Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony are presenting a basket of French goodies at Davies Symphony Hall this week. There are some rare delicacies, including a world premiere, and there is the soprano Renée Fleming, too, adding plush star power to the program. But what it really comes down to is captured in two words: "La mer."

Tilson Thomas was at his infectious best for Debussy's symphonic seascape. Indeed, Thursday at Davies, where the program received its first of three performances, the surf seemed to be crashing, the salty mist flying up the aisles. What a knockout performance. Falling in love with this piece is like falling in love with the sound of Miles Davis's trumpet or Pablo Casals' cello; "La Mer" becomes a lifelong touchstone, especially when played with this degree of physicality, precision and excitement. One doesn't tire of it.

Soprano Renee Fleming.(Andrew Eccles/Decca/San Francisco Symphony)
Soprano Renee Fleming. (Andrew Eccles/Decca/San Francisco Symphony)

A few highlights: the cello section was outrageous in "Play of the Waves," the second movement. And the rumble of timpani and low strings, set against the winds' song and the gleamingly eruptive trumpet of Mark Inouye, made for an evocative finale, "Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea." Over and above, though, this was a superb performance by the orchestra; wish I'd had my sunglasses, to beat back the dazzle of the sun's glare, which was intense.

It's been said that the second movement of "La Mer" (from 1905) points toward a revolutionary music of constant change and organic self-replenishment -- the music of "Jeux," Debussy's last orchestral work (from 1912.) Composed for a Diaghilev-Nijinsky ballet about amorous goings-on on a tennis court, its true subject is "dappled light and shape," Tilson Thomas pointed out, in remarks from the podium. He added that Debussy manages a conjurer's trick: "Jeux" is dense with detail and color (nearly every stand in the strings has a separate part) yet light as a feather.


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The program began with this elusive and enchanting piece: with floaty rubato tempos, myriad vaporous gestures (swoons, chuckles, slaps, mischievous pinches) and moods that ranged from peppy to languorous (those teenage lovers' hormones, perhaps). But the performance didn't gain trajectory and shape until its final moments, with its fleeting waltz, its sense of desire permeating dusk and a conclusion that shimmered like a Monet sunset.

Appearing as part of her Project San Francisco residency with the orchestra, Fleming now made her entrance, wearing a hot pink gown, shoulder-less with luxurious shawl and a long train. Waterfalls of satiny fabric, in other words, to complement the world premiere of English composer Robin Holloway's "C'est l'extase" ("The Ecstasy"). Commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony, this is his elegant arrangement of Debussy's "Ariettes oubliées" ("Forgotten Songs"), which set the poetry of Paul Verlaine for voice and piano. All in all, Debussy set 21 texts by Verlaine. Holloway has linked ten to form an orchestral suite; seven are being performed this week.

In a pre-concert talk, Holloway described these youthful pieces -- composed 1882-87, when Debussy was in his early- to mid-20s -- as reflecting the composers "private, secret" sadness and emotional complexity. Some of the songs, he said, "compress a world of introverted melancholy from which there is no escape." One, titled "Green," offers fleeting moments of "tenderness, happiness ending in repose. That's as good as it gets," he quipped.

His arrangements catch the spirit of Debussy; bridging a century, this "collaboration" works. In "C'est l'extase" -- the first song, about the "languorous ecstasy" and "fatigue of love" -- Holloway surrounds Debussy's cresting melodies with a lustrous shimmer of strings, well suited to the velvety texture and colors of Fleming's voice. A spare wind chorale introduces "Il pleure dans mon Coeur" ("My Heart Weeps"), about a love that's vanished without explanation. Fleming plunged through Verlaine's mournful poetry here.

But this was a mixed performance by the soprano, whose lower range lacked pop and whose expressiveness didn't always go to the marrow. Still, she brought sweetness and ease to the rich contours of "Green" and lavish sound to "Spleen," the suite's bleakest song, which Holloway ends with a lush shiver.

After intermission, Fleming was more in her element, singing three selections from Canteloube's "Chants d'Auvergne," settings of folk songs from the composer's native Auvergne region in central France. These are directly communicative pieces, and richly melodic. With his orchestrations, Canteloube sets the solo voice like a big fat jewel, expecting it to shine.

Suddenly, Fleming's voice was fuller, more comfortable, riding long streams of breath with beautiful legato singing, for instance, on "Bailero," the shepherd's song. It was soulful.

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

San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor; Renée Fleming, soprano soloist

When: 8 p.m. Jan. 12, 2 p.m. Jan. 13
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $51-$160; 415-864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org
Also: Fleming and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham give a recital with pianist Bradley Moore at Davies Hall, 7 p.m., Jan. 16