BY STEFFAN CHIRAZI
Which is precisely what Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra did for approximately 35,000 lucky attendees over Friday, Sept 6 and Sunday, Sept 8 in San Francisco’s brand-new Chase Center, as Steffan Chirazi explains.
We stood filled with anticipation, waiting to see what S&M² would bring. The clock had ticked down. There was no more time to practice, to think, to pontificate, to consider. It was going to be what it was, and here we were, audience on their feet wondering, band on theirs behind the curtain wondering, the symphony seated and doubtless going through similar emotions.
Our seated guests started proceedings with a wonderful rendition of Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western classic (and Metallica intro classic) “The Ecstasy of Gold” by Ennio Morricone…then “Ktulu” rose on Friday night at approximately 8:40pm, and the surge of power – the enormous, delicious, overwhelming surge of immense, intense power, told everyone that these were going to be even more special performances than anticipated.
I have to go back to that power for a moment, because in decades of following this band over land and sea, I have rarely witnessed such an instant tornado of energy. Focused into (and from!) a large circle on the floor of San Francisco’s new arena, the Chase Center, the power flew from the very upper rows towards the floor in dynamic waves, fusing with the first notes of an immense musical battery which would go on to show – over two hours plus intermission – what the true electrical and emotional current behind creativity, talent, and trust can truly become.
75 symphony members, including 41 strings.
Four members of Metallica, plus guest vocalist Avi Vinocur for one song.
The conductor, Edwin Outwater, and much-venerated Special Guest – and legendary Musical Director of the Symphony – Michael Tilson Thomas.
Metallica’s producer, Greg Fidelman.
A stage production team.
I know I’m forgetting people, and I am sincerely sorry, because this entire adventure – this wonderful, exciting, frightening, and electric adventure – has been the ultimate example of daring and doing, of embracing the possibilities such a union can produce and not being afraid of what could go wrong, of trusting beyond potential inner-fears and concerns. Essentially, in non-musical terms, the left-hand had to trust what the right-hand was doing, with neither limb attached to the same body.
If S&M² started as the ultimate musical Frankenstein, it has ended up establishing itself as a whole new beautiful creature, with possibilities and potential everyone at these Chase Center shows can only hope becomes more realized more often in the future.
Forget the size and scale of everything (I mean, don’t forget them exactly, respect them and process that each night saw 16,000+ people watching a symphonic performance), the most important element of these shows has been the celebration of excellent music. Most of Metallica’s canon of material has been written and arranged with classical lines if not immediately apparent, certainly within quick discovery. Cliff – as everyone must by now know – loved classical music, particularly Bach, who Ray Burton reminded me Cliff referred to as a “God,” and it was a baton all the band carried with them.
And it is within those lines that the magic happened here. Avenues of exploration have always existed in the likes of “The Memory Remains” and “The Day That Never Comes,” avenues which Outwater eagerly led the symphony to explore with adventure. The original S&M was an other-worldly and incredible concept in 1999, and conductor Michael Kamen (sadly no longer with us) was a wizard for bringing the two titanic musical entities together. However, these S&M² experiences have seen curiosity and exploration which brought some of those first S&M moments to different areas of the musical universe. Perhaps the biggest example to these ears came with “The Outlaw Torn,” every emotion behind Hetfield’s tortured lyrics given even greater resonance, the lonely guitar wails given a subtle, twinkling backdrop which ironically elevated their isolation. Bruce Coughlin, a Tony Award winning orchestrator and musical arranger, was the man behind preparing the music for these shows, and both MTT and Outwater have been quick to acknowledge his importance to the project.
There was new material aired in this format too, “Confusion” feeling like a great fit and projecting the feel of a John Williams score, whilst “Moth Into Flame” was perhaps the only song that didn’t feel quite as special, with the symphony more in accompaniment than expanding the musical passageways. “Halo On Fire,” however, was a triumph of opposites, the Irish-bounce of that chorus wonderfully fattened by the equally jaunty strings. Conductor Outwater is very evidently, at heart, a rocker who I feel would be as comfortable listening to Black Sabbath and Behemoth as he would Beethoven and Berlioz, and his mastery of the moment was underscored by his enthusiastic, energetic comfort; he even turned to conduct the crowd singalong briefly!
After a 20-minute intermission, things got “punk” in the sense of pushing boats beyond safe harbors and into open water.
Let’s be very blunt. You don’t earn the reputation Michael Tilson Thomas has without having something very special in your fiber. In so many ways, perhaps only specifically for this project, Outwater felt like the yin to MTT’s yang. I personally felt Tilson Thomas had a bit of the “Mick Jaggers” about him in so much as when the spotlight hits, he comes to authoritative life. He also clearly, clearly loves and feels music in a very unique way. Its history, its meanings, and its subsequent emotions are obviously all very important to him and given the platform to educate and invite us on a journey to the more dramatic and baroque corners of the classical universe, Tilson Thomas did not disappoint.
