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Cooking for the Gala Crowd

September 20, 2007

In his book Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain describes a typical day in the life of a New York chef. It's a Friday and Bourdain has to come up with the weekend specials for the menu. "The people coming to dinner tonight and Saturday night are different from the ones who eat at my restaurant during the week, and I have to take this into account," he writes. "Saddle of wild hare stuffed with foie gras is not a good weekend special, for instance. Fish with names unrecognizable to the greater part of the general public won't sell. The weekend is a time for buzzwords: items like shrimp, lobster, T-bone, crabmeat, tuna and swordfish. Fortunately, I've got some hamachi tuna coming in, always a crowd pleaser."

San Francisco Symphony's 07-08 season opening gala took place last night, a Wednesday night, but the evening's entertainment brings Bourdain's culinary musings about what to serve at the weekend to mind. For the average gala attendee is very much like the kind of person who would eat at Les Halles, Bourdain's brasserie, on a Friday or Saturday night. He or she is dressed to the nines, is prepared to spend a lot of money (tickets to the gala cost as much as $2,500) and expects to be fed a solid diet of recognizable musical fare, cooked up by celebrities of the classical music world.

The Symphony no doubt met these "weekend diners"' expectations. Soprano Renee Fleming joined maestro Michael Tilson Thomas for two humalong Puccini arias -- "Vissi d'arte" from Tosca and "O mio babbino caro" from Gianni Schicchi -- before launching into the voluptuous "Jewel Song" from Gounod's Faust as an encore. She also performed the three light-as-air movements from Ravel's Sheherazade ("Asie," "La Flute Enchantee" and "L'Indifferent") which showcased the ethereal, filigree higher register of her voice. However, Ravel's sparkling, aviarylike score, with its predominance of bells and chirping flutes and piccolos, has always left me feeling slightly indifferent. But Tristan Klingsor's poetry is profoundly moving and Fleming is a master at making every word count.

The audience was in raptures, and deservedly so at least with regards to the soprano's take on the song from Gianni, which was delivered with such tenderness and passion that the old chestnut breathed and bubbled anew. As I mentioned above, Fleming has a particular talent for making the words of a libretto meaningful. You only need listen to the heart-felt intonations and inflections she puts on certain syllables to understand the spirit of what she's singing, even if you have no knowledge of what the Italian lyrics actually mean.

On the other hand, I don't suppose many people in the audience minded that "Vissi d'arte" lacked the glacial evenness that gives this song its profound depth or that Fleming's voice sounded slightly muffled throughout her performance. At least, it failed to make the necessary impact on those of us sitting up in the second balcony. The lady sitting next to me was hardly listening, I think: she was in raptures over Fleming's costume -- a pale green, glittery confection with a matching taffeta wrap that trailed on the ground, threatening to trip both its wearer and MTT up as they walked off stage. I thought the gown made the soprano look like a particularly buxom mermaid, but my neighbor spent most of the performance peering at her through a pair of binoculars and whispering intermittently to her husband. "Ooh, isn't she beautiful!" I heard her say at one point.

With the exception, perhaps, of the pulse-racing, runaway freight train that is John Adams' brilliant Short Ride in a Fast Machine and Ruth Crawford Seeger's dirge-like Andante for Strings (a piece which deserves obscurity), the rest of the concert program was as crowd-pleasing as Mr. Bourdain's famous T-bone steaks. At this point, it's hard to distance the perfect, geometric contours of Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man from the fact that it has become a sportscast cliche. Still, SF Symphony's brass and percussion section managed to deliver a performance that was clean and bright and full of hope for the coming season.

Less successful was the orchestra's performance of six scenes from another repertoire favorite, Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. The ensemble has just returned from performing concerts all around Europe and the players' exhaustion, jet-lag and probable boredom with playing the same music over and over again all summer began to show in the second half. The striding dotted rhythms of the "Balcony Scene" lacked precision and crispness. By the time we got to the "Death of Tybalt," it was clear that the orchestra was just dialing it in.

"I need something quick, simple and easily plated--and something that will be popular with the weekend rubes," Bourdain writes, mulling over what he can do to keep the pre-Mama Mia! and Les Miz crowd happy and make some good, hard cash while he's at it. The difference between Bourdain's approach and SF Symphony's last night is this: both Bourdain and MTT know how to create a popular menu for the masses, but only Bourdain can ensure the same high quality from appetizer to dessert.


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