Anticipation is running high for the kick off of San Francisco Opera’s summer season on Friday, June 8, 2012, with the local premiere of John Adams’s Nixon in China. As a sort of appetizer to the five-week season music director Nicola Luisotti and his players gave an orchestral concert on June 3 at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. The idea of showcasing the San Francisco Opera Orchestra was initiated last fall when, in the midst of a busy opera schedule, they performed Beethoven’s fifth and seventh symphonies at Zellerbach under Luisotti’s baton.

San Francisco Opera is clearly enjoying the auspicious dawn of a new era: the beginning of the Luisotti years. The native of Tuscany had made a spectacular debut with the company in 2005, leading La Forza Del Destino, and also garnered positive notices at the Metropolitan Opera for Tosca in 2006. When the music director position became available in San Francisco the company’s new general manager David Gockley entrusted the rising star with it. Acclaimed performances in the core Italian repertory, especially a 2009 revival of Madama Butterfly, followed and most signs indicate that Gockley’s choice was a good one.

When Luisotti made his entrance on Sunday, the applause of the orchestra was enthusiastic and genuine. The good will toward the maestro was palpable and, exposed and elevated from where they usually works together in the pit of the War Memorial Opera House, it was easy to see why. Luisotti’s presence on the podium is all enthusiasm, effusive and contagious. He appears to be having the time of his life when he is making music.

Prokofiev’s youthful “Classical” Symphony no.1 opened the program and the maestro employed an incisive beat with his right hand while the left fluttered about with a more splayed energy. The orchestra followed his lead closely, ably handling the stop-start nature of the first movement with ease. Taken at a slower tempo than one typically hears for this exuberant work, Luisotti’s reading emphasized shading and dynamic contrast over speed and momentum.

One of the great musicological discoveries of the last century was the unearthing of Haydn’s Cello Concerto No. 1 in C Major. Believed lost, the work was found amongst a stack of manuscripts in 1961 and subsequently popularized by, among others, Jacqueline du Pré’s 1967 recording. Early listings for the SFO concert specified that Boccherini’s cello concerto—the OTHER work on the classic du Pré LP—was to be offered, but it was recently changed to the Haydn, a welcome change as the nobility of Haydn’s composition and its myriad possibilities for soloist and orchestra suited the proceedings nicely. Israeli-born cellist Amit Peled brought an interpretation of extremes to the solo part. His attacks, especially in the muscular phrases of the first movement, were course and forceful, yet he also exhibited an ability to play with a beautiful, singing tone in other phrases. Peled executed crescendi in the second movement where the tone seemed to swell out of nothingness with no audible, initial attack, to a delicious pianissimo and on to a big, brilliant sound. Luisotti achieved a similar, delicate control with the orchestra, encouraging his players to mimic the soloist’s formidable and expressive control.

Not since 1958 when Eileen Farrell sang the title role in Luigi Cherubini’s Medée has this composer’s work held much importance to the repertory of the San Francisco Opera. The final work on the program was Cherubini’s Symphony in D Major and Luisotti and the orchestra played it with firm adherence to the work’s principal tenets: form and balance. With such care for a rarely performed symphony, one wonders if Luisotti might be planning for the return of Cherubini to the company’s stage repertory.

The orchestra as a whole demonstrated a substantial command of their chosen repertory in this concert though not all instrumental sections received equal opportunities to shine. The brass section, particularly the trumpets, had precious little to play. Perhaps with the demanding work of Acts I and II of Nixon in China yet to come, Luisotti thought to spare their lips and give them less taxing assignments with Haydn and Cherubini.