San Francisco Symphony, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco – review

When Michael Tilson Thomas takes his orchestra on tour, he often immerses himself in the preoccupations that have guided his programming here for the past 18 years. Selected venues in America this week – including New York’s Carnegie Hall on Wednesday – will encounter the San Francisco Symphony and a chief with divided loyalties. While indulging his continuing fascination with soul-searching projects such as the Mahler Ninth Symphony, Tilson Thomas seems to relish equally the byways and side roads of contemporary American music, which he continues to explore with an interest beyond the casual. In some way, every concert amounts to another instalment of a continuing love affair.

A decade ago, Tilson Thomas muddied the Old West calendar art image of Aaron Copland by exposing his orchestra to a composer of unsuspected complexity. In the current revival of Symphonic Ode, first performed in 1932, one finds granitic sonorities melting into folksy tunes and oracular chord sequences (the composer cites Mahler) yielding to jazz riffs, before one of the more memorable perorations in American music. In this landmark piece, Tilson Thomas seemed as much stonecutter as conductor, chiselling an inspired performance from the raw material.

Stephen Mackey’s Eating Greens summons no such sculptural metaphors. Tilson Thomas has championed this composer for years; he refers to this three-movement work, which is new to his repertory here, as a “hallucinatory concerto”, referencing Schumann and Schoenberg. These ears hear less in this minimalist essay, two decades old and sounding every day of it. Mackey’s percussion armada is huge, comprising such “instruments” as alarm clock and boom box. He asks for mistunings from sundry participants. The piece proceeds at a relentless pace, indulges a passion for absurdist gestures and sounds overall like a latter-day, surrealist Varèse. We were spared the intrusion of a pizza delivery man, a feature of an earlier performance here. Eating Greens is not nutritious fare.

For that, one turned to Mozart’s Piano Concerto in C Major, K. 503, and soloist Jeremy Denk. This recent MacArthur Foundation Fellow arrives with a silky touch and some overly manicured phrasing in the opening movement. He sees the concerto as a continual contrast between light and shadow and made an eloquent case for that argument mostly in the dancey Allegretto finale.

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