Culture Vulture: Masterful Mahler from Michael Tilson Thomas

By Helen Epstein

Mahler's Third: Michael Tilson Thomas with first chair players in the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. (John Oliver,conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, in the background)

Mahler's Second with the BSO: Michael Tilson Thomas with first chair players in the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra. (The conductor of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus, John Oliver, is in the background.) Photo by Ron Barnell

It isn’t often that you get to hear the same conductor, same composer, and two different orchestras but that unusual experience was offered at Tanglewood as Michael Tilson Thomas (filling in for James Levine) conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) in Mahler’s Second Symphony last week and the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra in Mahler’s Third on Saturday night.

The conductor, Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, first conducted the BSO in 1969 and has a long history of conducting Mahler. Recently, however, he has been researching the composer for a documentary film to be released in the spring and his immersion in the world of the composer was evident in his readings of the Second and Third Symphonies.

The two orchestras—first, the spectacularly accurate, subtly polished BSO, then the far younger and less practiced Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra—could not have been more different.

The Tanglewood Music Center (TMC) is a fellowship program for emerging musicians who study with and in the proximity of BSO musicians and conductors for the summer, performing several concerts of their own. For many, it was their first time performing a Mahler symphony, and their excitement showed. This was passionate, spontaneous playing of music, as if their lives depended on it.

If the legato passages were not as silken as those of the BSO, the section playing not as cohesive, and entrances not as sure, the rawer parts of the symphony were extraordinary, evoking Bohemian beer garden combos and ragtag military bands, The trombones snarled, the percussionists thundered, and the many soloists excelled.

I’m a fan of both the BSO and the TMC. Both rose to the occasion under Michael Tilson Thomas, a very different conductor than James Levine but, it turns out, just as masterful.

The new edition of Helen Epstein’s Music Talks is available online and through Kindle/Amazon. She is also the author of Joe Papp. Order these books through Kindle or through the links below to Amazon and The Arts Fuse receives a (small) percentage of the sale.

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