MTT leads Cleveland Orchestra in old-school Mahler 1

By Lawrence Budmen

Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the Cleveland Orchestra in music of Mahler and Debussy Friday night at the Arsht Center.

The Cleveland Orchestra has not been heard in Miami since January, 2020, pre-Covid, lockdown and vaccines. 

Returning to its annual residency at the Arsht Center on Friday night, the ensemble was joined by New World Symphony fellows and New World Symphony laureate conductor Michael Tilson Thomas for a dynamic performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D minor. 

While Cleveland principals have coached New World players in the past and there have been rehearsal sessions with music director Franz Welser-Möst and his assistants, this program (and the NWS Sunday chamber music concert) marks the start of a more formal performing collaboration.

Mahler’s music has been central to the repertory of the Cleveland Orchestra Even before the Mahler revival of the 1960s, George Szell was leading Mahler symphonies in Cleveland and on the orchestra’s tours. Subsequent conductors Lorin Maazel, Christoph von Dohnanyi  and Welser-Möst have all regularly programmed Mahler’s works and, of course, Tilson Thomas has long championed them.

This meeting of a Mahler orchestra par excellence and a conductor with a deep feeling for the idiom produced musical sparks. This Mahler First was old school, classically proportioned Mahler in the manner of Bruno Walter or Otto Klemperer rather than more volatile contemporary performances. 

With the harp moved forward to the second row of violins, every line emerged clearly and the sheer warmth and tonal luminance of the strings was something special.  The solidity and firmness of the eight horns provided a cushion around a gleaming brass section. New World players blended seamlessly into the ensemble. This clearly was a special experience for these young musicians.

Tilson Thomas spun the second movement in the manner of a German folk dance, bereft of exaggerations of tempo or phrasing. The third movement was taken at a steady, deliberate pace. Bass, bassoon, clarinet and flute principals excelled in solo moments. The violins sighed with the heart- on-sleeve flair of a gypsy ensemble. 

At the onset of the finale, brass volleys carried weight and impact. The central section proceeded spaciously with the air around the notes given time, space and just the right emphasis to cast a spell. At times, Tilson Thomas brought the volume down to bare audibility, and the dynamics were widely varied and skillfully controlled. The build up to the climactic martial measures had inexorable strength and momentum, and the final bars were delivered with whipcrack force.

If Mahler was the highlight of the evening, the first half was far from negligible. Debussy’s Fantaisie for piano and orchestra is an early work, owing more stylistically to Fauré and Chausson than to the impressionism Debussy would later embrace. It is nonetheless a fine, melodic score that plays to the lyrical, rather than bravura, side of the instrument.

George Li proved the perfect soloist for this appealing creation (played in a recent edition by Tilson Thomas that attempts to solve issues of balance and orchestration that plagued the original score). Li, a 2015 Silver Medal winner in Moscow’s Tchaikovsky Competition, combined Gallic elegance a crystalline touch. 

He assayed the nocturnal reverie of the second movement Lento rhapsodically. The restless figures of the final Allegro molto were accurately spun without resorting to pounding or heaviness. Orchestral colors shone brightly, particularly the gleam of solo trumpet and glistening violins. (The Debussy was performed by the Cleveland players alone without New World musicians sitting in.)

Enthusiastic applause brought a surprise encore. Tilson Thomas joined Li at the keyboard for Schubert’s Rondo in D Major for piano four hands. This gracious vignette looks back to Mozart in its playful style. The duo’s light-as-a-feather reading was a total delight. Playing the prime melodies, Tilson Thomas was agile on the piano and his winks to the audience during pauses marked him as much a showman as ever.

The concert opened with  a vigorous performance of Berlioz’s Overture to Benvenuto Cellini. In the coda, Tilson Thomas pulled out the stops, with the brass in overdrive.

There is one more opportunity to hear this special meeting of conductor and orchestra in classic terrain of Mahler. It is well worth dealing with the traffic and parking problems on a busy downtown weekend.

The program will be repeated 8 p.m. Saturday at the Arsht Center in Miami.    

Posted in Performances

2 Responses to “MTT leads Cleveland Orchestra in old-school Mahler 1”

  1. Posted Nov 06, 2022 at 3:02 pm by Kathy Martin

    Bravo, Lawrence Budman. Your illuminating review added to our enjoyment of the concert.

  2. Posted Nov 06, 2022 at 6:36 pm by James Nickoloff

    I was lucky enough to be at this performance and I can say that Lawrence’s account is accurate. The four-hand piano encore by MTT and George Li delighted the entire audience as did the three main pieces. I should note that MTT stated, just before they began the Schubert Rondo, that as he gets older Schubert has become his favorite composer. That is saying a lot!

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