SF Symphony Brings Together Freestyle Rap, Mahler, Ravel, Strauss, and AI for 2023 Opening Gala

Music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, with a kind of sprightly grace, led the orchestra on a night of smiles and shimmering gowns

By Megan Westberg 

San Francisco was all smiles as it posed on the pink carpet in front of Davies Hall at the symphony’s 2023 opening gala. Splashes of crimson and emerald and purple swirled among black gowns that glittered or exposed Baroque and Deco patterns set in lace. Traditional tuxedos crowded the scene with sporadic whimsical exceptions. Friends stopped to greet each other, compliments were exchanged, delight in both seeing and being seen the uniting thread. 

But once the lights dimmed and the chatter died, the aural portion of the evening began (though a visual element persisted in a screen above the musicians’ heads). Music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, with a kind of sprightly grace, led the orchestra into the first piece on the program, Richard Strauss’ Don Juan, Op. 20, of 1889. At turns triumphant and playful, lush and lyrical, it is a piece as likely to capture the hearts of an audience as its protagonist to win the love of more than one woman in this dramatic tone poem. Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik’s tone was particularly sweet as the orchestra navigated a tale of seduction, conquest, and eventual death. The screen above ran through a program meant to accentuate or, at least, reflect the music dancing below. Patterns in purples, blues, and oranges gave way to bucolic sunrise to reds and oranges to portraits of women. The backdrop swirled along with the music. The lively audience sat still throughout, enthralled. 


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Portraits of women appeared in a sea of swirling colors on a video screen above the San Francisco Symphony.
Portraits of women appeared in a sea of swirling colors on a video screen above the San Francisco Symphony. Photo: Devlin Shand for Drew Altizer Photography.

After a bit of shuffling onstage, English baritone Simon Keenlyside joined the orchestra for Gustav Mahler’s Songs of a Wayfarer of 1883. This represented Keenlyside’s San Francisco Symphony debut, but he seems to have made the rounds pretty thoroughly elsewhere, including the Met, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Bavarian State Opera, and Vienna State Opera. His clean, resonant tone elevated Mahler’s somewhat gloomy song cycle, dedicated to soprano Johanna Richter, with whom the composer shared some kind of love affair. Despite the mournful subject matter (love ever out of reach) Keenlyside exhibited flashes of good humor, earning a smile from Salonen, as the singer and instrumentalists negotiated variable textures and dynamics but always remained in balance.  


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Baritone Simon Keenlyside joined the San Francisco Symphony for its Opening Night Gala.
Baritone Simon Keenlyside joined the San Francisco Symphony for its Opening Night Gala. Photo: Drew Altizer.

Next came the more experimental portion of the program, and the audience buzzed as onstage shuffling commenced again. Anders Hillborg’s Rap Notes was written in 2000, wherein the composer “created an orchestral backdrop with a prerecorded beat and synthesized pan-flute solo for the rappers to freestyle over.” Pianist, composer, producer, bandleader, and hip-hop artist Kev Choice and freestyle artist, educator, and actor Anthony Veneziale joined the symphony for this one. In terms of concept—and execution—it was effective. The soloists were lively and connected well with the audience, and when soprano Hila Plitmann joined the mix of symphonic sounds and rap freestyling on the theme of “Love Hope, and Peace” with a recurring sample of “Queen of the Night” from Mozart’s The Magic Flute, there was something dynamic and vibrant and entertaining about it all. Somewhat perplexing was the proposed involvement of AI, which seemed to consist of an attempt by a computer to keep up with the rap by reproducing what the artists said in running text on the overhanging screen. It was occasionally a little funny (symphony became Stephanie more than once), but didn’t add much to the scene. Incidentally, the audience loved this piece, whether they connected with the AI element or not. There was some arm waving to the beat (constricted a touch by tuxedo sleeves) and standing applause at its conclusion. 


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Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the San Francisco Symphony at its Opening Night Gala 2023.
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the San Francisco Symphony at its Opening Night Gala 2023. Photo: Drew Altizer.

All that remained was Ravel’s generally appealing Bolero, handled with sensitivity by Salonen and the orchestra. The crowd, possibly mesmerized by the hushed atmosphere of the piece’s drowsy opening bars, was most focused here as the inimitable theme made its way through the ensemble, building to a rousing conclusion. Satisfied smiles in place, the audience applauded and made its way, shimmering, into the San Francisco night.