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When Michael Tilson Thomas leads his orchestra on tour, conventionally congenial repertoire yields to another chapter of an obstreperously rich musical autobiography. The San Francisco Symphony’s imminent visit to New York and Europe, the first of two this year, reflects its music director’s preoccupations and passions, some of which are as old as yesterday. The conductor’s baggage this time includes a single concession to popular taste, a carefully proportioned and luxuriantly textured reading of Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, wherein the late Romantic rhetoric is elucidated, while the bombast is tapered to the permissible minimum.

But who else would travel with Aaron Copland’s undeservedly obscure and utterly beguiling Short Symphony? This quarter hour of metrical dislocations and soaring motives astutely fuses the composer’s searching angularity with his populist sensibility. Thomas finds shimmering coherence in this product of a 1932 sojourn to Copland’s beloved Mexico.

Mahler remains a house speciality. Thomas Hampson’s delivery of five songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn occasionally finds the baritone unsupported and breathy but his interpretive insights and sheer love of poetry propel him through “Revelge” with militaristic fervour. Abetted by Thomas’s magical accompaniments, Hampson floats an exquisite wisp of sound in a valedictory “Urlicht”.

The second tour programme derives from an unofficial celebration of Stravinsky’s 125th birthday. Symphony in Three Movements gathers up its tensions like a summer electrical storm, its chordal energies released with the force of splitting the atom. Thomas relishes the jazzy infusions of the second movement’s walking tune and plunges into the finale’s stabbing sonorities with fearless glee. In the divertimento from Le Baiser de la fée, the orchestra’s sterling wind complement shines, while Thomas revels in Stravinsky’s homage to Tchaikovsky. The latter’s First Symphony, a personal favourite since the conductor’s Boston Symphony days, has acquired a patina of interpretative maturity. Thomas no longer seeks to find a unity among its meandering parts, preferring to explore Tchaikovsky’s youthful strivings with uncommon compassion for their imperfections.

These concerts will be repeated May 17-18 at Carnegie Hall, New York, tel +1 212 247 7800; May 21-22 at the Vienna Konzerthaus, tel +43 (0) 1 242 002; May 24-25 at Smetana Hall, Prague, tel +420 222 002 336

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