Review: Michael Tilson Thomas returns to LA Phil with Rilke

In November, Michael Tilson Thomas reportedly received a hero while conducting the New York Philharmonic, his first public appearance since his brain tumor surgery four months earlier. Later that month, audiences were said to have been thrilled to see him again conduct the San Francisco Symphony, the orchestra he directed for 25 years and which is now a Conducting Prize winner.

Friday night brought another emotional return. This time, Tilson Thomas took the stage at Walt Disney Concert Hall to lead the Los Angeles Philharmonic, his home band, the orchestra that met him about six decades ago as a cheeky, outrageously talented child prodigy.

The mood in Disney Hall was probably different than in New York or San Francisco. We didn’t come to see an icon, we came to see a family member, an eternal prodigal son from LA. We came on the day LA County recorded 43,712 new cases of COVID-19.

Despite having to have a vaccine and mask when visiting Disney Hall, the level of risk for the public was hardly negligible. Participation was spotty. But even when you consider that there were too few for MTT, as he is affectionately known, to be greeted with thunderous applause when he took the stage purposefully and masked, the reaction of the audience remained noticeably subdued. It took us a moment to believe it really was him.

Always the showman, MTT milked the moment. He turned to the crowd and theatrically tore the mask off his face with a look-Mama-is-Michael-Michael gesture. It really was, and instead of jumping to their feet, the audience got up slowly and moved. Some cried.

His first homecoming present was Faures Pavane, a trivial orchestral lollipop. The orchestra was small, chamber size.

However, Tilson Thomas did wonderfully. With the graceful ease of demanding gestures, he inspired instrument after instrument to ooze melodic lines like honey fresh from the beehive. A beautiful pavane, reminiscent of the stately dance of yore, served not only as an enchanting, but also as a necessary (as we will learn later) prelude to momentous business.

The two main works were Tilson Thomas’ own “Meditations on Rilke” – wistful reflections on life and death when the composer turned 75 in 2019 – and Prokofiev’s quasi-victorious Fifth Symphony, apologies about life and death when the Russian composer ended the War in 2001 anticipated 1944. Each turned out to be monumental.

Without a microphone, Tilson Thomas spoke in front of the audience and got an excellent hearing. Tilson Thomas described the inspiration for his “Meditations”, perhaps his most important score to date, as a story his father once told him. The son of the famous Lower East Side Yiddish theater star Boris Thomashefsky, Teddy Thomas had left New York to start a new life in the West under a new name. He drove penniless across the country, stopping in Oatman, a former gold rush town in Arizona, where he got a job as a honky-tonk piano in a saloon to earn enough money to travel on to LA

“What? You’re from Oatman!” Shouted Tilson Thomas in amazement when he spoke to someone in the front rows and then became unusually speechless. It half spoiled his story, but he couldn’t have planned a more apt coincidence.

The “Meditations” are settings of half a dozen autumnal German-language Rilke poems for mezzo-soprano, baritone and small orchestra, in which an idea leads unexpectedly, weirdly and with the seemingly incomparable consequence of chance. The first song “Herbsttag” is introduced by the very solo honky-tonk piano that elicits a response from the orchestra that could have come from an outtake to Mahler’s autumn song cycle “Das Lied von der Erde”. This becomes something from, say, Alban Berg (both Mahler and Berg are on MTT’s second LA Phil program this week). Then it swells up into something Hollywood-like before the baritone finally solemnly sings “Lord: it’s time”.

The songs are about endings, not beginnings. The autumn leaves are blowing. The last time Tilson Thomas was at Phil LA three years ago was the local premiere of his Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind. This exuberant Lollapalooza, which also had its origins in an LA memory, namely a party in Venice Beach 40 years ago, begins with the Carl Sandburg line “The past is a Bucket of Asche”.

We may never elude ourselves from being toys in the wind. At the end of the last Rilke song “Herbst” the leaves fall, the earth falls from the stars, we all fall again and again, but gently into the hands of one.

What Rilke does in his poems, however, and what Tilson Thomas further improves theatrically and with little fault in show business, is the transformation from alienation into amazement. These are dark songs. You look back – in one, an imaginary journey through life leads from uninhibited joy to gasping for the breath of that early clear air (and this was written only months before the pandemic!). They are a summary. You need music that goes a long way.

Tilson Thomas’ melancholy gets on the verge of sentimentality but stops just in time to make sure we don’t feel cheated. The music is full of humor and facial expressions. Tilson Thomas’ songs may not sound like that, but they mostly come from the grandson of the “American Darling” of Yiddish theater, that Meshuga mishmash of cultures where smartass and suffering are two sides of the same coin and where the secular and godly are two sides of a more valuable coin. Tilson Thomas treats the fourth song, “Immer Wieder”, with bold playfulness – an evocation of the mysterious, the terrible silent abyss that awaits us while we lie down between flowers and face the sky – as “a Schubert cowboy song”. . “

Whatever lies in front of you has charm, promise these “meditations”, as they take a listener with them undeterred. The vocal lines have an irresistible vocalism that is at the core of all Tilson Thomas’ music. In this case, mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and baritone Ryan McKinny were muses, and they can be heard on MTT’s San Francisco Symphony recording of the premiere. For the LA Phil he had the incisive Cooke, who made every word ring, and Dashon Burton, whose little baritone is of more general beauty and reveals awe more than mystery.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the Los Angeles Philharmonic in his “Meditations on Rilke” with the soloists Sasha Cooke (seated left) and Dashon Burton on Friday in the Walt Disney Concert Hall.

(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

With the Prokofiev Symphony, Tilson Thomas only showed awe. His tempos were very slow, the slowness of a shaman who could create a feeling of overwhelming immensity. The symphony, sometimes incredibly loud and often too heavy to move quickly, became the whale that devoured the listener. At some point towards the end of the ending, Tilson Thomas seemed tired, but he recovered, making the culminating ending just more shocking titanic.

With this symphony, Prokofiev wanted to capture the mood of a terrible war that had not weakened the spirit of his people the moment Russia was able to predict victory. There was suffering, but there was also the beauty of the falling leaf, and now victory was at hand. This could almost be a musical roadmap of our own moment in the pandemic.

But through his incomparably devastating account, Tilson Thomas reminded us that there is war, always death and destruction, that the time has come again, Lord; that the past is always a bucket full of ashes. Yet there is this perfectly shaped pearl of a pavane that will be remembered with everything.

This was the first concert of the new year. Though Mr. Omicron required more than the usual number of substitutes or bells, the LA Phil played like the orchestra’s life depended on every note counting. Maybe it was like that.

Los Angeles Philharmonic

What: Michael Tilson Thomas conducts Mahler, Berg and Brahms, with the pianist Emanuel Ax as a soloist
When: Thursday and Friday 8 p.m., Sunday 2 p.m.
Tickets: $ 71- $ 230
Info: (323) 850-2000,

Comments are closed.