By David Templeton
For certain San Francisco string musicians, it’s time to order some brand-new earplugs and practice throwing one-handed “devil-horn signs,” because one of the weirdest and wildest cultural events of the late 20th century is about to happen again.
Cue those power chords and start the head banging.
Over the last 20 years, much journalistic ink has been spilled over S&M, the influential and hugely successful live double album. Recorded in April of 1999, the album featured a strange union of the heavy metal band Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony. Short for “Symphony and Metallica” (of course! What did you think it meant?), those twin S&M concerts, held 20 years ago at the Berkeley Community Theater—and the quintuple-platinum recording and bestselling DVD that resulted from those shows—are today remembered by some music historians as one of the best such rock band/symphony orchestra collaborations of all time. The musical, sweeping orchestral arrangements were by the acclaimed composer Michael Kamen, whose works often fused rock with other styles, and who also conducted the 1999 performances in Berkeley.
The participating members of Metallica themselves (James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, Jason Newsted, and Lars Ulrich; bassist Robert Trujillo joined the band in 2003), in recent interviews, have shared that the experience was among the more enjoyable of their long, exemplary, frequently chance-taking career.
And the fact that the album sold 8 million copies doesn’t hurt.
As for those 100 SF Symphony musicians who took part in the project two decades ago, many remain who remember those iconic back-to-back shows. And not just as a pleasant surprise and a significant technical and musical challenge.
It was easily one of the highest-volume events of their entire professional lives.
“I have to admit,” says cellist Barbara Bogatin, “it was the loudest concert I’ve ever played.”
“I don’t think any of us had ever experienced those kinds of sound levels before,” echoes violinist Jeremy Constant, who served as concertmaster for the 1999 performance. “At a certain point, loudness becomes less about hearing anything, and more about concussion. To be doing this extremely challenging, extremely intricate, mind-concentrating musical work, while being somewhat physically assaulted, was a very new experience for all of us.”
In spite of that, Constant says, “It was certainly one of those experiences you never forget.” With a laugh, he adds, “I honestly can’t wait to do it again.”
Both Constant and Bogatin, and many other members of the symphony, from rookies to veterans, will get that chance this fall, when S&M is revisited in San Francisco.
And who knows?
This time, it might be even louder.
On Friday, September 6, at the state-of-the-art new Chase Center arena on the water in San Francisco, the San Francisco Symphony will rejoin Metallica—long based in the Bay Area—to celebrate the 20th anniversary of S&M at the same time they inaugurate and grandly open the long-planned sports and entertainment venue. The concert, to be followed by another on Sunday and a one-day theater release of concert recordings on October 9, will also mark the beginning of conductor Michael Tilson Thomas’ 25th and final season as music director of the San Francisco Symphony. Tilson himself will conduct a portion of the concert, appropriately dubbed “S&M2”, with the lion’s share of the show under the baton of celebrated conductor Edwin Outwater. Although this will reportedly not be a full song-by-song recreation of the original performances, Kamen’s arrangements are certain to be heavily featured. After all, Kamen and Metallica did pick up a 2000 Grammy award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance for the epic S&M piece “The Call of Ktulu.”
Kamen was one of the founding members of the experimental New York Rock & Roll Ensemble, which played a number of notable collaborations with symphony orchestras across the country. So a project like S&M was right up his alley. And the San Francisco Symphony has a long history of breaking new ground with experimental collaborations. In the early 1970s, the Chicago-based Siegel-Schwall Band, itself a hybrid of blues and country, performed a piece by William Russo titled “Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra” with the San Francisco Symphony. The performance—described at the time as the first-ever collaboration between a blues band and a major symphony orchestra—was conducted by then music director Seiji Ozawa, and has been followed by a series of similarly inventive musical fusions.
But few have rivaled S&M in sheer earth-shaking commercial success.
“It was something of a giant question mark for everybody on our side, and I’m pretty sure it was something of a question mark for Metallica, as well,” remarks Constant. “I have to say—I thought this then, and I think it now—hats off to them for being willing to take such big risks with their own music. With such a large project, there is so much that is beyond any single person’s control, but they went for it. There was a big feeling of experimental, let’s-just-see-what-happens going on, with the thought that, if it turned out well, it might be worth it. And it turned out very, very well.”
I began with some trepidation—would [my cello] Giovanni be safe? How close are the mosh pits?—Barbara Bogatin
Despite, of course, the musicians being subjected to a massive decibel sensory attack while performing.
“Most of us actually enjoy a challenge, and at a certain level, music is music,” explains Constant. “And of course, we have the advantage, as members of the symphony, in that we are very good at reading music. Even if we can’t technically hear ourselves. But when you listen to the end result, I think we all did remarkably well, considering the circumstances.”
For Bogatin, who has just completed her 25th season with the San Francisco Symphony—along with her cello, Giovanni, crafted by Giovanni Battista Gabrielli in 1752, in Florence, Italy—the S&M experience was educational on many levels.
“Neither Giovanni nor I had ever played heavy-metal music prior to the S&M concert with Metallica in 1999,” she says. “In fact, I had never even listened to a single heavy-metal song all the way through because I would change the dial or abruptly leave the room if that type of music came within earshot. I began with some trepidation—would Giovanni be safe? How close are the mosh pits?”
