The San Francisco Symphony Launches an Intimate New Concert Series

By Barbara Bogatin | From the November-December 2020 issue of Strings magazine

I wait excitedly behind the glass door, settling into my familiar pre-concert relaxation routine—feeling my feet grounded on the floor, radiating energy from the base of my spine through my arms to the tips of my fingers as they tap the pattern of the Bach Prelude that would start the program. I silently repeat my calming mantra—breathing in may I greet each moment fully, breathing out may I greet it as a friend

I figure there might be an emotional moment or two, so I stash a package of tissues in my pocket just in case.

The stage manager opens the door as my cello and I make our entrance, but instead of walking onto the stage of Davies Symphony Hall to the welcoming sound of 2,000 people clapping in anticipation, I step outside onto a cement patio next to the parking lot, to be greeted by car horns in a traffic jam and a Muni bus screeching to a halt on Van Ness Avenue. One lone man sits 30 feet away on a chair, the crinkles of his eyes suggesting
a smile beneath his mask. 

Other than a brief trip to clean out my locker of all but a single pair of scuffed, forlorn black concert shoes, this is my first time back to Davies Hall since the San Francisco Symphony had our final rehearsal on March 12. That’s when we musicians were told the unthinkable—that the rest of our week was canceled along with our upcoming tour to Carnegie Hall and the major concert halls of Europe. 


Sheltering at home since then and removed from the enlivening process of learning new symphonic repertoire each week, I’ve struggled to stay motivated and keep up my daily practice routines. But these past few weeks my scales have sped up and my vibrato sparkled with renewed intensity as I prepared for my foray into the symphony’s new one-to-one, socially distant outdoor recital series. These free-of-charge 1:1 Concerts will happen with different symphony musicians every week, with an intent to add new locations in the fall throughout the city. Invitations will be extended to SFS donors, subscribers, volunteers, and community partners, in addition to a public lottery. Members of the public can sign up on the symphony website to enter the random drawing for a chance to have their own private performance.

Like so many who have been forced to leave their work behind with no return date in sight, I could not have foreseen the dismal horizon of cancellations through the end of the year. The San Francisco Symphony, like all performing-arts organizations, has worked overtime to reinvent itself within the confines of our new reality. We had to figure out how 100 players could make music remotely for digital performances, and in the past four months we’ve recorded excerpts from a Mahler Symphony from our living rooms, presented a virtual tribute celebrating 25 years with our [outgoing] music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, gathered the talents of our violinists and cellists to curate a solo Bach project, and created a hilarious rendition of Rossini’s William Tell Overture featuring our rambunctious children, frolicking pets, funny costumes, and comic yoga poses. It went viral with over a million views in its first few days online. 

But my colleagues and I have been missing the personal, visceral human connection with our audiences. Following tragedies such as 9/11 and the North Bay fires, we were able to welcome our community to live performances as we shared tears and grieved together. Now, as we collectively improvise ways to stay healthy, navigate ever-changing restrictions, mime hugs to family and friends, and witness unimaginable loss, we have to stay distant from one another just as our need for connection feels ever more essential.


As soon as I sit down and face my listener, my al fresco concert feels rejuvenating. I begin with the timeless genius of J.S. Bach, life-affirming in its Baroque structure and ordered harmonic progressions, assuring us that however far afield it may wander, the music will find its way home by the final note. Bach writes music that turns you inward; it is often chosen to honor major life events or moments of deep reflection. There is an indefinable rightness in Bach, and yet a certain reserve, as if the music is saying, “I feel your pain, but I am not your pain.” I hope my solo audience member is comforted by the grandeur of the great composer’s narrative.

Normally during a concert, I can sense the focused attention of an audience, feeling the crescendo of emotions as a piece unfolds. But with the wind and street noise between us, can I reach behind the mask and share a heart connection with my listener?

Sirens wail on the street as I distract my fellow with a light-hearted Tarantella. Then it’s on to some lyrical melodies in which I can lose myself and let the cello really sing, The Swan and Ave Maria. As I relax into the magical space where time falls away and there is only the beauty of music flowing freely, my heart clutches and I feel the magnitude of what we’ve lost—community, livelihoods, friends, normal life. I think of something Leonard Bernstein said: “Music can name the unnamable, communicate the unknowable.” 


I am overwhelmed with feelings I’ve kept buried these past months as melodies soar from my cello. I wish it to be as therapeutic and cathartic for my new friend as it is for me, just as he leans forward and clasps his hands in a gesture of reaching out, eyes closed in silent reverie. 

I confess, my pocket is empty by concert’s end.

Article first published in the San Francisco Chronicle, reprinted with permission.