Michael Tilson Thomas, recently recovered from emergency brain surgery, stepped back onto the podium with the New York Philharmonic this weekend. The performance I heard ranged from the skilled to the sublime.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

The opener was Ruth Crawford Seeger’s acerbic modernist jewel Andante for Strings. Rich notes on the lowest strings of each instrument sustained and overlapped to create a sense of texture that gradually built through mounting tension to a thoroughly earned set of raging outbursts, then much more quickly dissolved. The piece consists of a slow burn, an eruption and a rapid melt, and in Thomas’ hands it had the pungency and truth of a well-timed aphorism.

The performance of Alban Berg's Violin Concerto began with an unintended bit of comedy; the solo part begins, famously, with a slow arpeggio up the four open strings. Gil Shaham’s E string had somehow gone drastically out of tune before he began, and he was forced to ask Tilson Thomas to stop the orchestra while he retuned. “I only have four strings, three out of four is not good enough,” he quipped, to chuckles and applause.

Retuned, Shaham dazzled in the solo part, the fiendishly difficult double stops and left-hand pizzicato seemingly effortless. Tilson Thomas conducted with conviction and clarity; the brass-heavy climaxes were persuasive. But the most compelling moments were those when the orchestration thinned out and Shaham was, in essence, playing chamber music. This concerto, composed in response to the death of a friend’s daughter, can have a heartfelt, large-scale, dramatic appeal; this rendition seemed more abstract, reveling simply in the joy of playing through Berg’s sometimes-thorny textures.

Gil Shaham, Michael Tilson Thomas and the New York Philharmonic
© Chris Lee

The joy of playing was definitely on the agenda in Beethoven “Eroica” Symphony. Tilson Thomas conjured gaiety rather than dignity in the first movement, and there were bobbing heads and suppressed grins visible on stage. The orchestra was perfectly balanced and blended, changing moods and back again in a gestalt, like a school of fish changing direction. The funeral march took an unhurried, breathing pace, and was notable again for the orchestra’s total cohesion through the multiple changes of texture and mood. The wind interjections had exactly the right amount of brass; the fugue was bitingly violent, and Tilson Thomas avoided the temptation to milk the fragmentation of the theme at the end for sentimentality.

The Scherzo felt perfunctory by comparison, with the exception of the horn trios, which were nicely raucous. The final movement, though, fulfilled the promise of the first two; when the horns took the tune in the final variation, the payoff was tangible. The Eroica is actually not a personal favorite of mine, but I came as close to loving it today as I ever have.