Some conductors prefer to view the Alpine heights of Bruckner’s symphonic colossi from afar, contemplating its often rugged terrain with clear-eyed objectivity. But Michael Tilson Thomas will have none of that. San Francisco’s music director traveled down the coast last week, substituting for an ailing Zubin Mehta, and switching out Bruckner’s apocalyptic Ninth Symphony with the ecstatically songful Seventh. The result was altogether more lively and sinewy than is typically heard in performances of the Austrian composer’s music. In a performance of irresistible sweep and bristling with tensile strength, Tilson Thomas goaded the Los Angeles Philharmonic to meet this score head-on. Here the lofty summits weren’t merely gazed upon, but it was as if flesh and bone gripped to its granitic cliffs, scaling their way inexorably, the orchestra determined to conquer this mighty mountain.

Michael Tilson Thomas © Chris Wahlberg
Michael Tilson Thomas
© Chris Wahlberg

From the opening few bars, when the cellos poured out its opening theme with a lustrous tone that seemed to emerge from another world, the Disney Hall audience was made immediately aware that this would be no ordinary Bruckner Seventh.

Though Tilson Thomas set forward on a swift course through this music, nothing ever sounded pressed or forced. Melody after melody flowed seamlessly from one to the other, textures were carefully woven, and the cathartic climaxes that shook the hall were built with imperceptible naturality. The first movement alone was impressive, with applause spontaneously erupting even as the din of its coda had yet to fully dissipate. But Tilson Thomas rightfully discerned that the symphony’s heart lay in its eloquent and soulful Adagio, with its quartet of Wagner tubas intoning the solemn melody that eventually builds up to one of Bruckner’s most impassioned climaxes. Though not mentioned in the program notes, the version employed was the Robert Haas edition, and the performance was all the better for it. Whether it’ll ever be decisively proven that the composer himself incorporated the timpani (played with matchless power and confidence by principal timpanist Joseph Pereira), triangle and cymbal that cap the movement’s climax, there is no doubt as to its effectiveness. It is a touch that intimates to the listener that what they’re hearing is not merely the climax of the Adagio, but of the entire symphony, and perhaps even of an entire period in Bruckner’s development as a composer. Transitions were made seamless under Tilson Thomas, the entire movement rising and ebbing away as if in a single breath.

In this performance the listener was made to hear a Bruckner strikingly different from the impassive hermit lost in contemplation of his God and the hereafter. Tilson Thomas’s Bruckner swooned, leapt and raged; it wept out of sorrow one moment, then for joy the next. It was athletic, yet vulnerable, and as alive as had rarely been heard in Los Angeles for years. It was a Bruckner performance not as august rite, but as uninhibited celebration.

Mozart’s Piano Concerto no. 23 in A major, with Khatia Buniatishvili, preceded the Bruckner. The Georgian’s recordings often evince the tendency of many younger musicians today towards surface exaggeration and rhetorical flourishes that seem imposed onto the score, instead of being conceived from within. Indeed, her demeanor on the stage – vibrating her head and contorting her body along to the rhythm of the orchestra when she’s not playing, tousling her hair dramatically, and invariably flailing her hands above her head everytime she finishes playing a phrase – would seem to confirm the stereotypes associated with today’s younger performers. But one only had to shut their eyes to Buniatishvili’s antics to hear that, in fact, hers was a sober and cool-headed performance.

Her ears astutely searched out the nuances in the score without ever making them stand apart. Tempi were moderate and textures elegantly balanced. The concerto’s scalar runs were dispatched with enviable grace and clarity, her fingers drawing them across like threads of glittering gems, each note like a finely chiseled jewel. Buniatishvili clearly loves this music, has spent long hours of study with it, and has built her conception of it from the inside out. Tilson Thomas and the Philharmonic provided supple accompaniment, rendering its role with youthful, though never brash energy.

Superb though their Mozart was, it was Tilson Thomas’ Bruckner that will rightfully imprint itself on the memories of his audience’s inner ear. When he steps down from the leadership of the San Francisco Symphony in 2020, one looks forward to the hope that he’ll be spending more time in his hometown, and displaying for its listeners the artistry that he has honed across a lifetime, not to mention its vitality that defies the passing of the decades.

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