Urgent voices of America

Times Staff Writer

Many speakers have recited the words of the 16th president of the United States as framed by Aaron Copland in his “Lincoln Portrait.” “Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history,” is how it begins.

Carl Sandburg gave the premiere. Years later, Marian Anderson, with Copland conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, spoke from a place deep within. Adlai Stevenson was statesmanlike yet poignant. Copland himself delivered the text as matter-of-fact straight talk, accepting its truths as self-evident. Katharine Hepburn had her turn, lending Honest Abe a hint of unfamiliar sex appeal. Margaret Thatcher, in a 1992 recording with the London Symphony, made him a bit of a scold.

Gore Vidal was brought onto the Hollywood Bowl stage in a wheelchair Thursday night to deliver Lincoln’s text. The video cameras zoomed in on his face. He looked wizened, older than his 81 years. He also looked stern, ferocious. He had been invited by Michael Tilson Thomas, the evening’s conductor, for a Los Angeles Philharmonic concert of American music by Bernstein and Gershwin along with Copland.

“Lincoln Portrait” cannot escape history. Written in 1942 as a patriotic statement during a time of war, it became politicized when Copland was hauled before Sen. Joseph McCarthy and accused of being a Communist. Eisenhower’s men, in reaction, removed the work from the 1953 inauguration.

Vidal spoke Lincoln’s words with deadly seriousness. A prolific writer who has throughout his long career honored history, he spoke with frightening authority. “We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves,” is what Lincoln said. Vidal spit that scathing sentence out with wrath.


At the end he stood tall, left his wheelchair and walked slowly offstage on the arms of Tilson Thomas and an assistant. A crowd of 11,000 stood and cheered.

Though not a particularly good evening for politicians, this was a great occasion for American music. All that fury turned Vidal into an old-school inspirational orator and patriot calling for a return to first principles. And Tilson Thomas conducted with an attachment to American standards that had its own this-is-what-made-us-great message.

The program was hackneyed, the same sort of pieces heard summer in and summer out at the Bowl. But as he proved Tuesday night conducting Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in his first Bowl concert in 22 years, Tilson Thomas -- once the Philharmonic’s principal guest conductor, now music director of the San Francisco Symphony -- has returned to his hometown a master.

He brought to Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story” marvelous detail. Inner voices percolated. The Wagnerian overtones to the arrangement of “Somewhere” flooded the huge amphitheater with lush, sensual sound. Mambo, Cha-Cha the “Cool” Fugue were not for sitting still. No performance for me had ever touched Bernstein’s 1982 recording of the Dances with the Philharmonic. Tilson Thomas touched it.

A selection of seven numbers from Copland’s “Old American Songs,” his arrangement of folk tunes, followed.

Baritone Thomas Hampson sang with happy hamminess. Any description of his taking on the voices of a preacher or good old boy might make him sound insufferable. In fact, he was a delight.

The amplification and video so spotlighted the singer that Tilson Thomas and the Philharmonic faded into the background. But Tilson Thomas made this performance possible. In his work with the San Franciscans -- his day job for the last dozen years -- he has developed a unique style of conducting that leaves room for individuality from soloists and from players in the orchestra while still maintaining overall discipline.

In both “Old American Songs” and “Lincoln Portrait,” he allowed Hampson and Vidal to be themselves, but he never let the works’ momentum slacken. Everything appeared free and easy, although it was anything but for the performers. Tremendous virtuosity is required for feats like this.

In Gershwin’s “An American in Paris,” Tilson Thomas made the boldest use of that technique, and the performance was spectacular. Years ago, Tilson Thomas used to oversell Gershwin. That may have seemed necessary in classical circles, given that “An American in Paris” is imperfect, a rambling, if irresistible, symphonic portrait of a city.

But Gershwin is now better accepted, and Tilson Thomas simply conducted as if every measure had something of tremendous worth. He trusted the orchestra. A sense of improvisation was asked of solos, be they from tuba or violin. The sound was gritty and luxuriant at the same time. The overall effect was of music teeming, every second, with life.

Tilson Thomas has had a troubled history with the Philharmonic. He grew up with the orchestra. He was long estranged after what proved a difficult period as principal guest conductor in the ‘80s. He is now, to some degree, a competitor. But his week at the Bowl proved that you can take the Angeleno out of L.A. but you can’t take this town out of Tilson Thomas.

No more than the rest of us can he escape history, and his history is here. May he return often.