‘Strings’ on the Scene: The San Francisco Symphony Opening Gala

By Megan Westberg

“It’s called a step-and-repeat.” Strings managing editor Stephanie Powell has a background in fashion and in covering events like the Mill Valley Film Festival, and so was giving me an education in the terminology of fancy events. A string of men in tuxedos and women in couture balanced on perilous heels stood waiting in line to parade in front of a shimmering rose-gold sign announcing their destination: San Francisco Symphony. Couples and small groups each took their turn down the blue carpet, chattering and smiling, striking the occasional pose for a camera—some with a self-conscious grin, others in all seriousness. The symphony’s opening gala event had everyone in a festive mood.

By now, many of them had already dined in sumptuous style. This is the year’s biggest fundraiser for the ensemble, and symphony supporters are rewarded for their generosity with cocktails; four separate dinners (which one depending upon one’s level of patronage); after-parties with dancing, more cocktails, post-concert snacks, a DJ, and a live cover band; and of course an opening-night concert helmed by Michael Tilson Thomas, with a world-class soloist. This year, that role was ably filled by cellist Yo-Yo Ma.



We maneuvered past excited crowds and into Davies Hall, the San Francisco Symphony’s home. Tuxes and gowns gently mingled, now brushing past obstacles, now snagging together, as patrons wandered in from the street to find a glass of sparkling wine and a seat. From our seats at the back of the orchestra section, a dazzling river of muted and metallic finery—interrupted by flashes of coral, orange, yellow, and red—slowly meandered down the aisle next to us, the high-heeled occasionally making use of a partner’s shoulder to mask a telltale hobble. There were a few looks of annoyance at the inevitable holdups involved in seating this many people at once, but the atmosphere stayed convivial. Old acquaintances were renewed, new friends met right there in the aisle.

Eventually, quiet. The lights dimmed, and with the orchestra and MTT onstage, the audience stood to open the season by singing a full-throated “Star Spangled Banner.” Seats were retaken with much rustling of fabric, and the show began. This year, the San Francisco Symphony will be celebrating the Leonard Bernstein centennial in a series of concerts, and so began this evening with his spirited Overture to Candide. The orchestra delivered the music with energy and precision, highlighting its charm.


The audience stood again, this time to welcome superstar cellist Yo-Yo Ma to the stage. Ma played two pieces—Saint-Saëns’ Cello Concerto No. 1 and Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme—bookending intermission and a faintly awkward birthday tribute to philanthropist and symphony patron Bernie Osher. Ma was a pleasure to watch, all smiles and sprightliness in jaunty moments, all concentration and commitment in intense ones. He is a communicator; watching him connect with other musicians on the stage is a reminder that music, like language, is about relationships. Even transitory connections onstage lead to a richer audience experience.

The orchestra closed the program with Ravel’s experiment in texture and momentum, Boléro. As the lighting effects shifted from deep purple-blue to the piece’s end in scarlet, the orchestra passed around the melody from instrument to instrument, the cellists’ hypnotic pizzicato underpinning much of the progress. It is a piece indelibly printed on the public consciousness executed in steady, marching beats.

Despite the show being over, the show wasn’t exactly over. MTT and Yo-Yo Ma collected their bouquets onstage, the lights came up, and everyone exited the building to find another party beginning. Grove Street, host to the step-and-repeat, had been transformed into an outdoor party space with bars, disco balls, and a DJ. The Founders Dinner tent was now open to all, and post-concert snack offerings lined the room; patrons wound their way around, balancing treats on small plates while a live band played covers to lure dancers to the floor.

As the crowd replenished its energy with food and fresh cocktails, we quietly made our way to the door and into the cool evening air. The party may have just been getting started, but it was getting late . . . and it was high time I changed my shoes.