Shambles on stage as San Francisco scraps concert at a few minutes’ notice

Shambles on stage as San Francisco scraps concert at a few minutes’ notice


norman lebrecht

January 14, 2022

Yesterday’s matinee concert was cancelled with little warning after several orchestra musicians returned positive Covid tests.

A person engaged in the performance tells Slipped Disc that Matthew Spivey, CEO of the San Francisco Symphony, sent the audience home ‘out of an abundance of caution’.

The soloist Jan Lisiecki, engaged for the Beethoven G major concerto, offered instead to give a Chopin recital.

Previously, Dr. Laura Stanfield Prichard had given a 30-minute pre-concert talk on Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel, Beethoven and Brahms.

The late cancellation appears to have been a shambles.



  • Maria says:

    More of a shambles if the concert went ahead. Then more of the orchestra got sick and couldn’t then work, and even worse the audience. Not ideal but seens the best decision. Hindsight a wondrrful thing.

    • Jonathon says:

      Well said! And anyway, it would seem that this report is a bit of a shambles. Reading the San Francisco Chronicle it says ‘Pianist Jan Lisiecki, who was scheduled to be the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with the orchestra and guest conductor Christoph Eschenbach, remained in the hall to give an hour-long solo recital devoted to music by Chopin.’ The cancellation of the original concert was made half an hour before it was due to start, so it’s hard to believe Jan Lisiecki was already on his way to the podium when it happened.

      • NYYgirl says:

        Wait, are you saying that soloists just drop down from the sky right before the first note they play?? This is not exactly like running into the home office at 8:59:59 in order to take one’s seat in front of the 9:00 Zoom meeting!

    • just saying says:

      The concert could have gone ahead without the sick musicians, you know.

      • john Kelly says:

        Depends WHICH musicians…………doubtful they were all rank and file strings……

      • Patricia says:

        That depends on which musicians/orchestral parts were sick. And, what about the musicians who were exposed earlier that week in rehearsal. Better to send all of the musicians home!

      • Music fan says:

        Depends on who the musicians are. The orchestra can be short a few string players, but there are instruments which are not doubled and would be missed if not heard.

        Anyway, bravo to Jan Lisiecki for giving an impromptu recital

      • Dave says:

        Yeah who needs the fourth horn, 2nd bassoon, and principal flute. You can just leave those parts out.

  • Viennois says:

    If x number of players were to be quarantined, could the performance have gone ahead as planned at all? What if the timpanist and both horn players tested positive?

    • BigSir says:

      6 horns, 2 timpanists on the roster. They couldn’t come in to play? I’ve subbed on section brass in a major orchestra with an hours notice.
      They should have been able to cover the parts.

  • confused says:

    You mean to say they had no sub musicians last minute who could come in? Why not just continue the concert and send only the musicians who tested positive home? Am I missing something here?

    • anon says:

      Yes – there is a missing element. If those testing positive had been in close contact with other players within a possible transmission period – example seated within 6 feet at previous day’s rehearsal , chatting in the dressing rooms, shared ride to the venue – it would be general protocol to ask all those exposed to quarantine. So potentially many more involved than just those actually getting positive test results.

      Sub musicians aren’t generally hired as concert walk-ons with no possibility of attending rehearsals. They aren’t waiting in the wings like theater understudies.

    • Very thankful to be a union member says:

      Yes! It is not possible to contract trace everyone and figure out which positives may have been with other musicians close to the time of their positive tests…performances do not happen in a vacuum- they are preceded by rehearsals, backstage contact, etc. to say nothing of all the people one does not actually see performing on the stage but who are still contributing to make that performance run smoothly. It really does take a village, and Covid has been a very unfortunate way for those ‘on the outside’ to be able to finally comprehend just how many people work hard and are involved in some way to present what is publicly seen as just one concert. The right call was made here, and kudos to the soloist who offered assistance to change a program on barely any notice. Wishing those who tested positive all the best, and to their families as well. Never has it been more stressful to be a live musician than in these last two years.

    • Hans says:

      Yes, you are

    • Dirk Manville says:

      You can’t get sub musicians on 30 minutes notice. It takes longer than that to drive to the hall. Orchestras don’t have understudies just hanging around backstage.

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      Yes, you are. It’s not a movie set – there are no ‘extras’. Sub musicians are not standing by a telephone. They have to go work day jobs to put food on the table, or are teaching lessons.

