With tinkling percussion and sure strokes of their bows, the Bay Area Rainbow Symphony filled the San Francisco Conservatory of Music with the beginnings of its 2012-13 season.
Reunions abounded at the BARS season opening concert Sept. 15. For the first time since the symphony’s humble beginnings in 2008, Cyrus Ginwala, SF State professor and orchestra director, returned to the group as a guest conductor.
“It’s amazing to see how the group has grown and how it’s improved in that time,” Ginwala said. “It’s like a different orchestra completely.”
While the symphony has grown, its mission to reclaim LGBTQ history through music has remained pivotal to the organization. Through the performance of Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G, the BARS acknowledged Ravel as a prominent gay composer in classical music.
“Ravel was not known to be gay or straight when he was alive, but there’s a lot of evidence to suggest that he was gay, and it’s only within the last 10 years that scholars have sort of come to claim him that way,” Ginwala said.
The Ravel piece also had the effect of reuniting Ginwala with pianist Marc Peloquin, who he had not performed with since the 1980s.
“It’s absolutely wonderful. It’s like going back in time,” Peloquin said. “It’s fun to collaborate, especially on a piece like Ravel’s concerto, which is full of color.”
Peloquin remarks that the BARS is a celebration of community and a chance to highlight the diversity of artistic talent and interest within the LGBTQ community.
“A lot of times with gay men it tends to be disco or dance music,” he said. “Which is fine, but there’s actually a community of musicians who gather to make (classical) music like this.”
Bookending the Ravel concerto, the BARS performed “Blue Cathedral” by contemporary composer Jennifer Higdon and Symphony No. 2, a staple in classical repertoire by Johannes Brahms. Violinist Drew Cranfill, a music student at SF State, said that Brahms was a “must play,” but the Higdon piece provided an important educational opportunity as well.
“Oftentimes in academia, classical musicians don’t get a chance to play contemporary music because we’re too busy learning the repertoire from the past,” Cranfill said. “This Higdon piece is edgy. It’s good to play it, for me, because it has technique that I won’t learn in Mozart.”
As BARS strives to perform eclectic combinations of recognizable masterpieces and emerging ones like Higdon’s, the musicians and audiences have a lot to look forward to.
“Contemporary concert works often have more percussion, so as a percussion section, we enjoy playing those,” said Mark Saccomano, the BARS percussion section leader. “It’s fun to be playing a living composer, a lesbian composer, a composer who won the Pulitzer Prize recently.”
While there will certainly be more exciting contemporary pieces performed throughout the season, Saccomano said the symphony will also perform such unmistakable classics as Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5.
There is truly something for everyone in a BARS performance, from classical connoisseurs to fans of art music to LGBTQ activists. Beth Wiesendanger, political activist by day and BARS percussionist by night, has found the perfect niche in this organization.
“Being able to take my love of politics and infuse it with music is a really great opportunity,” said Wiesendanger, an alumna of SF State. “I think the awareness that we’re creating for LGBT musicians is a wonderful experience to be a part of.”
BARS will perform again Nov. 10 at Calvary Presbyterian Church with Christian Baldini as guest conductor.