Wednesday's first concert of the San Francisco Symphony's new season was not your typical opening night. Firstly, music director Michael Tilson Thomas was missing, completing a tour with the London Symphony Orchestra in Europe; he won't return to Davies Symphony Hall until Sept. 19.
Not that his replacement, Semyon Bychkov, isn't first-rate; he is, and works well with this orchestra. Still, there were many empty seats throughout the hall, probably due to Tilson Thomas's absence. And the evening's oddness, at least for this listener, was amplified by its aggressively retro programming. Coincidentally, the concert took place on the 100th anniversary of John Cage's birth, yet the night's fare -- a Wagner overture, a Bruch concerto, a Tchaikovsky symphony -- might have been played the day Cage was born.
This is the start of the orchestra's 101st season -- its second century -- and to begin the march forward with such a strictly backward-gazing program (it repeats through Saturday) is a wrong move. At least the night didn't begin with Wagner's "Meistersinger" Overture; the familiarity quotient would have shot through the roof, causing structural damage.
Thankfully, Bychkov led the Overture to "Tannhäuser," drawing an exceptional performance, the night's best: taut melody, dialed up and up to bursting crescendos; trenchant rhythmic play in the strings. There was all manner of nuance and fine detail: striking moments of virtual silence
Next was Bruch's Violin Concerto No. 1 in G minor, with soloist Pinchas Zukerman, a throwback fiddler in the best sense, tapped into the lineage of Heifetz, Elman and Kreisler. His tone was drenching, particularly in the upper register. His vibrato was massive. Especially in the first two movements, his execution -- blasting through chains of double-stops -- exuded masculine strength.
Yet perhaps because of his quite grave demeanor -- and perhaps because so much has been reported through the years about his aristocratic inclinations as a conductor and orchestral administrator -- Zukerman lacks a certain charisma. He also smudged a few passages in the finale, where his tone also hit some gravelly patches. And to be honest -- it's heresy time, folks -- if I never hear Bruch's schmaltz-laden concerto again, I'll be happy enough.
Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 is in many ways a piece to love, beginning with the doleful and soul-shaking clarinet melody of the funeral march, which sets the work in motion.
This was a spirited performance, with plenty of tight ensemble work. But it was short of enthralling until the final Presto, which locked into Tchaikovsky's winds of fate and went cruising, like a clipper ship. Forward motion! That's something this program largely lacked.
San Francisco Symphony
Semyon Bychkov, guest conductor; Pinchas Zukerman, violin
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $15-$150, 415-864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org