Classical Music & Dance

San Francisco Symphony creates an evocative and stimulating performance at Helzberg Hall

The San Francisco Symphony, directed by Michael Tilson Thomas, offered a stimulating program Wednesday, an incitement of color and mood.

Currently on tour across the nation in celebration of the 20-year collaboration between the orchestra and Thomas, they performed in Helzberg Hall, presented by the Harriman-Jewell Series as part of the series’ 50th anniversary season.

Part of Thomas’ legacy is his promotion of American composers, programming homegrown works from the last century as well as commissioning new works. In this concert, they performed Samuel Adams’ “Drift and Providence,” a co-commission the orchestra premiered in 2012.

The piece had an oceanic quality, with amorphous, fragmented string textures, overlapping murmurs, tones struck and decaying. Sliding tones and permeating metallic effects time and again rose and ceased, leaving a trace of sustain.

There was also an electronic element to the work, with Adams performing live, in-house sound design from a laptop. This was incorporated so well, however, it was largely unnoticeable. The ringing, scraping percussive timbres were extracted and reissued into a continual overtone layer.

Violinist Gil Shaham joined them for Sergei Prokofiev’s Concerto No. 2. This was a charming work, conversely sophisticated or rough-hewn, captivatingly performed. Shaham stood tucked into the orchestra, integrated, not forward of the conductor like many soloists.

Shaham introduced the folklike theme, then toyed with it, answering other voices as they took it up, covering a secondary line with soft, urgent patterns. The second movement began with a sweeter attitude and longer line of inhalation and release, the pressure increasing, saturating.

A fierce pizzicato and ricocheting bowing enhanced the slightly disjointed quality of the final movement, as Shaham invigorated a lopsided waltz figure.

Maurice Ravel’s “Daphnis et Chloe” was the composer’s most extensive masterpiece, an hourlong choreographic symphony, and exemplifies the height of sumptuous orchestral colorations. On this performance, they had no chorus or dancers, yet created a work of evocative imagery.

From serene and diaphanous to vicious and energetic, the orchestra performed with an organic intensity that erupted like a fountain, Thomas leading with conservative gestures.

Solo instrument voices emerged from the ensemble in perfect balance, virtuosic work from flute, horn, English horn and especially clarinet in the final effusive flurry.

The orchestra achieved a range of emotion and dynamics, a presence as formless as mist or as staunch as granite, the generated sound a perceptible force and making for thrilling experience.