    • Peter San Diego says:

      Yes: the fact that the musicians could easily have transmitted the illness to their colleagues during rehearsals; there’s a latency period between being infected (and infectious) and the time a test shows positive (or symptoms appear).

    • M2N2K says:

      Yes, you are missing quite a lot.

  • john kelly says:

    Let’s commend the pianist for a creative and generous solution, as inadequate as it might be for audience members wishing to hear the orchestra.

  • Patron of SF says:

    I was one of the people planning on attending this concert. There was in fact (at least) one sub that came in for the morning dress rehearsal right before the matinee to fill in for a positive-tested musician. The administration made their decision using the ubiquitous catch-all phrase “out of abundance of caution” to justify their actions roughly 30 minutes before the concert. However, the administration had no problem letting the (very generous) piano soloist Jan Lisiecki play a recital for the audience even though he was also on stage with the “sick” musicians two days prior.

    The SFS has been making a series of wildly inconsistent decisions while simulteneously ignoring the standard of excellence on stage, that it has me looking elsewhere to feed my artistic soul. Very sad.

  • Patron in SF says:

    I was planning on attending this concert. There was in fact, at least one sub filling in for a positive tested musician during the morning dress rehearsal before the matinee concert.

    SFS’s use of the ubiquitous and catch-all “out of an abundance of caution” seems to justify their wildly inconsistant actions. They allowed the piano soloist, who generously offered to play an impromptu recital, to play for the audience even though he was also present at rehearsal with the positive tested musicians the day before.

    This and other decisions by the SFS have made me look elsewhere to find my cultural/arts fix.

  • EagleArts says:

    It would seem that a performance did take place, just not the scheduled one. Slipped Disc’s reporting is a shambles, SFSO is acting responsibly.

    “The San Francisco Symphony abruptly called off its matinee concert on Thursday, Jan. 13, after routine testing among members of the orchestra earlier in the day turned up positive results for COVID.

    At around 1:30 p.m., just half an hour before the program was to begin, Interim CEO Matthew Spivey took the stage of Davies Symphony Hall to announce the cancellation, according to a company spokesperson.

    The Symphony did not disclose how many in the orchestra tested positive for the virus.

    Pianist Jan Lisiecki, who was scheduled to be the soloist in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 4 with the orchestra and guest conductor Christoph Eschenbach, remained in the hall to give an hour-long solo recital devoted to music by Chopin.”

    • revcat says:

      My question is this: if orchestra members tested positive on Thursday and if that means other orchestra members were exposed, then why did last night’s concert take place and, I assume, tonight’s will, as well?

  • Fliszt says:

    Oh yeah, so simple – everyone thinks they could have handled it better…

  • MB says:

    Chopin is no substitute for Beethoven.

  • Mick the Knife says:

    a new meaning for the phrase “cancel culture”.

  • Patron in SF says:

    I’m not sure if there were shambles on stage, but as a frequent attendee of concerts, the SFS is currently neck deep in shambles with its approach to concert programming and communication with its donors.

  • The concert did go ahead: Lisiecki played a full hour program of solo piano works by Chopin. See the SFS website for the original event for a listing of the twelve works played (very movingly) from memory.

  • Corno di Caccia says:

    An interesting saga. I would have been happy listening to Jan Lisiecki play anything for an hour. Well done to him. What connection does the pic have on this story, tho? If that’s Lisiecki it looks as if he’s seeking refuge in a war zone.

  • Rafael Enrique Irizarry says:


    Long, long ago, the great Horacio Gutiérrez was invited to play Rachmaninov’s 3rd Piano Concerto with the Puerto Rico Symphony Orchestra. Between the dress rehearsal and the performance, someone sneaked in to the concert venue (the Eleanor Roosevelt Theater of the University of Puerto Rico) and spirited the Rachmaninov parts from the orchestra’s folders. Nobody noticed until Mr. Gutiérrez was almost on the stage door, ready to play.

    On the spot, Mr. Gutiérrez offered to present a recital of similar length to the concerto he had been engaged to play. The event turned into resounding triumph instead of an unmitigated fiasco.

    As to the guilty party (or parties; whoever stole those parts must have had one or more lookouts) and the fate of the orchestral sheet music, there is plenty of rumor and innuendo that I am not at liberty to share. I was a teenager at the time; many of those in the know are deceased or unwilling to reveal the unsavory details.

    International news outlets did cover this mishap, as well the local music critics. I am sure this unpleasant and darkly humorous incident is still remembered by Mr. Gutiérrez.