Michael Tilson Thomas
Meditations on Rilke [New York premiere]
Symphony No.9 in C, D944 (Great)
Sasha Cooke (mezzo-soprano) & Dashon Burton (bass-baritone)
New York Philharmonic
Michael Tilson Thomas
Reviewed by: Susan Stempleski
Reviewed: 11 March, 2023
Venue: Wu Tsai Theater, David Geffen Hall, Lincoln Center, New York City
Michael Tilson Thomas’s thoughtful sequence of songs to texts by Rainer Maria Rilke was introduced by MTT in an amusing ten-minute spoken introduction to a highly unconventional piece that intermixes references to cowboy songs with German language reflections on mortality. As he explained, the work is deeply personal, rooted in reflections he has pondered for decades. It was initially inspired by a story of how his father, Teddy Thomas – the son of Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, pioneers of American Yiddish Theater – penniless and on his way to make a new life for himself in the west, took on a gig as a pianist in an Arizona mining town saloon, where his musical meanderings ranged from honky-tonk tunes to evocations of Mahler and Berg. And so, the cycle begins with a distant solo piano rag (performed on a detuned upright) which quickly morphs into Mahlerian orchestration and introduces motifs with echoes of Schubert, Copland and other composers to whose music MTT is drawn, and which reappear and develop in each song.
Premiered in San Francisco in 2020, the forty-minute-long piece is a sequence of six songs. With its constantly unfolding array of colors and textures – gentle flute and oboe solos, expansive horn and trumpet passages, and dancing violin melodies – the piece is enormously engaging. Except for one duet, the singers alternate. Both were excellent, but especially Sasha Cooke, whose lush and penetrating mezzo-soprano is especially well suited to the material: the joyfully light and Coplandesque ‘Ich lebe mein Leben’ (I Live My Life), and the tenderly nostalgic ‘Immer wieder’ (Again, again), with its gorgeous cello duet gracefully delivered by Carter Brey and Patrick Jee. Dashon Burton’s mellow and beautiful bass-baritone was highly effective at conveying mood but was sometimes overpowered. The score successfully reflects the mood of each text, capturing the poetry’s fundamental sense of wonder, melancholy, hope, or fear.
Avoiding exposition repeats in the outer movements and second-half repeats in the Scherzo, MTT elicited a taut, finely coordinated and well-paced reading of the Schubert, handling the tempo changes in the opening with a gentle fluidity, creating a bouncy sense of energy without undue forcefulness. Liang Wang’s flawless oboe solos and the contributions of other woodwind principals were the highlight of an unhurried second movement that shifted from a sprightly march into moments of tender lyricism. The Scherzo cavorted forcefully and amiably, exuding a plethora of colors before a joyful Finale swept up all that came before it.