Tilson Thomas leads CSO in a fresh and powerful take on Tchaikovsky’s “Pathetique”

Fri Dec 14, 2018 at 1:25 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a Russian program Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Michael Tilson Thomas announced in 2017 that he would be departing the San Francisco Symphony in 2020 after leading the ensemble in the city by the bay for the past quarter-century.  Just last week, the orchestra announced that Esa-Pekka Salonen—former music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic—would return to California to take the reins in San Francisco as Tilson Thomas’s successor. (That move effectively takes the Finnish conductor off the short list of candidates to follow Riccardo Muti at CSO, to the dismay of many local musicians and audience members).

Whatever the future brings in the unceasing game of maestro musical chairs, let us hope that Tilson Thomas remains a regular podium guest in Chicago. The lanky conductor—an eternally youthful presence who will turn 74 next week—remains among the most popular and consistent of Chicago Symphony Orchestra guests, and the Russian program he led Thursday night showed MTT at his best.

Of the three most-performed Tchaikovsky symphonies, No. 6 remains the most challenging to pull off successfully. That’s not just because Tchaikovsky’s valedictory final work ends quietly (and tragically), but because the violently contrasted elements often encourage conductors to indulge in over-the-top volume and hyper-emotionalism—qualities that may create  intermittent excitement but that make it more difficult to present the “Pathetique” as a cohesive and musically convincing whole.

Tilson Thomas has recently returned to the Sixth Symphony after laying the work aside for many years, and that reconsidered thought and freshness of approach was manifest throughout Thursday night’s performance. Indeed, the rendering by MTT and the Chicago Symphony often felt like the equivalent of musical power-washing—shearing off decades of accumulated excess, emotional baggage and hoary interpretive tradition to reveal what a strong, powerful and moving work this is on its own terms without undue pleading.

From the hushed low strings and desolate bassoon of the Adagio introduction, heard as if coming from a distance, one felt this would be an unusually thoughtful take on this familiar score. Music-making was consistently organic, unfolding with a natural, inevitable flow. The famous arching theme of the opening was handled with striking restraint, even in its ardent reappearances, the music more affecting for its understatement. Yet the massive chord at the center of the movement was explosive in impact, ratcheting up a fast and frantic development section and powerful climax that produced more excitement and adrenaline rush for its abrupt switch from the previous layered approach.

The second moment was taken at a faster tempo then one usually hears—still con grazia, but with a greater sense of urgency and unease beneath the surface. Conversely, Tilson Thomas directed the march movement at a stately pace, holding a firm rein on music that is often whipped up for speed and virtuosity, encore-style. The slower approach worked most effectively, lending a dogged quality to the music almost like a forced march. While still exciting, the deemphasis of mere bravura also served functionally in reducing the degree and duration of the inevitable audience applause at the coda.

In the concluding Adagio, Tilson Thomas gave the elegiac pages their due while refusing to linger on the lamentoso, or wring out every bit of inconsolable emotional angst. Without the overkill, the slow finale emerged unusually fresh and even contemporary— the climax, dark and tragic but more moving for not being overwrought.

Unfortunately, in the final minutes of Thursday’s performance, those quiet fading notes were disrupted by a cell phone ring—not just any cell-phone ring but a chicken-clucking sound that continued for several seconds. Fortunately, MTT and the musicians exercised supreme professionalism and self-control in keeping their intense focus on the music’s slow fade to silence. Such was the dramatic power of the preceding 43 minutes, that even the fowl disturbance wasn’t enough to damage this richly eloquent performance.

One jarring horn blooper in the opening movement apart, the orchestra played at their considerable finest for Tilson Thomas, not least the sepulchral trombones in the finale.

The centerpiece of this Russian program was Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2, with Nicola Benedetti making her downtown CSO debut as solo protagonist.

Nicola Benedetti performed Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 with the CSO Thursday night. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

A lovely presence in a strapless black gown, the Scottish violinist offered a more finely rendered take on this Russian warhorse than one normally encounters. At times—especially in the final movement—one wanted a bit more marcato bite and virtuosic fire.

But Benedetti largely made a valid case for her more intimate view of this music. Performing on the extraordinary 1717 “Gariel” Stradivarius, the soloist produced a beguiling, shimmery violin tone, as slender and elegant as her stage presence. If the score’s spiky brilliance was somewhat muted, there was compensation in the gentle, almost Impressionistic quality she conveyed in sections of the opening movement and the refined, silvery filigree of her reverie-like solos in the Andante.  A couple pizzicatos could have been cleaner, but the violinist showed admirable technical facility in the fireworks of the finale, rounding off an individual and intriguing take on this oft-played work. 

Tilson Thomas is one of our finest concerto accompanists, and he deftly scaled down the orchestra to suit the chamber-style interpretation of his soloist. Characteristically, the conductor brought out a plethora of detail throughout, not least the delicious wind writing of the Andante, here played with robust character by clarinetist Stephen Williamson and his section colleagues. 

Igor Stravinsky’s Concerto in D led off the evening. Written in 1946 for Paul Sacher’s Basel Chamber Orchestra, this micro-symphony for string orchestra was the composer’s first music to be written after he had become an American citizen the previous year.

Though outwardly one of his late neoclassical essays, Stravinsky, typically, puts some quirky topspin on the surface genialities, with shifting off-kilter rhythms and a succession of keys that flirt with atonality.

Tilson Thomas has long demonstrated a natural sympathy with music of Stravinsky, and that simpatico touch was evident in this bracing performance. The conductor brought incisive, big-boned rigor to the twisty rhythms of the outer movements, while drawing out the Arioso’s elegant, waltz-like theme with a balletic, slightly ironic grace. 

The program will be repeated 1:30 p.m. Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday. cso.org; 312-294-3000.

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