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.

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.

Tilson Thomas and The Cleveland Orchestra

Welser-Möst concludes autumn residency with a powerhouse Mahler 2

Cleveland Orchestra
Franz Welser-Möst, conductor

Joélle Harvey, soprano
Sasha Cooke, mezzo-soprano

Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Lisa Wong, director

Severance Hall
Cleveland, OH
October 5, 2018

Mahler: Symphony No. 2 in C minor, Resurrection

There’s no question about it: The Cleveland Orchestra’s 101st season has gotten off to a stellar start, with the weekend seeing the last of four diverse and weighty programs led by Welser-Möst before he leaves for engagements elsewhere, not to return until January’s performances of Ariadne auf Naxos. The program in question was devoted to Mahler, familiar territory for these forces, namely the imposing and ultimately glorious Second Symphony – a work not performed on this stage since 2007.

Welser-Möst, Wong, Harvey, and Cooke (l-r) with Cleveland Orchestra & Chorus

A funeral march is integral to virtually all of Mahler’s symphonies, and the Second in fact begins with one – and a formidable one at that. Nervous tremolos opened, leading inexorably down to the grave in this ferocious outpouring, though interspersed with moments of repose in what made for starkly garish contrasts, with the latter particularly encouraged by the plaintive oboe of Frank Rosenwein. Tempos were brisk – perhaps a bit too much so for my taste – but the yield was music of arresting power, never to be sentimentalized. A stirring brass chorale suggested the venerable Dies irae, and the movement concluded in desolation via a final downward gesture, a fate sounding all but inescapable.

But of course Mahler’s arduous journey doesn’t end there, with the following Andante moderato a folksy foil, as if the struggles immediately preceding had been entirely forgotten in this carefree ländler. A much less tightly-wound tempo achieved a simple, rustic peace, with some playful counterpoint between the strings and winds, leading towards a more animated central section. The main theme returned in a gentle pizzicato, unimpeachably good-natured. A thud in the timpani marked the third movement, with sinuous sixteenths testing the dexterity of the orchestra – a challenge easily surmounted, though again I found the tempo choice a tad rushed. This was the first of two nods to Mahler’s own Wunderhorn songs, here a purely instrumental expansion of “Des Antonius von Padua Fischpredigt”, and not entirely a blithe affair as matters erupted into a primal scream.

In another moment of extreme contrast, a sudden shift to light and the divine was achieved in “Urlicht” (another Wunderhorn text), with mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke’s rich introspection a voice from another world. The brass chorales were heavenly, and though only a few minutes in duration, this movement was easily the emotional heart of the entire work. The text concludes with longing for “das ewig selig Leben” – in his pre-concert lecture, Rabbi Roger Klein suggested that Mahler knew that “Urlicht” alone was inadequate to achieve these lofty ambitions, hence necessitating the massive finale, a grueling undertaking.

The calm of “Urlicht” was immediately uprooted with fury unrelenting. An offstage brass added a spatial dimension to the score’s rich detailing (some flubbed notes notwithstanding), and the resurrection motif was unassumingly introduced in the trombones and trumpets. Climaxes were of shattering power, although a more intimate moment saw the fluttering flute of Joshua Smith joined by delicate touches of piccolo. The chorus entered as a unified whisper, building to great force in due course. Joélle Harvey offered an angelic soprano, naturally blending with Cooke, and the organ added even more magnificence to work’s stunningly spectacular conclusion, surely representing the pinnacle of human triumph.