Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 14, 2018

REVIEW: Tanglewood, Michael Tilson Thomas/Rachmaninoff /Mahler

Tanglewood, Lenox, MA
August 12, 2018
by Jarice Hanson and Frank Aronson

Photo by Hilary Scott
Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) is no stranger to the BSO, the work of Mahler, or the style of Leonard Bernstein. In the August 12th concert of the Bernstein Centennial Summer season, MTT conducted a fitting tribute to the man he met when he was a Tanglewood Fellow. In 1969 MTT was assigned to conduct the off-stage portion Bernstein’s on-stage conducting of Mahler’s Second Symphony. Bernstein casually mentioned that he was thinking of conducting the piece by memory, rather than looking at the score. On Sunday, MTT performed the same way—conducting Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D “off book” and with some of the same gestures he had learned from Maestro Bernstein.

The concert began with the whimsical “Agnegram” written by MTT for San Francisco Symphony board member, Agnes Albert, for her 90th birthday. MTT wrote the short piece using a musical annotation of the letters of her name and incorporated some of her favorite tunes—from “The 1812 Overture” to “Yes, We Have No Bananas.” As a prelude to Rachmaninoff and Mahler, the piece was well received and showcased the author/conductor’s ability to write accessible, yet clever music that warmed the audience on a cool rainy day.

Rachmaninoff’s “Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini,” Opus 43 for Piano and Orchestra featured the extraordinary Igor Levit, a pianist of technical wizardry and interpretive sass. A plane flew overhead just as Levit was immersed in one of the piece’s most famous passages. The sound of the plane trailed off as the piano’s notes lingered in the air, magically accompanying the plane’s passage above.

The second part of the program featured Mahler’s Symphony No. 1 in D, with music so effecting the audience cheered for close to 10 minutes, acknowledging the many soloists who contributed to the piece that has become known as one of the bridges from the Romantic to the Modern period of orchestral compositions. Kudos were given to the French horn section, which masterfully played the passages key to the first of Mahler’s four Das Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy with the Horn) symphonies. Mahler identified the piece as a “symphonic poem,” and MTT and the BSO left no doubt as to the story Mahler told in this symphony.

It’s understandable that MTT and Bernstein are both known for their interpretations of Mahler. This concert solidified their reputations. And at the end of the concert, the sun came out.