"I said I wanted a big chorus. This is only three hundred people and some kids. Now go get me a really big chorus..."

In his famous preface to the New York Edition of his novel The Tragic Muse, Henry James sticks it to Thackeray, Dumas and Tolstoy, acknowledging that though their immense novels are full of life, "what do such large, loose, baggy monsters, with their queer elements of the accidental and the arbitrary, artistically mean?" 

James' epithet stomped through my mind as I alternated between states of delight and ennui during the all-French, all-choral, all loose, baggy monsters extravaganza unfolding this weekend with the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Charles Dutoit.

Now if your memory is as keen as Lisa Hirsch's, who greeted me at intermission with the words "What are you doing here? I thought you dislike Dutoit," you may be wondering why I was attending this particular concert in the first place, and I'm a gonna tell ya. 

The first item on the program was Poulenc's Stabat Mater, which has never been performed by the orchestra before, and the other item was Berlioz's Te Deum, which hasn't been performed in almost 40 years. Two massive, rarely heard choral works on one program? Count me in. Besides,  I figured it was time to give Dutoit another chance.

It turns out this was a good choice. Though it's a bit of a freakish program, with a lot of strange and wonderful singing, beautiful and frightening music, there's much to engage one's mind and ears. Having said that, I'm not sure I would be in a hurry to hear either work again any time soon, like I would if it was Berlioz's Damnation du Faust.  Having not heard the pieces before, I can't attribute this response to anything other than a lukewarm first impression to the pieces themselves. 

There were two choruses appearing last night: the San Francisco Symphony's led by Ragnar Bohlin, which gave a superb, forceful performance in both works; and the Pacific Boychoir, directed by Kevin Fox, which commanded everyone's attention during their moments in the Berlioz with their angelic tone surprising presence.

Jonathan Dimmock manned the organ during the Berlioz, which also featured a compelling performance from Paul Groves, whose Italianate tenor the high point of the entire concert. Not to be outdone in the "how much more can I heap on this and still get away with it?" method of composition, the Poulenc featured soprano Erin Wall for a couple of unnecessary passages, which by her presence she actually did make more compelling, but toward the end, during the "Quando corpus" section (the last of twelve), Wall started to look like she was about to explode in rapture and it creeped me out. Thaïs noticed it too, and had a similar reaction.  

I read in the program notes there was supposed to be some inappropriate trombone noises at the conclusion of "Vidit suum" section, but I missed it entirely because of phone going off. It must not be that big of a deal- certainly not a Lady Macbeth of Mtsenk kind of trombone moment- I mean, you can't miss that no matter what else is happening around you, right? And then the great and terrible thing happened: first, Thaïs sneezed- loudly; then, to my horror, my phone fell out of my pocket, onto to the floor, and clattered about.  My. phone. fell. out. of. my. pocket. and onto the floor. Every vein in my body suddenly throbbed. Suddenly we had become those people. I was so glad Patrick and The Opera Tattler weren't in attendance. I don't think I could have withstood the extra heaping of shame their presence would have surely brought. Was I mortified? Actually, no, though there was certainly a time in my concert-going life where if I had been sitting next to me I would have though "what a fucking rube- and now he's gone and ruined my entire concert experience!" If you felt that after my phone fell on the floor, I want to sincerely apologize for the distraction. I know, it sucks. I'm sorry. It's never happened before. I doubt it will happen again. Please forgive me. Gravity happens. I can't believe how uptight I used to be. How embarrassing!

Dutoit led the orchestra ably, and when air seemed to go still and the temperature in the hall rose slightly during the "Dignare, Domine" section of the Te Deum,  well, I don't know exactly what caused that, but it was pretty damn impressive. Still, when it was over, I did wonder what it all was supposed to mean. 

The program repeats Saturday and Sunday.