Devilry can’t resist interrupting jollity. In every piece on the San Francisco Symphony’s program Thursday night, maniacal rowdiness intruded upon gaiety, brashly and thrillingly loosing the devil to run wild in Davies Hall.
He is overtly present in Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1, which was inspired by a scene from the poet Nicolaus Lenau’s imagining of the Faust legend. But he is a mischievous fop, seducing Faust with lush strings, a sly cello solo (alluring in Michael Grebanier’s hands) and affable dances before suddenly launching into a cackling fit, with exuberant orchestration for support.
Michael Tilson Thomas cut a Mephistophelean figure with his swept-back hair and narrow black suit, coaxing devious melodies from the orchestra but restraining them in the most agitated sections from reaching the frenzy begged for by the music.
Gil Shaham quickly banished all roguish wickedness from the stage with Mozart’s fifth violin concerto in A major, his beatific smile during the orchestral exposition telegraphing his absolute joy in the piece. He communicated his excitement aurally as well, in his slight accelerations through lively passages, his vibrant accenting of syncopations, and shining tone. In the Adagio, he enfolded himself in the comfortable harmonies of the supporting strings, paradoxically sounding like both a soloist and a part of the orchestra at the same time.
But the devil soon returned, when the Rondo’s unsuspecting main theme was violently overtaken by some boisterous fiddling. Shaham and the orchestra vigorously attacked their parts, relishing in Mozart’s brilliant writing. After a rapid detour back to the first section, Shaham delightfully understated the graceful swoop that ends the work.
Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloé, on the other hand, is definitely not understated. It requires the largest forces Ravel ever requested, with the orchestra supplemented by a distracting, whining wind machine and a wordless chorus (the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, directed by Ragnar Bohlin), which all build to swaying paroxysms of ecstasy. It is vivid, enchanting, and evocative, and depicts the brief disruption of an idyll by bandits.
The restraint Tilson Thomas showed in the Liszt was absent here, and mostly for the better. Though there was one climax in which the percussion overpowered the other instruments, Ravel’s other orgiastic high points were colorful and superbly effective. During the bandits’ militaristic music, one felt the devil roar back into the hall amidst the electric cacophony. And who can resist the great tempter?