Esperanza’s Night at the Symphony


Esperanza Spalding performing with the San Francisco Symphony.

(Photo: Drew Altizer Photogrpaphy)

San Francisco’s Davies Symphony Hall is located across the street from the War Memorial Opera House and a block northeast of the SFJAZZ Center in the city’s Hayes Valley neighborhood. It was a natural setting for Esperanza Spalding to be in early October, as she joined the ranks of Yo-Yo Ma, Itzhak Perlman and Renée Fleming as a soloist for the San Francisco Symphony’s annual gala concert.

Spalding’s roots are famously in jazz venues like the one that houses SFJAZZ. And in February, she’ll be performing across the Bay as part of the West Coast premiere of Iphigenia, a new opera with her libretto and music by Wayne Shorter. It will be produced by Cal Performances, one of its co-commissioners, on the UC Berkeley campus.

But the gala’s focus was on the present. The night was about hosting a fancy fundraising event after the hall had mostly been locked down since March 2020.

Spalding was one of the evening’s two featured artists, along with the Alonzo King LINES Ballet. The bassist/vocalist revisited excerpts from Gaia, Shorter’s expansive orchestral work from 2013, with pianist Leo Genovese, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, tenor/soprano saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and the symphony. (The San Francisco-based LINES troupe danced just prior on the program to selections from Ginastera’s ballet Estancia.)

It was a night of delayed gratification for both Spalding and new SFS Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen, a composer who served as music director for the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1992 to 2009. The Finnish conductor was introduced back in December 2018, with the promise of several collaborative partners including Spalding; Carol Reiley, an artificial intelligence entrepreneur and roboticist; composer and guitarist Bryce Dessner of The National; flutist, educator and experimental music creator Claire Chase; classical vocalist and curator Julia Bullock; composer Nico Muhly; pianist, composer and film scorer Nicholas Britell; and violinist Pekka Kuusisto, who also serves as artistic director of the Norwegian Chamber Orchestra.

Speaking in front of the invited audience, Salonen said that as a Finnish man of a certain age — he’s 63 — he could only offer a certain perspective and his specific experiences when it came to programming and planning. So by bringing in these eight collaborators, who will also participate in specific concerts, he and the symphony are able to bring more voices to the creative table.

Due to the pandemic, Salonen and Spalding had to postpone their Davies debuts until this October.

While most classical programs offer an overture, one or two familiar symphonies or concertos and, perhaps, a newer work, the re-opening night offerings tripled down on the model by featuring only 20th and 21st century works. After a brief introduction from Priscilla Geeslin, SFS president, a crisp reading of Berkeley resident John Adams’ 1995 Slonimsky’s Earbox opened the concert. The audience was decked out in couture and colorful finery, while the symphony members stuck to basic black with no bowties, tails or flowing dresses on stage.

Spalding and her quartet stepped onto that stage after LINES Ballet’s exuberant performance of dances from Ginastera’s 1941 work. Wearing a white one-piece suit with “life force” written in bold black letters across the chest, Spalding introduced the performance by acknowledging “our mentor, our mystic — the great Wayne Shorter — who wrote this piece as an homage and a reminder to this entity you might call Mother Earth, or our home, called Gaia.”

After opening with a swath of woodwinds, strings and orchestral percussion, the symphony was joined by Genovese’s explorative chords and Carrington’s probing cymbal work. Coltrane, holding down the tenor chair that Shorter himself occupied during the piece’s 2013 premiere and at subsequent performances, followed with a flurry of notes that played off of Genovese’s arpeggiated swirls.

Singing her original lyrics with a clear and impassioned voice, Spalding held down the rhythm section with her own thick, steady bass line that was soon accompanied by the brass section. As the piece unfolded, her singing took on a soaring tone that reflected the environmental awareness of Gaia. The quartet’s interplay was that of a self-contained unit which could also work off of their orchestral bandmates.

The 20-minute piece was followed by the SFS’s dynamic interpretation of the percussion-heavy Noche de Encantamiento from Silvestre Revueltas Sánchez’s film score for La Noche de los Mayas from 1939.

Hearing Spalding return to the Gaia role she premiered in 2013 with Genovese and Carrington left audiences both excited about her future contributions to SFS and anticipating her upcoming title role in Iphigenia. And after a season of watching SFS at home on two-dimensional screens, taking in the entire night in-person was just the kick-start that patrons wanted and needed. DB

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