For an orchestra approaching the century mark, the San Francisco Symphony looked and sounded mighty frisky at its season-opening gala Wednesday night in Davies Symphony Hall.
An industrial-strength organization — turning 100 in 2011, operating on a budget of $54 million, and playing for an audience of 600,000 each season — SFS and the bejeweled Davies Hall crowd of 2,700 united in giving the impression of a successful junior prom, combined with virtuoso performances.
Good cheer and musical excellence began as the audience, responding to Michael Tilson Thomas' animated conducting, delivered a mighty, roof-shaking "Star-Spangled Banner," easily the best of 31 season-opening concerts I have attended.
Then, with the orchestra musicians taking over from the talented amateurs of the audience, the enchanting ballet music from Delibes' “Sylvia” lifted spirits even more.
Raw energy continued to flow with the Symphonic Dance Suite from Bernstein's “West Side Story,” from the finger-snapping “Prologue” to the syrupy “Somewhere,” the fightin' “Rumble,” the extra-cool “Cool Fugue,” “Mambo” and “Cha-Cha.”
MTT led a vital performance, coming close to the intensity and overwhelming experience of the same music played in the same hall less than a year ago by the Simón Bolívar Youth Orchestra of Venezuela, under the baton of Gustavo Dudamel.
The main course of the second half followed the pre-intermission appetizers. Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3 in D minor is not just the most difficult work of the genre, it is an obsession, a nightmare, a potential apotheosis for pianists. (If you haven't seen “Rach 3” chronicled in "Shine," do activate your Netflix account.)
Under MTT's supportive and knowing baton, the orchestra knitted a silk-smooth, “Russian-accented” carpet to support Yefim Bronfman's steely-fingered, technically dazzling, relentlessly powerful piano.
There might have been some fluctuation in the opening Allegro between mere sounds and “real music,” but the unbridled romanticism of the Adagio was winning, and the Finale was miraculous.
It takes 40 minutes of superhuman effort to come to the conclusion of the concerto, and yet Bronfman finished this marathon in full possession of strength and ability, producing powerful “singing” that normally exists as an ideal, rather than actual fact.
The resulting ovation formed the evening’s second bracket, barely containing the overflowing good cheer. MTT and SFS had a grand start to a promising season.