I rang in the new year at the San Francisco Symphony, interviewing audience members about the evening’s entertainment: Seth MacFarlane. The creator of the popular TV series “Family Guy” and “The Orville,” among others, MacFarlane is also a baritone. On December 31, he sang jazz standards and Broadway numbers under the direction of Edwin Outwater.
Ted (a project manager): We don’t come to the Symphony often enough, by the standards of the committee that would like us to come always. But we do come whenever there’s something really attractive. The personal experience of the music is why I come. Bernstein’s “Chichester Psalms” was a great concert.
Johnny (a classical musician): On New Year’s, I’m looking for something both fun and stimulating. Typically, I’d go to something more party-like, or a show involving dancing. I’ve been to see DJs and live electronic bands.
Monika (a casting director): I love the vintage era. When I find someone else who likes the same things I do, I can’t help but be drawn to them; and that’s why I love seeing and hearing Seth MacFarlane sing. It comforts me and lets my inner Ginger Rogers dance.
Susan (works in sales): I do like jazz and musicals, but more than that, I wanted to see someone talented like Seth MacFarlane. We love him, so we’re probably biased. I think he’s an amazing musician and comedian, so we wanted to come. We haven’t watched “Family Guy” a lot, but we like “Ted.”
Ted: All his work has been really enjoyable for us. We came two years ago, when he was here. He did a lot of standards, and it really was excellent, so I’m looking forward to tonight, to see what new things he’ll bring.
Sasha (a performer): It was really interesting to think of all of the different reasons somebody might come to the show. I feel like there was 5 or 10 percent of the audience there for Frank Sinatra, and the rest was there for Seth MacFarlane.
Susan: But you do appreciate all the music and all the instruments. You watch it and you’re like, Wow, that’s amazing that they can do this, that they’re all in sync, that they know what they’re doing.
Johnny: There was a lot of musically captivating activity. There were some beautiful orchestrations, excellent solo playing, great creative arrangements, from time to time. I admire the craft that went into creating the show.
Monika: I didn’t want it to end but the toe tappers like “The Tender Trap,” “Hello Dolly,” and “The Boys Night Out,” actually made my foot move. I tried not to distract anyone but I couldn’t help pivoting my right foot back and forth with the music. I also really liked that he shared songs that were either not heard or played in a long time, or when they played that part of the orchestral suite that had never been played live before or lost to the archives.
Johnny: I was expecting lower-quality singing, seeing that he’s a TV writer and his comedy is a little bit trashy, but I’m surprised at his musical knowledge. He’s a good storyteller and his comedy is tasteful and concise. Overall, my bar was really low, but he’s exceeded that bar.
Sasha: I thought it was a really killer idea. But people got tired, though. You could hear it in the clapping.
Johnny: You could create a really amazing hour-long set from that material, but it just needed some editing. Part of it is the fact that the songs are short, so there’s a lot of stop-and-go, especially when compared to a typical symphony program, where sections can typically run from 10 to 25 minutes. Also, there wasn’t a whole lot of diversity of style or character. He sounded similar throughout most of the night, and it got tiresome.
Sasha: It was a lot of Sinatra, a lot of the same type of song. I think they should have cut a couple.
Johnny: There were a lot more young people there than usual, mostly 20s to 50s, I’d say.
Rachel (a classical musician): It seems like the Symphony is trying to mix things up, cater to an audience who might not necessarily come to a regular concert, but in their musical selections, they ended up with a lot of the same stuff, a lot of homogeneity.
Johnny: It’s not just about the style of music. If you watch someone like Nina Simone, who sings songs with a band, she’s endlessly captivating. It felt very much like a spectacle that lost its shine after a certain amount of time. The arrangements were very impressive—they’d have these tricks and flourishes that would travel around the orchestra—but it would just keep happening, losing its impact, and then eventually it was just…songs.
Rachel: Is it OK that Seth MacFarlane was tonight’s featured entertainer, even though he’s arguably not as good as any other soloist who would appear at Davies on any other day?
Johnny: I think it’s fine, because a lot of people wanted to see him and most of them seemed to enjoy it greatly. Who am I to say that someone else should have had that gig?
Rachel: I know that, as a classical musician, this event isn’t meant for me.
Johnny: I’ve grown accustomed to the serious music season ending on December 1, and so I wouldn’t expect to see a great music event [in December], nor would I want to produce one, because the risk of losing money is too high—the risk of not getting a big enough audience to break even, because people might be too busy performing at gigs or maybe have already left town.
Rachel: I’m always disappointed that there isn’t much to go to on New Year’s, in terms of concerts. I wonder why some of our local festivals can’t be during the holidays. Maybe people just want to kick back on New Year’s, not go to an intellectually challenging event.
Johnny: Something like the Bang On A Can marathon would be amazing—12 straight hours of music for free, generally in a public space. We’re just not fortunate enough to have an extraordinary organization here that’s willing to go through all the hoops, and invest the money, to make that happen. It would be great if they had a SoundBox event on New Year’s Eve. They’d crush it, because that branch of SFS is clearly capable of putting on a captivating event that mixes character and style way more than Seth MacFarlane does. As Seth put it himself, San Francisco Symphony is too good for Seth. ¶