If you’re gonna step in front of 18,000 diehard Metallica fans and lecture them on the history of classical music, you better have something interesting to say. Luckily for Michael Tilson Thomas, music director for the San Francisco Symphony, the act of winning over the crowd Friday night was easy. Metallica, after all, were on his side.
After explaining how the 20th Century art movement “futurism” was inspired by the musical age, he introduced a piece by Russian composer Alexander Mosolov, Iron Foundry, and welcomed the Bay Area thrashers to join the orchestra. “Futurism will never be the same,” he opined. And he was right. The group added mighty, heavy metal riffs to the otherwise avant-garde piece, making it some other kind of monster. But that was the spirit of the evening.
Twenty years after Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony first performed together — recording orchestra-infused renditions of the band’s hits for Metallica’s S&M album — they staged tonight’s concert, unapologetically titled S&M2. Where the original was an intimate affair for less than 3,500 concertgoers, this concert was supersized; it was the inaugural event at San Francisco’s Chase Center, the new home for the NBA team the Golden State Warriors, and the band (the “Master of Trumpets” tonight) played in the round with a rotating stage so everyone could see them. The idea behind the concert was risky — what if the orchestra ruined the band’s songs? — but the group picked songs that worked well with weepy strings and puffed-chest horns. They played big hits (“One,” “Wherever I May Roam”), deep cuts (“All Within My Hands,” “The Unforgiven III”), and one wild bass solo (“Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)”), making each song its own mini symphony. And that’s no small task — literally.
For nearly four decades now, grand gestures have defined the Metallica Experience: IMAX films, bespoke festivals, a rock tone poem with Lou Reed. That need to be massive is something they have in common with classical composers; Beethoven, for instance, needed a big-enough ensemble that he could feel his music after he went deaf. So watching Metallica play with around 75 more musicians than usual at the concert seemed like proof that size matters when it comes to hard rock and heavy metal. Of course, they had proved that the first time two decades ago — and the Moody Blues and Deep Purple proved it half a century ago when they were among the first groups to team up with orchestras — but in the cavernous Chase Center, Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony proved they can fill the room with sound.
In fact, the Symphony showed they could entrance a legion of metalheads even without Metallica, when they kicked off the evening with a live performance of the band’s typically canned intro music: composer Ennio Morricone’s magnificent theme “The Ecstasy of Gold,” from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It was big and beautiful, and the fans hollered along to its triumphant melody. The symphony did it again after the intermission when they played a movement from Russian composer Sergei Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite. The fans didn’t know that piece as well, but Thomas sold them on it by describing its “primitivist” perspective as “this mighty dance of ecstatic vengeance.”
But they showed their true grit when the four members of Metallica joined them on their first song together, the Ride the Lightning instrumental “The Call of Ktulu.” The string section built up to a cinematic, almost James Bond–like majesty as James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett played the tune’s eerie intro; eventually, once the song became a full-bore metal tune, the brass section warmed things up and the timpani crashed right along with Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich. Edwin Outwater, the evening’s other conductor, jumped and swayed with the rhythms. The crowd loved it and roared back at the musicians.
“Welcome to this wonderful adventure,” Hetfield later told the crowd, before “The Memory Remains.” By this point, though, the crowd was swept away, and the fans sang Marianne Faithfull’s haunting vocal melody even though the strings had them covered. The Symphony added some Morricone-style flourishes to the Load track “The Outlaw Torn,” and when it came time to play the one “Symphony and Metallica” original song of the night – “No Leaf Clover,” which debuted on the S&M album – they blended in perfectly garnering standing ovation. But these songs were just the preamble.
The second set of the night, after a 20-minute intermission, was where the group proved that anything was possible by teaming up with the Symphony. For a rare performance without his band, Hetfield sang “The Unforgiven III” solo with the orchestra playing a stunning arrangement of the song. The symphony provided a sparkling backdrop for an acoustic rendition of the final song on St. Anger, “All Within My Hands.” And the biggest surprise was a rendition of late Metallica bassist Cliff Burton’s solo “Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)” by the Symphony’s principal bass player, Scott Pingel, who played an electric instrument and freed himself within the tune’s wild twists and turns, even after Ulrich joined in.
The audience was divided on some of the more arcane material. While the majority of the crowd seemed to be megafans — one even held up a banner repping the late classical conductor Michael Kamen, who spearheaded the original S&M concert — the whole audience got behind the band’s biggest hits, all of which became something new with orchestral accompaniment. “One,” at times, felt like a Danny Elfman composition, and at one point of the song, Hetfield leaned back and seemed to holler, soaking in a primal moment. The middle section of “Master of Puppets” had more drama than usual, as the orchestra gave a backdrop to Hetfield and Hammett’s dual guitar solo. And “Wherever I May Roam” — already the band’s most majestic song — seemed to expand as the orchestra added snaky textures on top of it.
But it was two songs near the end that seemed to capture the essence of the night. One of the tunes, the band’s biggest hit, “Enter Sandman,” was bigger and heavier than ever, thanks to Michael Tilson Thomas joining in on keyboard, even rocking out to the group’s interpolation of the … And Justice for All song “Frayed Ends of Sanity” before they said their bows; you could practically hear Beethoven roll over. But it was the other, “Nothing Else Matters,” that captured the spirit of S&M: Kamen wrote the orchestral arrangement for the “Black Album” recording of the song, but here it was, for only the third or fourth time ever, performed the way it was recorded — with a symphony. Deep in that song is a lyric that captures the true essence of the concert: “Open mind for a different view.” Judging from the reaction of the audience tonight, that lyric is a perspective that Metallica should explore more frequently than every couple of decades.
Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony set list:
“The Ecstasy of Gold” (San Francisco Symphony)
“The Call of Ktulu”
“For Whom the Bell Tolls”
“The Day That Never Comes”
“The Memory Remains”
“Moth Into Flame”
“The Outlaw Torn”
“No Leaf Clover”
“Halo on Fire”
“Scythian Suite, Op.20 , Second Movement” (San Francisco Symphony)
“Iron Foundry” (San Francisco Symphony with Metallica)
“The Unforgiven III” (James Hetfield solo with the San Francisco Symphony)
“All Within My Hands”
“(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth”
“Wherever I May Roam”
“Master of Puppets”
“Nothing Else Matters”