The San Francisco Symphony's Project San Francisco project gives artists the opportunity to perform more than one program while passing through town- at least that's how I understand it. Last week superstar soprano Renée Fleming appeared with the orchestra in an all-French program comprised of Debussy and Canteloube, with the added bonus of the world premiere of some Debussy piano melodies scored for orchestra by the Brit composer/Debussy scholar Robin Holloway.

Or to put it another way, Renée Fleming was singing at Davies. In French. And she'll be back this Wednesday to perform a duo recital with Susan Graham, in another all-French program. Holloway is sticking around too, as his music is part of the Peer Gynt extravaganza which begins this Thursday. In other words, suddenly it's hit me the holidays are over and there's a lot going on even though my head is still somewhere back in mid-December.

When MTT started talking about Debussy's Jeux, which opened the concert, I found it hard to pay attention because I was thinking about more important things- like what Fleming would be wearing and how she would sound. In that order. Jeux, which is about a menage-a-trois taking place on a tennis court, sounded ok, but I couldn't discern much that was sexy about it- or even salacious.

Fleming arrived onstage in a pink gown that was perfectly fine but didn't particularly excite me. I was hoping for something tight and black. However, she was wearing an amazing pair of earrings, reminiscent of those talismans used to ward off the evil eye which one sees all over Greece and Turkey- and in the case of Fleming's earrings the white of the eyes were made of ridiculously sparkly diamonds, surrounding what looked like irises made of sapphires. I leaned over to Thaïs and asked if she liked them.

"She has a wonderful husband," was the response.

Fleming sang C'est l'extase - melodies Debussy wrote for piano which Holloway orchestrated on commission by the Symphony. The six songs lasted about twenty minutes, Fleming made it all look so easy, but only "L'ombre des arbres (The Shadow of the Trees)," really hit the mark with its stunningly gorgeous finish created by Holloway. So gorgeous, in fact, it seemed the entire orchestra suddenly vanished, leaving a lone woman onstage singing of drowned hopes.

Sometime during this section a female troll seated in the back row of the terrace seats took a flash photograph. Then she took another. I watched the usher make his way from the far left of the terrace toward the offender and wag his finger at her. This caused me to take a look at the faces seated in the front row of the center terrace, and it struck me as an amusing collage of humanity. There they were, seated from left to right: a woman of a certain age with a smart gray bob; a mustachioed man of a certain age, the ends of his whiskers waxed and twirled, with matching ironic spectacles, period haircut, and gray flannel suit (well done, old chap!); a suspicious librarian type who seemed intent on discovering a dead body under her seat; two very bored looking middle-aged sisters, obviously separated at birth, with square jaws and matching dull hairdos; a woman who obviously believes she belongs on television judging by her imperial dowager demeanor; a John Lennon impersonator; two drunk Scots, and an elf.

During the intermission we had the good fortune to eavesdrop on Holloway delivering one delightful aporhism after another, mostly about Wagner. He's funny, charming, witty and has a certain Malcolm McDowell-like twinkle in his eye as if he wants to do something outlandishly inappropriate while everyone's looking.

Fleming returned in the second half to sing three lively selections from Chants d'Auvergne by Canteloube (no, I'm not making the name up) and it was during the the last one ("Baï lero") that "the voice" finally emerged. It was instantly the highlight of the evening, even though it only lasted a couple of minutes.

After Fleming took her bows (there was no encore), the orchestra returned to Debussy with La mer, which MTT conducted sans score and with some fine contributions from Bill Bennett and Carey Bell.

By the way, the Fleming/Graham recital hits the road after its debut here with stops in LA, Palm Desert, Chicago, New York and Boston. Check out Fleming's site for details.