On Wednesday night, while the rest of the symphony sat waiting, a violinist walked onto the stage holding two violins. This man was not the soloist the people in the crowd had come to see, but applause filled the auditorium – they knew who was coming.
A moment later, the stage door opened, revealing Itzhak Perlman -- one of the world's most famous and beloved classical performers. Crippled from polio, he made his way to the center platform with the help of his crutches. San Francisco socialite Joy Bianchi stood from her seat, reaching her red-gloved arms out in applause. Soon, the rest of the crowd joined her.
This week, San Francisco Symphony celebrated its Opening Night Gala. Champagne flowed, while photographers snapped photos of Governor Jerry Brown, Alice Waters, the Newsoms, the Gettys and Mayor Ed Lee -- all dressed in tuxes and gowns. But though the party may have been similar to years past, this celebration was different. This week, the Symphony celebrated 100 years in San Francisco.
To mark the occasion, the Symphony invited two soloists to join the performance: Itzhak Perlman and piano phenom, Lang Lang. The 29-year-old Chinese pianist delighted guests with an animated Piano Concerto Number One, while Perlman played Violin Concerto in E Minor, Opus 64. And, as always, the Symphony dazzled behind them. After an encore, guests descended the stairs to a dance party in a Stanlee Gatti-designed tent and a street party that lasted into the morning.
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Since its inception in 1911, the San Francisco Symphony has had a personal connection with the city. The first show debuted just five years after the crippling 1906 earthquake, and was very much considered the first step towards revitalizing San Francisco culture.
"The great earthquake of 1906 was the making of the city as we now understand it," said Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas in a documentary to be released in mid-September. "It was a great disaster, but the way the city rallied to not only to rebuild the city, but to try and rebuild a city that was of much greater significance than the one that had been destroyed. And a major part of that plan had to do with the arts." The influence of the resulting institutions -- the Symphony, San Francisco Opera, SFMOMA -- is indisputable, and the Symphony led the pack.
From the day it opened, the Symphony was a house of risk and innovation, from hiring an American as its inaugural composer to hiring the first woman to play an instrument other than harp. This tradition continues today with projects like a Grammy-winning collaboration with Metallica and Tilson Tomas's YouTube Symphony Orchestra, launching classical music into the new century.
"People throughout the world recognize California as a place where anything is possible," wrote Governor Jerry Brown in a letter to the Symphony. "In its first hundred years, and sometimes against the odds, the San Francisco Symphony has showcased the possibilities of bringing great music to new generations."
For 100 years, the San Francisco Symphony has shown us what an organization can do for a city like ours. Here's to 100 more.
Check out a clip from the upcoming documentary to be aired on KQED on September 16: