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Terez Mertes

Center Terrace

February 28, 2010 at 7:32 PM

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


From Tom Holzman
Posted on March 1, 2010 at 1:37 AM

Terez - thanks for sharing your experience in those seats.  I have always wondered what sitting there would be like, and the major halls in/near DC have them.  Sorry the Yo Yo experience was marred.  He will return to SF and money will hopefully not be as tight.

From Anne Horvath
Posted on March 1, 2010 at 4:20 AM

When I fly Southwest Airlines, I find it useful to have "All We Like Sheep" from Handel's Messiah stuck in my head.  (Insert smiley face here)  I'm relieved to find out your "herding" to the seat was dignified and orderly.

I'm glad you got to go.  I'm glad you had a good time.  I'm glad you liked the music, especially Tchaik 2!  What a fun piece!  I hope you waved to "You Know Who" for me.  I wish I had been there!  Well, maybe next year...

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 1, 2010 at 4:35 AM

 Tom, thanks for the comments, and do check out those seats locally. They're fun. And on the Yo-Yo marred business, hey, two out of three nights ain't bad! (The sound of his playing that third night, I might add, was exquisite. It all gives me a reason to long for his return. : ) 

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 1, 2010 at 4:39 AM

 Anne - "All we like sheep" - oh, crack me up. I was always trying to figure out what they were saying there. I'd swear it was "oh, feed my sheep." Which beats the "oh eat my sheep," which gets morally complicated. : /

So, you like the Tchaik no. 2 as a musician? Is it fun to play? I'm so glad I ended up enjoying that 4th movement, particularly given that i heard it both Thurs and Sat pm. It really was HUGE fun to watch. And hey. I waved and I waved, but our friend didn't turn around. But that's okay because 2742 other people noticed. (I knew I should have left the pom poms and megaphone at home.)

From Margaret Lee
Posted on March 1, 2010 at 4:44 AM

 Hey, I  was there on Thursday night, too, courtesy of our very generous music loving friends!  None of the four of us was sophisticated enough to fully enjoy the Shostakovitch. The Little Russian was quite a gem, though.

From Pauline Lerner
Posted on March 1, 2010 at 4:50 AM

I'm glad you heard a lot of good music, some of it performed by Yo Yo Ma, even though the view of him wasn't good.  The list of pieces you heard nearly blew me away.  It must have been a great weekend of listening to live music composed, conducted, and performed by such stars.

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 1, 2010 at 12:59 PM

 Pauline - it really was one memorable weekend. My sister flew out from Kansas City to hear the Sat and Sun pm performances (at those ticket prices I told her she couldn't afford not to) and we got a cheapie hotel in the city, so it was a double treat for me, spending two nights in San Francisco instead of driving home each time (90 mn drive thru mountains).

And Margaret, hey! You were there too! Did you like the Sibelius piece they played? I'd never heard it before; I found it to be delightful. As for the Shostakovich, I knew it would challenge the ears so I got a recording of it a few months prior and "trained" my ear. It paid off. The 2nd movement in particular, I found to be lovely. But the friend I was with felt the same way as you did. 

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 1, 2010 at 1:04 PM

 >The list of pieces you heard nearly blew me away.  

Hearing Yo-Yo perform the Brahms Double Concerto was a dream come true, I have to say. One of my favorite pieces, one of my favorite musicians. Only thing that could have made it better was if Gil Shaham had been the violinist. But hey, we're moving off into the realm of fantasy there. : )

From Anne Horvath
Posted on March 1, 2010 at 11:13 PM

If  the megaphone and pom-poms didn't work, perhaps next time you can wave around a big slice of brie and a bottle of French white vino.  THAT will get his attention!  (Smiles)

Seriously, I think Tetzlaff is playing there in a few weeks, if I remember correctly.  (That was the weekend I wanted to go visit, but not this year.)  Are you planning on attending?  If you are, please plan on writing about it.  I think I can speak for a few around here that we like to read your reports!

From Margaret Lee
Posted on March 1, 2010 at 11:55 PM


     It had indeed crossed my mind to do what you described, since i remember a similar experience hearing someone play Shostakovitch violin concerto. It's so easy to access music these days! But I didn't, to my own loss. In fact, my friends who bought the tickets thought they had gotten the Brahms concert, as they knew they weren't the Shostakovitch types.  Yes, the Sibelius was new to me, too.  now that piece might be really hard to find a recording of!

From Terez Mertes
Posted on March 2, 2010 at 4:10 AM

 >In fact, my friends who bought the tickets thought they had gotten the Brahms concert, as they knew they weren't the Shostakovitch types.

Oh, no! That must have been disappointing. I knew the Brahms (and the recital) were a must-see. The Shosty concerto night was added on a week later - I think I got the last pair of Center Terrace seats. I'm glad I started the trio of concerts with that one. (Then again, had I started with the elbow recital, I might have been absolutely enthralled, because truly, he is a marvel to watch from all directions. But the Brahms on Sat pm spoiled me.)

Anne - Yes, on Tetzlaff, and it's THIS SUNDAY! Woo hoo! And to celebrate my husband's new return to the employed world (another big woo hoo), I upgraded my seat from 2nd tier to my beloved 1st tier, 1st row (my former subscription seat), one of the little balconied nooks that seems very high from Center Terrace, but is a lovely compromise of distance and accoustics and a great spot to peer down at the whole orchestra.

So. Sunday. Wish you could be there!

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