Tilson Thomas leads New World Symphony in music of Tilson Thomas

By Lawrence Budmen

Michael, Tilson Thomas conducted the New World Symphony in his own music Saturday night.

Michael, Tilson Thomas conducted the New World Symphony in his own music Saturday night.

Michael Tilson Thomas’ multiple talents as conductor, composer and arranger took center stage Saturday afternoon at New World Center in a preview performance of a program Tilson Thomas and the ensemble will present at Carnegie Hall in May.

The main event was a repeat performance of Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind, Tilson Thomas’ setting of a poem from the 1920’s collection Smoke and Steel by Carl Sandburg. When premiered on the same stage in 2016, the work made a strong impression. With a less elaborate staging on this occasion, the score emerged even more riveting and skillfully crafted. Sandburg’s poem was deeply prescient with its vision and warnings of urban decay. The poet painted a picture of a once-great city now inhabited by crows, rats and lizards.

Tilson Thomas has worked on the score intermittently since the 1960’s. Scored for amplified soprano and two backup singers, chamber orchestra and bar band, the score serves as a microcosm of Tilson Thomas’ musical passions and influences. Gershwin, Bernstein and Stravinsky share space with bebop, jazz and soul. The opening solo on bass clarinet, later joined by cello, sets the bluesy mood with a nod toward the initial clarinet slide of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.

The bar band crashes in with swinging 1960’s-era rockabilly, transforming the initial orchestral material. Gradually the two worlds coalesce as the band becomes more symphonic and members of the orchestra join in the swinging riffs. Tilson Thomas manages to blend the diverse musical palette with subtlety and a fine sense of matching the text’s changing perspectives with the appropriate style and mood.

From her initial spoken pronouncement “The past is a bucket of ashes,” Measha Brueggergosman gave a stunning performance as the Cassandra of urban doom. Initially wearing a gray coat, she and vocalists Kristen Toedtman and Kara Dugan sported golden gowns as the text spoke of “the panels strips of gold and the girls were golden girls.” At times the trio seemed right out of Motown.

At others Brueggergosman’s extended range gleamed in descriptions of the city’s former glory. Her voice extends well into mezzo territory and she could sing the blues with the dusky vehemence of a Bessie Smith. She turned to scat singing at the terse motif that accompanies the word “scribble” in a vision of a city inhabited by rodents. Brueggergosman’s final powerful refrain “Nothing like us ever was” in full operatic regalia capped a tour de force that was part cantata, part music theater piece and distinctively American in theme and tone.

Tilson Thomas led a meticulously controlled performance of his score. Toedtman and Dugan were the golden girls indeed, effortlessly switching from classical vocalism to pop and scat. Situated behind the orchestra, the band really swung. Patrick Posey and Sarah Roberts’ saxophones sparked in bluesy riffs and Justin Smith, Craig Wagner and Mike Valero formed a high powered rhythm section, capped by Michael Casterisano’s pounding drum set. Luke Kritzeck’s shadowy lighting set the cataclysmic atmosphere.

The program opened with pianist John Wilson playing two short solo keyboard works by Tilson Thomas. Sunset Soliloquy seemed more like a study with lyrical incantations in the left hand and capricious strokes in the right, the two eventually coming together.

You Come Here Often? proved more substantial. Originally written for Yuja Wang, the five-minute work is a portrait of two friends trying to reconnect after meeting at a club amid the venue’s noisy tumult. There is a touch of minimalism in the work’s initial repetitive figure (symbolizing 1970s’ New York club music) before the score turns to intimate piano jazz. Wilson met the score’s bravura demands on its own terms, exhibiting speed, dexterity and panache in equal proportion.

The program’s second half was devoted to Tilson Thomas’ revision of Gustav Mahler’s transcription for string orchestra of Schubert’s String Quartet No. 14 in D minor (“Death and the Maiden”).

Reinvention may be the more proper description. Mahler’s sketch was never completed and consisted mainly of double-bass lines doubling the cellos. Essentially this arrangement retools Schubert four-instrument original for  a large string orchestra with basses added. In performance Mahler’s version seemed bloated and never really worked.

While maintaining most of Mahler’s annotations (which were mainly in the second movement Andante con moto), Tilson Thomas has created something more ambitious. Essentially he has devised a string orchestral showpiece in the mode of Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings.

Small groups of instruments, sometimes in the back rows, play some sections while full orchestral footing is given to others. The result is a reframed work that pays homage to the intimacy of Schubert’s chamber creation while allowing a full string complement to shine. This edition is totally successful by virtue of its textural variety and astute attention to detailed dynamics.

Tilson Thomas utilized Mahler’s seating arrangement of divided violins on each side of the podium, cellos and violas across the middle and no less than seven double basses at the left rear of the stage. His rapid tempo at the onset of the first movement was close to Schubert’s original. He evoked full-voiced corporate sonority from the ensemble, sustained tension throughout the movement and brought excitement to the coda at a fierce clip.

Tilson Thomas brought out the varied moods of each variation on Schubert’s song “Death and the Maiden” in the second movement, where the  violins’ silken tone stood out. In the final Presto, Tilson Thomas’ mastery of pulse and the group’s strong articulation brought a whirlwind conclusion to a successful transcription.

Tilson Thomas provided video commentary throughout the program which was live streamed on the internet. The concert has been archived and is available for viewing at by Medici.tv.

The New World Symphony repeats the program 7:30 p.m. May 2 at Carnegie Hall in New York. carnegiehall.org.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the New World Symphony in the premiere of Julia Wolfe’s Fountain of Youth, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 5 with Yuja Wang as soloist 7:30 p.m. April 26 and 8 p.m. April 27 at New World Center in Miami Beach and 8 p.m. May 1 at Carnegie Hall in New York. nws.edu; 305-673-3331.  The New York performance will be streamed at Medici.tv.

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Sun Apr 21, 2019
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