But you would never have guessed it when you saw him on stage. The form cut by Thomas – part teacher, part coach – was anything but diminished. On the contrary, the program seemed to magnify his powers.
It was the first of two programs Thomas has brought together with the ONS – on 31 March and 1 April he will conduct stand-alone performances of Mahler’s sprawling 2nd symphony, the ‘Resurrection’ – and the evening oddly packed a much of what has come to characterize his musical career: Over the course of 90 minutes, we experience dives into dissonance, illuminating tonal panoramas and detours into surrealism. Thomas takes a winding road to his singular perspective on American music, bringing it all together in one grand panorama.
But we also heard Thomas in his natural mode of educator. Before performing his own haunting staging of Carl Sandburg’s 1920 poem “Four Preludes on the Toys of the Wind”, he recited the poem in its entirety infested with rats and lizards. Before embarking on the trek to Copland’s “Appalachian Spring,” Thomas briefed us on the unique features of his path. (In this case, his artful restoration of an often elided sequence of intense and conflicting music in the 1944 sequel—originally composed for a ballet by Martha Graham and premiered at the Library of Congress.)
And the introductory remarks to “Angels” (a 1921 piece by rarely heard American composer Carl Ruggles) were three minutes longer than the piece itself.
“I really want you to have the experience of listening to this with your full attention and open heart,” Thomas said. “He has something to say. I’ve known him for 60 or 70 years, and I still find him radiantly beautiful. It’s something I think about, not just when I play it.
It’s hard to top Thomas’ own description of the work, composed for a muted brass septet and performed Friday by a row of instrumentalists from the heights of the chorister’s seats. He described it as “tinged with ecstasy and melancholy”, a piece that takes the form of a congregational hymn but imbues it with improbable (but not unfamiliar) colors.
There is a precision malaise in Ruggles’ work. (Thomas estimates that the slow-working composer could have spent 10 years composing his four minutes.) But his tense precariousness is largely the result of his tendency to suddenly become magnificent, as if a breakthrough in the clouds had allowed to glimpse a different landscape. His give-and-take vibe was deep as a prologue. (And bonus props to bass trombonist Matthew Guilford for one of the most satisfying sounds of the night.)
Thomas’ “Four Preludes on the Toys of the Wind” was both a striking centerpiece and a revealing portrait of the composer. A 2016 work written for soprano, two backing vocals, bar band and chamber orchestra, it sounds as collagist as it presents — a mirror that reflects the multitudes of Thomas.
While the music constantly oscillates between “pop” and “orchestral” identities, its most striking modulations are contextual. The orchestra is gradually modernizing in its expression as its companion “bar band” (here composed of saxophones, synthesizer, brass, electric guitar, bass and drums) goes through their respective eras: surly rockabilly, tight piston funk and a mix of punk and radio pop. (Who invited the hook to “Walk Like an Egyptian”?) Here and there, the sound of a cash register nods to the proceedings.
What makes the work cohesive is its all-encompassing theatricality, a strong touch of self-aware stage performance that owes its inspiration to Thomas’ grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, two pioneering stars of Yiddish theatre. Soprano Measha Brueggergosman (for whom Thomas originally created the work) is the ideal occupant of Thomas’ fluid in-between space: her supple, powerful voice already seems to inhabit the music, and she has remained perfectly attuned to listening to the shifting ironies of the poem, particularly in its ownership of its Ozymandian refrain: “Nothing like us ever was!”
Occasionally, Brueggergosman was flanked by soprano Mikaela Bennett and mezzo-soprano Kara Dugan – a formidable vocal trio with immediately obvious chemistry. At one point, the three shed their black robes to reveal gold robes, with the orchestra transforming into someone’s dream of a big band. With the stage bathed in blue light, the piece achieves and maintains a deliciously Lynchian strangeness.
And while Thomas had to bend down early to correct a slight hiccup in his opening bars, the orchestral execution was bubbly and spirited – especially the multitasking working overtime in percussion – until its hypnotic conclusion. , a superimposed repetition of the line “It’s happened before.”
Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” made a compelling companion to Thomas’ “Preludes.” Copland’s 1944 sequel is also a meandering, meandering narrative journey that veers from one mood and mode to another. Its (usual) eight sections tell the story of a young couple embarking on their marriage as well as life in the early American desert.
But, like Thomas, Copland’s music tells many stories at once – traces many traditions simultaneously, speaks to many ears. It is a generosity of spirit that Thomas seems to draw from the orchestra which, under this maestro, must agree to lighter, softer movements, to borderline poetic gestures: a flattened hand, an undulation that runs over the fingers, as if feeling the surface of a stream.
Certain sections demonstrated Copland and Thomas’ shared fascination with creating sonic environments – such as the soaring introductory theme that later returns with the coloring of the sunset.
Other sections highlighted their respective expressive strengths: the menacing passage of the “preacher” restored in the sequel by Thomas – a dark and stormy interruption that signals the reliable intrusion of “work and tragedy” – may delay the climactic return of Shaker’s signature melody from the suite (“Simple Gifts”) but only intensifies its cleansing effect. The descending chords that shadow the finale, the last parts of the theme in the strings and their slow silence were some of my favorite moments in front of this orchestra.
During one of the final standing ovations, Thomas picked up Copland’s score from the rostrum and wrapped it in his arms like a dear friend. It feels like another demonstration of a skill unique to Thomas: the ability to fully embrace the music he loves, without clinging to it too much.
“Michael Tilson Thomas Conducts ‘Appalachian Spring'” rebroadcasts March 26 at 8 p.m. in the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts Concert Hall. To visit kennedy-center.org for tickets and information.