MTT, Accelerating At 70, Recharges ‘Missa Solemnis’

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A moment in Michael Tilson Thomas' "installation" of Beethoven's 'Missa Solemnis' at Disney Hall in Los Angeles.  (Photos by Craig T. Mathew:Mathew Imaging)
Beethoven’s ‘Missa Solemnis’ is reimagined as a multimedia “installation” by guest conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.
Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall (Photos by Craig T. Mathew)
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES – It’s a little hard to believe that Michael Tilson Thomas just turned 70 on Dec. 21. He still cuts a lean, trim figure on the podium, exuding enthusiasm and enterprise. He juggles two full-time posts: music director of the San Francisco Symphony and founder-artistic director of the New World Symphony in Miami Beach. He is also principal guest conductor of the London Symphony.

Tilson Thomas leading the LA Philharmonic and colleagues.
San Francisco Symphony music director MTT is a Los Angeles native.

Most of all, Tilson Thomas remains a youthful fountainhead of new or different ideas that come pouring out from somewhere. Instead of a predictably omnivorous box of the complete so-and-so or some other grand statement for his 70th birthday, MTT went in the opposite direction and put out Masterpieces in Miniature (SFS Media), a single CD of twelve gorgeously played, mostly wistful, now rarely encountered short pieces, in November. A week before his birthday, he opened an innovative new performance space in San Francisco, SoundBox.

And for his first act since reaching his eighth decade, he unveiled a reimagined, tradition-defying, multimedia setting for one of the most formidable blocks of the choral literature, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis. He did so not in San Francisco, his musical home for the last 20 seasons, but in his native city, Los Angeles, in a hall (Walt Disney Concert Hall) designed by a man who was once Tilson Thomas’s babysitter, Frank Gehry. The orchestra was the Los Angeles Philharmonic, some of whose players still remember Tilson Thomas from his years as principal guest conductor (1981-1985).

With its lofty spiritual intentions and pretensions, intimidating tangles of counterpoint and fugues, and vocal parts that push voices to and beyond reasonable limits, Missa Solemnis has impressed and/or mystified audiences for nearly two centuries – and Tilson Thomas wants to let some air into the building. Upon entering Disney Hall on Jan. 9, we were handed a provocative four-page MTT essay written in his engagingly populist Keeping Score style, where he refers to the “crazy energy” of the Agnus Dei battle cries, and describes the Gloria’s fugue as “like Messiah on steroids.” He views the piece as a giant cathedral filled with internal chapels that deal with various spiritual and humanistic concerns. Hence, his tour guide-like description of the abrupt end of the piece: “It’s closing time. All visitors must take their leave. On our way out, we may stop now and then for one last souvenir photo and one last appeal for peace.”

LA Phil concertmaster Martin Chalifour and vocal soloists in the 'Benedictus.'
In the semi-staged “Benedictus,” concertmaster Martin Chalifour stands with soloists.

There is no attempt to impose a narrative on this semi-staged setting; Tilson Thomas prefers to call the production an “installation.” Stage director James Darrah (who also worked with MTT on Peter Grimes in San Francisco last June) and his team of lighting, video, and scenic designers try to track the conductor’s impressions of the piece every step of the way, reserving their most spectacular visual effects for the Gloria and Credo sections. Most striking were the projections of meteors shooting across the fragmented screen in front of the organ pipes during the opening theme of the Gloria, and the curling ribbons of alphabet letters from the text illustrating the fugue of the Credo.

There was a raised, semicircular platform behind the Philharmonic where the four vocal soloists (soprano Joélle Harvey, mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford, tenor Brandon Jovanovich, bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni) mingled with members of the Los Angeles Master Chorale in the Kyrie, wandering like tourists in the “cathedral.” Tilson Thomas took the liberty of having a boys choir (the Los Angeles Children’s Chorus) sing some designated treble lines; a couple of times, four boys did the honors high up in the organ loft. In the Gloria, the boys rushed impetuously onto the stage; for the Agnus Dei, they came out dolefully, heads down.

