Parties: The Symphony’s Sweet Return

Written by Catherine Bigelow | Photography by Drew Altizer

An audible buzz of excitement reverberated amid the sold-out crowd in Davies Symphony Hall on October 1 when the announcer intoned, “Please enjoy the performance. Live music awaits.”

The two-year wait for an audience arts experience, indeed, was painfully long. But “Re-Opening Night” guests were primed for this 110th season opener of the San Francisco Symphony. Even if we were a bit rusty — and that included Priscilla Geeslin in her first, live at-bat as symphony president welcoming supporters.

“I was about to say, ‘I’m the San Francisco Symphony princess,’” she said with a laugh, as she charmingly corrected herself. “Well, I wish.”

But this reopener was revelatory as Geeslin and Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen (in his inaugural opening-night gig) reimagined the traditional gala format: Gone were the separate VIP-level, preperformance dinners and elaborate tents. Also absent: intermission.

Instead Salonen threw down the gauntlet of his new era with a thrillingly taut 90-minute concert, kicked off with the quirky Slonimsky’s Earbox by Bay Area composer John Adams. The three-piece program featured star turns by Alonzo King LINES Ballet dancers (choreographed to Alberto Ginastera’s Estancia suite) and Grammy Award-winning jazz vocalist-bassist esperanza spalding (a Salonen collaborative partner, in her first symphony performance), who masterfully performed Wayne Shorter’s Gaia in a white jumpsuit emblazoned with a graphic heart on her sleeve and the phrase, “Life Force.”

Traditional gala dinners were replaced by a cocktail promenade along Grove Street or in the patron Nosh Pit — a parking lot transformed into a swank Blueprint Studios-designed outdoor nightclub featuring bars and food stations with Got Light sculptural illuminations projected against cement walls. McCalls, thankfully, was still on-hand, steering stellar service amid delectable postconcert bites, including its signature mini lamb chops for deep-pocketed patrons in Zellerbach Hall.

While the “Re-Opening” invite suggested cocktail attire, guest ensembles ranged from traditional black tie or ball gowns to shimmering cocktail dresses, leather jackets, bold colors, comfortable yet chic footwear and, of course, elaborate masks.

“I’m ecstatically happy for many reasons. But the main one: We’re back, with the orchestra playing for a live audience,” enthused Salonen. “Esperanza is an amazing talent and Alonzo’s LINES Ballet felt like a natural choice. Working with jazz musicians and dancers is not what I do every day. But their additional energy, for all the musicians, is hard to resist.”

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