Mighty Mahler

Michael Tilson Thomas leads Tanglewood's opening night
By LLOYD SCHWARTZ  |  July 13, 2010

RESURRECTION REPLACEMENT: And Tilson Thomas was the man to lift the symphony to Heaven.

Michael Tilson Thomas — music director of the San Francisco Symphony and former assistant, associate, and principal guest conductor of the BSO — was once considered a likely BSO music director. Last summer, he returned to Tanglewood after 21 years to conduct, among other things, the closing-night Beethoven Ninth. When it became clear that James Levine had not sufficiently recovered from his recent back surgery to conduct at Tanglewood this summer, it was Tilson Thomas who was asked to replace him for the opening-night Mahler Symphony No. 2 and two later concerts.

Tilson Thomas has become one of the world's pre-eminent Mahler conductors, especially through his complete-Mahler-symphony recordings with San Francisco (which began with their live performance of No. 6, the Tragic, on September 12, 2001). And though most of Levine's shorter-notice replacements during the past BSO season were disappointments, getting Tilson Thomas was an inspired idea.

From the opening notes, you could tell that this Mahler was going to be a matter of life-and-death. The long, grave, solemn Allegro maestoso that opens the Resurrection uses time in complex ways. We begin "in medias res," in the midst of a funeral march, possibly for the hero of Mahler's first symphony. But soon we're looking both backward, with aching nostalgia, and ahead (perhaps to an afterlife), with visionary yearning. Tilson Thomas gave each episode its full due, allowing each of these contrasting — sometimes overlapping — elements to sink in: not rushing, yet always moving forward, each phrase expanding and contracting, pulsing with life. No mere time beating here.

The following "easygoing," "unhurried" Andante moderato is a lilting dance, a country waltz — pure nostalgia, but this time on the edge of parody, though with more serious memories surfacing. Tilson Thomas kept us on that edge, ending the movement with increasingly longer and more-teasing pauses, so that the pauses between the final two "That's all, folks" notes got the audience chuckling.

While Mahler was working on his slippery third movement, he was using the same tune for a comic folk song, one of his settings of folk poems from a famous German collection, Des Knaben Wunderhorn ("The Youth's Magic Horn"). The song, one of his best, is about St. Anthony delivering a sermon to some appreciative fish who listen attentively before swimming away to pursue their mindless or sinister endeavors, unaffected and unchanged. In Tilson Thomas's hands, this voiceless symphonic movement, beginning with a self-important drum roll that's undercut by the sarcasm that follows, was a marvel of sly satire, scintillating playing, and impeccable timing.

Then, cataclysm! And after that, a voice — and what a voice! Mezzo-soprano Stephanie Blythe, in a very different Wunderhorn song, "Urlicht" ("Primal Light"), gave utterance to all human need. She had sung beautifully earlier in the evening, in a celebration of the 40th anniversary of John Oliver's Tanglewood Festival Chorus, joining the TFC as soloist in some rare choral pieces by Debussy and Ravel. But it was only a warm-up for the astounding octave leaps toward Heaven in her monumental (almost abstract) expression of Mahler's most visionary movement.

She returned, with the TFC and the strong young soprano Layla Claire, in the finale, a visceral orchestral phantasmagoria ranging from hushed fervor to brass and bells singing out and ringing out the triumph of the soul over suffering and death. A triumph for everyone involved.

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