Tilson Thomas returns to NY Phil with an affecting evening of Schubert and MTT

Fri Mar 10, 2023 at 2:22 pm
Michael Tilson Thomas conducted his Meditations on Rilke and Schubert’s Symphony No. 9 with the New York Philharmonic Thursday night at David Geffen Hall. Photo: Fadi Kheir

Beyond his great musicianship—he is the most important American classical musician since Leonard Bernstein-—what makes Michael Tilson Thomas special is the uniqueness of his personality. In David Geffen Hall Thursday night, as guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic, it was that personality that came through above all else.

That’s no slight to his musicianship, which was multifaceted and excellent. There were only two works on the program, Schubert’s Symphony in C Major, the “Great,” as the finale and the New York premiere of Tilson Thomas’ own Meditations on Rilke in the first half. Everything was well played and sung—mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and bass-baritone Dashon Burton were vocal soloists in Rilke—but the highpoint, the most powerful emotional moments, were the conductor’s conversations with the audience.

The extra-musical context made this so. Tilson Thomas, 78, announced in 2021 that he has Glioblastona Multiforme, an aggressive form of brain cancer. He had a tumor removed that year and since then has returned to the concert stage with selective but regular podium appearances including this week’s concerts at David Geffen Hall.

With his remaining time as a performer limited and unpredictable, Tilson Thomas was greeted with great warmth when he stepped on stage Thursday night. He spent the evening clearly enjoying himself, being sure to wave to audience members seated behind the orchestra, and introducing his piece by telling stories about his musical family, especially about his father. In shaggy dog fashion, they ended up with an anecdote about his father making his way across the country during the Depression, and, stranded in a small Arizona town, talking his way into a job as piano player for a dance.

With this, Tilson Thomas pointed out the commonalities between cowboy songs and Schubert, a sly and wonderful way to introduce the Rilke piece, which opens with some ragtime on an upright piano. That was the music’s reflection, as the conductor said, on his father, but there was much more to this music.

Sasha Cooke qnd Dashon Burton were soloists in Michael Tilson Thomas’s Meditations on Rilke Thursday night. Photo: Fadi Kheir

Modeled clearly after Das Lied von der Erde, there is a specific quote from Das Lied that appears in the introduction and then reappears at further moments, as well as paraphrases from Mahler’s Symphony No. 6. Overall, the Rilke poetry Tilson Thomas set follows themes of Autumn, drinking, and death—“October Day,” “The Song the Drunkard Sing,” “Autumn”—moving toward a double-sided feeling of both farewell and continuance; the leaves may fall, but they will return.

Cooke’s luminous voice and Burton’s rounded, slightly grainy tone gilded this music, which has an internal warmth and lightness, even as the details are complex in a fascinating way. The mix of Americana, entertainment, and German romanticism may superficially recall Bernstein, but this is very much Tilson Thomas’s own work, reflections of growing up musically in a world where everything connects because all music is part of the human experience. Rilke is the kind of personal work that has a broad, humanist reach, and the performance returned the audience’s warmth, multiplied.

The Schubert performance after intermission was exemplary, and the connections between both conductor and composer and the qualities of both pieces resonated with an uplifting feeling. Schubert wrote Symphony No. 9 when he knew his own premature death was coming, and like Rilke the music is sunny, glowing, with an imperturbable core of serenity.

Tilson Thomas led a flowing performance, expertly paced, everything tremendously musical. The conductor has always been superb at shaping phrases and bringing them together into a large scale form, and each movement held together securely, the lightness never dissipating. Throughout this Schubert performance was simply a pleasure to hear.

As the audience responded enthusiastically, Tilson Thomas spoke again. Waving his hands to silence the applause, he pointed out that the ovation that usually goes to the “athletic intensity” of the conductor belonged, this night, to the string section. He pointed the applause their way, then had each section rise for applause. His own joy over making music, still, was clear. And as much as he made this about the musicians, the follow-up ovations from the audience insisted that the evening was about him, too.

This program will be repeated 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. nyphil.org

2 Responses to “Tilson Thomas returns to NY Phil with an affecting evening of Schubert and MTT”

  1. Posted Mar 10, 2023 at 3:42 pm by Rita Freed

    You caught the spirit of the works and the whole event spot on.

  2. Posted Mar 10, 2023 at 11:02 pm by Steve walling

    The soloists on Friday did not seem to have the acoustical support of the orchestra’s technical staff .The clarity and sound was good.

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