Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony completed their three-evening miniseries at the Lucerne Festival in Summer with a trio of frothy bits of brilliant orchestration, a heart-warming song cycle and a seldom-heard encore from Léo Delibes’ Sylvia that collectively added a much-needed lighter tone to the predominantly heavy fare of the orchestra programs.
Sans doute, the best of the all-French offerings were the three best-loved “fragments” (“Lever du jour,” “Pantomine,” “Danse générale”) from Maurice Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloé, second suite. Thomas truly played the orchestra and the result was a constant pleasure, showering wave after wave of magnificent colour in and around the Kultur and Kongresszentrum Luzern’s concert hall. Special mention goes to piccolo player Catherine Payne and clarinetist Carey Bell who finally had his most consistent outing of the three-night stand.
Hector Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture lifted off the festive proceedings with shimmering hues, heady power where required and a dutifully poignant English horn (Russell deLuna). Only a tad of ensemble vagaries and an over-zealous tambourine gave any cause for concern.
Ravel’s multi-sectioned Valses nobles et sentimentales showed off the strings to their best advantage and had toes a tappin’ everywhere.
Stepping in at the last minute to replace Susan Graham, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke did a most credible job traversing the six poems from Théophile Gautier that comprise Berlioz’s Les Nuits d’Été.
At times, Thomas seemed to lose interest, letting the fragile inner-tension sag just when Cooke could have used more support. The predominantly vertical phrasing, happily, was banished from “l’Île inconnue” where some welcome lift from all concerned (Est-ce dans la Baltique) came just in time to leave a final, favourable impression.
All told, the visit from America’s West-coast treasure was a marvellous demonstration of first-class orchestral playing. JWR