Live Review: San Francisco Symphony’s Opening Gala 2015

His face was on back-lit posters outside the venue, the cover (and back) of the playbill, and gold-framed pictures inside. So when maestro Michael Tilson Thomas took the stage inside Davies Symphony Hall for the opening of the San Francisco Symphony's 104th season, he rightfully exuded the vibe that he owned the place.

“So, what did you do over the summer?” He quipped to the formally dressed audience before detailing the symphony's busy summer, which included a European tour. Thomas had an aura of relaxed confidence and enjoys a friendly relationship with the crowd, who gave the symphony a preemptive standing ovation at his behest.

[jump] The first sounds of the night — other than couples dressed head-to-toe in tuxedos and gowns asking strangers to take pictures for them — came in the form of Respighi's “Roman Festivals” — a true orchestra tour de force. The first movement, “Games at the Circus Maximus,” had a proud, heroic sound, complete with battle horns positioned atop the symphony's stage. Which, unfortunately for one older lady, meant the trumpets blasted music fit for a gladiator's death just inches from her ears (which she prompted plugged with her pointer fingers). Lucky for her, the coliseum contestant the symphony sonically created soon fell victim to a lion's roar of trombone and low bass drum drone that signaled his demise.

“The Jubilee,” the second movement, had a delicate, light, mysterious quality to it, depicting pilgrims traveling to the ancient city of Rome through a thick fog. There was tension in every note, but even more so in the spaces between them, with the symphony carefully plucking away at their strings in a deliberate manner. Topped off by a beautiful solo from the first violin Alexander Barantschik and some tubular bells denoting Roman church bells welcoming the pilgrims into the city, “The Jubliee” may have been the musical highlight of the night.

Throughout the songs, Thomas guided the symphony with energy and enthusiasm, often letting himself go and twisting his spine back and forth so much that he faced the crowd for every other beat. 

“The October Festival” and “The Epiphany,” the third and fourth movements, were a lively stroll through a city in celebration. Percussion and an army of trumpets signaled a feast at the end of a successful hunt — and time for intermission.

It seemed a bit early for an intermission for me, but I'm not a regular at the symphony. Those who were gladly guided their extravagant dresses back out into the lobby area for wine and socializing. Next to me, two older men discussed their son's careers. One was working for a bio-tech start-up, the other's had really good stock options at his position.

Tickets for the sold-out patrons’ dinner, which preceded the concert, ranged from $1,700 to $100,000 for a private table — so naturally some of the city's movers and shakers were in the building. Scott Weiner, impossible to miss in a crowd due to his towering height was there, schmoozing. Dagmor Dolby, the widow of billionaire sound pioneer Ray Dolby, was co-chair of the event. The Chronicle spotted Airbnb co-founder Nathan Blecharczyk, Apple App Store senior director Matt Fischer, Iconiq Capital's Michael Anders, and Tatcha president Bradford Murray.

I only spotted a lot of older men with plastic surgery and blonde-haired wives.

After intermission the music continued, now featuring vocals from Kelsey Grammer, Nathan Gunn, and Alexandra Silber. Here is where the Broadway classics started coming in. Songs from Carousel, South Pacific, and My Fair Lady captivated the crowd.
Up first was Gunn, a powerful, handsome baritone who looks a bit like Rusell Crowe, which got me thinking, “Maybe they should have had him sing during the Gladiator part?” Then came Alexandra Silber, a dramatic, exuberant, bubbly performer who elicited many responses from the crowd with facial expressions, emotional gestures, and several pitch-perfect high notes. After that was Kelsey Grammer, who, unlike Silber, had a relaxed, one-hand-in-the-pocket style of vocalization, letting the crowd come to him.
Grammer and Silber played off each other well, switching off songs with fun little skits and interactions that the crowd ate up. Thomas even got involved, playing the spoons up against his cheeks while conducting “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” It was a cheeky little moment that showed Thomas was willing to break from the stiff setting — and it paid off. 

But the biggest surprise wasn't that of a charismatic conductor playing the spoons, it was a friend from across the street he invited over: Stephanie Blythe. The two are close friends, Thomas said, and he had to invited her over from the opera across the street (where she plays Mrs. Lovett in Sweeney Todd). She graciously obliged.
Her performance of “You'll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel was big, bold, and beautiful. It seemed her mic had been either turned off or turned down so low it might as well have been, but her powerful vibrato filled the hall anyways. The only moment that maybe topped it was the Grammer, Gunn, and Silber performance of My Fair Lady's “I Could Have Danced All Night” — that one got just about everyone singing along and dancing in their seats.

And dance all night they would — because as soon as the symphony wrapped up the after party outside took its place, featuring the overly excited, endearing, and unforgettable Micheal Jackson cover band Foreverland, who was fronted (naturally) by a white woman. Those who seemed stiff in their bow ties and wedding-gown-looking outfits loosened up on a crowded tent dancefloor, surrounded by swanky carpet, expensive-tasting food, and dimmed purple lighting.

Booze, hors d'oeuvres, and donations could have flowed all night, but things wrapped up around midnight.   


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