I almost folded the symphony preview into the opera preview, because I feel pretty much the same way about the San Francisco Symphony as about the San Francisco Opera: the programming is certainly respectable, but not all that exciting. I’ve read through the entire season at least three times, and ten minutes after each time I have only the vaguest memory of what’s being presented. All of them are programs I wouldn’t mind hearing, but most aren’t programs I would go out of my way to hear.
There are some exceptions, of course, notably the Missa Solemnis at the end of the season with some terrific soloists, including Christine Brewer. Most of the other standouts involve the Symphony’s terrific chorus: the revival of El Nino, the Bach Mass in B Minor, a Carmina Burana with excellent soloists. . . . But there isn’t a lot of ambitious, mind- and ear-stretching new/modern music. We do get the Rothko Chapel, but sometimes I think Tilson Thomas only programs Feldman so that he can tell little Borscht-Belt-type anecdotes about him beforehand. I’ve never really bought into the cult of personality the Symphony has attempted to build around Tilson Thomas; I like him fine, am baffled by his reputation for daring programming, and wish he would stop talking during concerts.*
I think it’s the cult aspect that slightly puts me off his Mahler performances; they seem to be a “thing” in a way that isn't really about the music, as if people were there to see a local sight, like the Golden Gate Bridge or Beach Blanket Babylon, one of those things you check off a list. But we are getting the 2nd, 6th, and 9th. And the wonderful Yuja Wang is showing up at the end of the season, and John Adams is the Project San Francisco composer in residence, though he isn’t presenting any premieres.
There was a notable lack of excitement several months ago when the Symphony announced its season. Some speculated that they were saving the sizzle for their centennial celebration next year, but I don’t really understand that reasoning: I mean, a year is a long time, in some ways, and there’s really no reason for professional musicians to stint on what they do for their paying customers. I think it's more that, as with the local opera audience, there’s a large lump of the symphony audience that simply doesn’t like to hear new things, and as with the Opera, they’ve decided to dedicate themselves to that particular segment of the audience, and the rest of us can go fend for ourselves.
That may explain some of the appalling marketing e-mails I receive from the Symphony, which skirt delicately around the fact that you are expected to go and sit more or less still and quiet for whole consecutive minutes at a time, taxing your attention with music. Instead it’s all about “one-of-a-kind social events you won’t want to miss” and suggestions for a “Girls’ Night Out” subscription pack, or a “Football Widows’ Pack” (homage to Anna Russell: I’m not making this up, you know!). Sure, gals: slip on the Manolos, sip your girlietinis, and listen to Mahler brood on mortality for 90 minutes. Then go grab some nibbles at a trendy café!**
What I find so off-putting about this sort of advertising, besides its pointed exclusion of men, is its pointed exclusion of music lovers. I wonder if anyone considers the marketing blowback from this sort of fatuous vulgarity? I know people love to talk knowingly about “putting butts in seats” by, I guess, any means necessary, as if you can trick people into listening to Stravinsky, like hiding your dog’s medicine in a doggie treat – and I love that people who say that clearly love the slight crudity of the expression, because if there’s one thing people love more than sounding in the know, it’s sounding knowing – but frankly the whole “butts in seats” thing is not my problem. I’m more concerned with where I’m seating my butt, and there’s nothing here that’s making me feel the Symphony is a place I need to be, or where I would be particularly welcome, what with my whole “play more Schoenberg!” attitude, plus of course the whole “having a penis” thing.
What’s especially disappointing is that, though there are some smaller local groups taking up the banner of operatic adventure (listed at the end of my opera preview), there’s no one else locally providing the symphony experience on a regular basis (yes, there’s the Berkeley Symphony and the Oakland East Bay Symphony, but both only present four or five concerts a year). It’s a shame, because the symphony orchestra is one of the great inventions of the nineteenth century, and can produce sounds nothing else can. And if you simply cater to the placid tastes of those who consider a symphony concert the sort of conspicuous consumption suitable for their class, you risk irrelevance. That’s what’s always bothered me about the “Davies After Hours” concerts (which are basically a hipper version of the opening night party) – to me the implication is that we’ve had our “it’s good for you” music, and now we can go listen to the music we really connect with and enjoy. There’s no reason to seal symphonic music off in this way. A symphony orchestra is not a natural organism – it needs care and maintenance, and it needs some connection to the life – not just social, but artistic and intellectual – of its time.
* Alex Ross quotes Riccardo Muti: "After the explosive finale of Respighi's Pines of Rome, Muti did some deft stand-up: 'Conductors should never speak.... After a few words, conductors say nonsense. È vero?' " Si, maestro, e vero!
** I labor mightily to be amusing, but I'm not really out-doing the original: "Don your dress, slip on your stilettos, and grab the gals -- it's Girls' Night Out at the Symphony! Enjoy the best in classical music with your best of friends and make it a night on the town. Gal Pal Tip: Kick off the night with cocktails before the concert at the trendy bars and restaurants in nearby Hayes Valley." I think "Gal Pal Tip" is sheer genius, if your intention is to be satirical.