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December 14, 2000

We spent the night at the San Francisco Symphony tonight. The main event was Rachmaninoff’s Symphony #2. The drive into San Francisco was tedious. I swear there is absolutely no time of the day or night when you can drive into the city without encountering traffic backups. Here we were at 6 p.m. on a Wednesday night, when all the traffic should have been coming out of the city, and we were stuck in a backup at the toll plaza, metering lights getting onto the bridge, and bumper to bumper traffic crossing the bridge.

If you have to be stuck in traffic, however, there are worse places than someplace high overlooking San Francisco at night. Especially at Christmas time, when the buildings along the waterfront are outlined with white lights, even now, when Northern California is facing a major power crisis and rolling blackouts are threatened because the state cannot find outside sources to provide power without cash on hand. We decided electrical crises are kind of surreal. If it were an impending flood, you could see the water rising and know that you have to get out of the way fast. But with a power crisis, you don’t have that “luxury.” You have to take it on faith from the guys who stand at strange looking power grids and cluck their tongues ominously and tell you how lucky you are not to have been plunged into darkness.

The ride into the city was a little depressing because we were listening to Al Gore give his concession speech and realizing that the man Molly Ivens promises “isn’t as dumb as everyone thinks he is” is going to run the nation for the next four years.

But we did eventually get into the city and approached civic center, where the newly gold-gilded dome of city hall shone brightly and the opera house was all aglow with Nutcracker figures hanging from the outside columns. The Nutcracker figures would explain how there happened to be so many children wandering around between Symphony Hall and the Opera House.

The traffic back-up extended to the line waiting to get into the parking garage, but we did eventually get in, and parked the car on “harp.” This parking garage, which serves the opera house and symphony hall has four floors, each marked with a symbol rather than a number. The ground floor is masks of comedy and tragedy; the next floor is a Wagnerian horned hat; third floor is a harp; and the top floor is musical notes. Very cute.

We were too late for the pre-concert talk (which was starting about the time we were parking the car), so we just went into the garage restaurant, Cafe Allegro, for dinner. This little cafe recently changed hands. It used to be operated by a delightful Russian man named Sergei, whose help was a Hispanic woman who never seemed to be able to understand anything I ordered if it was the least out of the ordinary (“no lettuce” seemd to be beyond her). The new owners are still trying to get it right and have made some improvements, but last time I ordered a ham and cheese sandwich on a baguette and got a baguette piled high with Swiss cheese, and no ham. Tonight I gave them a second try at it and got a baguette with several slices of ham and a piece of Swiss cheese so thin you could see through it. Maybe I’ll try a BLT next time.

When we finished dinner, we caught the tail end of the pre-concert speech and then met Char in our box seats to wait for the concert to start. I hadn’t seen conductor Michael Tilson-Thomas on stage in awhile and marveled that he seems to be getting greyer. I sometimes think of these symphony evenings as my “$50 nap,” since I invariably nod off during the music, but tonight’s program kept me awake. We started with Berlioz’ Overture to Benvenuto Cellini, new to me but rousing enough to hold my interest and keep my eyes open. Next we had Four Greek songs by Ravel followed by three songs by Berlioz, with guest soloist David Daniels, “the hottest countertenor in the U.S., perhaps the hottest countertenor in the world” (according to a web page I found on countertenors when we got home).

Daniels is a large man, tall and barrel chested, with a bushy black beard. And so it was a bit of a surprise to have him open his mouth and out come this lovely soprano-tone voice. It’s not that I was unaware of the male soprano voice (we have a CD by “The Three Countertenors”), but I guess I just kind of forgot the term when I saw it in the program, and was not expecting that voice to come out of this imposing looking man.

Tilson-Thomas came into his own with Rocky 2, the second half offering, a work every bit as powerful as the movie of the same name (though obviously vastly different subject matter!). When I hear the familiar strains of the third movement, the Adagio, I can’t help but think back to the distinguished British actor who used to hawk cassette tapes of collections of familiar classical of those frustrating collections that only give you bits and pieces of great gems of music, all nicely packaged and available at an 800 number near you.

The Rachmaninoff Second Symphony is a work filled with soaring melodies, lush orchestrations and romantic fervor. It’s the stuff that used to be the backdrop for old Rock Hudson movies. Not the cutesy Doris Day ones, but the Jane Wyman ones, and you can picture Hudson and Wyman walking along some beach while a Rachmaninoff melody soars in the background.

Conductor Tilson-Thomas warmed to his task. At times he resembles a heron, arms and legs akimbo, bouncing up and down, the hair on his head flying and looking like ruffled feathers. It was quite a performance, both of the symphony itself and just watching Tilson-Thomas in action.

When it was over, we joined the teeming sea of humanity, all moving en masse toward the parking garage, passing Omar, the homeless guy Walt always stops to talk to. And we got in the line of bumper to bumper traffic headed out of the city--where do all these cars come from? I don’t know how long the traffic backup lasted, as I fell asleep long before we left the bridge and didn’t wake up until we were pulling into the driveway at home. Fortunately, Walt was driving.

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