Monday, July 12, 2010

Reviewing Michael Tilson Thomas at Tanglewood

The opening concert of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer season at Tanglewood has now taken place, and Anthony Tommasini's review is in today's New York Times. In the light of those remarks that Douglas Yeo, bass trombone in the Boston Symphony, made to Daniel J. Wakin of The New York Times, comparing past work with James Levine and present work with Michael Tilson Thomas, I read Tommasini's account with a fair amount of curiosity. Would Yeo find in Thomas that same sense of "gravitas" (his word) that he felt characterized Levine's approach to Gustav Mahler? Since I could not be there to hear the performance for myself, I felt the best evidence for resolving this question resided in one paragraph from Tommasini's piece:

In his best Mahler performances Mr. Levine is uncommonly good at revealing the musical architecture of these teeming, fitful symphonies. Yet in his more overtly dramatic way, Mr. Thomas also brings lucid textures and structural coherence to Mahler, as he did here in the 90-minute "Resurrection" Symphony. The first movement, originally written as a stand-alone "Todtenfeier" (“Funeral Ceremony”), is like a craggy, lurching 20-minute apotheosis of a funeral march, alternately weighty, mystical and crazed. Mr. Thomas conveyed all of the music’s taut intensity while shaping the whole with savvy command and astute musicianship.

I like this choice of words, particularly for the way in which it conveys that gravitas is not necessarily the critical attribute in approaching Mahler, even in his often-used form of the funeral march. Rather, the score of a Mahler funeral march is one that embodies a highly conflicted psychology. The march itself certainly captures the context of a formal ritual in which gravitas is the order of the day; but, as the ritual unfolds, many of the celebrants are afflicted with an intense grief. Indeed, the whole purpose of ritual may be to distract from (and therefore to some extent ease) the intensity of that grief; but the human soul does not necessarily give in to that distraction easily. Furthermore, there is an additional (also distracting) element of context, which Thomas discussed at some length in the talks he gave here during the Gustav Mahler: Origins and Legacies concerts by the San Francisco Symphony last September (much of which has now surfaced in his Keeping Score program). This additional element is "the rest of the world" beyond the celebrants of the funeral, the coarse world of the life of the "human, all-too-human" (an appropriate place to include Mahler's appreciation of Friedrich Nietzsche), unaware (perhaps intentionally) of death in its midst. This element provides the "mother lode" of Mahler's acute sense of irony; and, while gravitas may establish the tone of the ritual, the funeral march as a whole would not be Mahler were that gravitas not challenged by irony.

As Tommasini observed, this concert would have been Levine's first performance of the "Resurrection" symphony. He is still scheduled to perform it with the Boston Symphony in Symphony Hall in October, and it would certainly be valuable to compare his interpretation with Thomas'. Certainly, one cannot evoke the conflicted psychology of a Mahler funeral march without that sense of architecture that Levine brings to his performances; but, as Tommasini also observed, Thomas has established the coherence of his own sense of architecture. On the basis of the Times review, it would appear that the depths of Thomas' understanding of both the scores and the man who penned those scores was clearly evident on opening night at Tanglewood; and the Tanglewood audiences (and hopefully the Boston Symphony itself) should now be well prepared to move on to the challenges of the third symphony.

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