Ellington still means a thing at the SF Symphony’s gala

“Eclectic” was an understatement at Tuesday’s opening gala for the San Francisco Symphony’s 99th season, under the direction of Michael Tilson Thomas.

Between Berlioz’s carnal “Roman Carnival Overture” and Ravel’s intricate “Daphnis et Chloé, Suite No. 2” ballet music, there was a surprising amount of religion, some symphonic jazz and Jessye Norman — the entertainer, not the great opera diva.

The star attraction of the expensive evening — an important fundraiser for the symphony — was heavily miked in a set of five Duke Ellington songs.

Even with that once-big and rich voice mostly gone, Norman still holds the audience, substituting charm and stage presence for reliable vocal production, overcoming instances of scooping and hollow notes.

Above and beyond the music-hall favorites of “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,” “Sophisticated Lady” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If It Ain’t Got That Swing),” Norman’s most impressive performance came in two hymns, spirituals turned into jazz.

Bolstered mightily by Mark Inouye’s trumpet, Timothy Higgins’ trombone riffs and a contribution from clarinetist Carey Bell, Norman created a church-like experience with the 1943 “Come Sunday” (part of Ellington’s “A Tone Parallel to the History of the American Negro”) and 1968 “Heaven,” premiered as part of Ellington’s Second Sacred Concert.

Also, old-time religion was the crux of Copland’s 1947 “In the Beginning,” a rather shapeless recitative to text from Genesis. A chorus of 30 and Norman, not amplified, gave a performance that seemed to lack the power attributed to the work by Thomas in his remarks.

After the symphony’s performance of Copland’s 1924 Organ Symphony on Friday, this was a definite comedown. Fortunately, the orchestra is taking the Organ Symphony, not “In the Beginning,” on its European tour, which begins this weekend.

It was the season opener, but the orchestra appeared well beyond exhibition-game form. The Berlioz, the Ellington songs and, especially, the Ravel were all at a midseason high.

Weather in San Francisco knows its place the day after Labor Day — foggy, windy, delightfully cold — but in some of the usual gala fashion parade, there was no acknowledgment of summer’s end.

Chances are if you wait until the opera opener Friday, you will see lots more season-appropriate haute couture.

IF YOU GO

San Francisco Symphony 2010-11 season

Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: Through June 26

Tickets: $15 to $140

Contact: (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org

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