One reason to avoid a rousing overture may be if the central quality of the following work is explosive energy. Despite some very fine playing (and also being a Schoenberg devotee) I can't say I warmed to his Theme and Variations Op 43b. The 'b' is due to this bring Schoenberg's orchestral arrangement of a wind band commission, which came his way soon after his arrival in America.

Michael Tilson Thomas © Art Streiber
Michael Tilson Thomas
© Art Streiber

There is certainly some fine orchestration and counterpoint in the theme, seven variations and finale and, here, some very playing fine solo moments, particularly Mark Inouye's trumpet and Alexander Barantschik's violin. Given the work's seamless nature, the ability of Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) and the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) to turn on a sixpence was impressive.

John Adams cites Stravinsky's Pulcinella as a point of origin for his own Absolute Jest. Adams turned to several Beethoven scherzi for inspiration remarking that, although there is much Beethoven in there, the energetic themes and fragments passed through a “hall of mirrors” in the composition process. The concerto grosso idea of involving a string quartet was a solution to the difficulty that the full heft of a symphony orchestra would have in ensuring clarity at the desired tempo. The first striking thing in this performance was the degree to which incredible attention to articulation ensured clarity from all involved.

As it was very much composed for the SFS, MTT and the St Lawrence String Quartet (a centenary celebrations commission) it was a great privilege to have all those present on this occasion (minus Adams). MTT's beat – so clear that a student orchestra could follow him – navigated the work's many time changes admirably. This was one of the most electrifying features; that while strong, vital rhythm was omnipresent, you could never sit back in foot-tapping complacency. Even towards the end when something like the kind of minimalism for which Adams is known began to dominate, wrong-footing reigned.

The St Lawrence String Quartet played sizzlingly: there were high wire solo moments and bursts of concertino energy, including a fantastic semiquaver passage of great virtuosity. Those who, like me, were hearing them for the first time will surely by now be hunting for recordings.

Interest passed to the SFS wind section during the quartet's resting moments and the tonal contrast here was highly effective. In the closing Prestissimo section heavyweight brass kicked in and this, along with busy percussion (one player caught my eye running between instruments) ensured a thrilling finale. Although the closing seconds have a humorous character, it's worth noting that the title refers to the Latin gesta (doings, deeds, exploits) and I feel that Adams' own notes on the piece were borne out; he'd mentioned “exercising one's wit by means of imagination and invention”. I think all of our wits had a great workout during this high-octane performance.

The geometric clarity of MTT's Absolute Jest beat was replaced for much of the time by a more swaying approach in the Mahler's Symphony no 1 in D major. From the opening motif's falling fourths, it was clear that we were in the hands of a master of pacing. The cuckoo-populated depiction of dawn, with three offstage trumpets suggesting hunters up with the lark, unfolded beautifully. The orchestra eased off the brakes as Mahler's harmony warmed and, by the time the main theme got underway, there was a feeling of great comfort and contentment.

Eight double basses underpinned the second movement's heavy-footed Ländler. The bucolic cheer was infectious. In the lighter central section there were lovely oboe and flute moments from Eugene Izotov and Tim Day respectively. As irresistible as the Ländler's rhythm, were the muscular brass cross-rhythms which brought it down.

Pacing was once again to the fore in the third movement, where the minor mode Frère Jacques theme unfolds. I was put in mind of Russian music in the following contrasting section and even of dancing bears when the clarinets and percussion chimed in. The mood turning again on a hinge furnished by Douglas Rioth's harp, the warm sound of SFS strings filled Usher Hall.

The closing movement has surely one of the most startling openings of the era. Could this be the moment which prompted Alma Schindler to describe “an ear-splitting, nerve-shattering din” four months before marrying Mahler? Soon, though, the strings again held court with a soaring melody of almost Rachmaninovian length. MTT's shaping was again superb.

However, no symphony containing the universe can end on a whimper and we were treated to brass fanfares of amazing brightness and a standing, eight-strong horn section. It's a cliché, I know, but what a journey! What a performance!