SAN FRANCISCO — No matter the sum of money, cutting-edge construction or fancy amenities packed into a new venue, its soul is built through the collective shared moments that happen inside. The buzz for the opening of Chase Center had been tremendous, but could the high-profile venue deliver on its promises? Friday’s opening night concert with Metallica’s reprisal of its Symphony & Metallica concert provided fans a first glimpse at the Chase Center experience. If a signature moment was what Chase Center needed to get off the ground, Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony provided it in spades. The nearly three-hour concert was exquisitely performed, intricately constructed and included unexpected risks that pushed the band and symphony into uncharted waters.
The show’s arrangement was in parts a celebratory reference to the original S&M concert from two decades ago. But more than that, it was a musical exploration into the fusion of metal and classical music that showcased the symphony just about as much as the Bay Area legends. The lights dimmed at 8:45 and the San Francisco Symphony, under the direction for most of the show by Edwin Outwater, began with an orchestral take on “The Ecstasy of Gold,” a tradition that marks the beginning of every Metallica show. The band took the stage to join with the orchestra on the instrumental classic “Call of the Ktulu,” ripping through the dramatic rise and fall of the song’s sweeping tempo shifts. The band then launched in “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and the Chase Center crowd was immediately brought to life, furiously chanting and pumping fists to the beat. It was a smart choice that immediately engaged the audience and dialed up the energy.
The band, donning far more formal stage-wear than its typical show, played with a mixture of mature restraint and raw power. James Hetfield stalked the stage as the band powered through its mostly heavy set, while guitarist Kirk Hamett and bassist Rob Trujillo assaulted the far reaches of the stage to connect with the fans and orchestra alike. Whereas 20 years ago the orchestra was positioned behind the band, the Chase Center setup was in-the-round, with the orchestra encircling the band on a rotating stage as multiple circular video screens hung overhead.
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The brilliance of S&M2 was the unexpected nature of its set. While the band’s biggest hits were obviously included, the show provided an opportunity to showcase deep cuts from new albums that may better translate to the orchestral arrangement. In the same way the original S&M performance showcased the grunge-influenced material of Load and ReLoad, this time out Metallica played a healthy dose of material from its latest two albums, Hardwired and Death Magnetic, including “The Day That Never Comes,” “Confusion” and “Moth Into Flame” each finding new life with the symphonic backing.
San Francisco Symphony conductor Edwin Outwater handled the lion’s share of the conducting duties throughout the show. Outwater was the catalyst that sparked the show. In interviews, he has said he immersed himself in metal leading up to the show, and not simply Metallica’s music but the greater genre itself. His performance made clear his commitment to the project. Dressed in all black, Outwater conducted the band with all the energy of a heavy metal rock star. He jumped, pounded his fist, and poured his soul into the performance with a clear grasp of the material and the emotions it conveys.
Hetfield kept his stage comments relatively limited, allowing the music to do the talking.
“Are you ready to take this adventure with us?” Hetfield said early on.
“No Leaf Clover” was brought to life in the S&M2 setting. A brand new song when it was first performed in the original S&M show, it has had two decades to marinate with fans, allowing the rare opportunity to see the song performed in the symphonic form for which it was initially written. “The Memory Remains” also provided singalong thrills, with the crowd overtaking the band on the extended “dah dah dahs” in the outro. Underrated album cut “The Outlaw Torn” provided high drama with Hetfield’s stirring vocal sounding as powerful and commanding as ever. The band closed out the first set of the show with a rousing take on “Halo on Fire.”
After a 20-minute intermission, drummer Lars Ulrich took the stage to express his excitement for San Francisco’s new arena, thank the symphony players, Golden State Warriors management and the construction workers that built the building.
All the rules were tossed out the window for the show’s second half. Symphony Director Michael Tillson Thomas, in his last season, conducted the first portion of the set, including two instrumentals by Russian composers—with Metallica joining in on the second, a futuristic arrangement called “Iron Foundry.” One of the ‘ most dramatic moments came when Hetfield was left alone on stage, with the symphony, to sing a stellar arrangement of “The Unforgiven III.” The visual of Hetfield singing without a guitar was striking in itself, but the vocal performance was complete detour.
Metallica kept the detours coming with an acoustic orchestral version of “All Within My Hands.” The night’s final surprise came from one of the orchestra’s cellists playing a thrilling rendition of “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth” in honor of Cliff Burton. The performance was masterful and again entirely unexpected, with the cellist even mixing in elements of guitar distortion into his sound.
Speaking of sound, it should be pointed out that the Chase Center acoustics held up quite well for the show. The band played a little quieter than it might otherwise, so as not to overpower the orchestral instruments. The mix was generally pristine and rarely muddy.
The show finished out with the hits, starting with “Wherever I May Roam” and “One”—with the symphony’s percussionists recreating the artillery fire on the latter’s original version. The show concluded with “Master of Puppets,” “Nothing Else Matters” and the requisite “Enter Sandman.”
Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony provided daring musical thrills and exquisite arrangements that honored the past and pushed into the future. S&M2 provided an instant moment that will help launch Chase Center.
Follow writer Mike DeWald at Twitter.com/mike_dewald.