After 20 years at the helm of the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas commands his players like the long-standing captain of a great ocean liner.
A palpable sense of mutual respect informed every one of Friday’s performances in a programme that opened with the crackpot sound world of Charles Ives’s Decoration Day, continued with the more even territory of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No 4, before blowing us away with an emotionally exhaustive, rich-grained interpretation of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.
The quality of orchestral sound, from the burnished unanimity of the strings to the distinctive piquancy and precision of the wind and brass, was to die for. And it allowed Tilson Thomas to shape the frenetic spirit of the Ives with an intoxicating mix of impressionistic beauty and crisp explosions of colour and wit.
The concerto featured the virtuosic Yuja Wang, the opening movement an ambivalent affair, her headlong impetuousness often at odds with Tilson Thomas’s more reflective vision. But as the bullish dialogue of the Andante gave way to the spirited Finale, two minds became one.
Wang’s jazz-infused encore was a knock-out – but it was the Tchaikovsky that stole the show, its heaving emotional peaks ebbing and flowing like giant tidal sweeps.