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A Night at the Symphony

School of Pharmacy

The symphony evokes notions of magnificent concert halls and brilliant music. I had not attended a symphony in a few years, and as I sank into the red velvet seats of Davies Symphony Hall to hear the San Francisco Symphony present the Norwegian classic Peer Gynt, I assumed nothing had changed over the years. How pleasantly wrong I was.

A hybrid of classical performing arts and modern technology, Peer Gynt, based on the play written by Henrik Ibsen and with selections of music by Edvard Grieg, Alfred Schnittke and Robin Holloway, is an example of the San Francisco Symphony’s newest innovation, the “semi-staged” symphony. The stage comes alive with a production that is two parts music, one part theater — with a helping of choir, a dash of opera and video projections.

It may seem busy on paper, but all the elements drive toward a single goal: to tell a story, even if that means moments of pure dialogue and other moments of pure music to move the plot along.

However, it is the multimedia experience that I found the most satisfying in this production. The highlight of the night was a scene in which Peer Gynt encounters the Troll King, after having seduced the troll princess.  The melody “In the Hall of the Mountain King” plays, as the choir shouts death threats at Peer Gynt.

While the transitions between scenes and the different types of media were surprising at times, they were never jarring. The theatrical transitions were charming in their transparency. Without the luxury of a stage blackout to change scenes, the actors strolled onto the stage with their props as if it were perfectly natural for the character to do so.

Those who love the music need not fear; the symphony still very much dominates the show and the stage. Those who love theater will enjoy how the actors compensate for lack of stage space by working outside the center stage, in the aisles and the balcony.

Even if you have never thought of attending the symphony, these semi-staged productions are a great gateway into classical music.

Unfortunately, the Symphony has ended its run of Peer Gynt, and the next semi-staged performance is not scheduled until June. But it’s never too early to plan an evening at the symphony. Check ticket sales and student discounts at

Watch the video of San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas discussing the music for Peer Gynt.