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Michael Tilson Thomas Clicking on All Cylinders With the LA Phil

December 3, 2018

Los Angeles Philharmonic

It was like old times at the Los Angeles Philharmonic Friday night. We remembered the familiar walk to the podium, the familiar slow bow to the audience, the tall, lean figure about to present something new or refreshing something old with his own physical energy and insights obtained at the feet of Russian mentors like Jascha Heifetz and Gregor Piatigorsky. Michael Tilson Thomas was back in town for a two-week residency at the LA Phil — and from all indications, he will be back again often.

Well, let’s back up a bit; things aren’t quite the same. Whereas Tilson Thomas was holding forth at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in the 1970s and early ’80s, now he operates in the acoustically sharper Walt Disney Concert Hall across the street. Only 12 players remain in the LA Phil from 1981 when MTT officially became one of the orchestra’s two principal guest conductors (the other was Simon Rattle). Furthermore, in those days, we really didn’t know that Tilson Thomas was also a composer; he was too busy conducting and recording here and there to have time to pull together various sketches he had made over the years into finished compositions.

But Tilson Thomas the composer is finally coming into full view as his 25-year tenure in San Francisco nears its close in 2020. Tilson Thomas’s 40-years-in-the-making setting of a Carl Sandburg state-of-the-union poem, Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind, was heard in Los Angeles for the first time Friday night — and it’s a beaut, the most thorough compendium of Tilson Thomas’s diverse set of interests in one package that I’ve heard yet.

The opening may be mysterious, nebulous, vaguely tonal orchestral music touched up by the burble of a synthesizer. But with the sound of a cash register popping open, a nine-piece “bar band” started playing some funky, jazzy soul, followed by a quick change to something lyrical for the orchestra. Later on, when the “rats and lizards” inhabiting Sandburg’s decaying city come in, the rhythm section knocked out a credible impression of a James Brown groove — “The Payback” comes to mind. The piece resembles a conversation with MTT, which can veer all over the place from topic to off-topic, one intriguing or off-the-wall idea flashing after another.

Mezzo-soprano Measha Brueggergosman dipped low into her register and summoned up the throaty timbre of Sarah Vaughan (with whom MTT performed and recorded Gershwin while in L.A. in the ’80s) and maybe a little Cleo Laine as well. As she strode to different parts of the stage, it was difficult to make out the words that Brueggergosman was singing. It was the same with similarly gold-gowned singers Kara Dugan and Mikaela Bennett. But Tilson Thomas offered some preparatory help before the performance by dramatically reciting the entire Sandburg poem for the audience. Needless to say, the repeated lines, “We are the greatest city, the greatest nation, nothing like us ever was,” speak to us more ironically than ever.

As a companion piece, Tilson Thomas chose another work that could be interpreted as a requiem — though for a different civilization, Czarist Russia — Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (“Pathetique”). A new download-only MTT recording of the “Pathetique” in San Francisco came out earlier this year, and his performance of the symphony with the LA Phil differed remarkably. Tempos were faster, there was greater push in the rhythms, more freedom in phrasing, the climaxes more explosive on impact in the great third movement Scherzo-march.

Yes, there was a rawness in the LA Phil’s playing on this given night; the San Francisco Symphony sounded darker, smoother, more of a unified world-class ensemble. Yet overall, I prefer the tempestuous fire of MTT’s Los Angeles “Pathetique,” an irresistible reminder of the younger, brasher Michael Tilson Thomas who once inhabited this town.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, Musical America.com, Classical Voice North America, and American Record Guide.  He has also contributed to Gramophone and The Strad, among many other publications. In another lifetime, he was chief music critic of the Los Angeles Daily News.