San Francisco Symphony opened its 100th season (101 minus the canceled season in 1935) in Davies Symphony Hall on Wednesday at splendid, festive event, but with some music that didn’t quite live up to the occasion.
It was only in the program’s closing work and encore that the orchestra, under the baton of Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas — beginning his 17th season as music director — was heard in all its splendor.
Britten’s “Variations and Fugue on a Theme of Henry Purcell” (aka “The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra”) was programmed to show off individual musicians, but it served as a showcase for the whole band.
As the Purcell theme from the 1695 “Abdelazar, or the Moor’s Revenge” swept through the instruments, the evening came alive as it hadn’t before. The concert was being recorded for PBS’ “Great Performances”; when television audiences experience the Britten, they will recognize the orchestra’s depth and skill.
While MTT’s choice to open the special occasion with an American work meant well, his selection didn’t fill the bill. Copland’s 1938 “Billy the Kid” ballet suite is, as the name says, a ballet suite — a series of scenes strung together by drama, not music. There was little cohesion in the performance, and the symphony played in a somewhat disjointed fashion.
Parading Lang Lang as the first of the evening’s unusual pairing of stars might have been something to celebrate, if only his vehicle wasn’t the boisterous Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1, which the usually rambunctious pianist performed mostly with restraint, but overcompensated with exaggerated pianissimos.
Lang Lang should have performed a piece of greater substance; he still would have wooed an audience ready to worship him.
The evening’s second half began with Mendelssohn’s romantic, gorgeous, enchanting Violin Concerto, played — alas —- with these characteristics diminished by Itzhak Perlman, who again followed his recent custom of phoning in a perfectly acceptable, if completely unexceptional, performance. The orchestra, politely lagging behind the star, did nothing to distinguish itself.
Thank goodness for the Britten.
From the great orchestra tutti emerged brilliant passages from the flutes (Tim Day, Robin McKee) and piccolo (Catherine Payne); Jonathan Fischer’s oboe passed on the theme to clarinets (Carey Bell, Luis Baez), bassoons (Stephen Paulson, Steven Dibner), horns (Robert Ward, Nicole Cash), the strings — and then each section, each instrument proving its mettle in the fugue, main theme and fugue coming together in a whirlwind of sound and color... bravi!
The good part continued with a righteous encore. John Adams’ 1986 “Short Ride in a Fast Machine: Fanfare for Orchestra” is an exuberant piece, brilliantly scored, and requiring virtuoso playing from the large orchestra.
There was a special shout-out from MTT to the composer — whose life and work have intertwined with the orchestra for decades — who was sitting in Box A, and a multimedia light show jazzed up the performance.
And so there was celebration of music as well as of history, persistence and longevity.
IF YOU GO
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco.
Tickets: $15 to $145
Contact: (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org
Michael Tilson Thomas, conducting
With Yo-Yo Ma, cello. Program: Beethoven, “Leonore” Overture No. 3; Hindemith, Cello Concerto; Brahms, Symphony No. 1
With Katarina Karnéus, mezzo-soprano, and San Francisco Symphony Chorus. Program: Mahler, Symphony No. 3
Sept. 29-Oct. 1
Program: Mozart, Symphony No. 35; Thomas Ades/Tal Rosner “Polaris: Voyage for Orchestra”; Stravinsky, “Petrushka”