A second consecutive evening with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS)and Michael Tilson Thomas revealed two things: reversed orientation of the strings with cellos and basses now to the audience's right; a second programme opening with a non-rousing item. That's to say that the tempo was mainly slow, but it was an emotionally arousing performance – haunting, in fact. Charles Ives' 1912-13 Decoration Day (the second movement of A Symphony: New England Holidays) commemorates the Civil War dead. Fine control in the SFS strings ensured poignant yet unsentimental harmonies in the opening bars. Ives, known as a modernist appears, unless my ears deceived me, to have opened with something like 'the Hendrix chord', 30 years before the meteoric guitarist's birth.

Yuja Wang © Susanne Diesner
Yuja Wang
© Susanne Diesner

The pensive opening mingles military and popular Americana, in addition to a sombre, dubiously invitational Adeste Fideles with several otherworldly tone/semitone changes. The idea of respectful commemoration was felt in Mark Inouye's offstage trumpet's delivery of Taps, a U.S. Army funeral melody. This gossamer textured opening was finely paced and rendered the marching section all the more raucous when it arrived. I noted with interest the considerable contribution of busy tubular bells to the overall hubbub, and the buoyantly angular walking bass provided by low brass. The marching band passed as suddenly as it had arrived and the SFS ended as delicately as they'd begun. This was a fine performance of an emotive and thought-provoking piece.

Yuja Wang joined the orchestra for Beethoven's Piano Concerto no. 4 in G major, the one where the pianist chooses their idea of Allegro moderato. It was soon very clear that Wang was both technically assured and very expressive – one of the few capable of excitement during diminuendo.

Seated in the stalls I was privileged to see Wang's effortless finger-substation employed to maintain shapely legato during the central Andante con moto. Her control of dynamics during this movement's lengthy trills was impressive. The opening exchange between the orchestra's fierce recitative and the piano's hymn-like responses had great dramatic tension.

The closing Rondo: Vivace was jubilantly paced and allowed Wang's technical brilliance full flight. I witnessed something I'd never seen (noticed) before in a performance of this work: a controlled, lengthy, descending scale executed as a glissando with the back of the left hand before the right hand completed the return journey in the 'normal way'. There was great joy in this performance from all present. I noted the front desk of violins smiling broadly as though delighted to be taking part.

Responding to rapturous applause with short, darting bows of 90°, Wang returned to the piano with Arcadi Volodos' Concert Paraphrase of the Rondo “alla Turca” movement from Mozart's Piano Sonata no. 11 in A major, K331. The speed and power of this was simply amazing. In one passage of staccato left hand octaves I worried, not that Wang might not be able to sustain it, but that the keyboard's response time might not be up to it. This was excellent playing.

Low woodwind unleashed the growling introduction to Tchaikovsky's Symphony no. 5 in E minor. Skilful handling of the many changes of mood, apparent meter and dynamics showed the SFS to be masters of the dramatic form of the symphony. Highlights of orchestration and playing along the way included some lovely woodwind counterpoint and brass 'choirs' before low woodwind return to growling mode to finish as they'd begun. 

Robert Ward's solo horn melody in the Andante cantabile, con lacuna licenza was lovely. As the movement picked up, Tilson Thomas' beat (both hands by now on the baton) resembled a golf swing and certainly ensured drive. During the cello section's big tune I was aware of the sheer enjoyment in the faces of the front desk; it's always a joy to see people happy in their work.

The Valse: Allegro moderato was wonderfully light and I particularly enjoyed the wide-interval bassoon melody. The return of the work's opening theme in the Finale was transformed by two features: it was now major and scored for strings. It had the feel of a national anthem and I was reminded of Walter Pater's assertion that “all art constantly aspires to the condition of music” – because so much emotional information can be conveyed in a few seconds. Anthems seem simultaneously to address three time zones: pride in a past which has secured sufficient freedom in the present to sing confidently of a bright future. And confidence brimmed in this rendition, especially in beefy brass outbursts and in one of the longest, most ebullient timpani rolls I can recall seeing.

There was only way to follow such high drama: Delibes' “Pizzicato” from his ballet Sylvia.