SAN FRANCISCO -- "Oh my God, 20," said Michael Tilson Thomas -- the first words out of his mouth Wednesday at the San Francisco Symphony's Opening Night Gala, marking the start of his 20th season leading the orchestra. "We're thrilled," he joked, "to be in a profession where you don't get termed out."
The 2014-15 Gala at Davies Symphony Hall was the usual mix 'n' match. There was Bonnie Raitt (the conductor's friend) singing vintage American songs, including one ("Hey There") that her father John Raitt introduced in "The Pajama Game" on Broadway in 1954. There was pianist Yuja Wang (the conductor's protégé) performing Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue," treating portions of it like a real slow drag -- sexy, and straight from ragtime.
Some of it worked.
The Gala concert is a different animal from the rest of the season's programs; it's a rest-point between preconcert dinner and post-concert party. During Wednesday's intermission, amid much pouring of Prosecco, I snaked a path through the tightly packed lobby and heard several conversations about stock deals: "I had to dump 30 percent ..."
The best part of the concert came first: Stravinsky's Scherzo à la russe, a charming and chirpy little piece, about four minutes long. Premiered by Paul Whiteman's jazz orchestra in 1944 -- Stravinsky conducted his fully orchestrated version with the San Francisco Symphony two years later -- it impersonates a "Petrushka" village band that has absorbed some jazz and is ready to perform at halftime on an American playing field. Wednesday, the brass section was buttery-smooth.
Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" Fantasy-Overture came next: alternately melancholy, menacing and love-struck, with those fervid "Top 100" melodies. This was a quite refined performance of some very schmaltzy music, and, as happens each year at the Gala, you could hear the orchestra's various sections shaping up for prime time. A number of passages played by the cellos in their basement range sounded luxuriously dark and penetrating.
If you're a die-hard fan of Oscar Levant's "Rhapsody in Blue," Wednesday's performance might not have suited you. I thought it was pretty terrific. Tilson Thomas's approach was to turn his little orchestra into a period band, performing Gershwin's classic with Jazz Age authenticity and cakewalking rhythm. Carey Bell memorably crooned and spiraled up through the opening clarinet riffs. Trumpeter Mark Inouye wah-wah'd like mad on the next passage.
Then Wang (checking in with the score on her iPad, perched in front of her) went to work. She played liberally with the time, pausing, slowing things for rather long stretches; it was not your typical "Rhapsody." But her performance (which included a few muffed notes) had fresh personality and made musical sense, as when she introduced that slow sexy drag into her penultimate cadenza, gradually building it to the tipping point, at which melody dripped from her fingers as she triggered Gershwin's firework effects, his sparklers and Roman candles.
After intermission, Raitt wasn't as successful, though she was a sport to "get up on the high diving board," as she put it, shedding her blues skin to perform those vintage popular songs. The project took shape a summer or two ago, Tilson Thomas explained, when he put together a playlist, and discovered that Raitt seemed to know as many "off-the-wall" numbers as he did.
So there she was Wednesday, Bonnie Raitt, dressed all in black -- emphasizing that famous shock of red hair -- and confessing to her audience, "It's good for me to push some limits at this age."
Her best number was the first -- "That's My Weakness Now," which dates to 1928 and was a hit for Helen Kane:
And he likes boop-boop-a-doop,
I never cared for a boop-boop-a-doop.
But he likes to boop-boop-a-doop,
That's my weakness now!...
It was interesting to hear how Raitt, here and there, allowed her swelling, blues-belter talents to morph into a sort of vaudeville belter effect, à la Ethel Merman. Mostly, though, she seemed uncomfortable singing with the big orchestra. She strained through "Hey There," a song she'd sung many times with her father. And Gershwin's "Naughty Baby" -- composed for the show "Primrose" in 1924, also the year he composed "Rhapsody in Blue" -- quickly fizzled, even when the conductor picked up a blue megaphone to trade choruses with his friend.
Conductor and orchestra closed with excerpts from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet," which featured a swashbuckling "Dance of the Knights."
And now, on to the real 2014-15 season.
San Francisco Symphony's next program
MIchael Tilson Thomas, conductor; pianist Benjamin Grosvenor, soloist
When: 8 p.m. Sept. 5-6
Where: Davies Symphony Hall
What: Works by Tchaikovsky, Ravel, Stravinsky and Prokofiev
Tickets: $15-$158, 415-864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org