by Dwight Casimere
Miami Beach, Florida-Michael Tilson Thomas is one of the treasures of the modern music world. As Founder and Artistic Director of the New World Symphony, America’s Orchestral Academy, he is placing his indelible stamp on future generations of musicians who will leave his groundbreaking orchestra in Miami to assume important positions in orchestras around the country.
In a concert of Aaron Copland’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra with American virtuoso Jeremy Denk and Gustav Maher’s commanding Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor, Thomas re-envisioned the work of these two master composers of the last century with a probing vitality that is the hallmark of his stellar career as long-running Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony and Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony. The concert was held in the architecturally stunning Knight Concert Hall of the Adrienne Arsht on Miami’s sweeping waterfront. The New World Symphony will move into its own gem of a new concert hall, designed by legendary architect Frank Gehry (The Guggenheim, New York) in the heart of Miami Beach in January 2011.
There is almost a direct line of genius between Maestro Thomas and composer Aaron Copland, who, more than any other composer, defined the American musical persona. Copland was a long-time teacher at Tanglewood and it is there that he wrote many of his most inspired compositions at his self-proclaimed “Appalachian performing arts center.” His most famous student was the great Leonard Bernstein.
It is at Tanglewood where another budding conducting and composing genius came to prominence in the person of Michael Tilson Thomas, who won the Koussevitzky Prize in 1969 and was then appointed Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. That same year, he made his New York debut with the BSO by replacing then-Music Director William Steinberg in mid-concert, thus gaining international recognition. The rest, as they say, is musical history.
Thomas approached the Copland like a master painter applying his palette to a wide canvass. He allowed Copland’s colorful depictions to unfold with remarkable control of tempo and tonality. Denk’s deft articulation of Copland’s tricky passages, especially in the percussive Allegro assai, was a marvel to behold. His masterful fingering, especially in the thundering arpeggios, made for a stunning display of his compelling artistry. The piece hovers between jazz and over-the-top sentimentality. He seemed to revel in both worlds with equal relish. Denk has performed often with Thomas at the latter’s home orchestra in San Francisco and the rapport between the two was evident.
Denk capped his ovation-drawing performance with an encore of Charles Ives scherzo from the composer’s Piano Sonata No. 1. “There are four scherzo’s,” Denk proclaimed from the stage,” each more maddening than the last. This is the fourth one!” Diving into the intricate, dizzying maze of notes and rhythmic configurations, Denk quickly proved why with a flourish.
Four of Thomas’s eight Grammy Awards are for his explosive interpretations of the symphonies of Gustav Mahler. From the moment Thomas lifted his baton, it was apparent that the audience was in for a rare performance. Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 opens with a Funeral March that contains the notation “Stormy, with greatest vehemence. That, as a grandiose as it sounds, is an understatement. As realized by Thomas and his New World Symphony, forces of nature are unleashed with the fury of a Prometheus.
Thomas is a master of rhythmic control, able to scale the heights of ecstasy in Mahler’s lofty themes then plunging into the full artillery fire of his brass and percussion explosions. Part III, the Adagietto, was a masterpiece of restraint, in which Thomas executed a de-crescendo that was as gripping in its hushed power and majesty as anything he’d achieved in the stormy, earlier passages. It was a landmark performance.
Mahler’s compositions are tricky to perform. He seems to go out of his way to mess with your mind. Just when you think the melody is going one way, he injects a string of surprises. Its obvious that Thomas and the orchestra worked long and hard to realize this masterpiece. Mission accomplished in every way!
I have heard Maestro Thomas conduct on numerous occasions. I wrote about him extensively in his early years as music director of the San Francisco Symphony and reviewed his recent appearances during his annual visits to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Never have I experienced him with the vitality and expansive genius he displayed at this concert with his protégé’ orchestra in Miami. If you haven’t made travel plans to Miami, you should definitely do so and make a visit to the New World Symphony a must on your agenda. For future concert dates, visit www.nws.edu.