San Francisco Symphony celebrates 100 years of history 

The San Francisco Symphony’s opening galas are always special occasions, but Wednesday, when the orchestra marks its 100th year, it will be, as Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas puts it, “an extraordinary thing, this moment in time.”

A century in the life of a city that’s only 164 years old itself is worth noting, but the central role of the orchestra in San Francisco’s cultural life makes it more than mere formality.

Click the picture for a shot of the symphony's past. Also, go here for a gallery of glamorous gowns to wear to opening night.

Expecting a centennial-season audience of up to a half a million concert-goers, the symphony — with a $63 million budget and orchestral and choral forces of 250 — is a major artistic, educational and economic power in The City, which it represents on national and global tours. Major contributors to the centennial season include Chevron, Wells Fargo and Bank of America.

“When we first thought about ways to commemorate the San Francisco Symphony’s centennial, we knew we wanted to celebrate at home with our audiences. We wanted to bring great artists and ensembles to San Francisco to be a part of our musical family. And we wanted to create a season that focused on the tremendous virtuosity of our orchestra and rejoice in the pioneering spirit that has always been a part of our tradition,” MTT said.

Wednesday’s gala features two standout soloists in romantic masterpieces: Lang Lang, in the Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1, and Itzhak Perlman, in the Mendelssohn Violin Concerto. A nod to American music will be celebrated in Copland’s “Billy the Kid” ballet suite, and individual instruments will have a chance to shine in Benjamin Britten’s “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra.”

The gala is a fundraiser, with ticket prices to match, but on the following day, the orchestra is promoting its centennial by offering The City a free concert.

Starting at 11:30 a.m. in the Civic Center, the public is invited to a performance of the Liszt concerto with Lang Lang, and the Britten “Guide to the Orchestra.” Food trucks will have lunch for sale, and free birthday treats will be offered by La Boulange Café & Bakery and Ghirardelli Chocolate & Ice Cream Shops.

The opening concert will be filmed for a later airing on PBS’ “Great Performances.”

MTT showcases music, artists

San Francisco Symphony’s 10-month-long centennial season combines great music and famous artists, making for an extended celebration.  

Six of the country’s other old and renowned orchestras — from New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago — are joining the party in Davies Hall during the season, each giving a pair of concerts in separate works they have commissioned.

Michael Tilson Thomas has been involved in collaborations with the other orchestras. The composers include San Francisco Symphony veteran John Adams, Thomas Ades, Mason Bates, Sofia Gulbaidulina and Meredith Monk.

In his 17th season at the head of the orchestra, MTT is continuing his advocacy of contemporary, 20th-century and American music. He has scheduled significant San Francisco premieres including violin concertos by György Ligeti and Esa-Pekka Salonen, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 14, which will complete symphony performances of all the Russian composer’s symphonies.

The much-acclaimed “American Mavericks” program returns, both in Davies Hall, and on tour to New York, Ann Arbor and Chicago.

MTT calls the approach to formerly neglected masterpieces by Copland, Harrison, Cowell, Feldman and others a matter of “a courageous spirit.”

Back in 2000, when “Mavericks” first appeared and won rave reviews, the symphony engaged surviving members of the rock band the Grateful Dead in an unprecedented collaboration.

The symphony is also offering semi-staged works, some with film and video projections, such as Debussy’s “The Martyrdom of Saint Sébastian,” the Bartók opera “Duke Bluebeard’s Castle,” Ades’ “Polaris: Voyage for Orchestra,” and, in honor of The City’s past, “Barbary Coast and Beyond.”

The list of guest artists is impressive. It includes violinists Joshua Bell, Hilary Hahn, Leila Josefowicz, Christian Tetzlaff and Pinchas Zukerman; pianists Emanuel Ax, Kirill Gerstein, Garrick Ohlsson, Horacio Gutiérrez and Yuja Wang, and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

Guest singing stars will make the San Francisco Opera envious. They include Laura Claycomb, Sasha Cooke, Michelle DeYoung, Olga Guryakova, Alan Held, Katarina Karnéus, Jessye Norman, Sondra Radvanovsky, Dawn Upshaw and Dolora Zajick.

Among the score of illustrious guest conductors are former San Francisco Symphony music directors Edo de Waart (1977-1985) and Herbert Blomstedt (1985-1995). — Janos Gereben

Notable concerts

Mahler, Symphony No. 3 in D minor

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts one of Gustav Mahler’s largest and most ambitious symphonies, a work less popular than the composer’s better-known first, second, fourth and eighth symphonies. The program also features mezzo Katarina Karneus, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus and San Francisco Girls Chorus. [8 p.m. Sept. 21-22 and Sept. 24; 2 p.m. Sept. 25]

Mozart, Ades, Stravinsky

MTT conducts Mozart’s Symphony No. 35 (“Haffner”) and Stravinsky’s “Petrushka” along with the West Coast premiere of pioneering British composer Thomas Ades’ “Polaris: Voyage for Orchestra,” a San Francisco Symphony co-commission, with video by Tal Rosner. [8 p.m. Sept. 29-30, Oct. 1]

Verdi Requiem

Fabio Luisi conducts Giuseppe Verdi’s 1892 Requiem. The piece, written for Alessandro Mazoni’s funeral, has all the characteristics of the opera composer’s sweeping melodies and pulsing choruses. Opera stars Soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, mezzo Dolora Zajick, tenor Frank Lopardo and bass Ain Anger are soloists in the program, also featuring the San Francisco Symphony Chorus directed by Ragnar Bohlin. [8 p.m. Oct. 19-22]


San Francisco Symphony Gala

Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Tickets: $165 to $295

The concert will be preceded by a 7 p.m. promenade and followed by festivities in the tent pavilion next to Davies Hall.

Birthday Bash Celebration

Civic Center Plaza, Polk Street between Grove and McAllister streets, San Francisco

When: 11:30 a.m. Thursday

Tickets: Free

Contact: (415) 864-6000,

The Centennial Season

Most concerts in Davies Symphony Hall

When: Wednesday through June 2012

Tickets: $15 to $145 for single concerts; savings with subscriptions of three concerts or more

Contact: (415) 864-6000,

About The Author

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben is a writer and columnist for SF Classical Voice; he has worked as writer and editor with the NY Herald-Tribune, TIME Inc., UPI, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, San Jose Mercury News, Post Newspaper Group, and wrote documentation for various technology companies.
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