Prefacing Mahler’s Fourth Symphony with a Mozart opus for voice and orchestra is not uncommon. Mahler’s G major is his least contorted by anxiety and self-doubts symphonic work and the one closest to classical orchestral sonorities. In addition, such a program allows the soprano only briefly appearing in Mahler’s symphony to extend her presence on the stage and also let the public encounter other facets of her interpretative qualities.

Michael Tilson Thomas © Art Streiber
Michael Tilson Thomas
© Art Streiber

Michael Tilson Thomas has coupled Mozart’s Exsultate, jubilate with Mahler’s Fourth before, so juxtaposing them again, in the MET Orchestra concert he was invited to lead at Carnegie Hall, was no surprise. Neither was inviting Pretty Yende, one of the opera world’s young divas, to be the soloist. It’s been a long-standing tradition for the MET Orchestra musicians to ask some of the greatest singers they collaborate with during the opera season to join them for the orchestral performances here as well.

If there was an element of surprise, it was related to the selection of the third work on the program, Ruggles’ Evocations. Tilson Thomas has been championing for a long time the music of Carl Ruggles, a little known – especially outside the United States – contemporary and friend of Charles Ives. Before the start, the conductor took a microphone and shared some thoughts about Ruggles’ music and described a long-ago encounter with the idiosyncratic composer.

Author of an extremely small body of work, even if he lived to be 95, Ruggles is one of the true avant-gardists of the 20th-century classical music on this side of the Atlantic. Painfully selective in declaring a work as finished, he left behind a series of scores deemed by his admirers to be as interesting as the ones finalized. Ruggles used to say: “Creation is soul-searching. Nothing is ever finished.” Initially composed for solo piano and later orchestrated, the Evocations’ four movements represent musical portraits of friends. Similar to his many oil paintings and charcoal drawings, each of them starts with a kernel statement that is gradually expanded. As polished as little aphorisms, musical phrases using Ruggles’ own brand of atonalism, have a tremendous intensity, a certain cosmic quality, that Tilson Thomas and the MET Orchestra succeeded in almost making palpable.

A consummate Mahlerian, Tilson Thomas lead a dutiful reading of Mozart’s Exsultate, jubilate, the motet having a structure of a three parts concerto for voice and orchestra, if one considers the recitativo, Fulget amica dies, just a preamble to the second movement. There is even a little cadenza at the end of the Allegro. The solo part is not undemanding for the soprano, with its numerous leaps, coloratura passages and the required legato in Tu virginum corona. Pretty Yende hit all the right notes but there was little sense of communion between voice – occasionally sounding shrill – and ensemble.

It was a totally different story during the symphony’s last movement, based on a text – Das himmlische Leben – from the Des Knaben Wunderhorn collection. Yende’s voice, capturing effortlessly a child’s innocence and wonder, soared clearly above the orchestral line. The German diction was perfect. It was an expressive, blissful interpretation.

Overall, Tilson Thomas lead a bucolic, luminous Fourth sounding intimate despite the large orchestral forces involved. Textures were light. Mahler’s always extraordinary instrumental pairings were brought forward without overemphasizing them. The weird solo violin in the Scherzo (concertmaster David Chan) was more ironical than sardonic. The first movement seemed rather dreamy, with climaxes mostly reined in and abrupt rhythmic changes tempered. The Adagio was full of tenderness with long sculpted arches that didn’t let the listeners’ attention wilt. With his long experience in interpreting Mahler’s music, the conductor emphasized all the lookahead moments, such as the trumpets heralding aspects of the Fifth and the vocal-orchestral pairing foreshadowing Kindertotenlieder.

What was somehow missing in Tilson Thomas’ interpretation was the darker undertow that is never truly absent in any Mahler symphony (and is many a time rearing its head in Mozart’s compositions as well). For once, listeners left the hall not full of angst but genuinely happy.