For 43 years, Judy Foulkrod has been a familiar face as an usher at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. From her first night on the job when the hall opened its doors in 1980, she has witnessed numerous black-tie events and performances from the San Francisco Symphony under the baton of four different musical directors. However, this year’s Symphony Gala marked a new milestone for Foulkrod, as it was the first time she encountered artificial intelligence as part of the program.
Foulkrod has seen the usher uniform change over the years, but the most memorable one was the ankle-length skirts with a kick-pleat that they wore in the early days. She recalls how impractical they were for running up and down the stairs all night, making them look like the Rockettes. Thankfully, those skirts didn’t last long.
While Foulkrod embraces the new and unique additions to the Symphony’s program, she recognizes the importance of tradition. The opening night gala featured classical pieces by Strauss, Mahler, and Ravel, but it also incorporated 21st-century technology. A big screen behind the orchestra projected computer-generated images by design studio 59 Productions, adding a visual element to the performance.
One of the most talked-about moments of the night was a rap battle between Oakland hip-hop artist Kev Choice, San Francisco’s Anthony “Two-Touch” Veneziale, and an AI program. The AI program generated its own rap from three given words: hope, peace, and love. While the technology provided an interesting addition, it couldn’t match the rapid freestyling and wittiness of the human artists.
The combination of technology, classical music, and hip-hop was well received by the audience. People traveled from as far as Santa Cruz to witness this unexpected fusion at the symphony. For San Francisco Fire Chief Jeanine Nicholson, it was like medicine for her nervous system. The blend of traditional music and modern elements offered a unique experience that stood out from the norm.
Not only was technology present in the performance, but it was also incorporated into the gala tent’s design. Blue Print Studios created a futurist aesthetic, reminiscent of the movie “Tron,” with neon tubing and clear plastic furniture. The gala co-chairs even handed out plastic raver bracelets spelling out “I Love SF S” to add to the vibrant atmosphere.
Despite all the technological advancements and special effects, Foulkrod understands that the most important aspect of any performance is the music itself. As she reflects on the Symphony’s changing programming, she emphasizes the need to make Davies Symphony Hall a welcoming place for everyone. The audience may change, but as long as the music remains great, people will continue to enjoy it.
As Judy Foulkrod continues her long-standing role at Davies Symphony Hall, she remains open-minded and excited about what the future holds for the San Francisco Symphony. With a combination of tradition and innovation, the Symphony continues to captivate audiences and push the boundaries of their performances.