Tilson Thomas shines as both composer and conductor with The Cleveland Orchestra

Cleveland Orchestra
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano
Dashon Burton, bass
Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
February 20, 2020

Tilson Thomas: Meditations on Rilke
Berlioz: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14

Now in his twenty-fifth and final season as music director of the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas has increasingly devoted his time to composition, following in the footsteps of the composer-conductor luminaries with whom he closely worked – Stravinsky, Copland, and Bernstein amongst them. His freshly-minted song cycle Meditations on Rilke was given its second set of performances last weekend, following the San Francisco world premiere in January. It’s a work, however, which has been gestating in the back of Tilson Thomas’ mind for some time: in a recent interview, he referred to it as a “pages of [his] musical diary.” Structurally, the piece immediately brings to mind Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde in its scoring for large orchestra with mezzo-soprano and bass soloists alternating between the six Rilke poems. While not on as large a scale as the Mahler, it’s still quite substantial, clocking in at just under forty minutes – the program was originally slated to open with Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture, a quantity which was excised when the MTT work burgeoned to its current dimensions.

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Sasha Cooke, Michael Tilson Thomas, and Dashon Burton with The Cleveland Orchestra, photos credit Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

A deliberately out-of-tune, honky-tonk sounding upright piano had the first word in the opening “Herbsttag,” setting the scene in a small-town dive bar where the pianist introduces influences from the classical repertoire in addition to the standard pub fare, setting in motion the present set of stream-of-consciousness reflections. The texture grew from the solo piano to an orchestral landscape of colorful effects, remaining resolutely tonal and approachable. Dashon Burton offered a deep and powerful tone, yet was often touchingly pensive, and the spirit of Mahler was never far away – hardly a surprise in a work from such a distinguished Mahlerian as MTT. “Ich lebe mein Leben” was given a lushly gorgeous setting, sweetly sung by Sasha Cooke, and an oboe passage from Frank Rosenwein served as a further highlight. “Das Lied des Trinkers” again brought to mind Das Lied von der Erde in its apparent affinity for drinking songs. A rather more rambunctious counterpart to the preceding song, matters began plaintively but soon crested to the thorny and dissonant.

“Immer wieder” featured a glowing brass chorale, and as elsewhere, extensive paragraphs for orchestra alone. Cooke had a natural feel for MTT’s language in this gem of the cycle, which the composer colorfully likened to a “Schubert cowboy song” – Morricone came to my mind as well. The crack of a whip epitomized the vigor given to “Imaginärer Lebenslauf” which called upon both singers, often quite ingeniously blended. The concluding “Herbst” opened with a long flute solo very finely given by Joshua Smith. The harp and pizzicato strings gave matters an ineffably autumnal quality, and the cycle closed with Burton’s repeated incantation of “fallen”, serving a similar function as “ewig” in the work’s Maherlian predecessor.

MTT has a long history of not only conducting the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique, but conducting it in Cleveland, having first performed it with this orchestra in 1977. It made for a choice pairing with the Rilke songs with both works deeply autobiographical and evidencing their respective conductors’ acute ear for orchestral color. The dreamy “Rêveries” that opened was meditative yet never shying away from building to hypnotic passions. The first presentation of the ubiquitous idée fixe was refined, hardly hinting at the grotesque mutations to come, and the pious solemnity of the coda was another highpoint of this first movement. “Un bal” began as lilting waltz, emanating a Gallic elegance, only to dissolve in making way for the idée fixe. There was sharp clarity even given the sprawling orchestra, paying dividends in the blazing conclusion.

The “Scène aux champs” was given with ample breathing room, a capacious portrait of the quietude of the countryside. The dialogue between English horn Robert Walters and offstage oboe Jeffrey Rathbun was expertly articulated – and at the long movement’s end, Walters was answered not by Rathbun, but by the rumbling timpani, signaling the impending storm. “Marche au supplice” was tautly concentrated, erupting with brilliant brass anchored by a backbone of bassoons (four of them, no less). Daniel McKelway’s shrill interjections on the E-flat clarinet made for arresting effect in the closing “Songe d’une nuit du sabbat”, perhaps only outdone by the tolling cathedral bells and goosebumps-inducing low brass.

