Native Son MTT Returns to LA Phil Leading Copland’s Third Symphony

Jim Farber on December 16, 2019
Michael Tilson Thomas | Credit: Brandon Patoc

Los Angeles got an early Christmas present last weekend with the return of prodigal son/conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. Of course, he’s been the Bay Area’s since he became music director of the San Francisco Symphony in 1995 — but he’s LA’s native son.

Back in the days before he was MTT, Michael Tilson Thomas was that super-talented kid out of USC, a piano whiz with personal flair who quickly made his presence felt at the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Ojai Music Festival, the kid who hung out with Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland. By the time he made the move north he’d become the LA Phil’s principal guest conductor.

The greeting he received Saturday at Walt Disney Concert Hall was in keeping with the return of a favorite son. It even provoked a smile from the conductor.

He brought with him 28-year-old Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov, winner of Musical America’s 2019 Artist of the Year and a 2018 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Solo Album for his Franz Liszt collection, Transcendental. Prior to Trifonov’s entrance, Thomas set the stage with a rollicking rendition of Rimsky-Korsakov’s patriotic fanfare (adapted from a Russian workers’ song), Dubinushka

Daniil Trifonov

The pianist’s performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 in B-flat Minor was not so much a familiar ride on an old warhorse as a gallop on a stallion. From the moment Trifonov came onstage, eyes focused on the keyboard, he exuded sparks-flying energy. It reminded me of astronaut Scott Carpenter’s famous line as he sat impatiently atop his Project Mercury rocket — “Let’s light this candle!”

Trifonov combines ferocious drive with consummate control. He can channel his energy to create demonic intensity that then turns deeply poetic. If anything, it was the orchestra and MTT who had to strain to keep up with their flying soloist.

Trifonov’s jackhammer attacks in the first movement, Allegro non troppo, might have signaled we were in for a one-dimensional performance. But as the concerto evolved, it became clear that Trifonov possesses a vast range of technique and emotion. This became particularly apparent in the Andantino semplice, as he produced phrases like moonbeams. The final Allegro con fuoco brought a triumphant climax, with the orchestra providing expert accompaniment, especially in the brass and winds.

After intermission the atmosphere changed entirely, as Tilson Thomas and the orchestra performed Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3.

The evolution of this work began during the darkest days of World War II. In 1942, conductor Eugene Goossens commissioned a succession of patriotic fanfares that would open each concert of the Cincinnati Orchestra’s season. Copland’s contribution was the Fanfare for the Common Man.

America’s outlook about the war had changed considerably by 1944, when conductor Serge Koussevitzky commissioned Copland to compose a major work for the Boston Symphony, in memory of his late wife, Natalie. The Third Symphony was composed in a spirit that celebrated America at a moment of triumph and seemingly endless possibility. Sadly, for Copland, the Joseph McCarthy blacklists were looming on the horizon.

Copland introduced a symphony that fused elements of the European symphonic form (with distinct whispers of Bruckner and Mahler) with the “big shoulders” panoramic sense of America that Copland had helped pioneer. With ample space for introduction and variations, the Fanfare for the Common Man makes a gentle entrance, then bursts forth as the theme of the symphony’s final movement.

Saturday’s performance was joyous and illuminated by the pinpoint accuracy of the Philharmonic players: timpani pounding, brass resounding, winds rejoicing, strings in a flurry, woodblock clacking, and cymbals crashing. It was a performance that thrived in the acoustical brightness of Disney Hall.

From start to finish this was quite a concert. And now that his SF Symphony tenure is coming to an end, LA will get to see a lot more of MTT.

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