphony at 100 … minus one

Just six years after the Great Quake ravaged The City, the San Francisco Symphony was born. Led by Henry Hadley, 60 musicians played music by Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Haydn and Liszt in the Cort Theater at 64 Ellis St.

The concert was in December 1911; a big centennial celebration is assured for the orchestra’s 2011-2012 season.

But what about the upcoming season, which lacks a round number and the popular interest a century mark commands?

With programming somewhat short on new and unusual works, the significance of the region’s largest cultural organization (its operating budget is $63 million next season) is undeniable: attendance last season, including school programs and special events, was close to half a million. Some 12 percent of the audience came from out of town.

“Some might view the 99th as a time of collective breath-holding, a type of placeholder while we get ready for the big centennial,” says executive director Brent Assink. “But we decided several years ago that the SFS would actually approach this period as a trajectory, one which propels us into our second century with ever increasing attentiveness to artistic growth and to our contribution of the vibrancy of this community.”

The season opens today with a gala featuring Jessye Norman singing Duke Ellington tunes and closes with Beethoven’s grand “Missa Solemnis” in June 2011.

Classics dominate, including two all-Beethoven concert series (Jan. 20-23 and Feb. 2-5), an all-Beethoven program with the Mutter-Bashmet-Harrell Trio (Nov. 7), all-Mozart (Feb. 17-19) and all-Mendelssohn (March 10-12) concerts.

Still, there are eight works by living composers, including two John Adams pieces and two commissions. The others are 94-year-old Henri Dutilleux’s “Tout un monde lointain,” György Kurtág’s “Grabstein für Stephan,” Christopher Rouse’s “The Infernal Machine,” and Valentin Silvestrov’s “Elegie.”

Michael Tilson Thomas, beginning his 16th year as music director, will conduct “Mahler in San Francisco” programs in May, including symphonies No. 2 (“Resurrection”), No. 6 and No. 9.

MTT emphasizes the importance of the “Project San Francisco” residencies: “Two weeks of John Adams’ music, a double barrel of two of our commissions of his music, and of course my good friend Yuja Wang will be back, this time as resident artist.”

Wang, 23, was 19 when she made her San Francisco debut at a Chinese New Year concert.

“It’s been so wonderful to follow Yuja’s incredible growth in the last few years,” he says. “She and I have been working on all sorts of new and interesting pieces lately, and we’re very much looking forward to tackling Bartok’s Second Piano Concerto next spring.”

The music director also points at the presence of orchestra members as soloists: “Russ de Luna, Mark Inouye, Carey Bell and Stephen Paulson all in our first three weeks. They are featured in Copland’s ‘Quiet City,’ Debussy’s ‘Premiere Rapsodie for Clarinet,’ Villa-Lobos’ ‘Ciranda das sete notas’ — unusual pieces which I really love.”

Principal viola Jonathan Vinocour plays the solo in Morton Feldman’s intricate “Rothko Chapel,” and concertmaster Alexander Barantschik is featured in the Mendelssohn Concerto, which was premiered in 1845 on what is now Barantschik’s instrument, the 1742 “David” Guarnerius del Gesu.

Among visiting orchestras are the Dresden Staatskapelle, founded in 1548, Oct. 24; Israel Philharmonic, with Zubin Mehta (Haydn and Mahler), Feb. 27-28; National Orchestra of Spain, with Josep Pons (Falla, Stravinsky, Ravel); April 10; St. Petersburg Philharmonic, with Yuri Temirkanov (Shostakovich and Brahms), March 27-28.

While Davies Hall has no standing room, low-cost tickets are available through six-concert student subscriptions starting at $90, and 20 discounts for groups. Center terrace seats behind the orchestra offer the best buy at $25. These and rush tickets are available only at the box office on the day of the performance.

IF YOU GO
San Francisco Symphony 2010-11 season

Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: Today through June 26, 2011
Tickets: $15 to $140; $140 to $265 for today’s gala
Contact: (415) 864-6000; www.sfsymphony.org

artsClassical Music & OperaentertainmentMichael Tilson ThomasSan Francisco Symphony

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