Two conflicting clichés come to mind this week:
You can take the boy out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of the boy.
How are you going to keep them back on the farm after they’ve seen gay Paris (or San Francisco)?
I lived in the San Francisco area from 1975-85, specifically in Marin County, the beautiful landscape north of the city over the Golden Gate Bridge. During my last five years in Marin, I lived in the rural community of Woodacre, which satisfied the country boy in me, while I was only a forty-five minute drive from the big city of San Francisco. I loved it. Those were formative years for me, when I began my music career, a career that would have been impossible for me to establish in my hometown Columbus, Georgia, or even in the great city of Atlanta.
So it always feels like a homecoming of sorts when I come back to San Francisco. Susan feels the same way. She lived in San Francisco concurrently with me in the seventies. We just didn’t meet until she had left the Bay Area and moved to the Lake Tahoe area. San Francisco remains an incredibly culturally diverse and musically rich city. The air is clean. The people are diverse, eccentric, and friendly.
The timing of our visit this week was to attend the new season’s opening concert of the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. When I lived in the San Francisco area, I never attended the symphony concerts. I was more interested in learning jazz. So whenever I went out to a concert, it was always a jazz artist that I wanted to hear. I had played in symphonies in my home town of Columbus, Georgia, as a student at Florida State University, and more recently even a few times as a substitute with the Reno Philharmonic. So I’ve always loved symphony orchestras. There is nothing like the thrill of playing a bombastic composition as a member of a large orchestra. The audience shares the feeling, but the members of the orchestra (or chorus) experience the feeling in the strongest way possible.
There’s an old joke: Some musicians are waiting in line at the Pearly Gates to enter heaven. Suddenly Gabriel’s trumpets sound, the Pearly Gates swing open, and a distinguished gentleman in a tuxedo and carrying a baton enters heaven. Who’s that? Saint Peter answers, “Oh, that’s God. He thinks he’s a conductor.”
In the orchestra world, the conductor is a combination of god, king, and dictator. The orchestra is his/her personal band, and he/she is the unquestioned leader. They say that being a conductor is good for longevity, because standing and swinging one’s arms is good exercise, combined with the positive effects of everyone under the conductor’s authority responding obediently to his/her every move.
There are many famous conductors renowned as much for their personalities as for their musicianship. The late Herbert Von Karajan of the Berlin Philharmonic is the conductor perhaps most resembling the god-complex of the joke above. Leonard Bernstein is America’s most famous conductor. Lenny (as known by his friends) could do it all. He composed symphonies, musicals, sonatas, and popular songs. He played all styles of piano from classical to jazz. He was an amazing educator and author. His New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts were important musical influences on both Susan and myself during our high school years.
Leonard Bernstein was a mentor for Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor of the SFO for the past twenty years. MTT is a vigorous seventy-year-old. Like Bernstein, MTT does it all: he sings, he plays all styles of piano, he composes, he instructs, he entertains. MTT has championed American symphonic music during his tenure with the SFO. He is only the second American-born conductor of the SFO, the first being the original conductor when the SFO was founded in 1911, as part of the rejuvenation of San Francisco in the wake of the destructive 1907 earthquake.
The opening gala concert for the new concert season was a high society formal affair. Tickets were much more expensive than usual. For that higher price, “free” champagne was served before the concert; free wine was available at intermission; after the concert there was a street fair with various free exotic foods stalls (e.g. a dim sum bar, a chocolate bar, an expresso bar, all with more free champagne and wines). There was a dance band inside the concert hall complex, along with drummers and a rock band outside the hall.
I normally like to wear my tuxedo only when I’m getting paid, so I chose to wear a simple suit and tie. But many men were wearing tuxedos. Many women were wearing amazing glamorous formal gowns. And since it was San Francisco, there were a number of flamboyantly dressed gay couples–males, females, and ambiguous sexual identities. Compared to most symphony concerts that I’ve attended, there was a larger proportion of young people, which was refreshing, especially as evidenced by the exuberant and eccentric costumes far removed from the usual conservative concert attire.
The repertoire for the concert was chosen for guaranteed mass appeal. The first piece was Scherzo a la Russe by Igor Stravinsky. The original meaning of the word scherzo refers to a joke, which was realized by the circus march mood of Stravinsky’s scherzo. In that spirit, on the last note of the piece, the entire orchestra quickly jumped to their feet to an enthusiastic ovation.
Tchaikovsky’s Overture to Romeo and Juliet followed. Some snobs think that Tchaikovsky’s melodies are melodramatic. Not me, I love Tchaikovsky.
A Chinese pianist, Yuja Wang then performed George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue with a reduced orchestra playing Gershwin’s original arrangement for the Paul Whiteman Jazz Band. The pianist read the musical score on an IPad set within the open piano.
After the intermission, multi-Grammy singer Bonnie Raitt, more known for her blues-rock performances, sang a few older theatrical show songs. She sang beautifully in a style that was a departure from what her traditional fans probably expected.
The concert’s finale was Serge Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet (excerpts). I was happy because the Gershwin, Bonnie Raitt’s songs, and Prokofiev all used saxophones as part of the orchestra’s woodwind section. Classical saxophones…
The San Francisco Symphony belongs to that small elite group of major symphonies that is well funded by many rich donors. The SFO benefits in particular from the donations by the relatively rich residents of nearby Silicon Valley, one of the largest economic generators in the world. The concert program contained pages of donor listings, starting with an elite list of donors contributing more that $250,000. The next category was donors contributing over $100,000, and so forth down to $5,000. The donor list was several pages long. It is good to know that even in these tough economic times, rich cities like San Francisco generously support their artistic institutions.