That the San Francisco Symphony is one of North America's greatest ensembles is not up for debate. They are frequent visitors to Ann Arbor, and are popular guests. Under Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas, the stature of the orchestra has only grown. On November 13th, the Symphony gave a performance of Gustav Mahler's Symphony no. 7. Although I was unable to attend, I heard some rather extravagant praise from friends and colleagues about the performance. Less than 24 hours later, I found the orchestra in fine form, but somewhat less than stunning.

Michael Tilson-Thomas © Chris Wahlberg
Michael Tilson-Thomas
© Chris Wahlberg

I mention the Mahler because the program seemingly reflected a desire to give everyone a relative break. The opening Liszt Mephisto Waltz no. 1 largely highlighted winds and strings. Brass had little to do. I found both sections very good indeed, full of character and warmth. I’ve always found the composer’s orchestral works weak musically, and this was no exception, but that’s no fault of Tilson Thomas, who conducted brilliantly and with considerable vigor.

Gil Shaham remains one of the top violinists working today. While rarely mentioned as a superstar, his concerts are engaging and his recordings uniformly rank as good to great. He’s a formidable technician who isn’t above having a remarkable amount of fun. He’s been touring with the San Francisco Symphony, and his rapport with both conductor and orchestra was never in doubt. Rather than positioning himself as a soloist in the traditional sense, he often played various sections to members of the orchestra, moving about in a very congenial – but never distracting – way. His performance of Prokofiev's Violin Concerto no. 2 in G minor was superb, especially in the final two movements. His admirable give and take with the fine first-chair members of the ensemble made this perhaps the highlight of the evening.

The UMS Choral Union joined the orchestra for the complete Daphnis et Chloé. Seiji Ozawa premiered this work to Ann Arbor audiences, and he and his predecessors (Charles Munch, Pierre Monteux) all made this work less episodic than Tilson Thomas did here. Choral singing was very fine, and the conductor worked very well with them. Still, Ravel’s score has some definite dead spots; a great conductor of this work maintains the cohesion throughout. Tilson Thomas was unable to do so, although his orchestra played magnificently and the brass were finally able to shine. The last few minutes of the concert were exemplary, with great excitement. All in all, a fine evening that nonetheless hinted at possible ensemble fatigue.