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Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, leads the audience in a rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" during the San Francisco Symphony's Opening Night Gala in San Francisco, Calif., on Tuesday, Sept. 3, 2013. The gala opens the Symphony's 102nd season. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)

The Sergei Prokofiev that concertgoers encounter most often is the Prokofiev who wrote the "Classical" Symphony, "Romeo and Juliet" and "Peter and the Wolf," the two violin concertos and first and third piano concertos: ardent and tender, a neo-Romantic who could write swooping, expansive melodies with the best of them but stands apart from his 19th-century predecessors for his wryness, his reserve.

Then there's another Prokofiev, one so little represented by those warhorses that coming across him can be shocking -- good shocking, a splash of water so cold you gasp. In his rarely performed Symphony No. 3, which closes out the program that the San Francisco Symphony debuted Wednesday at Davies Symphony Hall, Prokofiev is a fellow traveler of Stravinsky, Bartók and Shostakovich, hauling primal energy and unbounded sarcasm into the concert hall (the program repeats Saturday).

Prokofiev's Third is adapted from his opera "The Fiery Angel," about a love triangle that plays out under supernatural influences -- but heard without reference to that plot, the music sounds futurist, a pure product of the machine-obsessed 1920s. You hear pistons firing, oversized cogs turning.

The orchestra's performance under Michael Tilson Thomas was relentless, searing in passages both quiet and blasting. The ensemble, acting as one entity, was as unwieldy, large-proportioned and implausibly coherent as the movements of the symphony. When Tilson Thomas led the orchestra through big, arcing accelerations and decelerations, it sounded inevitable but also difficult, like a giant automaton rousing itself to motion. And when the first movement's full-throated tutti declarations finally dissipated into the desultory murmurs of violas, then an abysmal groan of contrabassoon, tuba, harp and timpani, it sounded like the robot's creaky last step settling to earth: again, inevitable.


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That first movement is marked by martial snare drums, mocking and ominous in the vein of Shostakovich, and grace note-flecked bassoon writing -- creepy subterranean sounds, drawing a line between this symphony and Stravinsky's earlier "The Rite of Spring." In the Andante, violin glissandos (unbroken slides between notes, like police sirens) smear the surface of the music as if they've been applied with a tactile sense, as if Prokofiev were a painter scratching at his canvas.

The performance captured the symphony's apocalyptic flavor and cruel comedy. Balance wasn't always 100 percent: In the finale, you could see (not hear) two harpists plucking away amid the orchestra's roar. Never timid, this performance was all about doing justice to Prokofiev's drive, and if the occasional detail slipped away, so be it.

The concert's curtain-raiser -- the West Coast premiere of "Lineage," by Zosha Di Castri, a 28-year-old Canadian who is based in New York -- made clear that this orchestra can nail balances that are as delicate as they come. Di Castri hopes with "Lineage" to evoke her childhood feelings of listening to her Ukrainian grandparents' reminiscences about "the old country," she has explained. Mournful microtonal themes ("faux folk," she says) hang beneath blurs of instrumental color; episodes, first unpunctuated and then pulsing, emerge and dissolve, Sibelius-like. From nowhere, sweeping gusts of color take wing, an effect reminiscent of Stravinsky's "The Firebird."

You can't say enough good things about Yefim Bronfman, the night's soloist: his virtuosity, his touch. But to follow Di Castri (who inaugurates the symphony's "New Voices" commissioning program) with Tchaikovsky's Piano Concerto No. 1 (perhaps the most hackneyed work in the repertory) made zero sense, even with Bronfman in the spotlight. The cheering crowd wouldn't agree, but something with more bite -- um, Stravinsky? -- is what belonged here. Between Di Castri's subtle appetizer and Prokofiev's all-stops-out entrée, Tchaikovsky sat there like a too-big slice of too-sweet cake with too much frosting.

Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him at Twitter.com/richardscheinin.

San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor; Yefim Bronfman, piano

When: 8 p.m. Saturday
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $15-$156; 415-864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org