Review: Gabriel Kahane’s “emergency shelter intake form”

By Anthony R. Carrasco

The San Francisco Symphony devoted its first two evenings of February programming to a breakup soundtrack with an immoral economy. The month of romantic gestures began with the haunting power of George Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F; a prelude to the inquisitive song cycle of Gabriel Kahane, creative chair of the Oregon Symphony. The San Francisco premiere of emergency shelter intake form yields an important reflection. Listeners leave asking, “how many emergency shelter intake forms will it take to realize a world where all have a home?” 

The night began with a savory treat. Reminiscent of John Adams’s 2019 masterpiece Must the Devil Have All the Good Tunes, the orchestra community was gifted Gershwin’s epic follow-up to Rhapsody in Blue. While Piano Concerto in F may be a tad overwhelming for some given its rich dark power, I heard a hearty holler from the second tier balcony between movements, shouting,“We’re not going anywhere!” Likewise, a date so darling deserves a second, to say the least. Sadly, San Francisco Symphony last performed Piano Concerto in F over a decade ago—hiding Gershwin’s soulful sound under a bushel is a symphonic sin if there ever was one. 

Homeless service providers tabling during the intermission offered symphony goers the opportunity to honor SF moms for housing this Mother’s Day. By donating a small gift of chocolate, socks, or soap, unhoused mothers raising the next generation of San Franciscans can experience the love of their community. I spent most of my childhood sprawled in the lobby of an overpass-adjacent residential motel playing make-believe with Disneyland brochures; I never imagined in my wildest dreams  I’d someday see one of the world’s greatest music halls pay respect to mothers like the one that raised me. 

After intermission, Kahane chaperoned a musical field trip I wish I could have taken as a high school civics student. The de facto Greek “chorus of inconvenient statistics”  included the composer along with local Community Music Center artists and Skywatchers with lived experience of housing insecurity. The troupe scolded an imaginary rube in need of melodic re-education by way of sing-song-along mini-lectures about topics ranging from the home mortgage interest deduction to collateralized debt obligations. 

The most insightful moments reflect on the “sacred old tradition of denying folks permission” to housing opportunities with more introspection than a simple finger-wag at Wall Street. Admissions of guilt might most intrigue an attendee with lived experiences of homelessness. The catchy sixth number “Certainly We Can All Agree” reveals a musical confession:  “We fear them.” The scarlet trauma of redlining vividly flashes in the query, “Have you ever been denied a loan or a lease?” No housing contract is entirely black and white, after all. 

Composed only five years ago, Kahane’s oratorio will age like vintage champagne as homelessness plumes due to skyrocketing rents in exclusive, urban rental markets. Every February, lovers of miraculously coordinated melodies can flirt with musings of a more perfect union between the newly housed and unhoused. Every time the piece plays a music hall, a community can think twice about the moral and ethical foundations of evicting local children—spoiler alert: there are none. A musical plea for housing justice for all will always have listeners. 

Anthony R. Carrasco grew up homeless and now researches evidence-based solutions for communities damaged by the housing affordability crisis as a joint Ph.D. / JD student in the Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program of Berkeley Law.