Returning where it all began – no matter what “it” might be – is always an event fraught with emotions. Past and present converge to cast a light on the future. Such emotions become even more intense in the wake of a life altering challenge. Such was the case for Michael Tilson Thomas this weekend at Tanglewood, returning to the place he first saw as a student 53 years ago and the orchestra which launched him on his career... and all this following successful surgery for a particularly aggressive form of brain cancer. The audience celebrated his return with a heartfelt standing ovation.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood
© Hilary Scott

The celebratory feeling lingered in the Boston Symphony Orchestra's vivid performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Dubinushka, a folksong about drudgery and oppression that the composer transformed into a rousing, defiant march.

Never one for flamboyant gestures, Tilson Thomas has refined his conducting technique even further. Though it remains vital, it is now spare and economical. His role in Rachmaninov's Third Piano Concerto was listener-in-chief as much as leader, responding to Alexander Malofeev’s many turns of tempo and dynamics, each egging the other on to dare the impossible. After introducing the main theme, Malofeev took off like a rocket. The orchestra followed nimbly matching his speed, clarity and precision. All the slowing down and speeding up served an expressive purpose, though, and was an integral part of the architecture of the performance. At times the intensity of Malofeev’s focus found his face almost parallel to the keyboard. Then he would relax into the more rhapsodic moments. A thrilling rollercoaster ride of virtuosity and expression like this would have left most mortals drained but, after being recalled to the stage multiple times, the 20 year-old offered a beguiling performance of Mikhail Pletnev’s piano transcription of the pas de deux from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker.

Michael Tilson Thomas, Alexander Malofeev and the Boston Symphony
© Hilary Scott

Aaron Copland was friend and mentor to the young Tilson Thomas and parts of his Third Symphony were written at Tanglewood, so personal associations abounded. When the first movement – a tentative sunrise in a troubling sky – received a smattering of applause from a section of the audience, Tilson Thomas turned and said loudly, “I agree!” His love for this symphony was obvious in the way he lingered over it, stretching out the tempo and embracing its many quirks. Sometimes forward momentum flagged, but the emotional commitment never. After the struggles and uncertainties of the previous three movements, Tilson Thomas molded the fourth and final one into a clarion call of victory and hope for the future, both ours and his (a call that would resonate in the following afternoon’s performance of Beethoven’s Ninth). During a solo bow he held up the score, which received one of the loudest ovations of the evening.