Fanfare for the Common Band

Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony play the Berkeley Community Theater for two nights, and for what?

But eight years later, at Berkeley's Community Theater, Metallica was again destined not to have its way. Not that James Hetfield singing with an orchestra isn't a cool idea; but who would be the audience for something like that? If Metallica actually plays with an orchestra, on the other hand, it becomes a mega-event: the most popular metal band in the world performing with one of the world's most prestigious symphony orchestras.

So the guitars remained, but this time around it was going to be a true collaboration, a dialogue between musicians of different disciplines. "If you took Metallica away," asserted Kamen, in a car en route to the dress rehearsal, "you'd hear giant orchestral pieces which stand on their own."

At the actual show, a prim, 41-year-old violinist was babbling to a rock critic about how she'd never been to a rock concert in her life, and was given a free ticket so she could hear the symphony. "I hope I survive," she chirped.

Kamen and the orchestra opened with Ennio Morricone's overture to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly as Metallica's members made their way onstage. The band and symphony then went into Metallica's "Call of Ktulu," which, in Kamen's arrangement, sounded a little like John Barry's music to the Bond films; understandable for a movie-music composer like Kamen. The symphony itself sounded strong, the instruments blended well, and it seemed as though a real collaboration was in the works.

But as soon as "Master of Puppets" began, the musical dialogue became a soliloquy. All you could hear was Metallica -- good Metallica, but nothing that benefited from having an orchestra behind it. Occasionally you could hear the faint strains of strings, and some short, quick horn blasts that had the odd effect of making the heavy metal giants sound frighteningly like Oingo Boingo. A few of the slower songs, like "Hero of the Day" and "Bleeding Me," worked better, but when Hetfield quipped, "Did you hear the one about the metal band that wanted to play with the symphony?" between songs, well, no, you didn't hear it at all.

After the intermission, though, everything came together. Metallica and the symphony opened with an affecting arrangement of "Nothing Else Matters" that was more along the lines of what Metallica had desired in the first place: Hetfield singing with acoustic guitar and lush orchestration behind him. From then on, it was one hit after another -- "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "Wherever I May Roam," "The Outlaw Torn," "One," "Enter Sandman" -- performed with energy, excitement, and extraordinary cohesiveness. Incongruities in the first half now clicked. Bassist Jason Newsted wandered through the music stands, jamming next to the first violinist. Kamen, looking like the quintessential cartoon conductor with his unruly mane and flamboyant style, furiously kept time with the symphony while Metallica engaged the audience in some raucous call-and-response.

With more balanced arrangements, extremely tight playing by both Metallica and the symphony, songs laced with lyrics about one man's battle against the world, and flashing lights and projections as a backdrop, the show seemed almost Wagnerian in its epic proportions. As a complete sensory experience, it was close to Wagner's dream of Gesamtkunstwerk (a total work of art) -- and a lot of fun.

Kamen said that if 10 kids left these concerts with a newfound interest in the symphony, it would've been worth it. While several fans exclaimed that this was the best concert they'd ever been to, no one asked what was on the next Michael Tilson Thomas/symphony program. But there was at least one convert: that 41-year-old violinist had her hands in the air, clapping vigorously. "Metallica's great," she said. "They're really amazing musicians. I just wish I could've been up there, playing that music. It was awesome."

-- Stacey Kors

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