Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony are getting ready for a short East Coast tour, beginning March 20 in Carnegie Hall. Lucky New Yorkers will hear the same program the orchestra is presenting this week at Davies Symphony Hall -- a terrific one, with crucial contributions from pianist Yuja Wang (born in Beijing) and composer Samuel Carl Adams (raised in Berkeley).
It's as if the international youth movement is taking over: Wang is 26, Adams 27. Tilson Thomas, who is 68, seems tickled to be presenting this program, which had its first performance Wednesday -- and ends with Old Man Brahms, his Symphony No. 1.
It's humbling to watch Wang, who already is such a seasoned and expressive artist. She played Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 4 in G major, showing cagey restraint through its opening moments: holding back on the pedal, slowing down to articulate phrases, all of this in sync with the conductor and orchestra, which played with fulsome sweetness. (The strings, throughout the program, sounded unusually rich.)
The restraint was a decoy.
Wham! Wang began to fly through a sequence of mounting figurations, each ascent tackled with just a bit more ferocity than the previous one. Unwrapping the piece in stages, she arrived at the cadenza (the second one composed by Beethoven) and roamed through a whole landscape of keyboard color: stenciled bass chords, fleecy rolls and pearly flutters, passages as delicate as Mozart -- or
Her re-entry with the orchestra was gorgeously calibrated: Clearly she is simpatico with Tilson Thomas, who took the second movement at a quite brisk tempo. This is the movement where the piano is said to "tame" the orchestra, just as mythic Orpheus tamed the wild beasts with his music. So, Wang answered the orchestra's fierce, lunging declamations with peace: legato lyricism and trills to die for. Equally finessed was the finale, but let's move on.
Samuel Carl Adams looks a lot like his father, composer John Adams, but he's more than a chip off the old block. He has a distinctive compositional voice. Last April, Tilson Thomas debuted the younger Adams' "Drift and Providence" with the New World Symphony in Miami. In September, Tilson Thomas performed it to superb effect with the San Francisco Symphony at Davies, where it repeats this week in preparation for Carnegie Hall. (Tune in March 20 to WQXR; this entire program, with Wang on board for Beethoven, will stream live over the Internet at www.wqxr.org/#!/.)
It's great that the orchestra (which co-commissioned "Drift") is putting repeated focus on a new work by a young composer. Heard a second time at Davies, the 20-minute work -- highly atmospheric, its textures washing across five largely seamless movements -- is a fascination. For me, it was even more engrossing to hear it now than in September, its landmark moments having grown familiar: reverberating waves of vibraphone, or a lean descending melody for oboe and clarinet, signifying one of Adams' turning points.
The piece rises from a single percussion effect, something like the strike of a match, leading to delicate drones, rumbles and undulating textures -- like an anxious breeze blowing through the hall. Adams is a skilled and sparing orchestrator. He also is a jazz bassist, and the piece channels certain jazz effects, especially the weightless impressionism of Gil Evans. (Check out "The Individualism of Gil Evans," then go hear "Drift and Providence.")
There are specific connections (the pairings of tuba and flute, for instance), but Adams also builds echoes of Debussy (the glory-filled brass of "La Mer"), John Adams (a certain coiling agitation) and Charles Mingus (at his most wistful) into this unique work, which, when added all together, feels like a depiction of the beauty and anxiety of life in the big city. (Adams lives in Brooklyn.) It moves slowly and spaciously, perhaps also reflecting Adams' growing up listening to hip-hop, which can be stretchy and sensuous -- warmly languorous. Just a guess.
And, oh yeah, Brahms.
Tilson Thomas led a performance of Symphony No. 1 that had it all: lyricism, sweep, tragedy and resolution. The orchestra (and those strings) ached with profound sweetness, then with iron-hard fierceness. The second movement's close was marred by some blatty trumpet work, but otherwise this was a taut and gripping journey. During Brahms' final hymn-like moments, the orchestra coalesced as a single instrument.
San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor;
Yuja Wang, pianist
When: 8 p.m. March 8-9
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
Tickets: $15-$160, 415-864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org