The procession has passed by, but the Día de los Muertos season is still in full swing at the San Francisco Symphony, where Mexican curator and artist Martha Rodríguez-Salazar is mixing cultures. For the eighth year in a row, she’s bringing Mexican traditions into the midst of Davies Symphony Hall, often filled with the sounds of classical music.
“It’s an opportunity to create bridges. I want to invoke community,” Rodríguez-Salazar said. “I feel like I’m just a cable, a bridge, coming out of my community to connect people from different neighborhoods, cities, and countries”
So now seven 10-foot-tall catrinas hang in the window paneling facade of the symphony hall, partially obscuring the silhouette of stately City Hall behind. Altars, alebrijes, papel picado, and skeletons adorn the red-carpeted lobby. Mexican-American singer-songwriter Lila Downs will perform music from her album Balas y Chocolate (Bullets and Chocolate) in the lofty concert hall on Saturday.
Rodríguez-Salazar said the date, almost a week after Día de los Muertos was celebrated, was chosen in part to differentiate the holiday from Halloween, a confusion that has prompted some frustration.
“When I came here 10 years ago, I heard about some stuff going on, but not as much as now,” said Rodríguez-Salazar. The nature of the day has changed, she said. “Now it’s more of a party sense.”
On a recent night leading up to the Day of the Dead celebrations in the Mission, the artists exhibited in the Davies Hall lobby offered some insights about the Mexican holiday to a curious group of symphony-goers and other art lovers.
“When there’s an altar, I have to give it proper respect,” Chavez explained to a group of curious onlookers, who wanted to know why he wouldn’t turn his back on the altar to address them.
“The more informed people are about other cultures, the more we will be able to be more compassionate,” Rodríguez-Salazar noted later.
The altar in question was created by Calixto Robles, a Mission-based Mexican artist. Robles, away in Mexico during the festivities, sent his friend Antonio Chavez to perform a ceremony for the altar, which honors the 43 Ayotzinapa students who disappeared in Guerrero, Mexico last year.
Chavez, too, is a Mission resident, having arrived at the age of three.
“We have seen many changes,” he told the tour. “This art is a way of remembering the dead but [also] the spirits of the ancestors. Sometimes we forget and we leave them behind. Without them, in a way, we don’t exist.”
Indira Urrutia, another accomplished artist with plenty of exhibitions in the Mission, also made a tribute to the Ayotzinapa students but added a few alternative symbols. Her piece, a small leafless tree, is adorned with white kites – 43 of them. Kites are also considered a connector between the world of the living and the world of the dead. Visitors to the symphony may write messages to the departed on smaller paper kites and hang them from the branches.
A group of artists called Manos Creativas sculpted fantastical creatures called alebrijes and positioned them around their altar. An enormous archway that looms over the stairwell leading to the symphony hall’s balcony seating, created by Collete Crutcher, features a panther and a skeleton embedded in a geometrically patterned archway.
Then there’s a giant skull, transported with some difficulty from the Mission Cultural Center because it is wider than the average doorway. It’s big enough on the inside to accommodate curious children or a huddled adult. It took some 52 adults almost 500 hours to create it in a collaborative workshop led by artist Demetrio Barrita.
Interactivity is a key component of the event. A multitude of traditions will bring the symphony hall to life on Saturday, including face painting, decorating sugar skulls, Rueda dancing, and a performance by the senior choir that practices at the Mission-based Community Music Center.
Rodríguez-Salazar said that for the many she hopes to attract to the hall, the experience will be an introduction to a distant, formerly out-of-reach place. At least that’s the case for the choir singers.
“They’re in their 80s, and it’s their first time in the symphony,” she said. “It’s an empowering experience.”
The San Francisco Symphony will have three concerts on Saturday, Nov. 7, at 11 a.m., 2 p.m., and 8 p.m. To participate in pre-concert activities, arrive an hour early. Find tickets here