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M. Tilson Thomas Showers Us With Gifts

New York
Avery Fisher Hall, Lincoln Center
03/18/2015 -  & March 24 (Los Angeles), 29 (San Diego), 30 (Las Vegas), 2015
Benjamin Britten: Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, op. 33a
George Gershwin: Piano Concerto in F
Jean Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, op. 43

Yuja Wang (Pianist)
London Symphony Orchestra, Michael Tilson Thomas (Principal Guest Conductor/Conductor)

M. Tilson Thomas (© Art Streiber)

While some may dread reaching the age of 70, Michael Tilson Thomas apparently revels in it. After all, this, for most conductors, this is early middle age. Mr. Tilson Thomas in particular has expanded his Biblical “three score and ten” into three-thousand scores and more. The conductor has become the master of so many styles that each performance is like a new revelation.

But what choice did he have? Coming from three generations of musicians, he was raised on recordings of his rabbinical cantor grandfather, his parents’ legendary Jewish theater performances, and breakfasts with Stravinsky in Los Angeles even as a child. That, as well as his own genius.

Mr. Tilson Thomas didn’t celebrate seven decades with his own San Francisco Orchestra, or the ensemble he created, the New World Symphony (which comes to Carnegie Hall next month), but with the London Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra which has always had the flexibility to welcome guest conductors.

In honor of the orchestra, he began last night with the Britten Peter Grimes Interludes. In his own honor, he continued with the Gershwin F Major Concerto. And just to sum things up, as a master of the Romantic symphony, he conducted Sibelius–a composer recognized in Great Britain long before he was appreciated in Europe or America.

One listens to this, the most popular of Sibelius symphonies, with a little dread, as the lines repeat themselves over and over and over again. (Stravinsky said about either Strauss of Sibelius, “If their melodies are so good, why do they have to repeat them so many times?” He conveniently forgot the Firebird finale). But Michael Tilson Thomas didn’t “plow ahead”. It was a performances of extraordinary electricity. Certain composers drag that opening movement, as if to milk every single note. But this was an American-style performance, and Mr. Tilson Thomas expanded, contracted, never allowed those pauses to last for more than a fraction. He pushed it through, not with faster-than Allegretto pacing, but with such intensity, that nothing–not even the woodwinds–were decorative. Every instrument added to this mighty work.

For the second movement, the opening was desolate enough, but the brass calls were spine-tingling, each ending with a shock finish, each call with a different color, with the LSO First Trumpet (more about him later) with sheer purity sometimes pulling over the rest.

I do not envy any conductor tackling the finale of the Second Symphony. Not simply the repetitions, but this arch of crescendos, of repeated lines, of bringing out the major key as an inevitability, not a trick. Mr. Tilson Thomas had the advantage of a percussion section–especially timpani–which nuanced their drum-bashing like violinists. And he had those velvety strings of the LSO, as well as that incessant propulsion from the beginning.

Would Sibelius–whose dour countenance adorns the Lincoln Center lobby–have approved of such excitement? Who knows? Yet nobody could doubt that was a landmark intepretation, with players all too willing to work with such a conductor.

The audience favorite was inevitably neither LSO nor Mr. Thomas. It was for a pianist one-third his age, yet with the same magnetic personality and above all, with the digital chops and the mental acumen to play Gershwin the way it was written.

Several years ago, I heard an embarrassing performance of the Rhapsody in Blue by Lang Lang. Perhaps because it was in Central Park, perhaps it was his audacious youth, but he took liberties with Gershwin that he would never take with a more “serious” composer.

Yuja Wang played Gershwin the way it should be played. It was a real concerto (albeit for 1926 an old-fashioned Rachmaninoff-style concerto), but it had the melodies, the vast array of rhythms, the joy, the surprises which spoke for themselves.

Ms. Wang let the music carry her along. All she had to do (all???) was play the notes and let the excitement come through. She never over-syncopated, she never played those difficult scales as if they were exhibition works. Like Chopin, George Gershwin was too filled with different invention to offer a formal concerto. That never bothered Ms. Wang. From the illusionary uncertain beginning to the rollicking ersatz improv to the final toccata and renewal of the theme, Ms. Wang had fun–but not too much fun. Her respect was for Gershwin, as his respect was for the performer. And her natural youthful passion did the rest.

One had no question that Ms. Wang was a delightful soloist for Mr. Tilson Thomas. So much a favorite that he had composed a dazzling multi-rhythmical encore for her. The orchestra was both an impetus and a partner for the soloist. Nor can one forget the bluesy trumpet playing of Philip Cobb, with a sound more American than one could expect from an apparently very British musician.

The start was a British staple. The LSO must have played it dozens of time. Listening to Mr. Tilson Thomas conduct it, one realized that Benjamin Britten was as great–or greater–a British tone-painter as Delius or Vaughan Williams. (And one also wonders why he bothered to compose any operas after Peter Grimes. The others may be caviar to a serious critic. Yet for sheer emotional impact, he never bettered this great work.)

Mr. Tilson Thomas handled those strings like “Mr. Turner” handled paintings of his waves. From the frigid “Dawn” to the warmth of bells and churches, to the sounds of seagulls and the menace of the ending storm, Mr. Tilson Thomas’s Four Interludes were as much an invocation as an evocation.

Finally, a note of regret. In one’s 70th year, one expect the best of gifts. Whatever Michael Tilson Thomas has received in his 70th year, he will never have received any thing as glorious as the gifts he gave to us last night.

Harry Rolnick



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