Embarcadero Boardwalk. Photo by Travis Jensen

My trepidation about spending the warmest afternoon of the year (so far) in the confines of Davies Symphony Hall pretty much evaporated when I felt the air-conditioning caress me as soon as I walked through the door this past Sunday. Very few places in this City are air-conditioned, and most that are seem to have antiquated systems that don't work well- at least when it matters that it works well. It was a decent sized crowd, though I expected a full house to be on hand to hear MTT lead the orchestra through Mahler's 5th. The weather may have had some small part in it- I know I was tempted to be elsewhere.

When the season announcement prominently included the West Coast premiere of Samuel Carl Adams' Drift and Providence, it was hard not to wonder to what extent nepotism likely played a hand. This young man, the son of composer John Adams, had never previously composed a single work for an orchestra, but here was a commission from the San Francisco and New World symphonies for a full orchestral work- an opportunity and level of exposure that dozens of other, better-known, composers have spent years waiting for in vain.

The downside for Adams the Younger was that if his piece sucked, he would be unlikely to ever get a second chance from an orchestra of consequence, and equally important, the classical audience would whisper "Fie on the brat!"

MTT took the stage wearing a tie and a black suit- I guess that's the "Sunday dress" code, as I noticed all the men wore suits rather than the customary tails on this afternoon. What an odd tradition. Picking up the mike to address the audience, he gave a brief lecture about what Adams the Younger was up to with this piece (he premiered it with the New World back in April), stating that the composer was exploring "sonic possibilities," creating "sounds inside of sounds" and "tidal shifts of chord patterns"  and other such things (which usually translates to most in the audience as "I know you're going to hate this, but if you had any taste you'd see how brilliant it is"). Onstage behind him was a surprisingly large orchestra seated in front of a phalanx of percussion.

The five movements of the work are played without pause, so it goes Embarcadero - Drift 1 -Divisadero -Drift 2 - Providence. It began with what Tilson Thomas aptly described as the "strike of a match" made by rubbing something I couldn't discern against enormous cowbells of the sort one usually sees during a performance of Mahler's 6th. Hints of R. Strauss came through in Embarcadero, causing me to look around the stage to see exactly what combination of instruments were making these intriguing sounds, and even then I often couldn't figure it out, it was captivating from the start. Somewhere along the way I noticed we had drifted into the Drift 1, because everything grew languid as if suddenly the music was floating over the sea, reminding me of Britten's Billy Budd as it shifted from celestial tones to portentous, finally ominous, crests.

Somewhere in the Drift I became lost and eventually found myself in a clearing on Divisadero, obviously not far from Golden Gate Park because the Drift was still following along behind like the fog which follows you as you make your way east coming in from Ocean Beach, which, as it does in real life, slowly drifted away the closer the music moved inland, headed in the direction of Divis.

A horn brayed loudly, like some stoner on Haight Street, backed by shimmering strings, then suddenly a loud crash of cymbals put us back into the Drift again, which oddly reminded me of the descent into Wagner's Niebelheim, but instead of anvils the orchestra was using brake drums and scraping cowbells. It sounded like the rustling of chains (maybe this part should be called Tenderloin). It was, dare I say it, genuinely exciting music. I must not have been the only to think so because the audience was absolutely dead silent- no coughing, no whispering, no rustling of programs. Everyone sat there rapt by these "sounds within sounds." The fucking kid had delivered- you knew it for sure at that moment.

But now I was hopelessly lost within the Drift, and even though I had read the program notes before in an attempt to be able to follow along, the loud climaxes I expected weren't all that loud and I had no idea we were actually in Providence by this time- I thought we had just drifted past Nopa on a busy night, with notes skittering aimlessly to and fro on the sidewalk like some drunk twenty-something on her iPhone arranging for a postpriandal sexual encounter with a guy different from the one who just bought her dinner, slowly but steadily spiraling into different orbit.

The horns returned, the volume increased and only now I though we had moved into Providence but it turns out we'd already been there quite some time, for what all of this signaled, through xylophones and marimbas and more, tearing up and down the scale, and then everything suddenly hushed. Silence. A low, descending heave of a sigh from a trombone and tuba. Then flutes- a lot of flutes. Silence. Scraping cowbells. The end.

I'd love to hear it again.

Mahler's 5th was pretty much what I expected- huge in the first movement's funeral march, triumphant during the second, erupting into peals of glory led by the brass and horns which had a pretty flawless afternoon. At the end of the second movement someone behind me squirmed endlessly in a squeaky seat, breaking the spell. The Scherzo seemed to last forever, because it nearly does, but I was still reminded of how brilliantly Mahler uses instrumental color as the orchestra waltzed through the endless variations of the dance before exploding into a circus of sound, even as the waltzing tempo never ceased. The movement feels like an entire symphony in itself.

Somehow the Adagietto didn't make the impression I expected, though the reverberating bass notes of its conclusion may have been my favorite musical moment of the entire afternoon. Gorgeous.