There were a lot of bros in sports jerseys at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco on Wednesday, carrying bottles of beer by the neck. A few passed a pint of Jack Daniels around as the chimes rang in the lobby, beckoning spectators to their seats.
Standing next to a window overlooking City Hall, seventh-graders Greg Kalman and Luke McMahan played an Xbox video game.
“Get ’em, get ’em, get ’em,” Greg said to the screen. “Oh, sack!”
The symphony set up the NFL Madden game in the lobby for its tribute to “Super Bowl 50: Concert of Champions.” Greg couldn’t believe it when his mom told him the symphony was going to play a night of football music, set to clips from football films.
“I was flabbergasted, I guess. I was like, are you joking?” he said.
Then he thought it through.
“There is a certain rhythm to sports. Like how in tennis you have this very loud pop of sound when the ball hits the racket. And in football you have the whistles, the tackles, the yelling,” he said. “So then I realized this could be either a train wreck or it could be really good, but I have a feeling it’s going to be really nice and really coordinated, like a beautiful play.”
The symphony set up a giant movie screen looming over the orchestra for the show, rolling football highlight reels from the 1960s to today. The original soundtrack was removed, so the symphony could play it live. Reinforcements for the brass and percussion sections were called in (there were 8 French horns on stage) to produce the emotional swells and dramatic climaxes of NFL music.
In one film clip, set to composer Sam Spence’s “Sabers and Six Guns,” the quarterback throws a long pass. The violins get louder as the ball flies, in slow motion, toward the end zone. One player tries to catch it, but misses. The cymbals crash. Then another guy reaches up — the orchestra swells — and completes the pass. The trumpets hit their peak and the audience cheers. Touchdown.
“Football is just power. Times 10,” says Tom Hedden, a composer who wrote music for NFL films and TV specials for 19 years. “These are the biggest and the fastest and the strongest human beings there are. So the music needs to carry that kind of power with it.”
He recalls one rehearsal from his career, when the studio orchestra wasn’t producing the volume or energy he wanted. He told the musicians a story of when he was walking through the office hallways and bumped into Christian Okoye, a running back for the Kansas City Chiefs at the time. He was dressed in full pads for a film shoot.
“My nose met him at his solar plexus. He totally dwarfs me,” Hedden says. “I basically was giving the point to the musicians that there is no such thing as too loud or too high or too strong because we’re talking about the extremes of human performance.”
Hedden loves that some of his work is now being performed on stage by a world-renowned symphony. But he hopes people will also keep it in perspective.
“This music has spit and blood and sweat and guts and laughing. It’s about a game,” he says. “At its base, it’s supposed to be fun, and not stiff or awkward.”
That’s exactly the idea, says Richard Lonsdorf, the symphony’s associate director of artistic planning. At the “Concert of Champions,” people cheered readily when their favorite players graced the screen, and booed at rivals. Waves of laughter floated over the audience during the section of football follies, set to music by Spence, Hedden and David Robidoux, as players accidentally ran into cheerleaders, dove into tables of Gatorade, and straddled the goal post.
For the sake of the future, Lonsdorf says, the symphony want to move beyond the “sit down and shut up” model of classical music, without abandoning its core mission.
“This is the age-old question of classical music — it’s been going out of style for centuries. There’s this sense that the audiences are growing older. They’re dying off. They aren’t being replaced by new ones.”
So, a couple of years ago, the symphony started a film series. They show movies like “Psycho” and “Star Trek,” while the orchestra plays the musical score live. Later this month, they’ll show “Vertigo,” and after that, “E.T.” Lonsdorf says the series has attracted a younger, more diverse audience.
“You create this ability for people to feel more comfortable with things, and we hope that it will start to bleed over into our standard offerings,” he says. “It’s a real leap to imagine that someone coming for the first time to the symphony’s ‘Concert of Champions’ is suddenly going to sign up for our next Mahler cycle. Not that they shouldn’t. But you have to create interstitial steps between this kind of project and our most venerable classical properties. And so that’s something we’re constantly working on and refining.”
For Luke McMahan and Greg Kalman, football night was a success.
“I loved how the music correlated completely with the plays. When the guy was ramming through people and running for the touchdown,” Luke said.
“I got more of a respect for the sport,” Greg added. “These players really do work hard. It’s really great to witness.”
Though the symphony hopes new audiences will leave the football program with a greater appreciation for music, Luke and Greg walked out with a greater appreciation for football.