San Francisco Symphony Conductor Edwin Outwater looks back at September’s two-night opening of Chase Center with pride. As the musical director for the symphony and Metallica concert, dubbed S&M2, Outwater knew that both the band and the symphony set a high bar. What surprised him was just how well everything seemed to hit.
“The show itself almost exceeded the expectations that the artists had put into it,” Outwater said. “It just had a magical vibe and had a sense of adventure that really hit the fans as we went through the show.”
The 20-song shows journeyed through the Metallica songbook and were the first shows in the band’s history to include material from all its studio albums (as well as the original S&M recording). While Outwater had worked with rock bands in the past, S&M2 provided an ample number of challenges that made the setting just as unique for the symphony as it did Metallica.
“The rotating stage was a new one,” Outwater said, chuckling. “There was so much new material, the way the stage was constructed, the fact that we were on headphones and monitors, it was definitely a completely different thing than I had ever done.”
For those who were there, Outwater made his presence felt throughout the show, providing the emotional heartbeat and vitality that fueled the performers. Outwater knew the material, the dynamics and the lyrics the crowd would sing, and led them with pumping fists, jumps and a heightened sense of drama. In preparation for the show, Outwater went down the proverbial thrash metal rabbit hole to not only understand Metallica’s place but how the entire genre lives and breathes.
“What is the whole genre about? What is special about it? What can thrash metal do that we can’t as classical musicians?” Outwater said of his planning process. “And what can we, as classical musicians, do for Metallica?”
Outwater said picking the setlist was a collaborative process with Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich handling the lion’s share of the band’s material, while leaving some room for the San Francisco Symphony to interweave some of the more innovative collaborations between the two entities. Many of the original charts arranged by former symphony director Michael Kamen (who let the original S&M project) were again selected. Outwater personally chose “The Outlaw Torn” as one of the final additions.
The second set included a number of “risky” innovative moments that included James Hetfield singing alone with the symphony, the band jamming on a couple of classical music compositions and an acoustic performance.
“Metallica are not afraid of risks and they are not afraid to fail in a certain sense. They are just so ready to go for it,” Outwater said. “Every member of the band was super excited to be doing something different and they embraced the sense of adventure.”
Outwater cited “The Outlaw Torn” and “One” as two of his favorite moments during the show. On “One,” Ulrich asked the symphony to enhance the original Kamen chart by recreating the song’s intro artillery fire with the percussion section.
“I love the songs where the orchestra adds a lot more to what the song originally was,” Outwater said. “Sometimes the orchestra just enhances the song, sometimes it adds a whole new dialogue to the song, or a whole new feel, and I get excited about that.”
Fans who missed the show will have an opportunity to see the performance in theaters nationwide on Wednesday. It may be the last time in a while to see Metallica perform, as the band announced last week that Hetfield was reentering addiction rehab. Outwater will be watching the film in a theater as well.
“It’s being screened internally right now and the feedback I’m getting is that it’s quite spectacular,” he said.
A live album release is in the works in the future as well.
Outwater said the Metallica project as a turning point in his career. In the weeks following the concerts, he’s received a number of offers for major collaborative projects in the future.
Follow writer Mike DeWald at Twitter.com/mike_dewald.