Celebrating its centennial season with a touch of nostalgia, the San Francisco Symphony is going back to Barbary Coast days with a special series of concerts honoring The City’s musical heritage.
“Barbary Coast & Beyond: Music from the Gold Rush to the Panama-Pacific Exposition,” at Davies Symphony Hall from Thursday through Saturday, covers the Wild West period in the 1850s (before paved roads or indoor plumbing) through the 1915 fair, which announced to the world that San Francisco had recovered from the Great Quake of 1906.
Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas created the concept and text of the concerts, which are staged by James Robinson and bring to life the atmosphere of the old days, particularly the famed nine-block red-light district around Broadway called the Barbary Coast (named after a pirate-ridden area off the coast of North Africa).
James Keller, symphony program annotator and curator of a current exhibit of sheet music from the period, presented by the Society of California Pioneers, says the culture of early San Francisco was a mixed affair:
“On the one hand, here are people striving to build culture, and in the process build a music industry, and so you have this parade of famous European pianists and violinists coming through town. A recital would include a Beethoven sonata, as well as variations on popular songs.
“On the other hand, The City was a capital of low life, with dives, burlesque halls and melodeons, which referred to organs that performers brought in suitcases to bars that had no pianos. The entertainment was often jaw-droppingly distasteful by today’s standards, but the point is that The City offered an intense mixture of cultural experiences.”
This week’s concerts feature soprano soloist Laura Claycomb singing arias made popular by great divas of the day such as Luisa Tetrazzini; violinist Vadim Gluzman playing a Henryk Wieniawski concerto excerpt; and pianist Anton Nel performing Gottschalk’s “Grand Tarantelle.”
Organist Cameron Carpenter is featured in “Hail! California,” a sonic blockbuster composed by Camille Saint-Saëns for the Panama-Pacific Exposition.
Rounding out the program are appearances by the U.S. Air Force Band of the Golden West and narrator Val Diamond, former “Beach Blanket Babylon” star.
Artists who appeared in San Francisco during the period — actor Edwin Booth, who brought Shakespeare to California in the 1860s; American pianist-composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk; opera singer Adelina Patti; and violinists Ole Bull and Henryk Wieniawski — are featured in the program’s video segments, designed by Jeffrey Teeter.
IF YOU GO
Presented by San Francisco Symphony
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday
Tickets: $35 to $145
Contact: (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org