When a concert has the London Symphony Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas as the main performers – celebrating the conductor's 70th birthday – you know it is going to be good. Add Yuja Wang to the billing, and the expectations will be even higher, as she is an exceptional pianist. At tonight’s concert, none of the musicians disappointed, delivering impressive performances of works by Colin Matthews, Gershwin and Shostakovich.

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

The concert opened with Colin Matthews’s Hidden Variables. It is a work that can be placed squarely within the minimalist tradition, with parts reminiscent of Andriessen, Adams and Reich. However, it is impressive in its own right, and the LSO and Tilson Thomas gave an animated reading, with percussion and brass sections being on particularly good form. The aural landscape painted by Matthews is a frantic one, bringing to mind a crowded scene, with multiple characters running around. Although this makes the piece very engaging, at times one longs for some more nuances, some respite.

Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F Major followed on beautifully. With similarly high energy and a quintessentially American sound, the concerto allowed the musicians to embrace these elements further. The London Symphony Orchestra’s playing was both lyrical and strongly rhythmic, with some stunning moments in both the higher and lower registers. Principal trumpet Philip Cobb stole the show more than once, his dazzling solos making an indelible impression. His performance was matched by the soloist, as Yuja Wang gave an enthralling account of this jazzy, spirited concerto.

The piano leads the orchestra on a trip through a space that is not only more sparsely populated than Matthews’, but a space that seems to be eternally moving and revolving. The walls do not stay in the same place, as the music takes us to new heights and different scenes. The LSO and Wang played together excellently, but there were a few moments where the orchestra seemed too powerful. Tilson Thomas allowed the orchestra and Wang to make the music swing as much as it possibly can, and I am sure that I was not the only listener left with a big smile on my face. The encore, with Tilson Thomas joining Wang on the piano, was similarly fun, the quatre-mains by Poulenc receiving a raucous applause.

Shostakovich’s Symphony no.5 is a concert hall staple, and one might be worried that performances of it can become predictable. This was no such performance, however, as Tilson Thomas and the LSO gave an intense reading. The interval after Gershwin’s Piano Concerto was very welcome, as the first and second halves of the concert offered a crucially different atmosphere. 

One of the extraordinary features of the Fifth Symphony is its vast aural space. The landscape that we hear is not, like Matthews’, crowded, but is vast, sometimes desolate, sometimes inhabited, but always reaching far in every direction. This sense of space was ever-present in Tilson Thomas’ reading of the symphony, and never more so than in the third movement, a solemn Adagio. It was this movement that transformed the LSO’s performance from very good to excellent, as the quiet, unnerving music was delivered with such poignancy and emotional depth that it seemed to create a whole world of its own, transporting us from the concert hall into Shostakovich’s creation. The fourth movement brought us back down to earth with an exuberant finale that once again was exemplary of the energy and joy that Tilson Thomas and the LSO radiated throughout the evening.