Michael Tilson Thomas, who is stepping down soon as music director of the San Francisco Symphony, was a highly anticipated guest conductor this weekend at Severance Hall. He did not disappoint, pairing the Cleveland premiere (after its San Francisco premiere in January) of his Meditations on Rilke: six songs to texts by Rainer Maria Rilke, with Hector Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique.

Sasha Cooke, Michael Tilson Thomas, Dashon Burton and The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

The Meditations on Rilke were composed from sketches and musical thoughts that Tilson Thomas has accumulated over several decades, as well drawing on as his longtime study of Rilke’s poetry. They are for mezzo-soprano and baritone soloists and full orchestra. Sasha Cooke repeated her January San Francisco performances; she was joined in Cleveland by Dashon Burton. Tilson Thomas’s music is completely American, sometimes nostalgic (including a honky-tonk saloon piano) with clear influences from Mahler, Berg, Copland, and, especially, Leonard Bernstein. It could almost be thought of as an American counterpart to Mahler’s Das Lied von Der Erde.

The first song, for baritone, opens with an extended, surreal distant solo for the saloon piano, while the poem describes an autumn day. The poet/singer hums, as if to himself, thinking about the change of season, as the out-of-tune piano returns to play a coda. The second song, Ich lebe mein Leben (I Live My Life) for mezzo is straightforward, Coplandish. The third song emphasizes the orchestral winds, a Mahlerian vocal line for baritone. The fourth song Immer wieder (Again, again) was tonal, with Bernstein ever present, opening with a duet of solo cellos. Cooke sang exquisitely about walking together in love, knowing that the lovers will eventually be buried “beneath ancient trees”. The fifth song Imaginärer Lebenslauf (Imaginary Biography) was the one song that used both singers, and formed a kind of Scherzo in the cycle. The last line of the poem, “Then God explodes from his hiding place,” begins pianissimo, is repeated, suddenly building to a climax. The last song Herbst (Autumn) evokes the last songs of Richard Strauss, with a flute prelude, later with a solo violin, building to a glittering finale with tuned percussion, wind arpeggios and a soaring melody before fading away at the end. Cooke was effective in her songs, with a lush voice and direct, clear diction, comforting and emotional. Burton’s baritone was fine-grained and perfectly made, but he often had to strain to reach the volume to compete with the expert orchestrations. Meditations on Rilke is an important cycle, deserving repeat performances. In it, Tilson Thomas has artfully synthesized American classical music of the last hundred years while nodding to its European predecessors. 

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts The Cleveland Orchestra
© Roger Mastroianni, courtesy of The Cleveland Orchestra

After intermission, the orchestra’s performance of Berlioz’ Symphonie fantastique was revelatory. Orchestra and conductor were completely attuned with each other. Tilson Thomas was an efficient leader; the slightest flick of a finger achieved response from the players. The Cleveland Orchestra is noted for the precision of its playing; here, there was also an unusually warm, blended sound. The performance was often restrained, with emphasis on softer dynamics, thus making the climaxes even more remarkable. In the introduction to the first movement, the silences were as important as the notes themselves. In the third movement, the English horn and offstage oboe solos were perfectly matched. The fourth movement March to the Scaffold was a true military march, which moved directly into the last movement Witches’ Sabbath, with its scary orchestral effects. Musicianship subsumed sheer virtuosity, turning Berlioz’s warhorse into something burnished from experience, yet new and exciting.