Woody Weingarten

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Symphony offers potpourri of pleasure, future goodies

Kenny Loggins

Jessye Norman


I have a couple of highbrow friends who braved all four parts of Wagner’s Ring cycle a while back in San Francisco.

And then they had the stamina to sit through the whole thing again in Manhattan.

Frankly, I wouldn’t endure that on a bet.

I also know some lowbrow folks who’ve been on pins and needles waiting for the next “American Idol” or “Keeping Up with the Kardashians” reality show.

Not my druthers.

On the third hand, I and my middlebrow colleagues agree we’ll attend carefully selected symphony, ballet and opera events, Shakespearean festivals, art-museum openings and the like, as well as pop this ‘n’ that — and, as a rule, thoroughly enjoy our cherry-picking.

Which brings me to the San Francisco Symphony and its recent variegated concert in tribute to John Goldman, who has relinquished the symphony’s presidency after 11 years.  

Pieces by Ravel, Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Gershwin, Stephen Schwartz and Rodgers and Hammerstein, and guest performers Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Gil Shaham, Lisa Vroman and Kenny Loggins (in a “surprise” appearance) have all ranked among Goldman’s favorites.

The result? A potpourri of pleasure.

Said he to an appreciative audience, “You can tell I have eclectic tastes — some would call it weird.”

But it wasn’t a weird night at all, merely another extraordinary one.

Many uncommon nights can be expected in the near future — such as an orchestra-less concert with Jessye Norman Aug. 9 at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco.

She’ll sing a collection of songs, in the first half, by George Gershwin, Harold Arlen, Rodgers and Hammerstein, Kurt Well, Leonard Bernstein and Duke Ellington. After intermission, she’ll perform homages to Nina Simone, Lena Horne, Odetta and Ella Fitzgerald.

The soprano, who’ll be backed by pianist Mark Markham, rescheduled from July 31 because she wanted to sing instead at a U.S. Congress ceremony for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington.

Other future San Francisco Symphony goodies will include “Disney in Concert: Magical Music from the Movies,” a Sunday afternoon pops event July 28; a “Jerry Garcia Symphonic Celebration” featuring Allman Brothers and Gov’t Mule vocalist/guitarist Warren Haynes; and the new season’s “Opening Night Gala” with Audra McDonald on Sept. 3.

The night of the Goldman tribute, Michael Tilson Thomas led the orchestra. Brilliantly. And the guest artists radiated talent as they played and sang.

The truth is, MTT and the SFS provide the extraordinary so often it’s become what’s anticipated. Certainly it’s what I always expect.

One glance at the diverse pops-loving folks jamming Davies — many decked out, some in chinos and jeans — proved the musicians had collectively fashioned one thing this balmy June evening: Fun.

That was especially palpable in the final piece of the evening, which found Tilson Thomas trying “to bring all these musical worlds together” as the symphony intermingled passages from Beethoven’s 5th with Loggins’ vigorous vocal of Chuck Berry’s 1956 rhythm ‘n’ blues smash, “Roll Over Beethoven.”

The pop hit’s lyrics, ironically, suggest R&B should replace classical music, a concept the Davies crowd would never accept.

Loggins also drew untamed applause when he performed the raucous “Everything’s Gonna Be Alright” and the more pensive “Return to Pooh Corner.”

But the crowd was equally delighted with classical strains.

My own favorite was the excerpts from Ravel’s “Piano Concerto in G major,” with Jean-Yves Thibaudet displaying finger gymnastics with both soft and percussive segments.

Gil Shaham’s violin skills headed my wife’s list. His mastery of Tchaikovsky’s finale from “Violin Concerto in D major, Opus 35” was immediately clear, his confidence in full evidence as he fiercely stroked his instrument.

Lisa Vroman, a Broadway veteran with a striking voice, drew the biggest laughs with her rendition of “Honey Bun,” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific” — her high-stepping and white sailor suit comically augmented by a chunky male accomplice in fright wig, grass skirt, mock-coconut bra and spats.

Vroman also delivered a couple of Schwartz tunes from his score of “Wicked,” with resident conductor Donato Cabrera on the podium, following her quick-change into a shimmering turquoise gown.

MTT, as is customary, was at the top of his game, whether leading the finale from Rachmaninoff’s “Symphony No. 2 in E minor, Opus 27” or Gershwin’s sprightly “Walking the Dog.”

Tilson Thomas drew chuckles when he dedicated the latter to concertgoers who have dogs and then added he wasn’t ignoring “those of you who have lemurs — we love them, too.”

Speaking of pooches, I spied two: a small Spaniel service dog on a leash inside the theater, and a smaller Chihuahua in the arms of a homeless woman beggar just outside.

Were there any hiccup in the concert itself, it came when the nearly 100-member strong San Francisco Symphony Chorus, under the leadership of Ragnar Bohlin, presented excerpts from the soundtrack of “2001: A Space Odyssey” — that is to say, György Ligeti’s “Lux aeterna.”

That piece — though exquisitely performed — is definitely weird. To me, it emphasizes eeriness and what seems like hollow, metallic echoes.

Before the event, The Martini Brothers entertained in the lobby with dance tunes. Eight or nine couples gleefully strutted their stuff as many onlookers stared — and one wag talked about taking what she called “a tour of some of the finest facial surgery in the Bay Area.”

San Francisco Symphony concerts take place at Davies Hall, Grove Street (between Van Ness and Franklin), San Francisco. Information and tickets: (415) 864-6400 or www.sfsymphony.org.