Oh. Right. At the performances in Berkeley, not only did many members of the audience sing, chant, grunt, scream, and howl along with their favorite Metallica songs—“Master of Puppets,” “Of Wolf and Man,” “Enter Sandman”—there was a mosh pit right in front of the stage where the more enthusiastic fans could slam dance aggressively within sight of the orchestra.
Bogatin was, shall we say, apprehensive.
“So imagine my surprise to discover the complex, intriguing orchestral arrangements by Michael Kamen at our first rehearsal,” she says. “Michael also conducted the orchestra with clarity and efficiency, and had clear ideas about how we should articulate to bring out the pounding rhythms and sing out the lyrical melodies. The musicians in Metallica were excellent collaborators and worked hard to get the best balance and blend.”
And as for the volume, as traditional ear plugs were insufficient in such a case, the players were permitted to wear ear protectors, bulky but efficient, over their click track ear pieces.
Says Bogatin, “Giovanni responded by vibrating profusely.” She adds, “The theater was stiflingly hot and when I asked the stage manager to turn up the air conditioning, he informed me that sweating along with the audience was considered a bonding experience. Giovanni was not happy.”
In spite of the heat, the volume levels, and the unpredictable fans, Bogatin says that the concert turned out to be “a rollicking good time.” The best part of the project, she goes on, was the huge surge in “street cred” she earned with her children and their teenage friends. “Even the cool kids were impressed,” she admits.
For the record, not everyone is quite so impressed with these kinds of ventures.
“Kamen was one of the important early experimenters with this kind of stuff,” says Joel Selvin, author, music critic, and rock historian. His books include Smart Ass: The Music Journalism of Joel Selvin, Here Comes the Night: The Dark Soul of Bert Berns and the Dirty Business of Rhythm and Blues, and (with Pamela Turley) Fare Thee Well: The Final Chapter in the Grateful Dead’s Long, Strange Trip. Selvin notes a few strong examples of cross-genre collaborations, including the aforementioned Siegel-Schwall blues-and-orchestra collaboration. “It was a daring and breathtaking
enterprise,” he says, “more successful than a lot of these things are.”
Of such projects as S&M, Selvin notes, “It definitely introduces symphonic music to an audience that wouldn’t otherwise be open to it.” He mentions a collaboration between the surviving members of the Grateful Dead and the SF Symphony Youth Orchestra immediately following the death of Jerry Garcia. They performed a number of John Cage pieces.
“The concert hall was jammed with Deadheads, people who’d never have set foot in a place like that. And the symphony, I believe, considered the whole thing a huge, wonderful event. Because, though it was kind of ridiculous on every level, it brought people into proximity of the orchestra who would never have allowed themselves to hear and appreciate such stuff.”
That said, Selvin admits he’s no fan of such projects as S&M, aside from their effectiveness as cross-promotional outreach. “I really don’t understand why people keep doing this kind of thing,” Selvin says. “To me, all these experiments end up undermining the inherent strengths of the underlying idioms, and compromising the things that are great about rock, and are great about symphonic music. But obviously, when something is considered popular and successful, like S&M clearly was, it breeds an audience for more of the same.”
Edwin Outwater, who has been working for several months on all of the details of “S&M2,” has worked many times with the SF Symphony in various capacities. “So I did know the recording, and I’m familiar with Metallica,” he allows. “I think I was chosen to conduct the majority of the upcoming concert because the orchestra knows me very well, and because I do have some experience with this sort of thing, having worked with other rock artists. I’m often the guy to do the wackier things that orchestras dream up. I evidently bring a sense of calm and order to a potentially crazy situation.”
Asked about the role of the string section in Kamen’s arrangement for Metallica’s music, Outwater says the strings are a very significant part of the orchestration, and not always in the ways one might expect.
“Often, when a rock band adds strings, it’s to create more tenderness and emotion in contrast to the harder rock sound,” he says. “In Kamen’s original arrangements, he certainly did that. But he also challenged the string section to do some unusual things. There’s a lot of shredding, for one thing, tuned into the idea that a violin section can sound something like an electric guitar. So, you hear that a lot on the original album. It’s kind of great.”
With “S&M2,” Outwater says the plan is to dabble in some new things.
“Like having orchestra members do violin solos,” he says. “You might even see an electric violin or electric cello played by a symphony member.” Outwater admits that part of the mindset is not just to introduce symphonic genius to metal-heads, but to give a more traditional symphony audience a rare look at the musicianship and genius of the members of Metallica.
“We’ll be making a point that, in the same way that symphony string players spend time practicing, learning to play with a certain precision and virtuosity, rock musicians do that as well,” he says. “The original S&M did that, of course, but we want to drive that point home even more in this upcoming concert.”
Asked how the original double album has held up, in his opinion, Outwater laughs.
“Well, it passes the Uber test, for one thing,” he says. “Often, when I’m travelling and the driver asks me what I do, when I tell them I’m a conductor, they’ll say, ‘Well, I’m not really into orchestra music, but I do know the Metallica record, S&M, and I love it!’ That happens a lot.”