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Tilson Thomas and The Cleveland Orchestra

Vocal and visual spectacle in Lyric Opera’s Les Troyens

Lyric Opera of Chicago
Civic Opera House
Chicago, IL
December 3, 2016

Berlioz: Les Troyens

Christine Goerke, Cassandra
Susan Graham, Dido
Brandon Jovanovich, Aeneas
Okka von der Damerau, Anna
Lucas Meachem, Chorebus
Christian Van Horn, Narbal

Sir Andrew Davis, conductor
Chicago Lyric Opera Orchestra
Tim Albery, director
Tobias Hoheisel, set designer

With works on the scale of La damnation de Faust and Roméo et Juliette to his credit, one would certainly expect an opera from Berlioz to be of the grandest proportions.  Les Troyens certainly does not disappoint on that front, and Lyric Opera of Chicago’s first traversal of this epic – lasting nearly five hours – was a major achievement.  Scored for a large cast, massive choir, sumptuous orchestra, and corps de ballet, this lavish production directed by Tim Albery and designed by Tobias Hoheisel was given a run of just five performances as it was no doubt a costly investment for Lyric.

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Lyric Opera’s Les Troyens, photo credit Todd Rosenberg

Berlioz had something of an obsession with Virgil’s Aeneid on which the opera is based, and accordingly provided his own libretto, notable for its directness.  The opera is conceived in five acts, further divided into two parts (The Taking of Troy and The Trojans at Carthage respectively).  The central image on stage through the duration was of a mighty wall, crumbling and dilapidated in Troy, opulent and shining in Carthage, yet in a continuing arc it was the same wall, suggesting the cyclical rise and fall of human civilization.  On that note, one was struck by the suggestion of the Trojan refugees crossing the Mediterranean in flight of their destroyed city, evocative of the plight of the Syrian refugees in today’s no less tumultuous political climate.

The latter part begins at the third act, and it was here the wall was rebuilt, brilliantly shrouded in pearly white light, allowing for a striking visual effect of shadows on the wall.  Act IV was a highpoint with its tender moments in an otherwise bloody drama.  The corps de ballet beautifully portrayed nymphs and satyrs, and Mingjie Lei’s dulcet tones depicted the poet Iopas, accompanied by the harp and oboe.  The act built up to the soaring duet between Dido and Aeneas (“Nuit d’ivresse”), the otherworldly atmosphere further enhanced by celestial images of the stars and planets.  In the last act, Susan Graham’s Dido was impassioned and heartwrenching in her final, desperate cries, and the opera ended with the word “ROMA” projected on the wall suggesting her parting vision of Carthage being destroyed by Rome.

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Susan Graham (Dido) and Brandon Jovanovich (Aeneas), photo credit Todd Rosenberg

Dido was originally to be sung by Sophie Koch who withdrew for personal reasons, and fortunately for local audiences a seasoned a Dido as Graham was on hand to take her place, and she provided a bounty of beautiful singing.  Brandon Jovanovich’s Aeneas was imposing and authoritative, amply filling the dimensions of this substantial role.  Also worthy of note was Christine Goerke as Cassandra, the daughter of Priam (king of Troy), appearing only in the first part to haplessly warn of city’s impending destruction.  The chorus and orchestra, led by Michael Black and Sir Andrew Davis respectively, were major forces to be reckoned with, serving effectively as dramatic characters in their own right – unwieldy as the work may be, all the moving parts came together in tight control.

Following the curtain, there was a Q&A session moderated by general director Anthony Freud with Brandon Jovanovich, Susan Graham, Christine Goerke, and Lucas Meachem – thanks are in order to them for providing a fascinating perspective on the heels of what was surely a physically exhausting performance.

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Post-opera Q&A, L-R: Susan Graham, Lucas Meachem, Christine Goerke, Anthony Freud, Brandon Jovanovich