Michael Tilson Thomas has become an eminent conductor, entering his eighth decade without ever fully having outgrown his air of the enfant terrible. As music director of the San Francisco Symphony for the past two decades, he has become known for unusual projects, such as a signature “American Mavericks” series that has included members of the Grateful Dead, or his rather brilliant reimagining of the Beethoven Missa Solemnis, which I was able to see in San Francisco last year.
This last project shows the kind of unusual interpretive choices he sometimes wants to make in the standard repertoire, which remains (as it does for virtually all professional conductors, however offbeat) his bread and butter. His Washington Performing Arts appearance with the orchestra at the Kennedy Center on Saturday afternoon also focused on these choices, to greater and lesser effects.
Rather than contemporary Americana, the concert featured two Viennese masterworks, Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony and Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” (“The Song of the Earth”), Mahler being another Tilson Thomas calling card, particularly since the release of a much-feted Mahler cycle on CD. And both works showed, deliberately, a distinctive point of view — to varying effect.
The Schubert was a canny counterweight to the Mahler, in a way foreshadowing some of the territory Mahler was later to inhabit — from pushing at the boundaries of symphonic form to a sweet and wistful melancholy. The first movement’s second theme is one of the best known and most beautiful in the canon. Tilson Thomas managed to make it fresh and moving, holding back the tempo to create space around it, while the cello section introduced it with a quiet intimacy, speaking as with a single voice. Directness and vulnerability, without pathos, turned out to characterize both movements, which became, in this reading, a point-counterpoint rather than two fragments waiting for a conclusion that never got written.
But all of the control that made the Schubert so successful led to a feeling of fussiness in the first sections of the Mahler — in a work that is anything but fussy. The first song of “Das Lied von der Erde” is a half-demented howl at the moon, thrilling and existentially charged and powerful. The tenor Simon O’Neill certainly howled plenty, trying to make himself heard over the mighty orchestra; yet what came across from the orchestra was still a sense of control and restraint, just at a very high volume.
Matters improved markedly with the entrance of the mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, who has a ravishing sound like shining copper to parts of her voice, although I wish she had used more chest voice to make a greater effect in the lower parts of the role. Cooke’s songs, too, are better suited to the kind of ardent control Tilson Thomas exerted over the orchestra — particularly the final song, “Der Abschied” (“The Farewell”), which is the emotional and musical heart of the entire work and a particular touchstone of this conductor’s.
Overall, the performance missed some of the vital emotion that is so much a part of Mahler, here smoothed over by exquisite refinement. Still, I heard details in the music that I can’t remember hearing with such clarity before, escalating — in part through ravishing playing from the solo oboe — to a moment near the end that dissolved in the same kind of tender purity that had marked the Schubert, with poignant intimacy.
After Mariss Jansons and the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra on Tuesday, this was the second performance of controlled and pretty Mahler that I had heard this week. It made me wonder if the pendulum has not swung slightly too far from the raw emotion of Leonard Bernstein, who helped reestablish this oeuvre in the mainstream, toward a kind of aestheticizing of music that cries out to be something other than conventionally pretty. There seems to be something of a tendency, these days, toward refining traces of earthiness out of concert music — while at the same time asking, as if it were a completely different problem, why audiences don’t want to hear performances of such consummate good taste.