When one enters Davies Symphony Hall, they don’t expect to be greeted by LED-illuminated dancers on stilts. Yet, during its Opening Night Gala on Sept. 22, the San Francisco Symphony embraced the unexpected — bringing music, technology and human creativity in concert.
Glamorously dressed patrons buzzed with anticipation as food, drinks and laughter flowed throughout the venue. Floor-length gowns and dazzling high heels eventually made their way down the red carpets and into their rightful seats, waiting to be greeted by music director Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Soon, the space was awash in shades of pink, purple and blue, the back screen projecting “/imagine: Guided by the style of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec’s ‘The Spanish Dancer,’ imagine a vivid portrayal of the ethereal human form, where colors blend and emotions dance freely.” Under the direction of Salonen’s spirited hand, the Symphony ascended with Richard Strauss’ “Don Juan, Opus 20,” a tone poem that sonically conveys the legends of the Renaissance-era Spanish libertine.
The jubilant opening notes were accompanied by 59 Productions’ lighting and computerized images. A sequence of coalescing colors, unfinished lines and ephemeral forms cast a romantic spell over the venue, even if they were of technological production. Intermingling with the symphonic sounds, the visuals were a rather interesting addition to the classical piece, inviting active interpretation without drawing attention away from the music.
As it transitioned into Gustav Mahler’s “Songs of a Wayfarer,” the Symphony beautifully blended music and verse yet again, bringing to life the Romantic composer’s lovelorn poetry for soprano Johanna Richter. “/imagine: See yourself as a lovesick guardian traversing your heart’s seasons: denial, anger, acceptance, renewal, amid the enigmatic loss of passionate love,” the screen read as the music commenced.
Joined by the rich, ringing baritone of Simon Keenlyside, the Symphony deftly navigated feelings of hope, pain, dread and temporary consolation. As the music moved from fluttery to weighty and deceptively whimsical to mournful, the lights shifted from pinks and purples to deep reds. In the background, however, the projection of a recurrent human face proved a bit more puzzling — not because it was difficult to make out, but because of how distractingly distinct it was amid a backdrop of floral motifs. Nevertheless, Keenlyside gave a lucid performance of the song’s German lyrics, profoundly evoking the anguish of lost and unrequited love.
The night then took a turn with Anders Hillborg’s “Rap Notes,” a medium and genre-bending fusion of hip-hop and classical music. Standing center stage, Bay Area-based Kev Choice and Anthony “Two-Touch” Veneziale rapped over “symphonic beats” comprising synthesized pan flute and live performance. After their opening verses, the duo asked the audience for word suggestions for their freestyle, arriving at a combination of “love,” “hope” and “peace.”
Meanwhile, artificial intelligence attempted to compete with the rappers’ flow through text generated on the background screen. Though the concept was confusing at times, the main takeaway was clear: The computer was no match for the performers’ rhythmic and rhyming prowess.
Toward the end of Choice and Veneziale’s set, the audience was caught off guard yet again by the entrance of soprano Hila Plitmann, dressed in a pink, glittery and glamorous gown that popped against the Symphony’s solid black attire and the rappers’ suits and sneakers. Delivering a rather humorous rendition of Mozart’s “Queen of the Night” aria, Plitmann’s performance was delightfully odd, drawing out both laughter and applause.
Following such an unexpected composition, it proved to be even more unexpected that the Symphony concluded with Maurice Ravel’s “Boléro” — a more traditional piece that cycles through two melodies in a slow-turning, 14-minute-long crescendo. Yet, with each melodic iteration, the song grew in volume and dissonance, the protracted tension lending to an air of anticipation and, eventually, triumph.
For the San Francisco Symphony, classical music is never static. It takes on extra-musical influences, interacts with the visual and vocal arts and even accommodates new creative and computer-generated forms. But even as the Opening Night Gala married each of these elements, it also raised questions about technology’s role in the future of the arts — and where we see humanity in it all.