“It’s taken my entire life to get here,” Michael Tilson Thomas said, standing on the podium of the Rudolfinum. “And I’m so glad I did.” The audience felt the same way, cheering and applauding enthusiastically after a particularly rousing rendition of Schubert’s “Great” C major Symphony. Given the precarious state of Tilson Thomas’ health these days, any performance is cause for celebration. But if his debut appearance with the Czech Philharmonic in its home hall had a bucket list feel to it, that quickly dissipated in the first moments of the opening piece, Copland’s Appalachian Spring. The conductor was all business and the music was as vital and captivating as anything the orchestra has played this season.

Michael Tilson Thomas
© Petra Hajská

Schubert’s sprawling masterwork tends to dominate any program, but in many ways Copland’s ballet suite was more interesting, mostly because of Tilson Thomas’ expert hand. It didn’t sound like a European orchestra playing American music. It sounded like music straight from the New World, fresh and thrilling, played with the optimism and exuberance that characterizes American orchestras. Tilson Thomas’ technical skills and long experience with the piece lent it authority and depth.

The opening was radiant, so finely crafted that even the horns glowed. The sudden turn in the second section was sharp and vibrant, igniting a burst of melody and color that set up a smart dynamic. In the dance sections, Tilson Thomas fashioned incisive rhythms and flowing melodies that invoked the promise of the beckoning horizon. In the slower passages, the Czech Philharmonic’s natural gifts came to the fore, its emotional warmth suffused with love of the homeland. The combination came together neatly in the Simple Gifts theme, with heartfelt woodwinds giving way to bright, bold brass. The conductor found some jazz flavors in the rhythms that built to the theme in its full final grandeur, expressed in a high-volume blast that settled into a hushed, gentle finish.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the Czech Philharmonic
© Petra Hajská

The orchestra’s Romantic roots gave Tilson Thomas plenty of latitude with the Schubert symphony, which he managed to make both monumental and graceful. The grace was in the close attention he paid to the wealth of fine details and a lighthearted approach that kept the music buoyant and animated, even in the percussion-heavy passages. The sheer size of the symphony – 48 minutes in this performance, and it can go even longer – makes it imposing, an effect Tilson Thomas magnified by giving every movement its own character, like four related but distinct pieces. In particular, the march in the second movement was like a kaleidoscope of color and rhythm, followed by a third movement that roiled gloriously, pulsing with energy and echoes of Beethoven. An adventurous spirit running throughout gave the music a spontaneous quality.

Michael Tilson Thomas
© Petra Hajská

And the intensity was remarkable. In a work of this length, sections that sag are almost inevitable. But Tilson Thomas’ version was taut from start to finish, an impressive display of clockwork precision in the conducting and tight focus by the players. Physically, Tilson Thomas is not the same man that he was just a year ago, before surgery to remove a brain tumor – a bit slower, grayer and slightly stooped. But if this performance was an accurate indication, he has not lost a bit of stamina. Nor has the quality of the music he produces diminished in any way.

And it’s still true that no one connects with an audience like Tilson Thomas. In his remarks between the waves of applause, he joked about the “thousands of notes” in the Schubert symphony, recalling unsuccessful attempts to count them all. After a high-level performance, it was a down-to-earth admission that seemed to capture every heart in the hall. And a fitting coda to an evening of life-affirming music. 

*****