A new season for Bay Area orchestras

Exploring Bay Area orchestras—highlights and lean times

Labor Day is fast upon us, and with it the beginning of a new season in the Bay Area’s lively music scene. To help sort concerts and halls we offer this small list of our superb orchestras.

Joana Carneiro-photo by Dave WeilandThe Berkeley Symphony heads this list, as it has reinvented itself with the huge energy of its young conductor, Joana Carneiro, whose mesmerizing conducting is equaled by her audacious programming. Their four main concerts at Zellerbach—“The Innovators,” “The Rebels,” “The Illuminators” and “The Idealists”—each features a World Premiere Commission, quite a feat for a small-town symphony. They begin on October 4 at 7:00 p.m. with local composer/inventor Paul Dresher, whose Concerto for Two Invented Instruments and Orchestra should knock some stuffing out of Zellerbach’s plump cushions. Charles Ives’ The Unanswered Question casts light on some rocky philosophical terrain, and then they satisfy the stalwarts with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7. Following the music is the Opening Night Gala Dinner.

This entire season looks spectacular, with wunderkind Dylan Mattingly’s new composition Dec. 6, Andreia Pinto-Correia’s Fado-inspired visions of Lisbon coming Feb. 7, and Steven Stucky’s song cycle, The Stars and the Roses, premiering Mar. 28.

The Oakland East Bay Symphony continues a tradition of audacity at Oakland’s Paramount Theatre under Michael Morgan, celebrating American composers with a “fanfare to democracy” at 8:00 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 9, three days after our national elections. Aaron Copland’s Clarinet Concerto, starring new principal clarinetist Bill Kalinkos, headlines that concert. The Jan 25 concert, “A Woman’s Life,” includes both Beethoven’s Leonore Overture and Richard Danielpour’s orchestral setting of the poetry of Maya Angelou, while “Sky Above, Sea Below” on March 15 pairs Britten with the glorious Faure Requiem and the Oakland Symphony Chorus. Then a sly grouping: “Notes from the Middle East” on April 20 balances three contemporary composers, Egyptian Nader Abbassi, Israeli composer Avner Dorman and Palestinian-American John Bisharat. They conclude their season with “Saints and Sinners” on May 3, featuring Bach’s uplifting Magnificat and the world premiere of principal cellist Daniel Reiter’s Mysterium.

Michael Morgan-photo by Eric PolitzerAnd of course their popular holiday special, “Let us Break Bread Together,” returns with many guests to overflow Paramount’s stage on Sunday, Dec 9 at 4:00 p.m.

The mighty San Francisco Symphony gets off to a big start next week, Sept. 5 – 8, with Semyon Bychkov conducting violinist Pinchas Zukerman, arguably one of the greatest violinists of our time, in Bruch’s Violin Concerto, and then they ice the cake with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.  Bychkov continues Sept 12 – 15 with Schubert’s poignant Unfinished Symphony and Shostakovich’s revolution-epic Symphony No. 11.

Michael Tilson Thomas sweeps in on Wed. Sept 19 at 8:00 p.m. with a glittering concert and opening gala featuring Berlioz’ coloristic Romeo and Juliet, Ravel’s Bolero, and the incomparable Joshua Bell in Saint-Saëns’ blistering Introduction and Rondo capriccioso.

September ends with Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, with its darkling triumphs and sublime Adagietto. Our late summer (October) finally heats up the Bay with three guest conductors, including Jaap Van Zweden conducting Brahms’ bittersweet Symphony No. 4, and the month rolls to a close with young piano sensation Yuja Wang in Prokofiev’s explosive Piano Concerto No. 2. All in all, this month is all about great works done to the hilt.

November 11 and 12 the Warsaw Philharmonic come to town, and then the month is filled out with a series of fun nights: Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings, Pink Martini, the vocalist trio Wilson Phillips and trumpeter Chris Botti.

After a month of holiday-themed fare, 2012 is bid farewell with a celebrated New Year’s Eve Ball, and when the New Year rings in we get to hear a gorgeous all-Debussy program, featuring soprano Renee Fleming. Then the Russian National Orchestra arrives in February to show us how Russians do Russian.

Along the way, of course, are many, many concerts that are just as exciting—this is merely a sniff at some of the varietals.

Michael Tilson Thomas-photo by Bay TaperEast of the tunnel, the California Symphony invites seven guest conductors to lead their 25th season, and along the way may choose one to be permanent artistic director, an exciting search that includes Donata Cabrero conducting Beethoven and Robert Moody doing Rachmaninoff. Their season opens Sunday, Sept 30 at 4:00 p.m. at the Lesher Center in Walnut Creek.

The North Bay’s Santa Rosa Symphony enters new state-of-the-art digs (reputed to have perfect acoustics) at the Green Music Center’s Weill Concert Hall in Rohnert Park. Under the baton of fearless French conductor Bruno Ferrandis, the symphony opens its new season on Sept. 30 with Beethoven’s Consecration of the House (appropriately), his Piano Concerto No. 4 starring Jeffrey Kahane, and a world premiere by Nolan Gasser. The hall seating for this concert is already sold out, but the back wall opens up for tables and free lawn seating—complete with giant screens and speakers—to accommodate all comers.

Their season continues Oct. 6, 7 and 8 with a premiere of Edmund Campion’s The Last Internal Combustion Engine, a concerto written for the famed Kronos Quartet, full orchestra and electronics, and then they finish with Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, the “Titan.”

This is a very exciting year for the 85-year-old symphony and well worth the drive. But as their star rises, musicians of the venerable 79-year-old Napa Symphony fight to keep music alive, as the loss of their principal donor crippled and shuttered their doors and the doors of Yountville’s cushy almost-new Lincoln Theater. This Sept 2 at 6:30 they will mount a free concert in memorial park in downtown Napa, with the performers and conductor Ming Luke donating their time. Eventually, some form of reorganization is hopeful, with plans for famed conductor Dmitri Sitkovetsky to reinvent and lead a chamber orchestra of 45 at the Napa Opera House, a bejeweled and intimate venue.

Turning to the south, the Fremont Symphony has also suspended its operations in the lower Bay, hoping that it can make a comeback the following year.

But San Jose’s Symphony Silicon Valley, founded only ten years ago (after the San Jose Symphony foldeld), is returning with a strong season at the gilded art deco California Theatre, starting off Sept. 29 and 30 with a bang—Paul Polivnick conducting Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.

Even in the midst of the Valley’s reputedly ample start-up money, the symphony has collated a careful season of splashy crowd-pleasers and international stars, earning an unheard of 60% of its revenue at the box office. At the Oct. 20 and 21 concerts, Symphonie Espagnole brings world-class violinist Karen Gomyo, and then John Nelson conducts Dvorak’s big-boned Symphony No. 6.

Bruno FerrandisIn December, George Cleve conducts famed pianist Peter Serkin in Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, then tops it off with Tchaikovsky’s stirring Symphony No. 6, the “Pathétique.” Planned for Jan. 12 and 13, James Holmes conducts an all Kurt Weill program for orchestra and soprano Lisa Vroman, a singer who has earned her plaudits both on Broadway and in Carnegie Hall.

Despite a stuttering economy, this appears to be a season of serious fun.

—Adam Broner

Pictured above are four conductors: Joana Carneiro at the helm of the Berkeley Symphony, photo by Dave Weiland; Michael Tilson Thomas leading the SF Symphony, photo by Bay Taper; Michael Morgan and the Oakland East Bay Symphony, photo by Eric Politzer; and Bruno Ferrandis conducting the Santa Rosa Symphony.