Metropolitan Opera maestro James Levine cancelled his appearances with the Philadelphia Orchestra due to ill health. San Francisco Orchestra conductor Michael Tilson Thomas (and all around good guy) graciously stepped in for Levine, on very short notice, and nonetheless made it a musical occasion to remember.
Tilson Thomas switched up the program that Levine had planned, keeping only one scheduled piece- Brahms’ Serenade no. 2 – and filling out the program with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony no.2 and Charles Ives’s elegiac “Decoration Day.”
He seemed all business as he stiffly walked across the stage, but his deportment changed as soon as he starts conducting and his energy infectious. He first recited a preamble to “Declaration Day” which refers to the first national recognition of the Civil War dead, a commemoration that became Memorial Day. Tilson Thomas told the audience how Ives laced in traditional American songs to paint a panoramic pastorale, but that this was not an unscarred American musical sentimental journey.
You immediately hear the freight of Ives’s meditation in the first moments of the piece with the strings understated and sonorous as Ives’ develops orchestral cross-streams. Principal trumpeter David Bilger brings so much tragic dignity to the startling ‘Taps’ solo , played at a distance over the orchestra. From there, Ives’s full orchestral burst through with fanfares, its exuberance full of national fervor, with Thomas stressing its almost garish brass crescendi. When the bombast flames out, Ives’ sub orchestral stream lingers with gravitas. There is somber anger in this mosaic that is certainly musically fascinating, but this work also has a truncated quality and the themes an odd pairing in front of the Brahms.
Johannes Brahms’ “Serenade No. 2”can be lumped together with Robert and Clara Schumann’s assessment that Brahms chamber works were symphonies in disguise. Yet this work sounds so much different than a Brahms’ more famous symphonies.
Written while he was in his 20s, the composer was hailed by as the heir apparent to Beethoven. Indeed the Serenade has the more adventurous structures of his chamber works, with a much larger orchestra, but without violins. It has a lighter, even baroque esprit, something more evident in Brahms’ chamber pieces, and intriguing as well are the Beethovenian orchestral enclaves. Later, Brahms wanted decidedly to be out of Ludwig’s shadow
Tilson Thomas details all of these qualities, with chamber orchestra tension- the lower string dialogues and striations powerfully sustained. And the reeds giving this a particularly crystalline and airy dimension. Thomas signaling the whole section to stand and take a well deserved bow.
In a word, Tilson Thomas just ignites Tchaikovsky’s “Symphony No. 2” which is otherwise well trod repertory for the Philadelphians, but sounding as lustrous as ever under MTT’s sustained orchestral clarity. It was dubbed the ‘Little Russian’ symphony by a Moscow critic because of Tchaikovsky’s entrancing use of folksongs from Little Russia aka The Ukraine.
Not coincidently for Tchaikovsky, the Ukraine was also a nexus for Russian folkloric dancing, much of which became the DNA of Imperial ballet classicism. The Symphony has the narrative clip of some of Tchaikovsky’s balletic rhythmic drive. Among the outstanding soloist – Jennifer Montone’s clarion French horn was followed by equally sterling solos by the principal players’ throughout the piece.
On the podium Tilson Thomas was pivoting a lot and bouncy, and in the next moment, the bolt upright maestro, his fingers dancing in the air to go for a shimmering Russian inflection.