Mark Volkert. Photo by Kristen Loken.

Thaïs had one of those nagging little coughs that usually annoy me when I hear it coming from someone else. Another person seated close to us smelled pleasantly like soap. I was sitting next to a woman I've seen many times before and I wanted to introduce myself, but the proper moment never arrived. 

"Strauss is for old people. I don't like him. It's all 'boom boom bum bum,'" she whispered to me as Michael Tilson Thomas walked across the stage to the podium

That was fine. We weren't really there to hear the Strauss, but it turned out to be a fine performance of Till Eulenspiegel's Merry Pranks- one of the composer's tone poems which are beginning to appeal to me much more than they did when I was a younger person. I've become one of the old people, I guess. So is she, but since she's in denial about that I didn't bother to ask her what she thought of it. Till's march to the gallows reminded me of various points of discord in our relationship- after a bunch of pranks, boom booms signal the end is near, a head will roll, and some happy music brings it all to close, right back where it began. Applaud. 

What came next was the world premiere of Mark Volkert's Pandora, a 20 minute piece for string orchestra written by the San Francisco Symphony's longest-serving musician (an astonishing 40 years) and Associate Concertmaster. Volkert certainly doesn't look old enough for that first title, but he joined the orchestra at age 21. That long history has served him well in orchestrating his latest work- an engaging, accessible, yet challenging piece that should be performed by other, adventurous chamber orchestras. A different fate for Pandora would be an injustice and missed opportunity. I hope Nadja Salerno-Sonnenberg was in the house for one of the performances.

Structured in traditional sonata form, Volkert uses the Pandora story as told by Hesiod to create a musical narrative which relates all of sorts of ills being unleashed once the lid's come off the jar (or box in the more familiar usage), but isn't bound by trying to maintain them within the confines of programmatic writing. The opening reminded me of "Fire On High" by the Electric Light Orchestra, starting somewhere sinewy and mysterious, before it plunged forward. The piece contains some dizzying, virtuoso moments for many in the orchestra, including a cadenza whipped into a frenzy by concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, and has a satisfying narrative feel to it. Buzz-sawing violins give way to basses that sound like fiddles using odd string attacks and pitch changes. It's easy to get lost in a new work one hasn't heard before, trying to follow the thread of the music while listening for clues as to where it's headed next, but Pandora kept me guessing in a good way, nicely interjecting quieter moments within its overall quickly-paced structure. The ending felt right, but wasn't telegraphed in advance. When it was over I observed something rare- Nadya Tichman beaming with obvious delight. The audience gave it a well-deserved warm reception and Volkert, who was seated in the Symphony's VIP section in the Loge off the left hand side of the stage, looked enormously pleased.

During the intermission, while Thaïs queued for a vodka, I went outside to smoke. A slightly weathered, red-faced man in a bright blue shirt stood eyeing me. He was older than I by ten years at least, possibly twenty. I debated whether to approach him and make some small talk about the music we just heard, or take the more common, contemporary option of looking for something fascinating and urgent to read on my phone. I decided to go old school and actually talk to another person rather than stare at my phone while waiting for Thaïs to appear, knowing she could easily get waylaidMy choice yielded dubious results. 

The man was quite jovial and willing to talk. He lived at the far end of the BART line and was himself a musician- I believe he used the words "semi-pro" to describe himself, which meant that he played music for people in an assisted-living home. He began to explain the opening key of the Emperor, which was to be played next, and he did indeed appear to know all of the notes, which he exhibited in a sort of human beat-box delivery, one hand playing the notes on an air piano, the other holding his cigarette and drink. I listened and watched approvingly.

Then Thaïs appeared, so I made introductions. However, I had misheard his name, on which he corrected me. It seems his dentures often caused people to misunderstand him. He then popped them out with his fingers for a visual demonstration. Thaïs and I looked at each other, and I knew I was going to hear yet another lecture later about why I should quit smoking so she doesn't have to wait around for me and endure such people.

Out interlocutor/denture demonstrator then asked where we were from and we replied we lived here in town, which surprised him.

"You two don't seem like San Francisco people," he said.

"Really? Why not?" I asked.

"Well, most San Francisco people are snobs, I think. You two aren't snobs. This place" and here he waved his demo hand toward the brightly lit lobby, "is full of snobs."

I couldn't bring myself to look at Thaïs at this moment- the irony was too great.

He went on about this for a moment or two more, and then noticed people were re-entering the hall, and said he supposed he should get back to his seat. He extended his hand to me in farewell- the same one he used for the denture demo. Time almost stopped in my mind and it seemed like I was having an out-of-body experience as I reflexively took the demo hand and shook it. I wondered where else it had been but managed to stop myself before the entire list of potential horrors grew to a point which would trigger an anxiety attack. Out of the corner of my eye, still in slow-motion, I watched a tight grimace unfurl over Thaïs' face, her eyes hardening into blue steel.

We thanked him for his compliment, and lingered behind, just long enough. 

I waited for the scolding, but it didn't come. Instead she started laughing, "We're not snobs?"

"I guess not."

We re-entered the hall chuckling about this, and I made a beeline for the hand-sanitizer dispenser. 

Back at our seats, we settled in for the second half and Thaïs resumed coughing. 

I've mentioned before that Yefim Bronfman is my favorite pianist and because of that he was the draw for this particular concert, which originally didn't include Volkert's Pandora. However, I wasn't all that excited about what he was playing- Beethoven's Emperor Concerto. That's not because I don't like it. I love it in fact, but somehow it just seemed like an odd choice for Bronfman. Too safe a choice perhaps, for a performer whose recent performances have found him taking on some really challenging pieces. Not that the Emperor isn't a challenge, but it just doesn't feel like one to me at this point. Which seems like a ridiculous thing to actually write down but there you have it. That I would rather hear it performed by a younger, less-established pianist would probably be the best way to describe my ambivalence, and I'd prefer to hear Bronfman perform something more unusual- something which needs to be championed. Salonen's concerto, for example.

Then there's my additional ambivalence around MTT's approach to Beethoven, which can range from the full-throttled, sanguine/sublime end of the scale to stripped-down, lean performances bent on presenting the work as if it were performed on period instruments. I love the former approach, but the latter leaves me cold. I like my Beethoven ruddy, rude and transcendent.

That's not what we got. Now I'll admit I've probably ruined my ability to hear the Emperor correctly. When I first became enthralled by it I used to listen to it while driving in my car, playing it at volumes more suitable for Black Sabbath than Beethoven. Wait- I don't really mean that. Beethoven sounds great at that volume. The problem is a live orchestra is never going to play it that loud. And that's okay if it's performed with gusto and bravado. But on this night at least, everything seemed to be dialed down, with little of the piece's "heroic" character shining through.  The trumpets blended with the horns, instead of standing out clear and bright on their own. Even David Herbert's timpani sounded subdued. The sole bright spot was the string section, which sounded like they were still riding high from Pandora.

Bronfman, meanwhile, performed it seemingly note perfect, and with expressive delicacy at times, especially in the second movement, nicely conveying its sense of wistful loss and remembrance. But it was missing an individualistic stamp which would have raised it above a performance where there was nothing was at all wrong, but there little to be excited about beyond hearing a masterpiece. That's not a bad thing mind you, but this orchestra and soloist have spoiled their audience lately into expecting more. Still, that didn't stop more than a few folks in the center terrace from swaying to the music during the third movement, which was brought to a close with a lively, fast-paced flourish.