Before departing on its autumn tour the San Francisco Symphony shared selections from its traveling repertoire at home, under the warm lights of Davies Hall. Music director Michael Tilson Thomas, celebrating his twentieth year with the orchestra, conducted sumptuous symphonic dances from three centuries.
The maestro swayed back and forth like a metronome in time with the frenetic Faustian fantasy, Lizst’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1 for Orchestra. Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik played the devil’s fiddle with sly, seductive aplomb, and principal flautist Timothy Day trilled like a nervous nightingale sensing a hellish presence under his tree. However, as an ensemble, the orchestra erred a shade too far on the side of restraint. Rather than whirling listeners into the frenzy, it left them tapping their feet on the sidelines.
Ravel’s lush Daphnis and Chloe begins with the same rising intervals as the Liszt, but conjures images of a pastoral meadow, far from Mephisto Waltz’s rowdy tavern. Though the ballet was not staged for this concert, the sights of the jam-packed stage and terrace, MTT’s baton painting wide strokes in the air, were almost spectacle enough. Chorus director Ragnar Bolin has well prepared his charges for the tour. The sighs of the masterfully blended a cappella interlude which begins the second part sent chills through the hall. Flautist Day also delivered a breathtaking performance of the lightning-fast feature in the pantomime section near the end.
Magnificent moments aside, the complete Daphnis is too long without the ballet to accompany it. Taken out of context, it grew repetitive and disconnected over its fifty minutes. Its brief frissons were flashes in the ether: pretty ether, but ether nonetheless. Even sections of conflict were lost in the haze, one almost indistinguishable from another after so many of them.
The night truly belonged to Gil Shaham, soloist of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5, K.219. As he waited for his first entrance, his face was alight with pure joy, and from the moment his bow touched strings the audience was riding the waves of arpeggios with him. The typically ebullient MTT was reserved, letting Shaham take the temporary title of lord of the dance: and dance Shaham did, not losing a single note from Joseph Joachim’s madcap cadenzas, provoking applause between movements, spreading infectious enthusiasm through both orchestra and audience. The oldest selection on the program was by far the freshest and most alive.