Mahler’s Symphony no. 1 in D major – probably the greatest First Symphony ever written by a composer still in his twenties – is guaranteed to elicit a perfect storm of applause with its rip-roaring finale from phalanxes of brass and percussion, and so it came to pass when the San Francisco Symphony finished its performance in Tokyo’s Suntory Hall on Monday evening. The orchestra’s first-ever international tour was to Japan in 1968, and it has been back six more times since then, including five times to Suntory Hall. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas is known additionally to Japanese music lovers as Artistic Director of the Pacific Music Festival from 1990 to 2000, and as the composer of Shówa/Shoáh, written in 1995 for the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima and first performed in Sapporo.

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

But all was not well on the orchestra’s latest visit here. It was playing the ninth of ten concerts on its two-week tour of China, Taiwan, Korea and Japan, and it sounded tired, uninvolved, uncommitted. The eight horns in the Mahler symphony barely sounded like four. The bass section was pared down to six players, though nine were listed in the program book. Violins sounded thin, and were at times ragged in their attacks. Tilson Thomas went through the motions of engaging his players, but the electricity was missing.

The symphony started well enough, with an otherworldly thread of sound from the strings against which were heard delicately articulated comments from woodwinds and distant trumpets. The mystery and magic were there, but once the rhythmic activity picked up Tilson Thomas could not sustain the momentum, and the movement’s great climactic moment seemed more like an interjection than the result of continuous organic growth. The Ländler-inspired second movement chugged along routinely. The slow third movement, with its canonical treatment of the Frère Jacques tune, was the most satisfying, based mostly on the strength of solo work from principal timpani, double bass, bassoon, tuba, and oboe players in turn. Notable elsewhere were the principal flute and the entire percussion section, the two timpanists in particular providing much-needed warmth and depth to the orchestra’s otherwise rather coarse sound.

Tilson Thomas is known for espousing modern music on his programs, and this concert was no exception. The opening work was Bright Sheng’s Dream of the Red Chamber Overture, receiving its Japanese première. Sheng’s eponymous opera was premiered in San Francisco this past September, but the eight-minute concert opener heard in Tokyo was commissioned by the San Francisco Symphony separately from the opera, and received its own première on 28 September. The composer describes it as “not formally a part of my opera of the same name, although this music is largely constructed from parts of the opera – a lyrical soprano aria and a dance from a dream sequence.” The “lyrical soprano aria” was definitely lyrical, with inspiration seemingly drawn from Chinese folk song. The performance was perfunctory until it got to the “dance from a dream sequence” section, which suddenly came brilliantly alive. Connoisseurs of orchestral music may recall that Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin has a Chinese setting, and though the Chinese-born Sheng makes no mention of the fact in his brief program note, this dance sequence sounds for all the world like a reconstitution of the chase scene in Bartók’s Mandarin score, and is nearly as thrilling.

 Yuja Wang came with the orchestra on its previous visit to Japan in 2012, and she returned this time. I’ve never warmed to her playing, which is mostly flash and glitter, and offers little in the way of color, refinement or musical structure. The outer movements of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C minor sounded more frantic than frisky, more like a circus act than a musical event. But the audience loved it, and Wang rewarded their enthusiastic applause with a most appropriate encore: an arrangement for trumpet (prominently featured in the concerto) and piano of Victor Youmans’ jazzy little song Tea for Two, which Shostakovich himself had also famously arranged from memory in an hour on a bet.