Written by Anita Dworkin
What a marvellous evening with the San Francisco Symphony! Davies Symphony Hall always has an air of elegance, as we entered on Thursday, Dec 1, in anticipation of a great night of music ahead. We took out seats as the stage in front of us was beautifully set with garlands of white holiday lights. With a challenging few years of Covid restrictions behind us, we were delighted to be back in the presence of live music as the opening notes began. Though small in stature, the conductor, Xian Zhang, wielded a powerful baton, leading the orchestra through various musical modalities. She elicited expressiveness, passion, technical preciseness, and a compelling ensemble.
Born in China in 1973, Zhang moved to the US in 1998, winning praise as one of the few female conductors of major US and international orchestras. The program opened with Ballade, Opus 33, by Samuel Coleridge Taylor, its first San Francisco Symphony performance. Known as “The African Mahler” (1875-1912), Taylor was born in England and attended the Royal College of Music. Mentored by Edward Elgar, he was highly influenced by Brahms, Tchaikovsky, and Dvorak. The opening number was filled with lush strings, a melodic brass section, and a harmonious musical conversation between the brass and woodwinds. One could imagine this work as a gorgeous ballet.
Premiered by the NJ Symphony in 2021, Michael Abels ( b.1962) introduced “Emerge” by recording. Abel was born in Phoenix and raised by his grandparents on a farm in S. Dakota. Recognized as a bi-racial child prodigy, Abel developed his musical career as a prolific composer of movie scores. “Emerge” is a musical depiction of our society springing forth from Covid lockdowns. With a clarion call, the oboe opens with an A as the strings tune. The familiar sounds of an orchestra warming up, followed by the violins and lower strings, winds, and brass, remind the listener that a concert is about to commence. As the full orchestral sounds continued to develop, the impressive percussion section added joyful syncopated rhythms to each note. Sweet and engaging violin and cello solos built into a melodic wave. One could sense the joy and renewal of our cheerful, attentive participation in total musical harmony with SF’s best orchestra. There is much to say about the Ninth Symphony, one of our musical library’s most highly regarded, performed, and recorded symphonies. Written by Ludwig van Beethoven in 1824 while almost totally deaf, the Ninth represents the first symphonic composition to include a full orchestra, choir, and four soloists. The fourth (Choral) movement, the “Ode to Joy,” a poem written by Friedrich von Schiller, reflects an Enlightenment wish for heavenly joy and universal peace, harmony, and brotherhood. A memorable performance directed by Leonard Bernstein in 1989 celebrated the fall of the Berlin Wall. The EU later adopted the Ninth as its anthem.
The first three movements introduced the musical themes initiated by basses, followed by all the strings, and finally, the entire orchestra chimed in to complete the sound. A delightful Turkish March and fugues varied the main themes with multiple key changes and rhythmic variety. The music accelerates to a commanding expression of fury and joy. In the fourth movement, Reginald Smith, Jr. Baritone opened the vocal quartet with a resounding call, “O Freunde,” His deep and sonorous voice resonates throughout the concert hall as it evokes a higher being calling out from the Heavens. Tenor Issachah Savage added a powerful force as his duet with Smith resonated with so much beauty and strength we were totally engaged. Kelly O’Connor, Mezzo-Soprano, and Gabriela Reyes, Soprano, added richness and excitement. Reyes’ voice soared over the chorus and orchestra. The quartet blended beautifully and appeared to enjoy performing together, making the night more magical. The choir demonstrated perfection in every vocal note, cohesion, and balance, guiding us on their musical journey. The sopranos faced the challenge of higher notes with ease as they were required to repeat 74 high A’s. I know this is no easy feat, as I performed this piece with Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra in Ann Arbor, Michigan, during their annual May Festival in 1969! Notable in this performance was the tympanist Edward Stephan, who dramatically held the rhythm of the orchestral music together throughout the evening. The audience was thrilled with this performance, clapping between movements, which is not typically “de rigueur” but well deserved. The San Francisco Symphony has shown its stuff again, combining contemporary and classical music in a heartwarming performance. A night to remember, but I expected nothing less from such brilliant and talented musicians and artists.
For more info on the SF Symphony go to: www.sfsymphony.org