Michael Tilson Thomas is laying down his baton in San Francisco next June after 25 seasons on the job, and in the process, he has been stepping up his activities in his old hometown, Los Angeles.
So after receiving honors from the Kennedy Center last Saturday and Sunday, Tilson Thomas was back in action in front of the Los Angeles Philharmonic at Walt Disney Concert Hall on Thursday night for two of his specialties: music from Russia and work by his friend and colleague Aaron Copland.
If the Kennedy Center ceremonies amounted to a late-career culmination of sorts for MTT, Copland’s Symphony No. 3 also was a culmination on several levels. It was 1946. America had just “broken the backses of the Axis,” as they said then, standing triumphant as the leading world power. The piece reflects the self-confidence in the air, a native-born composer trying to make a Big Statement in a distinctly European medium with a distinctly American language.
The Copland Third was the apotheosis of Copland’s Americana style, written right after “Appalachian Spring,” and it incorporates some jazzy syncopations from his brash early years and stern “laying-down-the-law” modernist manner into the package as well. It should be performed and recorded far more often than it has been, especially since Copland’s most immediately recognizable piece, “Fanfare for the Common Man,” is built right into it and developed brilliantly in the finale. I guess the word never really went out sufficiently about that.
Tilson Thomas immediately conveyed the sense of occasion about the Copland Third from the opening bars. He built the central section of the first movement to a frenzy, made a smashing run through the Scherzo with great spirit and full brassy vigor, and drew blood from the strings in the third movement. Having just played the “Fanfare” alone with Gustavo Dudamel in October, the brass and percussion corps were primed for the reprise, and MTT steered the orchestra through the finale’s obstacle course with all flags flying in the bombast of the coda. A masterful performance.
The hot Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov and MTT were a compatible team in Rachmaninoff’s underperformed Piano Concerto No. 4 in San Francisco in September, but for the audience downstate, they trotted out the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1. Fortunately, there was nothing routine about the performance.
Trifonov could summon dark Slavic colors out of the piano, float like a butterfly or turn on the thunderous, if occasionally blurred, octaves. Tilson Thomas caressed his way into the next passage with exquisite control. MTT likes to joke that he may be the last czarist-trained musician to be doing Russian music (his teachers at USC included Jascha Heifetz and Gregor Piatigorsky), and yes, he displayed a streak of Russian soul that dovetailed idiomatically with what Trifonov was up to.
There were a couple of other small Russian treats to be heard: Trifonov in his stoic, no-schmaltz piano arrangement of Rachmaninoff’s “Vocalise,” and MTT having a ball with Rimsky-Korsakov’s stirring, rarely played parade-grounds march, “Dubinushka.” Don’t miss this program, which repeats through Sunday.
When: 8 p.m. Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday
Tickets: $20-$224 (subject to change)
Info: (213) 850-2000, laphil.com