by Philip Campbell
The San Francisco Symphony's opening night gala for season 101 came a few weeks late this year, and the music on the bill seemed a little "Classical Music 101," but it was worth the wait to have Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas home again at Davies Symphony Hall.
Launching his own 18th season, MTT was returning from a European tour with his old employer, the London Symphony Orchestra. He stepped down as Principal Conductor there 17 years ago, but often makes return visits as Principal Guest Conductor, and there are rumors (maybe just wishful thinking by the Brits) that he might even consider spending more time abroad once their current Music Director leaves.
We won't let that concern us too much about his tenure here. The man is the Energizer Bunny of classical music, and he shows no signs of attempting to lighten any part of his daunting workload. He certainly was ready for action at the gala, naturally ingratiating and full of characteristic joie de vivre. Just the right attitude for an all-French program that ranged from the absorbing Chausson Poeme with guest violinist Joshua Bell, in his only 2012-13 Bay Area appearance, to the no-holds-barred ferocity of Ravel's Bolero . It suited the party mood of the overheated crowd, and finally got the official opening taken care of.
Never mind the first two weeks of subscription concerts with guest conductor Semyon Bychkov finishing his visit by ripping the roof off DSH with a truly memorable Shostakovich Symphony No. 11, The Year 1905 – this was also a night to remember. While we are talking about getting the musical juices flowing, the hardy members of the SFS never cease to amaze with their seemingly boundless adaptability. The orchestra played intensely for Bychkov, giving him all they had, then didn't miss a beat when transitioning to the lighter fare of the gala performance.
After an overlong but typically endearing spoken introduction to the opening selection of three movements from Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette (complete with too many musical examples), MTT reined himself in just long enough to support Bell's rapturous account of the Chausson Opus 25 for Violin and Orchestra. Looking youthful as ever with his Midwestern good looks and unmannered stage presence, Bell provided an artistically satisfying and rhapsodic interlude during a glamorous night that seemed hell-bent on getting the audience out of the auditorium and back to the open bars.
Both halves of the concert started late because of the surrounding festivities, but Bell returned after intermission to sail through a dazzling Saint-Saens Introduction and Rondo capriccioso with little evidence of fatigue. He has proven his phenomenal talent again and again throughout a brilliant and enduring career, and his star status at the gala earned a prolonged and justified ovation.
To maintain the increasingly celebratory mood, MTT finished the scheduled program with the almost unbearably exciting Bolero . It would take a heart of stone not to succumb to the bravura score, and the conductor was making no apologies for the shameless seduction. Sometimes you just have to give the crowd what they want, and he responded in spades. The memories of last season's parade of centennial celebrations were hardly eclipsed, but the gala had some gravitas of its own, honoring outgoing Symphony President John Goldman and the philanthropic support given by him and his wife Marcia Goldman for years.
A happy little encore ended the show with MTT mugging his way through an audience clap-along to Bizet's Farandole from the L'Arlesienne Suite No. 2. With infectious abandon he literally kicked up his heels and reminded us of why he is such a perfect fit for San Francisco. The street party that followed the performance and the slightly overwhelming fun experienced at the dance in the whimsically decorated pavilion tent set a good-humored seal on the whole affair.
We are frankly glad to be facing a more clear-headed fall at the Symphony with MTT returning to the podium Fri.-Sun., Sept. 28-30, with the Mahler Fifth, but I won't be forgetting his irrepressible joy of making music (any music) any time too soon.