Shoba Narayan takes in high culture in the tech capital of America.
IMAGE CREDIT: DREW ALTIZER
Words by Shoba Narayan
The world knows San Francisco as a tech hub. Either that or people talk about the homeless problem in this ‘sanctuary city’ that is barely an hour away from the wealthy elites of Silicon Valley. What few talk about, or even know, is how San Francisco has quietly transformed itself into a crucible of culture and the arts. Many of the arts institutions are a few blocks from public transportation, attracting a devoted and loyal crowd of patrons from all over the Bay Area and beyond.
I spend half my time in San Francisco and have, over the years, enjoyed events at these institutions that I list below. While certain Covid adaptations remain – you can now watch an opera or jazz concert from home – there is nothing that beats a live performance. So, if you are in SF for a weekend, go ahead and book a ticket at one of these cultural centres. Or simply walk in and see if a ticket is available. Patrons have been known to pass on extra tickets to those in need, either in the beginning or at half-time.
This beloved space manages to be both intimate and spacious. I have listened to concerts here by the SF Jazz Collective, now in its 20th year, usually at the fishbowl-like Joe Henderson lab. Named after San Francisco’s late saxophonist, chamber-like space has glass all around and thus lends itself to an element of theatre. People on the street stop to stare at the performers (and audience). The larger Miner Auditorium is where legends like Van Morrison and Wynton Marsalis will perform for the upcoming 2023-24 season which features 300 concerts beginning September 7th.
The line-up includes crowd pleasers like Ravi Coltrane, Brandee Younger, Kenny Barron and Howard Wiley but also themed concerts like ‘Mixtec Indian artist’ Lila Downs who offers a special ‘Day of the Dead’ concert. R&B superstar Ledisi will sing her tribute to the late great Nina Simone, and Anoushka Shankar will wield her sitar. Student discounts and member perks are available so, depending on your age and inclination, you can become a patron for special benefits. The best part is the people dancing in the spaces between the seats of the Miner auditorium. Join in.
Few opera houses in the United States are over 100 years old. The San Francisco Opera is one of three: the other two are the Metropolitan Opera of New York and the Cincinnati Opera. After a masterful centennial season, SF Opera opens its 101st season (2023-2024) with a typical mix of new productions, commissioned pieces and hoary masterpieces. Music director Eun Sun Kim conducts the classics that she is known for: Verdi’s Il Trovatore in September and Wagner’s Lohengrin in October. Both will be livestreamed for $27.50 one-time tickets.
Alternating with these are commissioned new operas about Steve Jobs and Omar. The latter, written by America folk musician Rhiannon Giddens, about a Muslim scholar from West Africa, marks the rise of women composers in opera. As is common with the SF Opera, Omar’s premiere will likely involve the community on opening day, much like the new work on Frida Kahlo did on opening day during the previous season. For the opera on Frida and Diego, there was a free community ceremony with a Mexican altar, chanting and Spanish singing before the show opened.
There is nothing quite like opera in today’s world. Rooted in myth and legend, opera has stayed true to its traditions of mixing music, dance, theatre and spectacle in a way that cannot be captured by social media. The form is unique in today’s byte-sized world because it includes performances that were created for a time when spectators sat through the night watching shows. Wagner’s Lohengrin, for instance, is four hours and 35 minutes long. A few months ago, I watched Strauss’ Die Frau Ohne Schatten. It was over three hours long but no one in the full house felt it. For all of us who want to detach from our smartphones and spend more time in the real world, a visit to an opera may be just the ticket.
Helmed by the preternaturally gifted Essa Pekka Salonen, the San Francisco symphony’s 2023-24 season, which starts September 22, has a mix of both legendary and contemporary composers, ranging from Mahler and Chopin to young composers like Reena Esmail and contemporary ones like Aaron Copeland and Saronen himself.
Like every arts institution, the symphony tries hard to make its spaces comfortable – an FAQ on its website answers questions about what to wear, which ticket to buy and what kind of concert to buy tickets for. The symphony also takes on ambitious projects like a recent performance of Ferruccio Busoni’s 75-minute Piano Concerto. Written in 1904, it caused hardened critics to swoon with superlatives. SF Symphony can surprise you like that.
Through September 18, the Asian Art Museum (AAM) has an exhibition running on the theme of, well, wait for it, hell. Yes, the exhibition is titled, ‘Hell: the arts of the Asian Underworlds’. Edgy, imaginative shows like this are hallmarks of the museum, which just closed a show on Bollywood.
Upcoming events include shows on Murakami, the darling of the art world, along with a quieter show on the ‘heart of Zen’. The museum is just about the right size to spend a couple of hours on a cold afternoon, after which you can sit in its café for a drink or early supper.
Shoba Narayan is an author, journalist and columnist. Besides writing, she is interested in nature, wine, gadgets and Sanskrit. Her lifelong mission is to get fit without exercising and lose weight without dieting.