He began the second “act” with “Scythian Suite,” a piece by Prokofiev, who he explained had been a progenitor of the musical movement known as “primitivism” before leading us into a piece written by Alexander Mosolov titled “The Iron Foundry” which was an example of the movement “futurism” – a style of classical music which embraced the era of industrialization. This was a left hand/right hand trust masterpiece, this was Audere est Facere in all its glory, this was (to my mad mind anyway) great stomping lead-footed Russian bear-beasts laying waste to the Chase Center, and this was the San Francisco Symphony and Metallica meeting and melding an extremely adventurous moment into an overwhelming success.
The explorations continued.
“The Unforgiven III” saw the orchestra accompany James sans guitar, stripped down to only his larynx, heart and feel of the moment with no physical instrument for safe-haven. It was wonderful to witness, as was the acoustic “All Within My Hands,” before a genuine showstopper was unveiled. “(Anesthesia) - Pulling Teeth” has always been Cliff. Symphony bassist Scott Pingel has always loved Cliff. It was suggested that he compose something special for S&M² that Robert Trujillo could also be a part of. When Rob first heard Scott debut his composition at HQ during the rehearsals, he felt very strongly that Scott should take it and run solo, with Lars coming in for the final stretch. There is a reason that musicians make these sorts of decisions, because it is the highest mark of respect one can pay to another. Scott Pingel’s composition was marvelous, moving, and majestic. I know (and can say with a degree of authority) that Cliff would’ve been absolutely buzzing. I know that Ray Burton told him something very similar after the Friday performance, and his is the authority to end them all. Yes. This was a magical moment.
Let’s take a moment to appreciate and applaud the visual element of S&M². The stage design was nothing short of superb. Four large circular screens, each with inner and outer rings that created, via the hugely powerful visuals, feelings of movement and seemingly floated like mysterious spacecraft above the giant band below, at once framing and accentuating them as the stage made one complete revolution during the show. Complemented by the most subtle yet quietly dramatic of light shows, this is without a doubt my favorite Metallica production of the last two decades, and one which I must imagine would be seen again.
“Wherever I May Roam” felt more traditional in scope, the symphony perhaps supporting more than exploring, and with “One” and “Puppets” there came a sense of majestic (and at times) frenetic fury that brought us firmly back into Metallica-world. “Nothing Else Matters” will always be the umbilical cord between S&M one and two, as well as being arguably the conception point for the collaborations given that the original’s orchestral arrangements were written by Michael Kamen. At the Chase Center it served both as a testimony to the overall alchemy of the two musical entities, and as a very poignant tribute to Kamen and the seeds he planted nearly 30 years ago.
“Enter Sandman” is the obvious and natural finale, but there was a moment near the end – in this arrangement, in this setting, in this frame – which just added the final flourish to what had been exceptional evenings. It came right before the final blast, the final chorus, and MTT suddenly killed the sound to bring forth an eerie, gloomy, creepy, and misty musical fog, creating tension, synthesizing a moment of deep, nightmarish horror before the crescendo.
It was the final word on what had been two extraordinary performances.
I have, as you might’ve noticed, chosen to overview the shows as one event, partially because they were, and partially because the differences in performance become subtle. If there was a main one, it was perhaps that Friday, crackled with the tension of what was to come, the potential danger of what could go wrong, the tangible excitement of what would go right. Whereas Sunday was about a little more familiarity and a little more comfort. The crowds were different in the sense that consistently, Sunday felt more like a “deep track” audience of die-hard fans, with banners from all over the Metallica universe visible in every corner of the Chase Center. Yet Friday should not in any way be perceived as necessarily “softer” or “quieter,” the electricity of it being the first show producing a whole other vibe, and that energy as “Ktulu” kicked in was a rare bird.
Just as it was two decades ago, the primary question is always whether bringing Metallica and the symphony together is the discordant collision of two worlds. And even more emphatically than two decades ago, the answer is naaaaah, not really. Because this is a celebration of music, a celebration of what both mighty entities share and a celebration of the power that a collective of wonderfully talented musicians create.
You know the most bizarre thing? With no more performances scheduled, from this point on, S&M² is now another chapter in Metallica’s history, another adventure already in the past. If only we could all relive the entire event again on a big screen sometime soon…
Oh wait… you can! S&M² will hit the big screen on October 9, 2019 for (in many places) a one-night-only cinematic event (though several locations have added encore screenings). The film will be shown in over 3,000 movie theaters throughout 82 countries around the world. Find a theater near you and grab your tickets at metallica.film.