All of this activity and more was in line with the Philharmonic’s recently inaugurated in/SIGHT series, which seeks to turn the concertgoing experience into multimedia extravaganzas. But did this treatment make the Missa Solemnis more coherent and easier to follow? True, even the highly detailed acoustics of Disney Hall could not shine a light entirely through Beethoven’s loaded thickets of counterpoint. Yet the cosmic aspects of the piece were magnified, the roles of the vocal soloists were better defined and brought to the fore, and you could not escape the meaning of the final plea for peace as all of the singers faced us.

The Los Angeles Master Chorale and Los Angeles Childrens Chorus.
Spectacular images were projected across a fragmented screen behind the choruses.

But most crucially, it was the fervent musical performance itself that made the mightiest impact, just as Esa-Pekka Salonen’s stunning command of Varèse’s Amériques was the main attraction of the Phil’s first in/SIGHT concert last November. Tilson Thomas set a blazing pace through much of the mass, with verve and swing in the Credo, exhibiting more of the overtly physical conducting style that one remembers from his days with the LA Phil long ago. He was on a mission, and he managed to pull the excellent vocal quartet and the bright-toned Master Chorale right along with him, even at sometimes frenetic tempos.

From here, Tilson Thomas goes home to San Francisco, where on Jan. 15 he takes part in his official 70th birthday concert in Davies Symphony Hall. He and a quintet of star pianists — Emanuel Ax, Jeremy Denk, Marc-André Hamelin, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Yuja Wang — will tackle Liszt’s Hexameron for Six Pianos and Orchestra, which amounts to a remembrance of an earlier MTT Hexameron performance at the notorious 1973 Carnegie Hall concert in which Steve Reich’s Four Organs sparked a near riot. The San Francisco Symphony website hints that there will be other “surprises” at this event, but that’s as far as it goes.

In March, Tilson Thomas takes the London Symphony and Ms. Wang on a U.S. tour following another birthday gala in London on March 12. The tour starts in New York (March 18), then skips west to the University of California – Davis (March 21), San Francisco (March 22-23), Los Angeles (March 24), Santa Barbara (March 25), Costa Mesa (March 28), San Diego (March 29), and Seattle (April 1). The tour repertoire consists of Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes, Sibelius’ Symphony No. 2, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5, and Colin Matthews’ Hidden Variables, with Wang playing Gershwin’s Concerto in F or Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

And there are still more Tilson Thomas special events as the spring unfolds. He and the New World Symphony visit Carnegie Hall with violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter on April 28. Back in San Francisco on May 16, MTT will fulfill a “promise” that he made to John Cage (1912-92) by producing a multimedia version of that composer’s Renga.

A scene from the LA Phil performance of 'Missa Solemnis."
Lights, video and scenic design tracked the conductor’s impressions.

“In the instructions for ‘Renga,’ it says that the piece is written to commemorate the bicentennial of the United States, but the piece could be used to memorialize a great statesman or a great artist,” Tilson Thomas said last September. “When the piece was premiered, I was there with John in New York, and I joked, ‘One of these days, I will create a version of this piece to honor you.’ That’s what I’ve done — and it is a piece which involves orchestras, soloists, singers, video, audio. It’s a spectacle.”

Finally, in June, it all comes back to Beethoven in the city by the bay. Among the offerings are four more performances of the Missa Solemnis production, this time with the SFS, June 10-13; a June 20 re-creation of the marathon 1808 concert in Vienna that introduced the Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6, the Piano Concerto No. 4, and the Choral Fantasy, among other works, to the world; and concert performances of Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio, with soprano Nina Stemme as Leonore, June 25, 26, and 28.

Moreover, the flow of ideas will not slow down for Tilson Thomas once the celebrations are over. He talks about plans for visualizations of pieces like George Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony, Webern’s Symphony, and others in development with the New World Symphony, with export to other cities as the goal. There are new seasons to plan in San Francisco, where his collaboration with the SFS appears to be as strong as ever. New discs await release on SFS Media, including an all-Mason Bates collection, a coupling of John Adams’ Absolute Jest and Grand Pianola Music, and the most basic of repertoire like Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5.

What Quincy Jones, 81, once said about the advancing years definitely applies to Michael Tilson Thomas: “Once you go over the hill, you really pick up some speed.”

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is also the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America.