Beloved jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding shows splendor at the Davies Symphony Hall

photo ofSF Symphony's "Salonen: Esperanza Spalding & LINES ballet" show
Drew Altizer Photography/Courtesy

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The element of surprise, when utilized by an orchestra, surpasses all expectations for the boundaries of classical music. During its performance on Oct. 2, the San Francisco Symphony kept the audience at the Davies Symphony Hall shocked and guessing in a night of intriguing instrumentation. 

Upon initial inspection of the program, Saturday night’s performance contained seemingly contrasting arrangements, as pieces ranged in style and era of composition. However, as the night progressed, each piece hinged on the central theme of unexpected wonder. 

New musical director Esa-Pekka Salonen brought his Finnish flair to the night, standing at the helm of the orchestra pit and commanding the symphony with animated baton movements. Known for his modern and bold choices of orchestration, Salonen breathed fresh life into Davies. Salonen navigated the program’s variety with attentive skill. His baton flew with unrestrained fervor, encouraging each section of players to step into the limelight. 

The second piece of the night brought great surprise, as the movements of Alberto Ginastera’s “Estancia, Op. 8a” married the hypnotizing movements of the Alonzo King LINES Ballet company, a group famed for abstract, modern challenges to traditional ballet. Flexed tarsals replaced pointed toes and bound fists substituted for arched arms. During key moments in each movement, the whole group asynchronously took to the stage, each dancer seemingly overcome with their craft. 

Dancers Adji Cissoko, Madeline DeVries, and Ilaria Guerra were dressed in lime green as the trio performed alongside the second movement, “Danza del trigo.” Reminiscent of the Three Graces, the dancers moved with delicate tension, tethered to the energy that flowed between each body but expanding within their individual movements. The backing flute solo, performed by Linda Lukas, and the interplay with the French horn section breathtakingly reflected the group’s strained resistance. 

The company’s performance was truly an ode to the potential of the human physical form — the lights lightly kissed each strained muscle and expanding ribcage with grace. Audible breaths coming from each ballet dancer accompanied the orchestra with such pointed intention that the division between the dancers and musicians became beautifully blurred. 

Jazz bassist Esperanza Spalding entered the stage to immense cheers from the audience. An image in silver boots and a white jumpsuit that proclaimed “Life Force,” Spalding grasped her upright bass and scanned the audience with a smile. Joined by Leo Genovese on piano, Terri Lyne Carrington on drums and Ravi Coltrane on saxophone, Spalding began to play “Gaia” — Wayne Shorter’s 2013 long-form jazz piece composed specifically for Spalding’s vocals. “Gaia” spans 26-and-a-half minutes, and Spalding had the audience entranced under her fingers, expertly coaxing out notes while playing as she inched the orchestra along. Her vocals soared above the sweeping strings and held a cosmic range that created Shorter’s vast philharmonic picture of Mother Earth’s power. 

For the orchestra’s final piece, Salonen selected the fiery, almost anxiety-inducing fourth movement from “La noche de los Mayas.” From Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas, the 13-minute piece alternated time signatures every other bar, creating an oscillating chaos. For this performance, the percussion had multiplied, and the entire back high rise was flanked with arms at the ready, respective mallets in hand. 

A confusing sound pierced through the spiraling strings of the orchestra halfway through the movement, as a glistening conch rose high above the horns — with one player blowing out consistent bellows like a foghorn. When audience members caught on to the conch, light laughter joined the orchestra’s runs. The backing lighting attempted to reflect the piece’s liveliness, but instead created a major distraction with its strobing, changing colors. 

The San Francisco Symphony enunciated its return with a variegated program that showed the group’s aptitude for modern arrangements and revisions to classical repertoire. The performance attests to the symphony’s new direction, and hopefully the unbounded energy will remain as the season continues. 

The symphony returns on Oct. 7-9 with Salonen directing “Kendall, Chin & Beethoven.”

Contact Francesca Hodges at [email protected]. Tweet her at @fh0dges.