LOS ANGELES — Michael Tilson Thomas was back on the Walt Disney Concert Hall podium Jan. 9 for the first of two programs with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. This has become an annual winter visit — with last year off, no thanks to the pandemic — over the last few years, a welcome renewal of strong ties to his hometown orchestra, where he was a co-principal guest conductor from 1981 to 1985.
This time, though, MTT’s return was an especially uplifting occasion, considering what we’ve all been through.
He had undergone surgery for a brain tumor last summer yet bounced back as quickly as he did when he underwent heart surgery two years before. First, he led the New York Philharmonic in November and then spent two weeks with the San Francisco Symphony in his first concerts as its music director laureate.
A red flag went up when MTT realized that his energy level was not yet what it used to be, forcing him to sit out the first half of his concerts during his second week in San Francisco. But some downtime and a vacation as fall turned to winter seem to have done him a lot of good. His first week in Los Angeles came off without any changes in the program. He spoke to the audience as he usually does, this time about a recent piece of his, Meditations on Rilke. His physical motions during the concert gradually grew more animated, his command over the orchestra solidly in place. Immersing oneself in music definitely has a rejuvenating effect.
Still, it was not exactly business as usual at Disney Hall from our side of the stage apron. The Omicron surge blasting from every cable newscast and ever-changing government pronouncements evidently scared off many folks who were planning to attend, resulting in a lot of empty seats and ominously near-vacated corridors within the building. Elsewhere in SoCal, the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and the Pacific Symphony canceled or postponed their concerts that weekend, The Soraya on the California State University Northridge campus canceled everything in January, and even the Grammy Awards show later this month was postponed.
LA Phil CEO Chad Smith said that they were doing “everything we can” to keep Disney Hall open and the music coming through the current surge; an updated vaccination requirement for entry, including a booster, goes into effect Jan. 18. But I cannot deny that I felt just a bit uneasy being at a concert Sunday during a raging pandemic, with new cases rising to record levels daily in L.A. County.
Undaunted, Tilson Thomas led off with a gorgeously phrased and played performance of Faure’s Pavane, which is one of several “wistful” encores that he recorded on his Masterpieces In Miniature SACD, a counter-intuitive celebration of his 70th birthday in 2014.
Tilson Thomas lately had been putting more and more energy into tidying up and exploiting the journals of musical jottings that he has been keeping since his youth. Meditations on Rilke (2020), a symphonic song cycle containing six settings of Rainer Maria Rilke poems, is but the latest large-scale product of these diggings.
One of the poems is called “Imaginärer Lebenslauf” — or “Imaginary Biography” — and regardless of what the text may mean, the whole cycle is, in a way, a semi-autobiographical journey through the eclectic mind of Michael Tilson Thomas. At the concert, he spoke of early memories of his father Ted Thomas playing the piano by ear and telling stories of his adventures, which manifests itself in the honky-tonk ragtime intro on an out-of-tune upright piano that opens the piece. There are the classical-music influences that he couldn’t help but absorb from listening, playing, and conducting for more than half a century — none more prevalent than Mahler since the cycle’s structure and sometimes sound bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Das Lied von der Erde (there’s even a paraphrase from the Symphony No. 3 in the climax of “Das Lied des Trinkers”). And there is an element of introspection in the score that can also be sensed in MTT’s conducting of the symphonic repertoire as of late.
The whole thing is sensitively orchestrated with a few flashy moments, and this performance in some ways improved upon the excellent recording made from the world-premiere 2020 San Francisco Symphony performances, with greater snap to the rhythms. As in San Francisco, the LA Phil performance had the services of MTT’s frequent muse, Sasha Cooke, whose warm, radiant mezzo-soprano easily filled the hall, riper in tone than ever. Bass-baritone Dashon Burton was sometimes overcome by the orchestra yet rose to impressive heights in the final song, “Herbst.”
On to the Prokofiev Symphony No. 5, which MTT recorded with the London Symphony some 31 years ago and whose interpretation has scarcely changed, though it has picked up just a bit of speed. Tilson Thomas still leans heavily on a massive sound in the first movement, even more so than most do; still maintains an agonizingly slow tempo for the clarinet-led sections that bracket the second movement’s Trio; still brings the slow movement to a tremendous climax. While the finale could have used more propulsive, motoristic drive in the home stretch, everything sounded alive and feisty. The Prokofiev Fifth is often interpreted to be a premonition of an inevitable Soviet victory over retreating Nazi forces. But in this context, the finale seemed to proclaim to the music world: MTT is back!