On any given evening, the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony, like any first-tier orchestra, are capable of playing beautiful music. But there are times when the context of a concert affects the performance and turns a lovely evening of listening to good music into a cherished memory. Last Saturday evening at Temple Sherith Israel, the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony, after three weeks of being on strike, played in a way that I will never forget.
As a gift to their supporters, and I suspect their own pleasure, the musicians crafted a concert that featured each of the major choirs of the orchestra in turn. They began with the brass and percussion and a majestic playing of Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man (an obvious choice for striking musicians) and then a beautiful arrangement of Morton Lauridsen’s O Magnum Mysterium for brass choir. It was magnificent to hear the deep resonance of the brass in the wonderful acoustic of this great synagogue. The music permeated every corner of the room and filled my own eyes with tears to hear such an unbelievably lush sound in a room so much warmer and more intimate than Davies Hall.
The Lauridsen was the only thing that seemed a bit under-rehearsed and so it wasn’t exactly cohesive. Ironically, it was also the only piece that the musicians decided to use a conductor. Hmmm . . . I wish the brass had stood in more of a horseshoe, instead of a straight line and simply played the piece. Still, the beauty of the sound was very moving and so appropriate in the context of a sacred space.
The woodwinds took the spotlight next and played a glorious rendition of Samuel Barber’s opus 31, Summer Music for Woodwind Quintet. The performance included many of the principal players of the symphony playing at their best in a piece that is both difficult and yet accessible. I know that the musicians have often spoken about their desire to play more chamber music and I think that would be a win-win for everyone, players and music lovers alike!
Intermission included home-baked cookies and a packed foyer full of fans and musicians and folks whom I suspect rarely make it, if ever, to Davies Hall. What a treat to rub shoulders with these musicians whom a month ago I could barely recognize at all from our subscription seats in the First Tier. There were warm words of support and thanks all around. The musicians seemed to enjoy meeting their fans and handing out programs and pointing out the bathrooms. During the strike they wore stickers saying “Your SFS Musician”. It was all remarkably personal being with them through the strike and at this concert. The large distances that separate musician from concert goer were erased and the shared love of music was transformed into a sense of artistic intimacy.
This artistic intimacy was on full display in the second half as the strings stepped to the front to play Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings. It began with their entrance down the three aisles of the synagogue. As the players filed into the front of the space, the audience leapt to their feet and hooted and hollered and carried on as if they were cheering the San Francisco Giants onto the field for the first game of the World Series. All that was lacking was Ranell over a booming loudspeaker saying, “Ladies and Gentleman – YOUR San Francisco Symphony!”
I saw a few eyes among the players go misty at the full-throated appreciation of the crowd for the then still-on-strike musicians. They were forced to take three bows before Jonathan Vinocour, the principal violist for the orchestra stepped forward and without the aid of microphone or script gave the audience some brief program notes about the piece. Vinocour’s introduction, however, included his personal reflection that being back in front of an audience playing music after a three-week hiatus felt like “an iPhone being charged”. And indeed, the strings were plugged in. Plugged in to some sort of heavenly, unified power source.
With all the players standing except the celli, they began the familiar chords of this well-known piece by taking a single breath together. While concertmaster Nadya Tichman played the traditional role of “leader”, the performance was in reality a demonstration of almost otherworldly listening and solidarity. The principals certainly looked at each other to find the shifts in dynamics and tempi and the players in each section followed one another in the way that a small chamber ensemble plays, (i.e. the New Century Chamber Orchestra) but this was a full symphonic-sized string orchestra, not a string quartet or even 14 players. The Serenade for Strings is normally led by a conductor, but their conductor-less rendition developed an uncanny unity that did not sacrifice one moment of rubato or expression. It was a rich, varied and a deeply felt interpretation by a group. And as I think of it in the future, I will say that I once heard the sound of true human unity.
Again, the generous acoustic, but intimate setting added greatly to the beauty of the performance. As we walked out, we marveled at the unique concert we had just witnessed and I was reminded of some other concerts made memorable by their context. Though I wasn’t present, I have heard the story many times of the concert and live recording that the SFS made on September 12, 2001 of Mahler’s 6th Symphony. The grief and anger and outrage have been preserved in that recording and is no doubt seared upon the memory of musicians and concertgoers who were present that evening. The performance of the String Serenade last Saturday will now be an indelible memory for me.
The Musicians of the San Francisco Symphony have ended their strike and were back on the stage at Davies Hall this morning playing for thousands of school children. This is wonderful news, though I hope enough of the deeper issues raised during the strike will get attention beyond what was simply needed to get a contract. I hope that the musicians will speak up – and be heard – on things such as the proposed new building project, the financial health of the organization, and how to create a more harmonious relationship between various departments and the musicians. I also hope that this strike will cause all of us to remember how valuable our cultural institutions are to our civic life. On this blog, some commentators took great issue with whether or not a fine symphony orchestra is worth the price. I believe San Francisco’s cultural institutions are an integral part of what makes this a world-class City and a great place to live and visit. And I also believe that fine art and classical music give us glimpses of our higher angels and that these fleeting moments make all the difference in the world.