Fate has a fateful way of slipping into symphonies. The famous opening of Beethoven's Fifth is said to be fate's knocking on the door. Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, which concluded Michael Tilson Thomas' program with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Thursday night, begins with a fate motive in the brass. Unlike Beethoven, the tortured Russian composer never fully shakes off fortune. The motive finishes the symphony by exultantly dooming jollity.
Tilson Thomas took no chances Thursday, and he may have had his reasons.
The last time he had conducted Tchaikovsky's Fourth (or Tchaikovsky anything) in L.A. was in 1985 at the Hollywood Bowl with the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute, a training orchestra he and Leonard Bernstein once administered. But Tilson Thomas had just lost his post as L.A. Phil principal guest conductor (he would not return to the Bowl for another 22 years).
Fate's fiddling with the Tchaikovsky Fourth that night came by way of helicopters (they're an old problem) circling during the slow movement. Tilson Thomas left the stage in frustration. By the time he re-emerged, the young players were rattled and got derailed at the beginning of the Scherzo, which then had to be rebooted. When the brass cracked in the fate motive in the Finale, you knew who was boss and it wasn't Tilson Thomas.
A master Tchaikovskian these days, Tilson Thomas was in predictably complete control Thursday. Helicopters didn't dare stray into forbidden space. The L.A. Phil, unshakable in a score it has played a million times, was utterly secure. Still, Tilson Thomas began with odd caution and emotional distance, as though he had little appetite for further testing fate.
The Andantino, with its doleful oboe solo played with somber grace by Marion Arthur Kuszyk, offered an almost welcome gloom. When the strings got around to the melody, Tilson Thomas nearly drowned them out with the quirky counterpoint in the other winds. If Tchaikovsky's depressive tendencies could withstand this, the conductor might have meant, then they should be able to hold up to an attack from the Hollywood Bowl helicopter brigade. Dark beauty was retained.
Tilson Thomas lighted up in the last two movements. He looked for places of expressivity in details and asked for even more arrestingly brazen wind playing in the Scherzo. But he did not get as carried away as he had two nights earlier in a more expansive and radical reading of Mahler's Second Symphony to open the L.A. Phil's Bowl season.
Here he let Tchaikovsky be Tchaikovsky and, with a kind of shrug of the baton, let fate have its magnificent final say. The bargain had long been sealed, but by accepting fate, Tilson Thomas triumphed over it as well.
The Tchaikovsky was the evening's event, not a performance of Sibelius' Violin Concerto with Gil Shaham as soloist in the first half. Shaham is not normally a restrained violinist but a loose cannon, even with Sibelius' fastidiously refined concerto.
In San Francisco last month, he was an exuberantly commanding soloist in Stravinsky's Violin Concerto with Tilson Thomas and his San Francisco Symphony. But perhaps Shaham felt the need to tone his mannerisms down since his facial gestures and hopping around the stage could look foolish on the Bowl's new high-definition video monitors.
The monitors, at least, appeared to have their brightness toned down slightly from Tuesday, but were still an irritation. The camera cutting was also a little less jittery, so progress is being made. But if the LED monsters are inhibiting performers, that could be a problem.
On the other hand, the new sound system revealed the full extent of Shaham's impressive tone in what was from both Tilson Thomas and Shaham intricate, elegant and chilly Sibelius. Still, the hot fire of their Stravinsky last month might have been more effective at the Bowl, especially in a program that began and ended with Russians.
The opening work was a welcome rarity, even if there isn't much to Rimsky-Korsakov's four-minute "Dubinushka," an arrangement of a revolutionary Russian folk melody. It's a jaunty call to action, and much of that action on this occasion was the clearing away of picnics and the sneaking in of late arrivals.
One more sign of progress. When Tilson Thomas conducted Tchaikovsky's Fourth at the Bowl in 1985, the attendance was 6,084. Thursday's was up more than a third at 8,511.