It was around midnight. I was getting ready for bed on Sunday, October 8th, when I began to notice the unmistakable smell of smoke. I was alone in my house and quickly checked room to room, willing myself to stay calm as I made sure my cello was packed and ready to go at any moment. When I was sure the house was okay I went outside, walking up and down the block. Though the acrid odor was even more pronounced, there were no fire engines, no sirens, no red glow in the distance. Back inside, I closed all the windows tightly to keep the smell at bay, anticipating a fitful night of sleep.
I did not know at the time that the fateful scent marked the beginning of the most destructive week of wildfires in California history, 40 miles north of my house. My windows would remain shut for three weeks while fire-fighters from a dozen states struggled to contain 21 separate blazes.
Many SFS musicians smelled that smoke and watched in daily horror as our neighbors in the North Bay were devastated by fires that destroyed over 245,000 acres and 8,900 structures, including homes, businesses, wineries, hospitals, arts centers, and schools. The displaced included one of our own, SFS librarian John Campbell, whose home of 22 years—and everything in it—succumbed to the flames that first night.
In addition to donating clothing, food, funds, and volunteer hours, we musicians wanted to do something that would show our support and solidarity with the fire victims in the best way we know how—through the healing power of music.
Our Players Committee leapt into action. With the inspired leadership of Chairperson Melissa Kleinbart, the committee enlisted the support of the orchestra, San Francisco Symphony and Opera choruses, administration, stage crew, and Music Director to create Symphony Relief: A Benefit Concert for the North Bay, held on November 19 at Davies Symphony Hall. Melissa explained, “During times of great suffering and loss, music can offer solace and bring people together to grieve and heal as a community.” Everyone in the organization donated their time, with 100% of the proceeds going to North Bay Fire Relief Fund and Sonoma County Resilience Fund. The sold-out crowd was treated to symphonic music by Aaron Copland and Tchaikovsky, plus thrilling a cappella spirituals sung by bass Solomon Howard, who then joined the orchestra and chorus in a stellar performance of the Finale from Beethoven’s 9th Symphony.
In addition to the musical offerings, there were heartfelt words from Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, and John Campbell—but the most enthusiastic applause of the night went to the heroic first responders, whose tireless efforts were so deeply appreciated by everyone present. We musicians were grateful to have an opportunity to reflect back to our community the love and support they have shown our orchestra for so many years.
Note: The Author is a member of the San Francisco Symphony.