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Michael Tilson Thomas shook up the San Francisco Symphony. So why such standard pieces for their victory lap?

The San Francisco Symphony performed at the Kennedy Center on Saturday, with Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. (Kim Hyunh)
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Mention Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, and people will usually bring up American Mavericks, a festival celebrating offbeat American composers that brought members of the Grateful Dead to the orchestra stage. That, though, was more than two decades ago.

Tilson Thomas (better known as MTT) is ending what will have been a 25-year tenure as music director of the San Francisco Symphony (also called the SFS) in June 2020, and the orchestra is anticipating the fact with a final tour of eight American cities, much bruited as “the last.” Yet in Saturday night’s concert at the Kennedy Center, presented by Washington Performing Arts, there was no sign of innovative programming, or even of Mahler, another recent focus. What they played, instead, was Mozart’s third violin concerto and Beethoven’s third (“Eroica”) symphony — as white-bread a classical program as you could find, even when introduced by an incidental work by Tilson Thomas himself.

It was at once a delightful and perplexing concert. The orchestra played with considerable lightness and, even better, joy. MTT showed ease on the podium, leading with a fluid beat, energetically encouraging at moments, working the musicians into a violent frenzy for the more confrontational parts of the “Eroica” (which he sees as depicting Beethoven’s own travails). And Christian Tetzlaff, the violin soloist, played with golden radiance, sounding almost all the time like the distilled essence of Mozart except when he accelerated slightly jerkily in some of the fast passages. I often found myself with a smile on my face; I will readily confess that of all the chestnuts in the repertoire, these are two I happen to enjoy.

Yet I was also left wondering: What exactly is the San Francisco Symphony trying to show? Touring is a huge, expensive proposition these days. Is the real statement you want to make about your supposedly innovative music director that he can lead programs of standard repertoire with assurance? (Some other cities got a second program featuring the Mendelssohn concerto and the Sibelius second symphony — equally staid fare.)

Tilson Thomas’s own piece, “Agnegram,” written for the 90th birthday of longtime donor Agnes Albert, was an affectionate tribute, interleaved with quotes from other pieces and whipping the orchestra into a Bernsteinian lather. It was a fun amuse-bouche; it was not intended as a significant statement of the new.

Michael Tilson Thomas on life, the San Francisco Symphony, and Beethoven.

MTT, of course, doesn’t need a tour to burnish his legacy. For one thing, he’s remaining active in San Francisco and at the New World Symphony in Florida, the training orchestra he co-founded 32 years ago, even after he steps down. For another, he has plenty of outlets, such as a Perspectives series at Carnegie Hall this season that is showing a more complete picture of him, from many angles — with the Vienna Philharmonic, with the New World Symphony, with pianist Yuja Wang playing one of his works.

Is it even fair to be critical of such a nice concert? The orchestra played with clarity and precision, emphasized by Tilson Thomas’s occasional use, in the Beethoven, of different numbers of string desks to underline the desired effect — balancing solo winds with fewer strings; using more when power was wanted. (Tilson Thomas specifically mentioned this to me in an interview before the concert, and I wish program notes more often reflected what the musicians were actually thinking about in a given evening. The program notes in this case were by Michael Steinberg, who died in 2009, and they were good; but I’m sure Saturday’s audience would have been all the more intrigued to hear about MTT’s own goals for the evening.)

Thomas led a dancing, lithe Mozart and vivid “Eroica,” particularly the first movement. I can’t criticize an orchestra for playing well. But somehow, the evening, topped off with the encore of Brahms’s 10th Hungarian Dance in F, left me feeling I’d eaten a marvelous dessert, delicious but ultimately insubstantial.

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In San Francisco, MTT takes on the “Missa Solemnis.”

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