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Summer: A season of discovery at the Symphony

June 30, 2016

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Conductor Edwin Outwater leads the San Francisco Symphony in 11 performances this July, including Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, “An Evening in Paris,” “A Russian Celebration” and Gershwin & Bernstein”  © Kristen Loken

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Most of us love summer: the warm weather, the barbecues, the beach, and above all, summer vacation. Conductor Edwin Outwater loves summer too — just not for the usual reasons. Outwater is the Director of Summer Concerts at the San Francisco Symphony, so the season is a busy one for him.

Ask him why he likes working so hard in the summer and he has a ready answer: “I like the fact that we’re reaching newer audiences. You can feel that sense of discovery and fun in these concerts — and it’s great seeing the reaction of people who are hearing a live orchestra for the first time.”

There’s been much wailing and gnashing of teeth among orchestras around the country as they wrestle with ways to reach out to new audiences. But Outwater, working closely with the San Francisco Symphony’s Artistic Planning department, has had great success with some basic, common sense techniques. Of course, Outwater aims for programs that both entertain and expose listeners to new sounds.

“Some of the artists we work with bring elements of jazz or popular music, so we’re combining with other genres, and giving those styles some symphonic exposure too,” he says.

He admits to being particularly excited to work on “An Evening In Paris,” featuring the singer/songwriter/guitarist Madeleine Peyroux. The program offers the orchestra a chance to reach the audience coming to see this popular singer, both by combining the orchestra with her classic jazz sound, and also by playing Debussy and Gershwin, or as Outwater puts it, “showing what the orchestra can do, in its full glory.”

The concerts are also more informal affairs. “The rituals of concert-going can be confusing,” he points out. “We want to make the audience feel welcome. So I’ll often say a few words and try to make it feel less formal.”

Knowing your audience also helps. “We found that Russian pieces are a great musical introduction,” he reports. “Symphonies by Tchaikovsky, concertos by Rachmaninoff — they draw people in.” Hence the “A Russian Celebration” program.

And finally, the orchestra decided that one way to bring new listeners to the symphony was to bring the music to them. “This is our second year doing a concert at the waterfront,” Outwater says. “What’s really neat about it is that people will be walking along the Embarcadero and they’ll just stumble upon it.” This year they’ll stumble upon perhaps the ultimate Russian masterpiece, Mussorgsky’s Pictures At An Exhibition.

Perhaps he’s just happy for any chance to get out in the summer weather, but Outwater is even more effusive about the orchestra’s other outdoor venue, the Stern Grove Festival.

“It’s this beautiful eucalyptus grove,” he says, “and it’s one of the most amazing spaces for a concert that I’ve ever seen.”

Here he’s planning to play excerpts from John Williams’ lesser-known film scores in what he refers to as an “Americana context” — alongside the complete Grand Canyon Suite (“rarely heard in its entirety these days”) and Dvor├ík’s New World Symphony. The Stern Grove concerts draw huge crowds. The only potential drawback, he says, is the occasional fog. “It’s a very San Francisco- summer problem.”


If you go

Summer with the Symphony highlights include Beethoven’s 9th Symphony - 7:30pm July 8 and 2pm July 9; “An Evening in Paris” with Madeleine Peyroux - 7:30pm July 21; “A Russian Celebration” - 7:30pm July 22; and “Gershwin & Bernstein” - 7:30pm July 23. All concerts feature conductor Edwin Outwater and the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall. (415) 864- 6000, sfsymphony.org.