Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the San Francisco Symphony on Thursday in the premiere of John Adams’ “I Still Dance,” Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 and Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4 performed by Daniil Trifonov. (Courtesy Grittani Creative LTD)

SF Symphony debuts John Adams’ lively salute to MTT

Pianist Daniil Trifonov joins orchestra in enaging program

John Adams’ long friendship with San Francisco Symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas has overlapped the four-decade span of Adams’ collaboration with the orchestra. And it is to MTT, 74, in his final, 25th season as music director, and his husband Joshua Robison, that Adams dedicated his energetic one-movement piece “I Still Dance,” which made its world premiere in an engaging program Thursday at Davies Symphony Hall.

S.F. Symphony and Carnegie Hall co-commissioned “I Still Dance,” in which Adams wanted to express MTT’s “continued youthful vitality.” The sentiment was evident in the propulsive work, which bursts with vigor from the outset and maintains a high-octane, swirling perpetual motion through most of its eight minutes. Pulsating arpeggios drive the essential theme of the piece, which is seasoned with the West African djembe, Japanese taiko (both drums) and a bass guitar.

For all its apparently unstoppable, spirited quality, “I Still Dance” suddenly comes to what Adams has called “a soft landing,” recalling the hushing of a jet upon parking at an airport terminal. MTT, who offered his own tribute to Adams before the orchestra played the piece, was joined by the composer for a rousing ovation at its conclusion.

The program continued with brilliant young Russian-born pianist Daniil Trifonov in a compelling account of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4 in G minor, a piece that debuted in 1927, was reworked in 1928 and again in its final, trimmed-down 1941 version, which is heard less often than his Second and Third Piano Concertos.

Trifonov, with support from a vibrant, texture-generous orchestra, tackled the zesty opening with laser focus, precise passagework and multi-hued impressions in a seemingly introspective piece. For the elegiac second movement with its jazz-like intimations (Rachmaninoff loved Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”), Trifonov’s blend of feeling and finesse was entrancing. And for the third movement, Trifonov’s dazzling virtuosity supercharged the work to its completion.

For an encore, Trifonov offered a nimble, buttery offering of Scriabin’s Etude, Op. 42, No. 3, a short but radiant post-Romantic piece.

After the intermission, the orchestra gave a resonantly sublime rendition of Schumann’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat major, “Rhenish,” a standard of German Romanticism that is the composer’s grand five-movement evocation of the Rhine River. MTT deftly guided the orchestra on its sweeping journey, which opened with ebullient richness, channeled purposeful rhythms and bubbled with lyricism.

MTT and the orchestra effectively captured the majestic solemnity of the fourth movement, which was inspired by the Cologne Cathedral, and for the finale, the maestro lived up to Adams’ compliment, bringing the opus to its joyful finish with exuberance and charm.


San Francisco Symphony

Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Sept. 20-21, 2 p.m. Sept. 22

Tickets: $20 to $160

Contact: (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org

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Composer John Adams joined pianist Sarah Cahill onstage for a lecture before San Francisco Symphony’s Thursday performance, which included Adams’ “I Still Dance.” (Courtesy Grittani Creative LTD)

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