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Michael Tilson Thomas's Musical Rite of Passage

January 21, 2016

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“Really, I divide my life between before I heard that recording, and after I heard it.” That’s Michael Tilson Thomas, describing the effect that Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde (“The Song of the Earth”) had on him when he first heard a recording of it.  As listeners, we hope that the musicians performing for us feel some kind of personal connection to the music, but when MTT leads the San Francisco Symphony in performances of this work by Mahler, in Davies Symphony Hall and then at Carnegie Hall and the Kennedy Center, he will be conducting a work that had a profound impact on him. 

“I was 13 years old,” he recalls.  “The edgy little melody cut through me. The loneliness and desolation of it stopped me in my tracks.” That melody comes at the beginning of “Abschied” (“Farewell”), the last movement in Mahler’s unusual symphony of songs.  Although the texts were Chinese, that theme was redolent of Mahler’s own Jewish heritage – and of the stunned young listener’s as well.  “It was as if it gave voice to all kinds of feelings I had,” MTT explains, “that were part of my family, that were part of a whole connection that my family had to life in small villages in the Ukraine and the kind of presence of Jewish music, both secular and sacred music, in those villages.”

Das Lied von der Erde, despite the specific origins of its texts and of at least some of its musical material, has a universal message, about time’s heedless passage over the works of humanity, and about the struggle of the artist to find a place in society.  And that offers us a surprising connection to the more abstract works of Aaron Copland which appear on the other of the orchestra’s two touring programs.  The Piano Concerto, the Orchestral Variations, and Inscape are all examples of an artist struggling with his place in society.  Copland, by the 1950s, had been pigeonholed as a composer of friendly, expansive, specifically American scores.  This might have been a very successful little box to be placed in, but Copland was looking for something less confining. Wanting to keep his own voice as a composer but to transcend the very specific sound world he was associated with, he began to look at modernist techniques like serialism. 

“It is a critical cliché that there are two Coplands,” MTT says; “one being the composer of popular essays in Americana, and the other the composer of more severe, certainly more abstract, less referential works such as the Piano Variations (later arranged into the Orchestral Variations) and his late orchestral score Inscape.  The two Coplands are one, and the two styles are connected, each drawing strength and substance from the other.” 

The Orchestral Variations are a particularly good example of how Copland managed to write a piece that had American roots – MTT points out the influence of Latin music in one bass line and the echo of jazz throughout the piece – but offered a broader, more global message: namely, the simple exuberance of youth.  “It’s so big and defiant,’ he says, “it seems to sum up everything you’re feeling yourself when you’re young.”

The Variations also provoke a somewhat different metaphor from the veteran conductor: ““It’s a big, punchy piece and it still packs a wallop all these years later.  It begins with a clangorous theme that contains very few notes.  They’re dealt out one by one like tough cards in a poker game.”  

Both touring programs give the orchestra a chance to renew acquaintance with members of their extended musical family.  Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, who has sung everything from Gilbert & Sullivan to Stravinsky with the SFS, will be called on to provide the dusky glow that colors Das Lied von der Erde.  And Inon Barnatan will be the soloist in the Copland Piano Concerto.  That work is the earliest of the three American scores (with Inscape, a rare serial piece from 1967, the most recent), and presents its own challenges: the work has a terse, almost brusque quality to it, but also has moments of jazz-inflected humor.  Without ever resorting to the wide open harmonies of his “Americana” scores, Copland created a piece that suggests a gruff, sarcastic New Yorker.  (For what it’s worth, the Israeli-born Barnatan is also a longtime New Yorker.)

Any one of these pieces could, at any time, offer an unsuspecting listener the chance to experience what that 13-year old Michael Tilson Thomas felt on first hearing Das Lied von der Erde: “I could not believe that such symphonic music existed. I never got over it!”

If you go:

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony in Copland’s Orchestral Variations, Inscape, Piano Concerto, and Schumann’s Symphony No. 2 featuring pianist Inon Barnatan, 8 pm Mar 30, Apr 2 and 8, and 7:30 pm Apr 1.  Davies Symphony Hall (415)864-6000 sfsymphony.org

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony in Schubert’s Symphony in B minor and Mahler’s The Song of the Earth (Das Lied von der Erde) featuring mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, 8 pm Apr 6, 7 and 9, 2 pm Apr 10. Davies Symphony Hall (415)864-6000 sfsymphony.org

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony perform at Carnegie Hall on April 13 and 14, at the New Jersey Center for the Performing Arts on April 15, and the Kennedy Center in Washington DC on April 16.