Michael Tilson Thomas and the London Symphony Orchestra go back a long way. One of their earliest collaborations was a terrific 1974 album with guitarist John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra called "Apocalypse," now seen as a landmark of jazz-rock's Golden Age.
Later, Tilson Thomas was the orchestra's principal conductor from 1988 to 1995, leaving a long string of recordings behind them, and still later, he continues as a principal guest conductor.
So as Tilson Thomas takes one of several victory laps around the map in his 70th-birthday-year season, it's fitting that he is taking the London orchestra with him on this U.S. tour, the bulk of which is in California. It's also an opportune time for the orchestra to show off its stuff in the wake of this month's announcement that Simon Rattle will be its next music director in 2017 — and maybe, just maybe, the musicians might also get a new concert hall.
They could use it, for although their home field, the Barbican Centre, is better than it was, its dry acoustics still rob decaying chords of some of their luster.
There was no such issue for the Londoners at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Tuesday night as the expansive climaxes and sharp thrusts of the "Four Sea Interludes" from Britten's "Peter Grimes" rolled vibrantly through the room. Tilson Thomas had conducted these seascapes in San Francisco last June, and his conception remains broadly paced, carefully contoured and wonderfully sweeping, emphasizing the introspective darkness in the brass and stinging dissonances in the detail. The musicians sounded formidable, not quite as supremely polished as the San Francisco Symphony in this music but packed with plenty of power.
Next came a Tilson Thomas specialty, the music of George Gershwin, and a frequent collaborator, pianist Yuja Wang, who is playing the Concerto in F with him on this tour. Dressed in a sleeveless crimson pants suit, she produced a beautiful array of pianistic colors as well, redoubtably secure in technique as always. And yet I found her playing somewhat lacking in real syncopated jazz feeling when needed, even as the flexible orchestra could do a good Charleston in the first movement and the first trumpeter offered some subtle bluesy slides in the second movement.
But Wang's encore was sizzlingly special, a delightful jazzy toccata with a minimalist streak and an irresistible boogie down the stretch called "You Come Here Often?" Turns out that this was composed by Tilson Thomas himself, a party piece from the early 1980s that he reworked for Wang, who played it from a score displayed on an iPad. I hope she records it.
The orchestra has a long history with Sibelius. Its very first recording of the Second Symphony was in 1930 led by the composer's colleague, Robert Kajanus, and it has done a number of complete cycles since. Tilson Thomas' Sibelius file is not so extensive, but recently a videotape turned up on DVD of him at 25, not long out of USC, conducting Sibelius' Fourth Symphony in Boston and probing exuberantly into that piece's unique sound world.
Fashions change. Kajanus' performance of Sibelius' Second spanned 39 minutes, but Tilson Thomas' performance Tuesday took a leisurely 48 minutes, which is more or less in line with today's predominantly slower tempi. But even within those parameters, Tilson Thomas could procure Sibelian intensity at quiet and full-bodied levels. He coaxed a huge, solid pizzicato sound from the string sections and dark penetrating brass in the opening movement, scary timpani rolls in the fragmented second movement, building the crescendos in the finale patiently and inexorably with satisfying payoffs at the top.
Brahms' "Hungarian Dance No. 1," with a bit of unruly brass and dashing spirit, finished off the night. And with that, Tilson Thomas, Wang and the London Symphony Orchestra headed off to tour stops in Santa Barbara, Palm Desert, Costa Mesa, San Diego, Las Vegas and Seattle.