At the outset of Friday's program by the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas greeted his audience in shorthand: "Congratulations on being here." What he meant was: "You are about to witness a performance of real cultural significance," the San Francisco debut of "Drift and Providence" by Berkeley-bred composer Samuel Carl Adams. He is only 26 -- and the son of composer John Adams, Bay Area icon and perhaps the foremost living American composer.
One could be cynical and say that Tilson Thomas was crowning a dynasty out of box-office convenience, especially since young Adams' new work (which repeats at Davies Symphony Hall through Sunday) will go on tour with the orchestra next spring -- to Carnegie Hall.
But cynicism vanished when the performance began.
Young Adams carries some of his father's DNA in this 20-minute piece; something of the color and pulse, the coiled agitation and lyric infusion. Yet Samuel Carl Adams' music strikes out on its own here. It's more delicate, often sparely orchestrated. Elegant and deeply textured, it arrived like tide-pools of whoosh and wave, vaguely Asian, computer-enhanced and dappled with jazz influences, especially the pastel effects of Gil Evans.
"Drift" also breaks free of the Hollywood yearnings that afflict so much new music for orchestra. Composed in five seamless movements, inspired by Adams' life in California and Brooklyn, where he now lives, the work is subtle and atmospheric,
"Embarcadero," the opening movement, began with the drone and undulation of strings, with an independent cross-current from cellos and double basses, as well as sustained percussion effects: gentle metallic jangling, like the taming of Peking Opera or a visitation from the late composer Lou Harrison. Standing with his laptop at the rear of the hall, Adams enhanced the amplified percussion -- scraped and brushed brake drums and cowbells -- to create additional layers of hovering resonance.
The effect was to tip the droned harmony ever so slightly -- a new type of "blues" effect -- and to shape the mood, dreamy and suspenseful. With both a linear pulse and a cycling whorl to it, "Embarcadero" seemed African-inspired and, again, jazz-like. A spare descending melody -- just two or three notes for clarinet and oboe -- poked through here and there until waves of vibraphone began "Drift I," one of the work's two brief connective movements.
Some background: Adams studied composition at Stanford and Yale, but he also plays jazz double bass, and one kept hearing the influences of his parallel lives. (The piece was co-commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony and the New World Symphony, which premiered it April 20 in Miami, with Tilson Thomas conducting.)
In "Drift I," only three minutes long, one could hear airy Debussy -- those gentle openings in the atmosphere -- and maybe some of the wistfulness of jazz bassist/composer Charles Mingus. There was an escalation of tension, too; that coiled agitation. Adams knows how to pick his spots to dramatic effect: The orchestra built to the barreling volume of a subway in the final movements, egged on by shouts from punching trombones. A droning subterranean riff -- basses, contrabass clarinet, contrabassoon, tuba -- stood in contrast to the final jangling murmurs of "Providence," the fifth movement, beautifully ominous.
When it was over, Tilson Thomas called the composer onstage. Adams, whose parents were in the audience, took a shy bow and tried to run off, but the conductor called him back -- a sweet moment.
Well, Adams was the news, but the orchestra wasn't finished. After intermission, it played Mahler's titanic Symphony No. 5, which it has played many times before.
There's isn't much space to describe this superb performance, which Tilson Thomas navigated across Mahler's treacherous narrative arc: the funeral march to the abyss, the street dances, love songs, breaths of heaven and controlled might. He established broad tempos from the outset; this Mahler 5 occupied a spacious 75 minutes. It was beyond refined -- and occasionally became so rarefied as to fall into a lull. But mostly this was virtuoso stuff: finesse and firepower, both.
SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY
Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Samuel Carl Adams' "Drift and Providence" and Gustav Mahler's Symphony No. 5
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $15-$150, 415-864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org