By Truman C. Wang
Filling the big shoe of Zubin Mehta in this week’s concerts was Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony. If one hadn’t head the ailing maestro Mehta’s cancellation, one would have thought MTT was the ideal first choice for this music. Two Austrian composers, Mozart and Bruckner, separated by 100 years but connected in their deeply emotional and spiritual explorations within the confines of the Classical sonata form. MTT, a modernist by training and disposition, proved equally adept at the demands of the Viennese tradition.
The pianist for Mozart Piano Concerto No. 23 K.488 was Khatia Buniatishvili, from the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Ms. Buniatishvili played with relaxed refinement in the first two movements which might strike some listeners as lethargic and others as elegant. To these ears her playing struck the right balance of elegiac lyricism and joyful exuberance. The first Allegro and the pastoral ‘Siciliano’ Andante evoked feelings of poetic reverie (interrupted in the Allegro by a fiery cadenza by Buniatishvili), while the opera buffa finale was teeming with the liveliest high spirits. MTT led the L.A. Phil in this winning collaboration of two Mozartians, with memorable contributions from the winds.
Listening to MTT’s lyrical, finely nuanced reading of Bruckner Symphony No. 7, I was reminded of Sir Donald Tovey's remark about Bruckner consciously shaping his music 'so as to present to us the angle of its relation to sonata form'. MTT’s multifaceted contemplation of the symphony's Herculean scale was both illuminating and thought-provoking. The Allegro had the epic scale of a slow-moving glacier. The all-important grand Adagio ebbed and flowed in luxurious sounds of the full strings and four Wagner tubas. The hunting calls of the Scherzo provided a welcome respite of earthly fun and game. The Finale piled on silken layers of sounds that only Bruckner knew how. By the strength of this reading, Michael Tilson Thomas can count himself among the rare breed of great Brucknerians. To their credit, the L.A. Phil musicians played with cathedrals of sound to rival the mighty Disney Hall pipe organ.
Truman C. Wang is Editor-in-Chief of Classical Voice, whose articles have appeared in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune, the Pasadena Star-News, other Southern California publications, as well as the Hawaiian Chinese Daily.