Where do you go in the Marina District of downtown San Diego for a good photo shot? The Top of the Hyatt Lounge on the 40th floor of the Manchester Grand Hyatt's Harbor Tower, of course...
I looked down on the Embarcadero Marina Park - South (there are two of them enclosing the Marriott Marina) and spotted the tent stage and grandstand they had erected for the San Diego Symphony's Summer Pops season and couldn't resist dropping in to see if there was still any cheap ticket left available (the symphony itself rarely sells out, but this weekend they are teaming up with pop's soulful queen Toni Braxton to open the season... that makes for a different ballgame!). To my surprise, the place was only a quarter full and there were plenty of seats available so I grabbed on in the Cabaret section on the lawn in front of the stand...
One new feature for the summer pops this year.... They actually force-check your camera. Not that that prevented photo-taking inside the concert aria since most cellphones these days come equipped with a camera. Most people are good about not taking photo of the performers during the show... They mainly just take photos of themselves (and most didn't use flash, thanks goodness!).
The concert opened with a virtual battle of the brass with two different brass sections (the scaled down SDSO was joining forces with the Civic Youth Orchestra, East County Youth Orchestra, and San Diego State University Young Artists Symphony) flanking the stage with Giovanni Gabrieli's 1597 Canzon septimi toni #2, a rarely heard number that, while quite obviously fun for Matthew Garbutt to conduct, gave plenty of evidence of the reasons for its neglect (the thing even ended on a hanging note without any resolution).
They SDSO' string section then took over the stage for the first movements from Mozart's 1st Symphony (in E flat major) and the famous serenade, Eine kleine Nachtmusik. As much as I love the SDSO, I must confess that their violin section is the most soulless bunch of technical perfectionists of the symphonies I've heard yet... They can make technically demanding pieces sound easy, but for all their virtuoso proficiency I fail to hear any point to the strings of notes they play. It is actually more frustrating than hearing someone trying to muddle through a piece of music that is beyond their ability to technically cope with. It reminds me of a much conjectured line that goes; 'God gave me the talent to sing, and so I sing'. To which I wish a question is added; 'But aren't you interested in the 'Why?' of it? Why did 'god' give you the ability to sing... if not to actually communicate something to those who may hear your sound?'
The sound amplification system was also rather ill-balanced for the orchestra with the brass and double basses getting too much unneeded help while the lighter strings were often nearly drowned out. I guess having to share the playbill with a pop band didn't help the set up.
The most objectionable thing about this night at the symphony, though, was this 50 minutes long intermission that came with an awkward rich-section-only donation auction. While most people in the audience were impressed by the promotional video that both depict the ritual handing off the baton from Jahja Ling to Matthew Garbut via a bunch of enthusiastic-kids-in-relay and the Bridgepoint Education music reach out program to young kids, the pandering-to-the-rich-in-total-oblivious-to-the-rest-of-the-audience donation auction that followed it was especially TASTELESS considering today's sociopolitical climate.
The majority of the audience was forced to sit and watch as partly tuxedoed CEO's held the stage while asking their chums in the rich 'Champagne' seating section to pledge anywhere from $250 - $5,000 donations via a paddle that no other seating sections had (the good folks in front of me in the Cabaret were seriously considering donating when they realized that they weren't equipped with any auction paddle or other goodies the auctioneer was talking about). I realize that the symphonies and the operas in the USA are mostly subsidized by their wealthier patrons rather than by ticket sales, but all the same... Couldn't this sort of thing have been done in a more private setting before the performance? Why should the general and less well cashed audience have to sit through this money-flaunting business for 50 minutes while waiting to hear the concert they had paid to attend?
The crowd had thinned to about a fifth of total capacity when Toni Braxton - now sporting a very sexy short blond hairdo - and her familiar band arrived on the stage, thankfully, with a more inclusive attitude and a greater ability to inject fun into even a cold and cloudy evening gathering of symphony goers. Her seductively dark and husky voice seems still recovering from a recent illness and I was rather alarmed to almost mistake her voice for that of the late Michael Jackson (a lot of 'Uh!..Uh! with not very audible something in between) and her diction was pretty indecipherable at first. She warmed up after a while, though, and sounded quite good in the not so heavily accompanied selections of old hits (Unbreak My Heart, Man Enough, etc) and new songs from the recently released CD, Pulse.
The lass has a star presence and easy-to-love down-to-earth personality that managed to get the mostly symphony-going crowd swaying and waving and even attempting to sing along (not as loudly as she'd like, I'm afraid. Most of us didn't know the lyrics even to her mega hit 'Unbreak My Heart'.... That's how pathetically unhip we classical music heads are!). Her little black dress was feeling the night chill, however, and kept trying to slip off as she tried to dance. I dare say that most of the men in the audience wouldn't mind it if she had let the thing drop, but it was a rather drafty and cold night so that would have been quite unpleasant, temperature-wise, for the first lady of the show...
By the final number the lackluster opening symphonic act was largely forgotten, overshadowed by the Braxton bomb that could still rock the park even when not firing on all cylinders. Vocally she was far from perfect, but she connected fully even with an unfamiliar crowd and communicated loud and clear that her first tour after a long absence is something to look forward to.