At 10:20 last night Isabella and I were standing at the corner of Larkin and O'Farrell waiting for the light to turn. We'd just passed two hookers in hot pants, one just barely shy of being a dwarf, the usual dealers, and a cheerful guy who wanted to chat me up in Spanish. I had been singing a song I just made up, based on something Isabella said to me while we were walking up Van Ness- "I have a bunch of gold stars in my box, and I need to pursue them," which struck me as the funniest thing I've heard in awhile. After imploring me to cease my serenade, Isabella looked at the marquee of the New Century Theater across the street.

"MILFs, Wagner, Beethoven, The Human Centipede....  you've exposed me to so much. It doesn't seem quite fair," she said.

"Oh, I believe it's a very equitable relationship," I replied, glancing at the marquee currently trumpeting the impending visit of "Lisa Ann- World's Hottest MILF!" on Thanksgiving weekend.

Her shows are at midnight and 2:00 AM. I wondered who'll be watching the kids? The world's hottest babysitter- BILF!

The linkage then came together. I asked, "Have you ever seen 'Dick in a box?'"

"Dick in a box?" she replied drolly, "Really?"

"You must see it."

She laughed.

"I'll show it to you!"  I exclaimed.

"Oh, I can't wait." 

Suddenly Davies Symphony Hall seemed miles away, even though only twenty minutes earlier we were sitting in the orchestra section, taking in an evening of German music. It wasn't supposed to be that way. Among the dozens of musical temptations offered during the San Francisco Symphony's Centennial Season was a world premiere by composer Sofia Gubaidulina. Unfortunately, illness got in the way and a few weeks ago it was announced her premiere would be replaced by Heinrich Schutz's "Ich bib ein rechter Weinstock" (composed circa 1648) and the original 1909 version of Arnold Schoenberg's "Five Pieces for Orchestra." Remaining from the original program was Brahms' German Requiem, which was no doubt the draw for many in the house, but for me the Gubaidulina was the lure and the Brahms was, well, just more Brahms. The program as it was performed was one I would have probably skipped, but I've learned over the years I'm often most pleased when I approach something without expectation and decided to go anyway. Besides, the Brahms featured the gorgeous soprano Jane Archibald, a former Merola participant and Adler fellow whose performances I have long admired. 

Jane Archibald. Photo by John Rennison.

The chorus filled the center terrace. There were no musicians onstage except the organist. SFS Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin came to the podium and the organist hit a note. Four minutes of glorious singing followed and then came to an abrupt end.

"What was that?" Isabella asked.  

"An amuse bouche?"

"Why was the organist there?"

"What do you mean?"

"He only played one note."


"Yes. Didn't you notice?"

"No- did you notice that redhead?" I asked, pointing her out.

I received a pinch in the arm in response.

Then the orchestra came onstage, followed by Michael Tilson Thomas. The linchpins were all there- Mark Inouye, Carey Bell, Bill Bennett, Tim Day, Sasha Barantschik and Stephen Paulson. Only Michael Grebanier was missing, but the Peter Wyrick is always fine in the lead chair.

Schoenberg's five pieces last about sixteen minutes. In the first "piece" Bell looked like he was having a blast. There were some interesting, captivating sounds coming from the orchestra, but soon it became apparent I wasn't going to find a way into the whole. Judging by the ridiculous amount of people coughing I wasn't the only one. Captivating in parts, the entirety eluded me and my unfamiliarity with the work precludes me from judging it more than that. The brass, however, provided some absolutely magnificent blasts during the work that were incredibly exciting to hear. The best I can come up with is an ambivalent "it was interesting."

When the applause subsided I quietly leaned over to Isabella and asked what she thought.

"Interesting," she replied.

Behind her a woman proclaimed loudly not to have liked it "one bit."

During the intermission we spoke with some people who know the work who did enjoy it quite a bit. One, a scholar and composer, proclaimed it beautiful, though without color. And it may have been- beautiful, that is. As for color, that's in the eye of the beholder.

We returned to our seats for the Brahms and I was surprised to see many people had left. 

In the early years of the last decade I would often attend performances led by MTT of Beethoven's symphonies and leave feeling disappointed. At the time he seemed intent to interpret Beethoven from a Classical perspective, rather than from the Romantic (or Heroic)- as if Beethoven had never come out from Haydn's influence. They were lean, taut, bloodless performances which lept along briskly but never settled into the heart. It's a valid approach, but it wasn't to my taste.

Then MTT appeared to switch gears and delved back into more Romantic interpretations, which I suspect all the Mahler the orchestra performed during that decade had something to do with. I mention this because last night the Brahms sounded like we had stepped back in time ten years to that era where the lean and taut was favored over the sanguine and romantic. This would have been fine for a shorter work, but it wasn't long into the hour-plus piece I found myself longing for some orchestral blood. The chorus delivered plenty- they were on fire last night, as they were in last month's version by Verdi, though their Italian was more clearly enunicated than their German, which doesn't make a lot of sense but there you have it. But the orchestra smoothed out the peaks and valleys of the work in favor of something much more pastoral. Depsite the thrilling beauty of the chorus, overall the result felt tepid. It was Brahms in a box.

Kyle Ketelsen. Photo by Dario Acosta.

The lovely Archibald sounded fine, though she had a tendency to snap off the end of her lines rather than let them float. The evening's most pleasant surprise was the Symphony debut of baritone Kyle Ketelsen, whose large solid voice impressed me from the first note and on. I hope we get to see him across the street at the War Memorial again some time soon (he was cast as Carmen's Escamillo in '06-07- thanks Patrick!).  He's also, for those who care about such things, a definite contender for barihunk status- in fact, it would be a great idea for him and Nathan Gunn to do an operatic version of- oh never mind, I don't know if the opera world is quite ready for that.