In November, Michael Tilson Thomas was reportedly given a heroic welcome when he conducted the New York Philharmonic, his first public appearance since his brain tumor surgery four months earlier. Later in the month, audiences say they are thrilled to see him once again lead the San Francisco Symphony, the orchestra he conducted for 25 years and is now an award-winning conductor.
Friday night brought another emotional comeback. This time, Tilson Thomas took the stage at the Walt Disney Concert Hall to conduct the Los Angeles Philharmonic, his hometown band, the orchestra that met him as a brash and outrageously gifted prodigy some six decades ago.
The vibe at Disney Hall was probably different from New York or San Francisco. We didn’t come to see an icon but a family member, an eternal prodigal son from LA. We arrived on the day that LA County recorded 43,712 new cases of COVID-19.
Despite the vaccinations and face masks required to attend Disney Hall, the level of risk to the public was barely negligible. Attendance was uneven. Yet even taking into account that there were too few of them for MTT, as he is affectionately known, to be greeted with thunderous applause as he deliberately walked and masked the stage, the reaction of the audience was clearly stifled. It took us a moment to believe it was him.
Always the showman, MTT deals with the moment. He turned to face the crowd and theatrically tore the mask from his face in a gesture of mum-it’s-me-Michael gaze. It was really him, and rather than leaping to his collective feet, the audience slowly stood up, moving. Some were in tears.
Her first back-to-school gift was the Pavane de Faure, an unimportant orchestral lollipop. The orchestra was small, the size of a room.
Still, Tilson Thomas made it wonderful. With the graceful ease of demanding gestures, he inspired instrument after instrument to ooze melodic lines like fresh honey from the hive. A magnificent pavane reminiscent of the majestic dance of yesteryear served as a prelude not only bewitching but necessary (as we will learn later) to consequent affairs.
The two major works were Tilson Thomas’ own “Meditations on Rilke” – melancholy reflections on life and death as the composer turned 75 in 2019 – and Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony, a near victory, kudos on death and life as the Russian composer anticipated the end of the war in 1944. Each has proven to be monumental.
Addressing the audience without a microphone and making himself heard very well, Tilson Thomas described the inspiration for his “Meditations,” perhaps his most important score to date, as coming from a story his father had given him. one day told. Son of the famous Yiddish theater star of the Lower East Side, Boris Thomashefsky, Teddy Thomas had left New York to rebuild his life in the West with a new name. Driving across the country penniless, he stopped in Oatman, a former gold rush mining town in Arizona, where he found a job playing honky-tonk piano in a saloon to earn enough money to continue to LA.
“What? You are from Oatman! Exclaimed Tilson Thomas, astonished, addressing someone in the front row, then becoming unusually speechless. It half-ruined his story, but he couldn’t have foreseen a more fitting coincidence.
The “Meditations” are musical settings of half a dozen German-language autumnal poems by Rilke for mezzo-soprano, baritone and small orchestra, in which an idea leads in an unexpected, strange and with the seemingly incomparable consequence of chance. The first song, “Herbsttag” (Autumn Day), is introduced by this honky-tonk solo piano that elicits a response from the orchestra that could come from an excerpt from Mahler “Das’ autumn song cycle. Lied von Der Erde “. It turns into something of, say, Alban Berg (both Mahler and Berg, it turns out, are on MTT’s second LA Phil show this week). Then sprang to something a little Hollywoodian before the baritone finally solemnly sang “Herr: es ist Zeit” (Lord: it’s time).
The songs are about endings, not beginnings. The autumn leaves are blowing. The last time Tilson Thomas was at LA Phil, three years ago, he gave the local premiere of his “Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind”. This tumultuous lolllapalooza, which also has its origins in an LA memory of a party at Venice Beach 40 years earlier, opens with the Carl Sandburg line “The past is a bucket of ashes.”
We may never escape being toys in the wind. At the end of Rilke’s last song, “Herbst”, the leaves fall, the Earth falls from the stars, we all fall forever, but gently into the hands of the One.
What Rilke, however, accomplishes in his poems, and what Tilson Thomas further improves theatrically and without any debt to show business, is transforming alienation into amazement. They are dark songs. They look back – in one, an imaginary life journey goes from subconscious joy to gasping for breath to the breath of that clear air at first (and this writes just months before the pandemic!). They are a summary. They need music that varies widely.
Tilson Thomas’ melancholy borders on sentimentality but stops just in time to make sure we don’t feel cheated. The music is full of wit and mimicry. Tilson Thomas’ songs might not sound like that, but they are, basically, the grandson of Yiddish theater’s’ American Darling ‘, who meshuga mishmash of cultures where wisdom and suffering are two sides of the same coin and where the mundane and the pious are two sides of a more precious coin. Daringly playful, Tilson Thomas treats the fourth song, “Immer Wieder” (Again and Again) – an evocation of the mysterious, terrifying silent abyss that awaits us as we lie down among the flowers and face the sky – like “a Schubert’s cowboy song. “
Everything that awaits us is attractive, these “Meditations” promise, because they without flinching a listener. The vocal lines have an irresistible song that is at the heart of all of Tilson Thomas’ music. In this case, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and baritone Ryan McKinny were muses, and they can be heard on the recording of the premiere of MTT’s San Francisco Symphony. For the LA Phil, he had the incisive Cooke, which echoed every word, and Dashon Burton, whose little baritone has a more generalized beauty, revealing fear better than mystery.
With Prokofiev’s Symphony, Tilson Thomas only revealed wonder. His tempos were very slow, the slowness of a shaman who could create a feeling of overwhelming immensity. The symphony, at times incredibly loud and often too heavy to move quickly, became the whale that swallowed the listener. At one point near the end of the end, Tilson Thomas seemed to show fatigue, but he made up for it and in doing so only made the climactic ending all the more titanic.
Prokofiev wanted this symphony to capture the mood of a horrific war that had not sapped the minds of his people when Russia could predict victory. There was pain, but there was also always the beauty of the falling leaf, and now victory was at hand. It could almost be a musical roadmap from our own moment in the pandemic.
But through his incomparably overwhelming tale, Tilson Thomas reminded us that there is war, always death and destruction, that, once again, Lord, this is the time; that, over and over again, the past is a bucket of ashes. Yet there is this perfectly formed pearl of a pavane that, throughout it all, remains in the memory.
It was the first concert of the new year. Although Mr. Omicron required more than the usual number of substitutes or ringers, the LA Phil performed as if the life of the orchestra depended on the importance of each note. Maybe he did.
Los Angeles Philharmonic
What: Michael Tilson Thomas conducts Mahler, Berg and Brahms, with pianist Emanuel Ax as soloist
When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $ 71 to $ 230
Info: (323) 850-2000, laphil.com