While Brahms' Piano Concerto no. 1 in D minor with Michael Tilson Thomas, Emmanuel Ax and the Los Angeles Philharmonic was nominally the concert's headliner, the Second Viennese School turned out to be the main attraction. Presenting the work of Alban Berg alongside music by two iconic students of previous classes made it seem like the future had finally come. That is, if your notion of where we are includes, as the conductor explained in his long and reflective introduction, "demented Nutcracker memories" and other artifacts that hurtling forward entails.

Emanuel Ax
© Lisa Marie Mazzucco

A very young-looking Philharmonic eased into the Präludium in Berg's Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op.6, with command and mystery, the orchestra's bassoons totally brilliant. Tilson Thomas coaxed an incongruous grace from the dance music in Reigen, which was followed by the terrible Marsch. This most purely Mahlerian of the three movements, with its Ninth Symphony opening and trumpet triplets from the Fifth, was engulfed in the same chaos that devastated Berg's world a century ago and is now threatening to devastate ours. 

After intermission, the Brahms was no match. The performance was lithe and athletic: the violin trills at the opening of the Maestoso were immaculate, and the strings in the big tune were magnificent. But Ax took a while to synch comfortably with the orchestra; his playing was sane if not cautious, and it felt at times as if he was not getting everything out of the piano he wanted. The Adagio had almost an andante lilt, and an almost casual take on the Rondo left an overall impression of Brahms in the shadow of Berg. 

Tilson Thomas and the Phil opened with Mahler's charming little Blumine movement from his First Symphony, played affectionately with almost painful sensitivity. The trumpet played his solo, which the composer would echo in the third movement of his Ninth Symphony, with just a tremulous hint of a wavering vibration, exquisitely phrased with a breathing pulse. The oboes and the French horn were rustic in a sophisticated kind of way. The use of two harps with the smaller orchestra gave the sound a special lustrous richness.