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February 2010

Center Terrace

February 28, 2010 12:32

This season the San Francisco Symphony commemorated Michael Tilson Thomas’s fifteenth year as conductor by offering Center Terrace seats at $15 instead of $30. These are the seats located above the orchestra and just behind them, in arena style seating. Acoustically uneven, perhaps, but visually thrilling. You are right there in the action. When I learned the pricing news back in August I made immediate plans. Yo-Yo Ma would be artist-in-residence with the San Francisco Symphony for a week in 2010. I’d never heard him perform live. Now was my chance. Times three.

The auspicious “weekend with Yo-Yo” commenced Thursday, January 22nd. Now, Center Terrace is open seating. Think Southwest Airlines. A dignified enough line forms in the lobby, outside the doors, around 7:15pm. Doors open at 7:30pm. The corridor leading to the Center Terrace section instantly becomes grounds for a stampede. Dignified stampeding. It’s enough to make a person giggle but I was too busy rushing and trying, like the others, to appear like I wasn’t rushing. It does matter where you sit. Dead center gives you a whole lot of backs to look at all night. On the far left and right hand sides, you’re allowed more faces.

The seats aren’t the bleacher seating they appeared to be from the times I’ve observed them from the distance.  They are cushioned, although still bench-style “is there room for one more?” seating. The ceiling is closer to you here than anywhere else in the concert hall, lending a certain intimacy, a living room feel to the section, except when the full force of the brass section reverberates through the section, vibrating the floors, the seats.

From Center Terrace you see Davies Hall as the orchestra does, maybe more so, since you are above them. You can observe the audience members, like the heavy-set guy sitting in the front row, the one who’s a dead ringer for Santa Claus; really, it’s uncanny and a little eerie. You note how he nods off while Yo-Yo Ma is performing the Shostakovich Cello Concerto no. 2. (Yes, I know. How? With Yo-Yo right there in your face. And it’s not like the Shostakovich lulls a person. Blame it on the plight that befalls many a concert-goer, the HMB—Heavy Meal Beforehand—syndrome. Or the dreaded CBPS—Cocktails Before Performance Sleepies—syndrome.)

MTT, as conductor, is great fun to watch in action, particularly after the buzz of watching Yo-Yo perform has subsided. After intermission, MTT enthusiastically conducted Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no. 2, “The Little Russian.” The fourth movement of this symphony, which I’d previously written off as too repetitive, too “crashy,” was a different ball game when heard live. The cacophony of the brass section, just below the chins of Center Terrace patrons, surely helped keep awake any of us suffering from HMB or CBPS syndrome (which would now include CDIS—Cocktails During Intermission Sleepies). 

Thursday night’s performance, on the heels of a difficult couple of days/weeks (explained here: was everything I’d hoped it would be. Saturday night was the same program with the exception of the Shostakovich being replaced with the Brahms Double Concerto. Brilliant. Both Thursday and Saturday night, in grabbing seats in the corner-most spot just as Center Terrace switches to Side Terrace (with a $61 price increase), I was treated to the expressions and body language of Yo-Yo and violinist Colin Jacobson as they angled toward MTT. Not bad for a $15 ticket. Wondrous, in fact. 

Alas. Not so wondrous on Sunday night, which featured Yo-Yo in recital with SFS musicians. From my Center Terrace spot that night (further back; couldn’t stampede early enough) the stage looked barren. Sad, somehow. Dimly lit. No surprise: no need for full orchestral lighting, no need for 118 chairs and bodies to match. The lighting was set for a recital, highlighting one musician in particular. And of course Yo-Yo positioned himself straight ahead this time. No reason to angle; there was no conductor to consult.

It took about ten minutes for me to comprehend the devastating folly of my ticket choice. True, the seats had been affordable beyond compare at a time when money had been the sparsest. But this long-awaited attendance at a Yo-Yo Ma recital amounted to watching his elbow move away from his body and back. Away and back. Speaking of backs, his is lovely. Which is a good thing. Because that is all I would see of him over the next two hours, aside from flashed profile glimpses during ensemble work, and a few heady moments at the end of each piece when he turned his back to the audience in order to bow to the Center Terrace patrons, smiling, ebullient, so gracious and wonderful that it grieved me all over again to realize I’d missed a rare opportunity to watch his face, his playing, his interaction with the other musicians. 

My core observations, now that I’ve had a few weeks to think about it: recitals by acclaimed soloists aside, sitting in Davies Hall’s Center Terrace is a fun, enlightening experience. It fits anyone’s budget. It is a prime spot for observing the details of a world class orchestra immersed in what it does best. There is no better place (for the price) from which to view the conductor, nor the patrons who succumb to the CBDSS or CDISS. Just be careful not to be one of them. You doze off in Center Terrace and 2,742 patrons will be watching your head loll up and down. Because while you may see everything from Center Terrace, nothing you do goes unseen. 

PS - Here’s a link to a photo taken from Center Terrace. Glad someone else ignored the “strictly forbidden” rule of taking photographs so that I could share this. Actually, there are quite a few good pics on site.


© 2010 Terez Rose


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