Violinist Itzhak Perlman Takes Stage at 2018 San Francisco Symphony Gala

By Megan Westberg

It was again time on Wednesday, September 5, for the San Francisco Symphony to throw open its doors to its patrons, signaling the start of the season, and it did so this year in exquisite style. Its patrons responded in kind, vamping in the pink, black, and rose-gold photo booth in shimmering sequins and sharply tailored tuxes. Those with the stamina to wait for a pic with the glittery black-and-rose-gold San Francisco Symphony sign meandered in that direction over a “red carpet” of charcoal rugs emblazoned with white roses. The scene was well conceived, and signaled the transformation of Grove Street, an outdoor space, to an SF Symphony gala venue, which had the feel of an “indoor” affair.

The SF Symphony traditionally hosts four separate dinners on gala night, and it did so this year as well: the Patrons’ Dinner in the tent directly next to Davies Hall, the Wattis Room Dinner, the Symphony Supper, and Symphonix Dinner. All are preceded by cocktail receptions. Once the dinners have finished, all ticketholders are invited to a wine reception in Davies Hall, where the crowd, with bubbly in hand, moved in a lazy flood of designer fabrics and glittering jewelry toward the evening’s ultimate destination: seats in the auditorium.


The concert did not start on time. But given the festive atmosphere, which invites delay, it was close enough. The symphony kicked off the evening with Liszt’s spirited Mephisto Waltz No. 1—a showpiece that both captured and settled the audience. Violinist Itzhak Perlman, who needed only to take to the stage to receive a standing ovation, soon appeared with students from his Perlman Music Program. In an interesting approach to J.S. Bach’s Concerto No. 3 in D minor for two violins, strings, and continuo, each student took his or her turn playing a bit of the work with Perlman. Here the skills of the master were on full display, but his playing was also generous and sensitive—he seemed to delight in sharing the stage and the music with this young crop of talented musicians. Michelle Ross in particular delivered a lovely performance in the Largo ma non tanto. As an encore, the entire group raced through one of Bartok’s 44 Duos for two violins, arranged for all seven of them. Their energy and lightning-quick ensemble work was a highlight that earned a number of smiles from the audience.

After a brief intermission came Perlman’s performances of Ennio Morricone’s “Love Theme” from Cinema Paradiso, John Barry’s theme from Out of Africa, John Williams’ theme from Schindler’s List, and Carlos Gardel’s tango used in Scent of a Woman, all sandwiched between two George Gershwin works. The first Gershwin, Cuban Overture, was lively and energetic, and if the brass occasionally seemed a little overbalanced at times to these ears, it was still a grand and entertaining tour of rhythm, color, and movement. Perlman’s performance of these film-score favorites was engaging, and his playing was especially affecting in Schindler’s List, which is perhaps to be expected, as he played on the original soundtrack. The symphony closed out the evening with An American in Paris, with car horns blaring and peaceful Paris evenings breaking up frantic, sunlit days.

The crowd filed out to be handed more sparkling wine at the door. Grove Street had again received a well-orchestrated transformation (forgive the pun), with carpeted seating areas resembling miniature living rooms, and an enthusiastic DJ drawing people into the next stage of the evening: the afterparty. Guests could find a seat here or continue along to the Patrons’ Dinner tent, now open to all, where local restaurants were offering post-concert fare. A live band was playing, as gently strobing amber balls of light dangled from the tent ceiling, defined the ambiance. It looked like this party—which, for some, began five hours before—was just getting started.