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San Francisco Classical Music 101

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A user-friendly introduction to the classical music scene in San Francisco, intended to help and encourage people who may have an interest in attending performances, possibly for the first time. We’ll look at where to get started, what the deal is, how expensive tickets are, and where to find music that you love, even if you aren’t very familiar with classical music. I hope you find it useful.

Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments field, or send me an email (contact info here).

Getting Started: An Overview of the Scene

If you have any interest in classical music, you’re in luck. San Francisco boasts a world-class symphony, the second-largest opera company in the United States, and an audience hungry enough to attract the best ensembles and soloists in the world. The city is a mecca for early music from the Renaissance and earlier (see “Early Music on the Rise“), and experimental music is well represented by the Other Minds festival and the new Ojai North series.

Getting started can seem daunting, in part because there is so much. But it’s actually quite easy once you find something you’re interested in – usually a matter of picking up the phone or logging into the box office website.

Let’s start with a look at some of the heavies.

The San Franicso Symphony is currently under the directorship of Michael Tilson Thomas, a vital and forward-thinking conductor. The SF Symphony frequently features brilliantly-programmed evenings, blending repertoire favorites with less familiar work. The recent Schubert-Berg series, for example, featured programs pairing the straight Romantic composer Franz Schubert with the far-out twelve tone composer Alban Berg, who is sort of the late-period John Coltrane of classical music. In 2011 Thomas performed Mozart’s towering Requiem Mass back-to-back with Morton Feldman’s introspective and hushed Rothko Chapel. The two pieces could not be more different, and the juxtaposition was fascinating.

Thomas is well respected for his intelligent, precise, and agile interpretations of scores — expect brisk, clear phrasing. He is a great advocate of contemporary American classical music by composers like Steve Reich, John Adams, and Charles Ives  — keep an eye on the American Mavericks series in 2012 if that grabs you. Thomas also does a mean Beethoven, and is regarded as one of the world’s foremost interpreters of Mahler.

The SF Symphony performs at Davies Hall near the Civic Center, and is surprisingly affordable. You can get better seats at a bit of a discount if you buy season tickets, but that means planning well in advance. If you’d like a low-cost option that’s more casual, I have had some great experiences on the second balcony – particularly toward the front. You can usually get away with tickets up there for around $30, and can select your own seats on the Box Office website.

Keep your eye on the Goldstar discount ticket broker – they often have symphony tickets for half-off.

No less extraordinary is the San Francisco Opera, which usually produces around ten operas a year, seven in the fall and three in the summer. Sadly, we recently lost a treasure with the departure of musical director Donald Runnicles. He is a great interpreter of Wagner and has premiered exciting work, like Olivier Messiaen’s Saint-François d’Assise, a fascinating opera about the saint that incorporates faithful transcriptions of bird song into the score.

Runnicles was replaced by Nicola Luisotti in 2009. Early indications are that under his direction the opera will favor mainstream Italian opera by masters like Verdi, Donizetti, and Puccini. I’m more interested in challenging opera than the beautiful arias and melodrama myself, but the more conservative programs of the last two years may reflect the fact that the Opera is facing difficult financial times and needs to fill seats with better-known works (see “David Gockley seeks to overhaul S.F. Opera funding“).

Seeing an opera performance can be an experience of unparalleled beauty and power, if you find a piece that you respond to musically and dramatically. It tends to be expensive, though, with good seats running $125 and up. However, when I was doing opera on the cheap I made regular use of the Standing Room option, which I highly recommend. If you arrive at the box office an hour or so before showtime you can buy standing room seats for $10. There is a rail along the back of the orchestra level where you can stand, and the view and acoustics are excellent. This is a great option for exploring opera on a budget, as you won’t often find discount seats through Goldstar.

Tip: the SF Opera website reports the run-times for their shows — personally I don’t like to stand for longer than three hours.

The San Francisco Ballet shares the War Memorial auditorium with the SF Opera, typically producing ten performances in the spring. I am a newbie to Ballet but have had a very good time with it in the last few years. If the idea of music without action leaves you cold, but opera isn’t your style, it’s a great way to go. It is very difficult to get bored at the ballet. My anecdotal sense, for what it’s worth, is that the Ballet audiences skew about 10 years younger in average age than opera.

