There was plenty of dazzle in Davies Hall for the opening of the San Francisco Symphony’s fall season on Friday. This was the first full concert since spring, and it was percussion heaven under Esa-Pekka Salonen’s powerful, focused baton. The nontraditional program, chosen as the opener and repeated on Saturday night, gives us an idea of what future programming will look like, and multiple standing ovations by the audience showed at least initial approval of Salonen’s vision.
The hour-plus concert, with no intermission, included John Adams’ “Slonimsky’s Earbox”; dances from Argentine composer Alberto Ginastera’s ballet “Estancia” with dancers from Alonzo King Lines Ballet performing onstage; Silvestre Revueltas’ “Noche de encantamiento” from his 1939 film score “La noche de los Mayas”; and saxophonist Wayne Shorter’s “Gaia.” Sparks were struck immediately and raced all program long through the Latin rhythms.
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Best of show was the Ginastera. The orchestra played with vigor and supreme security; Salonen’s conducting gestures suited the music so precisely and without show that it must be a musician’s dream to perform with him. The dancers picked up on the folkish rural phrases and fiery percussion riffs, and moved with muscular, explosive rhythm on the thrust stage. MTT did wonders with opera — now we can look forward to many more music-dance collaborations.
Jazzy, brash, inscrutable, shapeshifting — all these apply to Wayne Shorter’s “Gaia.” Shorter, a veteran of Miles Davis’ ensembles and the rare jazz musician with a degree in composition, has written a large, loose-limbed work (commissioned in 2013 by the Los Angeles Philharmonic), with little real architecture but spiked with opaque lyric flights matched vibrantly by singer-bassist Esperanza Spalding (Spalding and a select group are working with Salonen to expand the repertoire). The 20-plus minutes of music, played by a jazz quartet embedded in the orchestra, travels through unresolved climaxes to a smashing conclusion.
Mexican composer Revueltas employs marvelous ranks of percussion in “Noche de encantamiento.” The percussionists, divided into four separate groups that improvise in turn, enliven the piece. The work drives through Mexican history from pre-Columbian times to the 20th century, a pulsing composition that develops into a thunderous orchestral finale to bring any audience to its feet, as this one did.
“Slonimsky’s Earbox,” celebrating maverick music historian Nicolas Slonimsky, was the opener, a bright, brief and witty work in Adams’ electric, minimalist language — percussion working on several levels, weaving in and out of bright horn flights. The audience was dressed for the night’s gala, and no one seemed to miss the usual Beethoven/Brahms entries on the roster. The night celebrated the return of live audiences to Bay Area music, and the audience was clearly happy to be home.
Beethoven and two San Francisco Symphony premieres are on tap for the next concerts on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and contemporary works by the dozens are set for the season to come.
Tickets for this week’s San Francisco Symphony concerts at Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, are $35-$125. All ticket holders must wear a face covering while inside Davies Hall. Those over age 12 must show proof of full vaccination, and those under age 12 must have proof of a negative COVID test. To purchase, call (415) 864-6000 or visit sfsymphony.org.