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Entertainment & Arts

Review: Michael Tilson Thomas can still dance after two decades at San Francisco Symphony

laMichael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony on Thursday.
Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony on Thursday.
(Grittani Creative)

Michael Tilson Thomas’ long goodbye has begun. When he arrived as music director at the San Francisco Symphony, shortly before turning 50, he was hailed as a new guy for a new era for an orchestra that seemed to have lost touch with the times and the Bagdad-by-the-Bay spirit of the city. As Tilson Thomas enters his last season a quarter-century later, he’s proved that all the hailing was warranted.

Not that there are aren’t problems as the city struggles to maintain its bohemian character amid a housing crisis and in the aftermath of the tech industry invasion. But at least the longest-serving music director has made the symphony a leader.

With his daring and depth on display at Davies Symphony Hall on Thursday afternoon, Tilson Thomas premiered John Adams’ short “I Still Dance,” a dazzler dedicated to the conductor and his husband-manager, Joshua Robison, surely one of the most popular couples in their adopted city.

The one who still dances is Robison, a musician and former gymnast who met Tilson Thomas when both were in junior high school in the San Fernando Valley. But it’s the youthful energy of both men, now in their mid-70s, that so impresses Adams, the composer says in the program note. The piece lasts eight minutes (7 minutes and 55 seconds, if you must). It begins with a blast, and it doesn’t stop.

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Adams joked in a conversation with the pianist Sarah Cahill before the premiere that “I Still Dance” is really a toccata with a disco beat. There is a prominent role for electric bass, which Adams said he believes should become a formal orchestral instrument. The percussion section is extensive and multicultural, including a large Japanese taiko drum and an African djembe.

Though a New Englander who attended Harvard, Adams’ whole career has been in the Bay Area. The San Francisco Symphony gave him his first orchestral commission in 1981, and he has had a close relationship with it ever since, including having run a new music series. He and Tilson Thomas go back almost that far, to when the conductor premiered the orchestral version of “Shaker Loops” in 1983 with the American Composers Orchestra in New York.

There will be a whole season to consider Tilson Thomas’ San Francisco success. Thursday’s program included a revelatory performance of Rachmaninoff’s Fourth Piano Concerto with the outstanding Russian soloist Daniil Trifonov and a magisterial account of Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony.

But can we please talk about us, about L.A., for a moment? What was striking to an Angeleno about this concert was just how much Tilson Thomas represented a longtime syzygy between the San Francisco orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. This, of course, is a conversation about as liked in a town with a sense of cultural primacy as calling it Frisco.

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To San Francisco’s lasting credit, the L.A. Phil would not be the orchestra it is today without a helping hand from its northern counterpart. L.A.'s previous president and chief executive, Deborah Borda, and its current chief operating officer, Chad Smith, got their starts at the San Francisco Symphony. The late André Previn said that the single most important influence on him as conductor was studying with the legendary Pierre Monteux when he was music director in San Francisco.

Our part in all this, though, is crucial. Tilson Thomas has made no bones about L.A. having shaped him as a musician, and look who is succeeding him: Esa-Pekka Salonen. However connected to the Bay Area, Adams has been the L.A. Phil’s creative consultant for the last decade and written some of his biggest pieces for the orchestra, including his most recent major orchestral piece, the piano concerto “Must the Devil Have all the Good Tunes?”

“I Still Dance” has got good tunes too, and they come in a joyous rush. Adams has done this before in short pieces that pack a punch. His fanfare and most popular piece, “Short Ride in a Fast Machine,” is the model, and it just happened to have been written for Tilson Thomas, who premiered it 1986 with the Pittsburgh Symphony. The seven-minute “Lollapalooza,” of which Tilson Thomas gave the American premiere his first season in San Francisco, is another.

With Simon Woods out at the L.A. Phil and L.A. Opera investigating Plácido Domingo, it’s time to look at companies’ No. 2s, stars of a new generation.

“I Still Dance” is more sophisticated than Adams’ other short knockouts. You can’t possibly get it all in one hearing. Winds swirl unpredictably. The strings chug and swoop. The brass interrupt as they underpin. There is a great tuba part. I didn’t catch much electric bass or exotic percussion, but that might have been my seat close to the orchestra or the Davies acoustics.

What couldn’t be missed was the jazz influence or the marvelous shifting tone colors. You don’t know where you’re going, and you don’t expect to end up in the luminous glow that seems to say this is a dance that will go on in the upper reaches long after any of us are still dancing.

This is a lingering that mattered. Program notes always tell us that Rachmaninoff was influenced by jazz in this concerto. He had been at the premiere of “Rhapsody in Blue.” He was an Ellington fan. Yet that almost always gets lost in the orchestra part, as it does in Trifonov’s award-winning recent recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra under Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Previn, an accomplished jazz musician in his own right, may have been the one exception in his recording with Vladimir Ashkenazy and the London Symphony Orchestra.

As was Previn, Tilson Thomas is a great Gerswhin conductor, and he brought exactly the same syncopated attention to detail to the concerto that he did with the Adams. Finally, Rachmaninoff rocked. Trifonov’s smoky way with the slow movement was swoonable, and throughout he played like an arresting virtuoso making it up on the spot.

Tilson Thomas comes “home” in December when he Trifonov will turn to Tchaikovsky’s First Piano Concerto with the L.A. Phil. Mark your calendars.

This fall’s classical music highlights include Esa-Pekka Salonen, “Porgy and Bess” and the L.A. Phil’s birthday gala.
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