The SF Ballet offers a varied repertoire, mixing narrative showcases like “Romeo and Juliet” and “The Nutcracker” with masterpieces by the exalted choreographer George Balanchine with edgy modern pieces like Helgi Tomasson’s harrowing and evocative “The Little Mermaid.” Resident choreographer Yuri Possokhov usually puts on a few works a year, and they are always outstanding. This year’s premier of his stunning “Raku” brought down the house, and rightfully so. His sense of style, elegance, and beauty are second-to-none, and he uses just the right amount of story, giving an emotional structure to his dances without cluttering them with pantomime.

SF Ballet also does not seem to show up on Goldstar, but it is rather cheaper than the opera. Excellent seats can be had in the $50 range.

There are more modest symphony orchestras in Oakland and Berkeley, with shorter seasons. I am not as familiar with their orchestras, but the reviews I’ve read for Oakland performances have kept me away.The Philharmonia Baroque is a first-class period orchestra, and is not to be missed.

Concert Serieses. Es.

San Francisco and the East Bay abound with performances in smaller venues, which are often excellent and a good bargain. The best way to track these is to check out the FIND EVENTS engine on San Francisco Classical Voice. Select a few simple options and you can check out what’s happening in your part of the Bay in the next month or two, ranging from chamber music in nearby churches to operas at the Memorial opera house. Top talent can be found in the CalPerfs series in Berkeley and the San Francisco Performances series. In recent years they have presented superstars like Yo-Yo Ma, John Williams, Anonymous 4, Hilary Hahn, Jordi Savall.

Tips for Finding Music you Like

If you might be interested in attending but you don’t know where to start, don’t panic! Start with what you do know. It’s hard to go wrong with Beethoven, for example. Everyone knows something by Beethoven, right? Duh-duh-duh-DUHHHH….

If you get the bug and want to come back for more, it’s easy to move from things you know and like to things you don’t know but will probably like. Get a sense of how adventurous you are. Do you like hearing stuff you are acquainted with, or do you like boldly checking out new composers and styles? That’s a question you can easily answer with a little bit of experimentation. If you’re a Beethoven fan, try attending a symphony that you aren’t familiar with. If you’ve heard the 5th a million times, try the 4th, or the 8th.

Fortunately the SF Symphony makes it easy to stick close to home and find new things, because of their tendency to mix things up. I discovered one of my favorites composers, Thomas Adès, when his violin concerto was sandwiched between symphonies by Mozart and Haydn, a regular chestnut sandwich.

If you want to sample almost any piece before buying tickets, check YouTube. Everything is there.

You can follow genres, or performers you like, or composers. If you respond to a composer, try to read a little bit about him or her, and find out who they liked. Do you love Bach? Try Dietrich Buxtehude then. Bach loved Buxtehude’s music so much that he walked 250 miles in the German winter, on foot, to visit him. Buxtehude’s influence is unmistakable in Bach’s composition.

A Note on Etiquette

Expect to see people dolled up to the nines, especially at the opera, but you won’t draw nasty looks if you wear jeans. At the symphony the convention is to applaud when the entire work is complete, not between movements. If in doubt, just wait and see. No talking during the performances, please!

I walked into the opera cold several years ago on a friend’s advice, and it literally changed my life. So … if you’re curious, I hope this gives you some help.

Useful Resources

San Francisco Classical Voice – The best place to find out about events, hands down. Also includes articles, news, and reviews.
SF Symphony – Season and box office.
SF Opera – Season and box office.
SF Ballet – Season and box office.
San Francisco Performances – Excellent solo and small ensemble series in San Francisco.
Cal Performances – Excellent solo and small ensemble series in Berkeley, as well as theater and dance.
SF Early Music Society – Good resource for early music.
Gold Star – Offers discount tickets to many events. Highly recommended if you’re on a budget.
San Francisco Chronicle critic Joshua Kosman – Insightful and articulate criticism and reviews.


Written by Mesocosm

June 14, 2011 at 10:57 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Great article. Very explanatory.
    Thank you very much for writing it. You give good advice!
    I’ve always enjoyed Classical concerts, Opera and Ballet, but I am new to the Bay Area and I am not familiar with some of the performers, etiquette and procedures here. A few tips are always useful!
    I’ll contact you if I have doubts!


    July 7, 2011 at 6:41 am

  2. […] with the far-out twelve tone composer Alban Berg, who is sort of the late-period John Coltrane of Classical music. San Francisco Classical Voice ‘ The best place to find out […]

  3. Thanks for the notes to a Classical Music lover in training.

    Kent McCammon

    December 9, 2011 at 9:49 pm

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