San Francisco Symphony’s Opening Gala Gives an Indie Critic the Night Off

Most music snobs try really hard to convince themselves they're not music snobs. Or at least I do. I never wanted to be that killjoy who grunts in disgust when someone excitedly purchases an '80s compilation — but in my soul I wish someone would stab '80s club nights with a rusty steak knife and just murder them forever. My music snottiness has even gotten in the way of my personal life. I winced when one otherwise attractive guy I was dating namechecked the Blue Man Group (and it wasn't a reference to Arrested Development). An old housemate and I got into it during a house party where he refused to take Seal off the stereo. Being a music snob is one difficult affliction to shake.

This is a burden that no professing of love for popular bands can cure. Once you get hypersensitive about certain groups, it's hard to break the associations you have with the really bad stuff. I'm not the fan with encyclopedic knowledge of every album, but my dislikes come with sharp heels that dig deep.

So it's refreshing when I get invited to a performance where I'm one of the biggest novices in the room. I like checking out shows where I can actually hear music with a fresh ear.

For two hours at the San Francisco Symphony's Opening Gala last week, I was the new kid in the room. I couldn't even pretend to know my "Andante for Strings" from my "Shéhérazade." That's not to say I've ignored classical music. My grandma trained to be an opera singer, and my parents took my sister and me to plenty of family concerts in Portland, Ore. But, to be honest, most of my "knowledge" of classical music comes from movie soundtracks. I've loved Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings" ever since Platoon. Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries" will always bring to mind the famous helicopter brigade in Apocalypse Now. Even my slightly less everyman taste for the Kronos Quartet comes from the punishing ending to Requiem for a Dream.

The opening gala was populated by the symphony elite; at least that's what I imagined, given the cost for entrance (ticket prices ranged from $130 to $2,500) and the opera glasses they pulled out of their clutches. The event carried such an important air. Champagne corks popped every two minutes in the lobby, and bartenders handed out free glasses of bubbly to women packed into dresses that probably cost half my annual salary.

I went with SF Weekly's theater critic, Chloe Veltman. She's knowledgeable about all the highbrow arts, and therefore the perfect seatmate to have there. At the beginning of the program, she balked at the use of such ubiquitous songs as "Scenes from Romeo and Juliet" and "O Mio Babbino Caro." Of course, these titles meant nothing to me, other than the fact that I read Romeo and Juliet in high school. She called the choices obvious crowd pleasers, probably much in the same way I'd roll my eyes at the thought of Tommy Lee DJing a dance club. (I've heard him spin before, and it ain't pretty.)

Still, when the lights dimmed at Davies Symphony Hall, I was thankful to recognize anything at all — like Aaron Copland's popular "Fanfare for the Common Man," and Puccini's "O Mio Babbino Caro," which my dad always plays when he cooks homemade pasta.

Classical music is such a different language — and my vocabulary to describe it is clunky. There's no ready vernacular to use, none of that "angular guitar" or "seminal record" crap. (Although maybe Romeo and Juliet is the seminal love story?) Soprano Renee Fleming sang a couple numbers with the orchestra, but her agile voice was never quite loud enough. I like opera singers because I imagine them fronting glam rock bands — I want her quivering trills to overtake all the other instruments, pounding them into submission with diva-esque force. But no such luck. Still, the range and flexibility of her singing was impressive, even if, in the end, I wasn't sure why there was the standing ovation for one particular song over any of the other ones.

For my tastes, the symphony is all about the accoutrements — dressing up, feeling fancy, being transported to a different era where the music is about enjoying the sound and not the image of those playing it. Sitting up in the nosebleeds, I took a break from having to dissect every last song by putting the performance up against some sort of hazy knowledge of how things should be done.

Or so I thought. When Chloe and I hit the Gala "afterparty," a large tent decked out with roses and chandeliers and free wine and snacks, suddenly I wasn't so judgment-free. A cover band was plowing into "Tainted Love," "Kiss," and — kryptonite to the music snob soul — "Disco Inferno," making me feel like I was at a wedding reception being held in any of the last two decades. So as all the debutantes and socialites abandoned their symphony fuss to spin on the checkered dance floor, I checked out, avoiding being subjected to the inevitable rendition of "Play that Funky Music." The symphony was quite the entertaining visit, but in the end, the jerk in me reared its ugly ear. Classical movie soundtracks are one thing — tunes that could score The Wedding Singer are, unfortunately, quite another.

 
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