At Symphony Hall on Sunday, charismatic conductor Michael Tilson Thomas made his final appearance in Boston with the San Francisco Symphony, the orchestra he’s led since 1995. By the time the 74-year-old finally passes the baton to Esa-Pekka Salonen in 2020, his tenure will have lasted a third of his life. As one might have expected from the perpetually vivacious Tilson Thomas — conductor, composer, educator, and founder of the touted orchestral-musician incubator that is Florida’s New World Symphony — nothing about the concert felt like farewell. Rather, much of it felt like music as usual, not necessarily a good thing.
Being a magnetic public figure in the vein of his mentor, Leonard Bernstein, Tilson Thomas could have chosen to make a real statement with his tour repertoire. If logistics allowed, he might have chosen Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, the sweeping reflection on life and death with which he made his first outing with the San Francisco Symphony at age 29. If a Mahler-sized orchestra wasn’t in the cards, he could have curated a more portable program of American music, or, he could have drawn from the next generation of composers around the world.
There was none of that. Instead, there was a team of warhorses (concerto courtesy of Mendelssohn, symphony c. Beethoven) and a good-humored appetizer by the maestro himself to start things off. Ergo: music as usual, and not in the way one usually thinks when one thinks “San Francisco.”
But there is a reason why people flock to hear whatever he does: That music was made with such intelligence and verve that it almost feels unfair to gripe. That appetizer was the 2016 revision of “Agnegram,” a perky birthday card for longtime SF Symphony patron Agnes Albert, which Tilson Thomas also conducted with the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood last summer. A thumping, buoyant beat and trilling piccolo recalled a Sousa march, and the middle section whirled through adapted snippets of Albert’s favorite melodies, most recognizably Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.”
The real show began when the phenomenal Christian Tetzlaff joined the orchestra for a red-blooded run through Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto; taking his typical approach, he eschewed elegance in favor of unbridled expression. Bodily flinging himself into the music, he seemed truly taken over, while in contrast, Tilson Thomas’s usual podium bounce was dialed back. The German violinist’s neat beard and curly ponytail gave him the appearance of a storybook pirate, and he dispatched the chestnut concerto with a somewhat piratical attitude — octave double stops sounded in full cry, just out of tune enough to make it clear that it was on purpose, and his bow bushwhacked across the strings near the end of the first movement cadenza. In imperfection, there was illumination.
Where others would have strived for velvety smoothness in the second movement’s delicate lacework, Tetzlaff sent an almost harsh burr through his violin while the orchestral waves rolled. In the madcap frolic of the third movement, he left minimal gaps between phrases, making for unbroken and breathless curlicues. As an encore, he offered the slow, reverent Loure from Bach’s Partita No. 3 in E Major.
Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, “Eroica,” was also unassailable. It’s a favorite piece of Tilson Thomas’s, one to which he dedicated a two-hour episode of his documentary series “Keeping Score.” For this performance he didn’t keep the score, instead conducting from memory, and his long history with the music undoubtedly informed his distinctive approach. The twin forte chords that open the piece leapt like harts, and the funeral march was unhurried but never plodding. James Button gracefully carried a demanding succession of oboe solos. Tilson Thomas chose a laid-back pace for the scherzo; the beginning felt muddy, but when the full force of the orchestra rushed up to meet the melody, all was right, as it also was during the loping brass trio and the set of variations that make up the finale, running the gamut from rowdy to regal.
We probably have not seen the last of Michael Tilson Thomas. Hopefully, we haven’t also seen the last of his taste for greater adventures.
SAN FRANCISCO SYMPHONY
At Symphony Hall, Sunday. Presented by Celebrity Series of Boston.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.