How does one say, farewell? For Michael Tilson Thomas, saying goodbye doesn’t seem to be something he’s in a rush to do. The legendary conductor, diagnosed a few years ago with an aggressive brain cancer, is still active guest conducting and concluded his two week stint in Los Angeles with Mahler’s final complete symphony. MTT, ambling more slowly on to the stage than we’re used to seeing, was still lithe and noble. His conducting, perhaps less demonstrative than before, was still adroit. His sense of humor, was perhaps more on display than usual judging by some of his knowing gestures to the unusually noisy audience between movements. 

Michael Tilson Thomas
© Brigitte Lacombe

For Tilson Thomas’ subject Gustav Mahler, saying farewell was contemplated profoundly, perhaps nowhere more so than the composer’s Ninth Symphony. Like Mahler, who continued to compose past the Ninth, MTT doesn’t appear quite ready. 

Tilson Thomas’ reading of the symphony was drawn out, measured, for an already long and thoughtful piece. This was often successful. Ever the teacher, MTT obviously knows every aspect of this piece. He took great care in showcasing and elucidating every inner building block of the texture. This was quite successful in the first movement, which lays out the thematic elements of the piece perhaps more expertly than anything Mahler ever composed. This tactic was overwhelmingly powerful at the first climax: a soaring, beautiful cascade that seemed to burnish the Walt Disney Concert Hall’s every surface. The conclusion of the movement led to a much-needed exhale respite for audience and players alike. 

The second movement Ländler was an easy gait, never in a rush. The country dance was more jovial than rollicking; a happy memory, but long faded. The Rondo-Burlesque that followed was knowingly sardonic, hardly manic. It was thunderous, however. The LA Phil were powerful, virtuosic in their playing, and MTT seemed eager to indulge every moment. 

The strings, antiphonal violin sections, were sonorous, producing layers of rich sound. The brass were by turn majestic and as appropriately crass in choice moments as I’ve heard them. There were no weak links among them and I was pleased to be reminded of the world class sound of this band. 

As impressive as their playing was, the Phil saved their best for the final movement, a sweet, desperate farewell that soloists and sections played with stamina and fierce beauty. MTT made the most of every texture and line. It not only illuminated Mahler’s chamber-like finale but resulted in a sorrowful conclusion. Each halting phrase was less a desperate gasp than a beautiful song, cruelly interrupted. For Michael Tilson Thomas and audience alike, in the midst of such beauty, one can certainly understand the sentiment, “What’s the rush?”