Whatever Happened to MTT?

by Sedgwick Clark

I’ve blown hot and cold on Michael Tilson Thomas’s considerable abilities over the years. I vividly recall a masterful Ein Heldenleben (10/9/02) and an emotionally affecting Das Lied von der Erde (2/13/02) at Carnegie Hall with the San Francisco Symphony, of which he has been music director since 1995 and raised to one of the top seven orchestras in the country. His late-1970s recordings with the Buffalo Philharmonic of the complete music of the American master Carl Ruggles (Other Minds CD) will likely never be equaled. His irresistible programs, frequently of 20th-century American and Russian music, have drawn me to his concerts every season despite his tendency to interpretive fussiness and self regard. In Thomas’s curiously muted Carnegie concert on Wednesday (11/13), for instance, works by Beethoven, Steven Mackey, Mozart, and Copland perplexed to a degree I don’t previously recall.

Thomas’s apparent aim for a beautiful, unforced orchestral sonority à la Herbert von Karajan dulled both the lyricism and triumph of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3. In Mackey’s program note for his playfully orchestrated Eating Greens (1993), he aspires to join “a tradition of American ‘crackpot inventors’ ” led by Charles Ives, Elliott Carter, Lou Harrison, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Harry Partch, and Conlon Nancarrow. The music had no chance in Thomas’s devitalized performance, however, which lacked any semblance of sparkle, wit, or crackpottery. Bernstein might have pulled it off if he had cared or lived long enough. Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 25 with Jeremy Denk seemed a near complete mismatch of minds.

Only in Copland’s Symphonic Ode (1927-29; revised 1955) did Thomas demonstrate commitment. It’s a piece he reveres and has recorded with distinction. It was a favorite of Copland’s too—an attempt to compose “purer, non-programmatic” music after his jazz-inflected works of the 1920s, following his return to the U.S. after studies with Nadia Boulanger in Paris. But it’s not top-drawer Copland. Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony couldn’t master the difficult rhythms, and the premiere was postponed for revisions. These days, such “difficulties” are second nature to such virtuoso conductors and players as Thomas and his San Franciscans, but audiences have never warmed to either this piece or this period of Copland’s works. As in the evening’s previous performances, applause was perfunctory.

By the mid-’30s Copland had moved on to his folk-nationalist “American” period, and in an encore Thomas at last unleashed his San Francisco players’ inherent splendor with  the Hoe Down from the composer’s ever-popular Rodeo. The audience went wild.

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