Yo-Yo Ma, San Francisco Symphony begin the Centennial Seaon (SFS 100 post #1)

Chad Newsome and I were walking toward my apartment for a brief stop before getting dinner prior to the performance when the Little Chinese Man came running toward us.

"Hi Tom!" I called out cheerfully. LCM stopped, like a well-trained dog, and spun around on one foot to look at his greeter, arms extended in reverse akimbo, reminding me of a bat frozen in mid-flight.

"Oh hi!" he said, taking a second to recognize his double. "I have to run along now!"

"Okay, take care," I said.

Chad turned to me, an incredulous look on his face, "Was that...?"

"Yep," I replied.

"Wow. He really does exist. I had no idea," Chad muttered, as much to himself, as to me.

Fifteen minutes later we were seated in a booth at Urban Tavern, where two weeks before I and a certain notorious female "ambushed" him as he claims. Taking him to dinner and to see Yo-Yo Ma was my penance, for really, it pains me to do Chad a false turn. The hostesses at Urban tavern are really some of the best-dressed I see in this town. Tonight the younger one was manning the station wearing a brilliant white Ralph Lauren dress which she claimed was new but had a serious retro 60's flair to it. I assumed it was another Mad Men inspired fashion statement, this one better than most I see about town. We both ordered the fish and chips proceeded to discuss what has happened in the aftermath of the ambush, as we haven't spoken since. There was much to catch up on.

After dinner we walked down to Davies, to attend the first "real" concert of the San Francisco Symphony's centennial season, since the festivities of last week don't really count, most of all because I didn't attend them due to circumstances of a nefarious nature perpetrated on me by the same notorious female mentioned above and my subsequent departure to Alabama the next day.

Arriving early, we hung fire and surveyed the crowd. We were both taken by a certain metallic-hued dress and its perfect fit upon its bearer, both of us approving with a glance at each other before confirming it with words. Other than that, we noted the crowd seemed quirky tonight, an unusual mix of the regulars and those drawn out by the appearance of the world's most popular classical musician. Chad espied an unfortunate couple, the woman wearing a striped dress he assigned as a woman of ill-repute, but I just thought it an unfortunate match which obviously originated from a personal ad on Craig's List that would go no further than this performance.

It's a nice touch that the SFS begins and ends this milestone season with works by Beethoven which celebrate the triumph of the human spirit. Tonight's concert began with the Leonore Overture No. 3, which is a common item in the concert hall, but since I listen to Fidelio regularly it was a bit of a shock to be reminded how long it's been since I've heard this and how little it bears in common with the overture used in the opera.

The piece was given a rich, luxuriant treatment by MTT and the orchestra, taken at a pace that brought out the majesty within it. Heads turned in the orchestra section when the solo horn radiated from the balcony, its effect perfectly placed. There was an exceptionally strong flute solo by Tim Day, and a minute before the conclusion, principal cellist Michael Grebanier broke out in a grin, which was taken up by associate principal Peter Wyrick. It's almost a guaranteed night of musical excellence when these two are onstage together. But all the heavy hitters were onstage tonight except Nadya Tichman, and at various moments they all shone. Musically, the orchestra is sounding better than ever.

Yo-Yo Ma came out to a sustained welcome from the audience and warmly greeted members of the orchestra before settling in to perform the Hindemith Cello Concerto. This was the first time I've heard the piece and it's also my first time seeing Ma perform in person. I was intrigued by how aware he was of what was happening around him and how he anticipated what was taking place among the other players, but in a manner that had no artifice in it all, as if he was truly part of the larger ensemble even though he and everyone else onstage knew the show was sold out because of his presence. His presence is akin to that of a guest at a party that everyone adores and without whom it just wouldn't be the same. When the performance ended I was struck by how genuinely enthused and pleased the entire orchestra seemed to have him there. I've never seen a guest artist so warmly applauded the orchestra, so many grins onstage, Even Barantschik was actually applauding with his hands, which I've never seen him do before. Ma had warm hugs for Grebanier.

As for the performance? Ma handled his solo parts as one would expect, though I detected a couple of possible flubs that didn't sound quite right to my ear. Nevertheless, he displayed a dazzling amount of skill as he worked his way down the neck of his instrument, resulting in some frenzied solo passages which frankly reminded me of late 70's Eddie Van Halen in terms of dexterity and execution. The work itself seemed to border on novelty to me, with its frequent lapses into tremendous crescendos and volumes at the expense of any subtlety. There's nothing in it that immediately struck my mind as "ah, that's unique"- Shostakovitch did all these things better to my mind, with an emotion not detectable in Hindemith's work, though I may have a different opinion after repeated listenings

There was some audience attrition at intermission, and when the orchestra returned to play Brahms' Symphony No. 1 there were more than a few vacant seats. The row in front of us was nearly empty, and a young couple scampered over  and took the seats in front of us to get a better view. As the young woman rested her head on her date's shoulder I was reminded of how these evenings at the Symphony mean different things to different people, and how my own reaction to them has changed over the years. I used to think it a romantic evening out myself, long ago. Now I just go for the music. There are hundreds of people in the audience occupying a mental state in between, and probably many others occupying a state I'm unaware of- including people who may be interested in buying this ridiculous souvenir of the Centennial Season, the MTT kitchen apron ($32.95+ tax):

Pity to those who departed, because they missed an absolutely thrilling performance of the Brahms which I thought was the evening's highlight. Now I have to admit I'm not a tremendous fan of Brahms- why would one listen to Brahms when there's plenty of Beethoven or Wagner to put on the stereo? On top of that, the Romantic period has never struck me as being MTT's strongest suit, unless it's Russian. Tonight did away with all of that thinking, and MTT delivered a stunningly gorgeous performance. I've never heard the strings in this orchestra sound richer than they did in the first movement. In the second Barantschik played the solo parts with exquisite feeling, peeling off note after note of beautiful, lush sounds. The horns shone in the 3rd, led by Robert Ward. In the overly long 4th movement Robin McKee was fabulous and Carey Bell, Bill Bennett, Stephen Paulson all added significantly to the whole. The brass section was in exceptional form as well, all of this leading me to appreciate Brahms in a way I never have before. Consider me a convert- at least when played like this.

There was no clapping between movements during the entire concert (for a change) and although the guy two seats down from seemed like he was going to lose a lung in a coughing fit during the Hindemith, overall it was the quietest, most attentive audience I've witnessed in Davies in years- all the more exceptional for it being completely packed.

It was a memorable start to what promises to be an exceptional year. The rest of the performances are sold out, but you may get lucky and score a return by calling the box at the last minute. It would be worth the effort.