Classical Music Review: San Francisco Symphony at Symphony Hall

By Jonathan Blumhofer

While the orchestra’s program was almost defiantly canonical, it was played with such lightness and energy that you could forgive its disappointing safeness.

San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, presented by the Celebrity Series of Boston at Symphony Hall. Photo: Robert Torres.

Michael Tilson Thomas’s farewell tour with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) came to Boston on Sunday afternoon, courtesy of the Celebrity Series.

This was no bittersweet affair, though. While the orchestra’s program was almost defiantly canonical, it was played with such lightness and energy that you could forgive its disappointing safeness (from this band, at least). And you could be excused for thinking that the pair are just embarking on something special, not nearing the end of the music director’s quarter-century-long tenure at the orchestra’s helm.

That such vigorous performances marked pieces by Mendelssohn and Beethoven — rather than those of such MTT-SFS specialties like Cowell, Ives, or Mahler — was a pleasant surprise, too, given the moments of idleness in their recent Schumann and Berlioz recordings.

When it came to Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto, at least, maybe that shouldn’t have been startling: the soloist was Christian Tetzlaff, whose various local appearances over the last several years have been nothing short of revelatory. His take on this old warhorse Sunday was no exception.

In the first movement, the solo line was constantly in flux. Tetzlaff exaggerated its dynamic extremes with captivating focus. He ensured that the melodic writing never sat still but was continuously held up at different angles to the light, usually through some combination of bow pressure, thoughtful phrasing, and a complete lack of sentimental excess. Indeed, Tetzlaff’s reading was as direct and cleanly played as one might want, but not lacking dramatic or emotional warmth.

Similar textural clarity marked the serene slow movement, whose climactic central part was vividly weighted. And the finale, after a surprisingly tense introduction, quickly gave way to a puckish, effervescent main body.

The SFS played with a gossamer touch — the understated contrapuntal apex of the finale, as well as the solo violin’s final arpeggio, were beautifully balanced — and a fine sense of character. There was an electrifying, transformational quality to the woodwinds’ bridge between the first two movements, and, throughout the opening one, a lithe direction to the ensemble’s performance that perfectly matched Tetzlaff’s playing.

Afterwards, the violinist rewarded a lusty ovation with an encore of the “Loure” from Bach’s E-major Partita.

Following intermission, MTT led the SFS in Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony. Leonard Bernstein used to say that if, after a performance, he felt like he had written whatever he was conducting while he was leading it, that probably meant that it had been a pretty good interpretation.

Well, this Eroica was certainly one of the latter. Crisp, spirited, and cogent, it also reminded, with such bristling energy and urgent vitality, a bit of Manfred Honeck’s recent Beethoven recordings with the Pittsburgh Symphony, if a bit more elegant-toned all-around.

At any rate, MTT took the big first movement at a smart pace in which just about everything – tempos, balances, phrasings – felt natural. Ditto for the second, which offered sober emotional contrasts, terrific dynamic shape, and taut rhythmic energy. The Scherzo was limber and brash, while the finale overflowed with spunk. So did the encore, Brahms’s Hungarian Dance no. 3.

Like everything that came afterwards, the afternoon’s opener, MTT’s Agnegram, was plenty fresh. A 1998 curtain-raiser written to honor the SFS’s longtime patron, Agnes Albert, it’s a good-natured, sometimes riotously-knowing, overture built on the letters of Albert’s name — and filled with quotes of lots of music she loved.

On Sunday, composer/conductor and orchestra played Agnegram to the hilt, its colors glinting and coda (“a cross between Tod und Verklärung and Marc Blitzstein,” as MTT described it) blazing.

Jonathan Blumhofer is a composer and violist who has been active in the greater Boston area since 2004. His music has received numerous awards and been performed by various ensembles, including the American Composers Orchestra, Kiev Philharmonic, Camerata Chicago, Xanthos Ensemble, and Juventas New Music Group. Since receiving his doctorate from Boston University in 2010, Jon has taught at Clark University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, and online for the University of Phoenix, in addition to writing music criticism for the Worcester Telegram & Gazette.

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