Word must have got around. Don’t miss Michael Tilson Thomas’ concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. They are an inspiring study in resilience. But above all, they are essential for listening to great music.
The 77-year-old conductor, who is then undergoing treatment, celebrated last week the removal of a brain tumor last summer, at the Walt Disney Concert Hall for the first time in three years. The audience was conspicuously small as Tilson Thomas’ hometown had just reached a record number of reported COVID-19 cases. But what a difference a week makes. Same high COVID case numbers, but Thursday night’s second Tilson Thomas program saw significantly greater attendance.
In program one, a smashing performance of Tilson made Thomas Prokofiev’s wartime Fifth Symphony a gripping consequence, presenting his own personal ‘Meditations on Rilke’ as thoughtfully unsettling. For the second of his two weeks with the LA Phil, he offered devastatingly more restless but also friendlier thoughtful twists.
Disquiet doesn’t quite capture the maddening core of Alban Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, but it comes close to that labyrinthine description of chaos and is a Tilson Thomas obsession. Composed in 1913 and 1914, the stillness from which it emerges was something new in music. Prelude, the first piece, begins in empty silence. Unless you spot the gong hiding behind the large eight-player percussion section, you won’t be able to tell exactly when or where that first inkling of sound is coming from. It doesn’t matter if you recognize it, because you still won’t understand the imperceptible conversion of noise into sound.
Berg’s score was composed at the time when his teacher Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire and Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring were being premiered. Thanks to Schoenberg’s revolutionary atonality and Stravinsky’s revolutionary harmonic invention, these two works are credited with changing the course of music in the 20th century. But it was Berg’s Three Pieces that provided another revolutionary innovation that was just as important. It was the first major work in the western canon to treat noise as substantive music in its own right – not just as a sound effect or oddity, but as real music.
The LA Phil had previously played the mountain in Disney directed by Franz Welser-Möst in 2004. Back then, the noise was nervous, something to overcome. But when Tilson Thomas unveiled the percussive seconds of the Prelude on Thursday, unfinished noises and harmonies were heard as the same kind of sound in Disney’s uniquely hypersensitive acoustics. In a seemingly shamanistic act, Berg expanded the sound universe like no other before him.
If not given enough attention, a few revolutionary seconds in the imaginative scheme of Berg’s Three Pieces could seem like nothing. In addressing the audience, Tilson Thomas offered a personal tour of the signposts in what at first glance may prove to be an indecipherable 20 minutes of bewildering complexity. Bits and pieces of Mahler and Mahler-like music emerge from God knows what kind of mishmash. Every page of the score is a mess.
Tilson Thomas remarked that his fascination with the score began at the age of 17. He didn’t mention that he was the quintessential Angeleno prodigy, hungrily absorbing all aspects of our émigré music and pop culture. Nevertheless, the mountain never left him alone, he said. He could be gardening and something about it pops up in his head unbidden.
He compared it to an aha! Moment he recently had after an operation in intensive care. He heard Schubert. The exhilaration of a musical twist made his whole body react, causing terrified nurses to rush to him in an emergency. “I’m fine,” the patient assured them. He only listened to music.
Thursday night’s performance of Three Pieces could also be an exploration of the effects of brain surgery on cognitive thinking. Understanding these pieces, let alone conducting them, is no less challenging than quantum mechanics. In fact, they were written in the hotbed of Berlin, where Einstein lived at the time. Einstein, who had published his theory of relativity less than a decade earlier, was not a fan of the harmonically uncertain principles of Schoenberg and his school. The physicist, who was also an enthusiastic amateur violinist, sought the Newton-certain comforts of Mozart. But what Einstein really needed was guidance from Tilson Thomas.
Berlin was on the verge of war in 1914 when Berg finished The Three Pieces, and they capture that chaos. Her silences contain distilled anger, and Tilson Thomas was incomparable in ensuring that her climaxes, which included the blows of a mighty hammer, didn’t distill that anger. The feeling of an unfathomable tragedy was predicted like no other music of the time. The embers of the Old World still burned, ready to ignite the unknown future.
And yet, beauty abounded in the thousands (yes, thousands) of tiny details, glittering shards of sound, that peeked through the vast orchestra like brilliant snippets on a giant screen. Through it all, Tilson Thomas kept the big picture, unfolding in huge lyrical arcs and somehow making each member of a very large orchestra seem an individual.
Berg was a young man when he wrote these Three Pieces. All the works on the program were by composers in their 20’s who were just coming out on the market. Tilson Thomas began intriguingly with the very early Mahler, the melodic ‘Blumine’ movement included in the original version of his First Symphony. It was played great, like all was right with the world.
The concert ended with Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1, the composer’s first major work for symphony orchestra. Emanuel Ax was the soloist. A pianist-turned-fortuneteller (albeit with a mischievous look), he played with a contented correctness that once again conveyed the sense that the world was turning on the right axis. (Einstein might have liked it.) Ax made the concerto all about Brahms. Tilson Thomas chimed in, bringing out the bass, bringing out the smoothness of the horns and brass, but not asking for greatness.
The performance was neither slow nor fast, neither particularly quiet nor loud. It wasn’t excessive. But it wasn’t moderate either. What it had was the quality of looking at Brahms with clear eyes in hindsight. The sheer richness and spice that this concerto foretold was realized in Brahms’s career. Schoenberg claimed to be the successor of Brahms and Schoenberg gave us Berg. Tilson Thomas programmed this concert last spring when he couldn’t predict what our world or his would be like now. But he knew that the unknowable resides in all things.
As is his custom, Ax played as if he were a member of the orchestra. He watched the players as well as the conductor. He shared his bows with them and Tilson Thomas. But he ended with the exquisite last word. His encore was Debussy’s Berceuse, and it was wonderful. Tilson Thomas wasn’t the only reason to resist COVID.
LA Phil with Michael Tilson Thomas
Was: Michael Tilson Thomas conducts Mahler, Berg and Brahms, with pianist Emanuel Ax as soloist
When: Friday 8 p.m. and Sunday 2 p.m
COVID-19 Requirements: Proof of full vaccination, defined as two vaccinations from Moderna or Pfizer or one vaccination from J&J (no booster vaccination required until January 18); Photo ID (for guests over 18 years old); Masks (two or more layers) indoors.
Those Info: (323) 850-2000, laphil.com