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SF Symphony rocks Beethoven’s Fifth with vivid MTT commentary

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Michael Tilson Thomas led an insightful performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 on Sunday. (Courtesy Kristen Loken)

Throughout the beginning of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, the piccolo and trombone players don’t have anything to do.

But then, just after a skeletal phrase, in what San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas calls “a turning point, a real breakthrough, a moment for music and human thought,” they blast onto the scene, illustrating how Beethoven is “as relentless in his happiness as he is in his sorrow.”

The point thrillingly came to light Sunday afternoon at the 2016-17 season’s only Discovery Concert in Davies Symphony Hall, in which MTT and the orchestra offered a lecture aided by musical examples, followed by a performance of the full piece.

It’s something MTT does well, in “Keeping Score” videos, and decades ago, leading Young People’s Concerts at the New York Philharmonic established by his friend and mentor Leonard Bernstein.

Charming, educational and inspirational, MTT was utterly convincing with his personal, romantic acoustic analysis of Western music’s most iconic work, which set a model for every prominent composer who followed. Written in 1808, it wasn’t well received by critics who called it “ear-splitting” after its premiere in Vienna, but always was a popular favorite.

It’s because Beethoven, daringly breaking rules, tells a story that goes on a journey from sorrow and anger to joy and fulfillment.

Using music as psychology for the first time, MTT said Beethoven shows how “being happy is something you must learn to allow yourself to be,” and asks the question: “What is one willing to risk to find happiness?”

The emotional rollercoaster, said MTT, has to do with the way Beethoven understands and manipulates the changes between minor (sad) and major (happy) chords, which “is really where the drama is.”

With the disparity between minor and major sounds just 37 vibrations per second, MTT queried, “How can such a tiny difference have such a big effect on our perception?” and then, with the fabulous orchestra, provided a glorious live answer, showcasing every step, every mood change, of the journey.

To make sure listeners get it, Beethoven ends with 29 bars of C major, the ear- and soul-pleasing “promised land,” said MTT, whose commentary added so much to the concert experience for patrons who perhaps otherwise would not have noticed just how patiently trombonists Timothy Higgins, Paul Welcomer and John Engelkes and piccolo soloist Cathy Payne waited before they rocked their big moments in the spotlight.

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