Generally, when a soloist is welcomed onto the stage at an orchestra concert, that performer comes on stage first, followed by the conductor.
Not so on Thursday. The Chicago Symphony had a man of the hour whom pianist Orion Weiss graciously greeted from a respectful distance as he walked across the stage: conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, who turns 79 this month and is battling incurable brain cancer.
Tilson Thomas publicly announced his diagnosis of glioblastoma multiforme last year by resigning from the New World Symphony training orchestra he founded in Miami Beach and scaling back his work. It’s a miracle that someone with this cancer can survive this long and keep up with the grueling demands of conducting and touring.
But Tilson Thomas’ health requires selective action going forward. The remaining concerts on this season’s calendar are devoted to the San Francisco Symphony, which he led transformatively for 25 years as music director, and the New World Symphony, two art houses.
Consider Chicago honorary. According to NGO archivistsTilson Thomas has the longest performance history with the CSO of any conductor. He made his debut in Ravinia in 1970, when he was only 25 years old. More than 50 years later, Tilson Thomas cleared his engagement list this month and canceled concerts with the National and Toronto Symphony Orchestras just so he could head to Chicago to rest.
This month’s predominantly Mozart program is a bit off-center for Tilson Thomas, whose line-up ranges from late romantic mega-symphonies to recent Americana mavericks. So it may seem a bit odd that the composer’s breezy Six German Dances, which had never been played by the CSO before Thursday despite being conducted by Tilson Thomas in recent seasons.closed-centre. Mozart wrote the 1787 medley not for a concert stage but for a ball in Prague, and it was less confectionery than pure sugar powder.
Leave it to Mozart to imbue even discarded pieces of recreational music with dazzling mastery. Although Mozart never leaves the triple time, he weaves the changing keys of each dance with modulations so skillfully that one does not notice them. It also elevates the piccolo (played with gusto by Jennifer Gunn) in a semi-lead role; an unusual situation for him outside the field of opera. Tilson Thomas, who was economical here as he was for most of the night, acted more like a good-natured coach than a conductor, allowing the music to progress on its own enjoyable terms.
Somehow, nearly a decade has passed since the 42-year-old Weiss performed under the NGO’s auspices. Thursday’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A was a meeting to remember. Weiss’ equal achievements chamber musician she revealed herself generously in her performance: Rather than treating the solo part as a duo piece (either in front of or behind the orchestra), Weiss played with the gray area in between, sometimes weaving herself into the fabric as an equal partner with the orchestra. . In his Rondo finale, he experimented fascinatingly with the return of each theme, changing it a little at a time.
Interpretatively, Weiss would be just as at home behind a fortepiano. His pedaling is feather-light but definitely active, adding a lively touch to this repertoire. On Thursday, he painted with the same dazzling range of colors as his mercurial predecessor, on a modern instrument.
If Weiss drew an impressive spectrum of sound from the Steinway Symphony Center, the CSO under Tilson Thomas cranked it up a mile at both ends. The idiosyncrasies of the Orchestra Hall often present (to put it mildly) at least a few balance issues in the concerto repertoire. Instead, Tilson Thomas’ deep knowledge of this orchestra, this hall, and this soloist provided a perfect balancing act, save for a few scattered ensemble moments.
Weiss describes what he calls the “peculiar Debussy”—the composer’s late Etude No. “for composite arpeggios.” He offered the 11th as a fascinating encore. Weiss poured out streams of arpeggios in this title that flowed from the right-hand melody, they sounded so fluidly. Of course, Weiss’s long pauses in Orchestra Hall are a thing of the past.
Schoenberg has been chasing Tilson Thomas all season long: He also conducts Five Pieces for Orchestra in San Francisco and Miami Beach. However, here Schoenberg bright and strange Brahms’ Piano Quartet No. 1, talents as arrangers come to the fore; The full orchestration takes the place of the symphony in the second half of the program.
Schoenberg’s insistence, repeated in his program book, that Brahms had no freedoms that he himself would not have had had he been alive in 1937 is somewhat glaring. Schoenberg’s hyperactive awareness, complete with xylophone and tambourine, feels Balkanised next to Brahms’s more collegial polyphony. Brahms does not, but Bizet appears in the fourth movement – it seems that Schoenberg has perhaps subconsciously absorbed the “Près des surlar de Séville” from Act I of “Carmen” – like the sharp percussive touches that would sit comfortably in the output of Shostakovich or Prokofiev .
It’s not often that this overflowing score is floating around during execution. Thursday’s performance was impressive for the CSO horns, and the offbeat rhythms of “Rondo alla zingarese” pulled away from the low brass on the rambunctious home court.
But from a bird’s eye view, it was still a fascinating performance. The opening bars roll powerfully like a stormy dark sea, orchestral textures marred by the insistent rumble of the contrabassoon (another fanciful Schoenberg addition solidly provided by guest musician Vincent Karamanov). Despite all the ensemble challenges, the final episode also packed some truly excellent individual showings from the CSO musicians. Assistant conductor Stephanie Jeong brought fire and passion to her solos; In a clever Easter egg, he is then joined by his colleagues from table one, playing viola and cello, a nod to the piece’s original instrumentation. The magnificent Lyric Opera clarinetist Susan Warner crowned the brass wherever she appeared, switching to E-flat as John Bruce Yeh continued to fill in for the ailing Stephen Williamson.
Once as athletic and enthusiastic a conductor as they come, Tilson Thomas’ podium gestures have diminished sharply. He mostly stays fixed in one place, sometimes hanging his left arm while his right one strikes. But given humble report Tilson Thomas has been extremely resilient and persuasive since his last public appearance in San Francisco, though he was occasionally helped on and off the podium by the CSO’s stage manager.
The remaining gestures are typical of Tilson Thomas: highly expressive fingers making signs like starbursts, swiping strings with swordsmanship to indicate a particularly charged attack. Brahms-Schoenberg’s decadent Andante con moto evaporates into a delicate brass-crested chord; Tilson Thomas gently lulled him into silence, first with a wave, then with a pinch. Simplicity made sublime.
All night long, Tilson Thomas, among the most charismatic music expositors since Bernstein, was expected to address the audience or somehow acknowledge the weight of this moment in ways only showers of applause dared. He never did; not directly.
But in the silence before Brahms-Schoenberg, Tilson Thomas stared at the orchestra for what seemed like minutes, as if assessing each person’s face. Then, for the third movement, he raised his baton and did something unusual: He spoke to the orchestra.
“Enjoy,” he told them. “Nevermind.”
The “MTT Conducts Mozart” event will be held Dec. 2 and Dec. 5 at 7:30 p.m., Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan Ave.; tickets $39-$325; More information at cso.org.
Weiss returns to Chicago for the Winter Chamber Music Festival at Northwestern University, “Ariel Quartet with Orion Weiss,” Sunday, Jan. 7, Pick-Staiger Concert Hall, 50 Arts Circle Drive, Evanston; tickets $10-$30 music.northwestern.edu.
Hannah Edgar is a freelance critic.
The Rubin Institute of Music Criticism helps fund our classical music coverage. The Chicago Tribune retains editorial control over assignments and content.