I remember my first hearing of the “Intermezzo” from Sibelius′ Karelia Suite, which evoked an exciting image of a hunting ground with dapper-looking gunmen and hound dogs racing around. As a young girl, I had no inkling of what the word “Karelia” meant, but I imagined it to be the place where this exciting hunting scene was taking place. Hearing it last night performed by the San Francisco Symphony brought back this image, but it was even more striking when placed in the context of all the other movements. In a program that took us from the remote expanse in northern Europe named in the title to a Spanish village, Charles Dutoit and the SFS delivered a fantastic night of wonderful music.

Dutoit certainly runs a tight ship. The tempo was steady, the sound was balanced and everything felt orderly – though not in a rigid way. The bright brass instruments beautifully coloured the outer movements, allowing the middle section – the more sombre-sounding “Ballade” – to work well. Sibelius generously gave solo parts for quite a few instruments and they were all executed wonderfully by members of the SFS; especially memorable was the English horn, played by Russ deLuna in the “Ballade” movement. The suite was closed aptly with the upbeat “Alla Marcia”, which wouldn’t have been out of place in a scene with fireworks.

The second offering of the night was welcomed with much warmth. Emanuel Ax, without a doubt, has many fans and this was apparent as he walked onto the stage. Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 22 in E flat major began with all the elegance one would expect from a Mozart concerto. The contrast between solo and tutti sections of the introduction was beautifully done and phrasings were rendered with great care. The moment Ax started playing, I was mesmerised by the workings of his fingers. There’s something clean and intentional about his gestures and it served the stately air of the first movement well. In the second movement Andante, I was looking for a more emotive and poetic reading rather than Dutoit’s more heady approach. Nonetheless, nothing could be said to be wrong in this rendition; it is after all Mozart and not Brahms. The wind passages added colours to the muted strings nicely and Ax’s playing certainly brought out the gorgeous timbre of the Steinway. The closing Rondo was performed gorgeously, with a beautifully-done slow episode which showed the depth that I wished had been present in the second movement. An altogether fine performance which capped the first half of the night.

It would have been quite odd to have a piece titled The Three Cornered Hat Dances if it was without a backstory. In short, it’s a story about a miller, his wife and a magistrate, and as usual a love triangle takes place where the magistrate is in love with the miller’s wife, the miller gets detained by police, some confusion takes place and at the end everything falls into its proper place. The Three Dances that made up the suite were all very colourful and I wished that there were dancers on the stage. In the seguidillas, some very typically Spanish melodies were sung by the winds. In the farruca, the strings imitated strummed guitars rather well, while in the jota the various percussion instruments increased the energy and excitement, bringing the suite to a jubilant resolution.

Debussy’s La Mer was the final piece of the night and as I was watching it being played, I could truly appreciate the polyphony created by the various instruments that Dutoit brought out during the performance – something that isn’t always obvious in recordings. Separate lines in the strings ebb and flow, evoking the mystery that is La Mer. Beautiful swells of textures and timbres were commanded masterfully by Dutoit and solo lines were executed thoughtfully by the members of the SFS. I also appreciated a balanced approach to the ritardandos, while the tension and drama in the final movement kept us at the edge of our seats. Finally, a thrilling finish wrapped up an excellent night for Dutoit and the SFS.