San Francisco Symphony blooms in lush celebration of Dia de los Muertos

Photo of Dia De Los Muertos celebration
Brandon Patoc/Courtesy

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On the brisk Saturday afternoon of Nov. 6, the nebulous San Francisco sky anticipated a drizzle. With foggy windows and few passersby, it was the kind of weather that cloaks the city in steam, setting the stage for the inevitable debut of November rain. Against the groggy vignette of a graying city, Davies Symphony Hall teemed with liveliness and brightened the day’s tune as the San Francisco Symphony performed its effervescent Dia de los Muertos concert.

The celebration was a family affair. Cultural pride invigorated the venue, thawing the cool solemnity and aloofness that occasionally accompany nights at the symphony. Some patrons dressed in traditional cultural apparel, such as vibrant rebozos and embroidered skirts, while others donned intricate masks of makeup and skeletal jumpsuits. The marble lobby was adorned with colorful decorations and memorable artistic exhibitions, such as Fernando Escaritz’s dioramic “Orchestra in the Clouds.” The afternoon felt cared for, special — kindling an electric collectivity. 

Conductor Enluis Montes Olivar made his San Francisco Symphony debut a success, leading the afternoon and opening with Arturo Márquez’s scintillating “Conga del Fuego Nuevo.” Flecks of gold freckled the orchestra’s all-black uniform, as musicians pinned marigolds to their hair, fastened them to their instruments. The stage, too, warmed under its lights, flanked by decorative fire pits and trimmed with electric candles and even more marigolds. 

With lively rhythms and gentle lyrical passages, Márquez’s piece set the show’s high spirits, reflecting the holiday’s ethos of celebrating life alongside mourning the deceased. Olivar dexterously fanned the flames as the orchestra moved into Astor Piazzolla’s “Todo Buenos Aires,” keeping the tempo at a sultry simmer until its crescendoing melodies burned.

Featured violinist Alexander Barantschik proved to be a master of timbre, surely wading through the piece’s demanding sections of legato and pizzicato and detache and even chopping. The violinist soared over syncopation with coquettish melodies that twinkled in their knifelike clarity.

Throughout the show, members of Casa Círculo Cultural — decked out in vibrant Dia de los Muertos regalia — danced between the house aisles and in the sliver of onstage space between the orchestra and the edge. The few hiccups of an early entrance or unsynchronized movement are easy to forgive when the performers are aglow with sincerity, gusto and homespun charm. 

This sense of blissful buoyancy knitted a cozy ambiance of connection and collectivity. It granted the audience grace when we clapped prematurely in Inocente Carreño’s “Margariteña,” and it inspired awe for the gorgeous harp motifs in “Huapango.” It magnified a profound, unexpected moment of pathos when two pairs of male dancers — one dressed in traditional mariachi costume and the other in a bright, ruffled long skirt with rainbow ribbon trimming — came out on stage and began to dance together. The pas de deux were met with thunderous, cathartic and euphoric applause.

The purely orchestral portion of the concert closed with Carlos Chávez’s “Xochipilli.” The unusual but thematically apt piece derives its subject from Aztec mythology, and it’s dedicated to the eponymous “prince of flowers.” “Xochipilli” suited the concert’s recurrent imagery of hummingbirds and marigolds, but the most memorable moment of the piece was the ending’s theatrical flair as a mysterious, velvet-cloaked figure revealed herself to be Flor Amargo.

The audience ate up Amargo’s dramatic flair — which she made sure was in no short supply. Charismatic and boisterous, she lacquered the audience in theatrics, practically fluttering across the stage as her curls bounced and her tassel dress seemed to wave. Her energy was disarming — in an exciting way — and she flexed impressive vocal and piano chops; her hands rapidly flitted between octaves with the verve of a scorpion about to strike.

She closed out the show with reverence for the opportunity to perform alongside Olivar and the symphony. Amargo’s words encapsulated and expressed the quality of specialness that seemed to douse the whole afternoon. With reverence for tradition and playful respites, the San Francisco Symphony’s celebration of Dia de los Muertos composed an earnest, empathetic love letter to Latin American culture and the community.

Maya Thompson is a deputy arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].