Michael Tilson Thomas brings a rare piece – and personality

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Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas

Michael Tilson Thomas is a big thinker who likes big gestures. The San Francisco Symphony’s music director was a guest on the podium of the Philadelphia Orchestra this weekend, and the podium could barely contain him. He likes to dance and dive and raise arms high in the air at moments of arrival. These aerobics give the audience a good idea of what’s going on in the music, and, for all I know, may even impart certain ideas to the orchestra itself.

To be sure, there were times Friday night in Verizon Hall when the music would have benefited from the conductor focusing his energies in different ways. He might have paid a little more attention to the back of the orchestra, for instance, which was sometimes not quite in sync with the rest. A more clearly articulated plan for starting the second movement of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 might have averted the misunderstanding over when the music was supposed to begin.

Nonetheless, Tilson Thomas is important to have around. He is a catalyst, and his enthusiasms are valuable. He brought with him a rarity: a piece by a woman. It’s only four or five minutes, the Andante for Strings by Ruth Crawford Seeger, but it’s a knockout. Like the Barber Adagio, it is from the 1930s, taken from a string quartet (augmented by double basses in the string-orchestra version), and builds to a climax. But Barber it is not. Seeger’s musical language is a weave of tight clusters of dissonance, its patterns undulating in an almost naturalistic way; you are so absorbed in the drone of the waves you don’t immediately notice the sea rising around you.

The piece, from 1931, still seems forward-looking, its style both anticipating European moderns like Ligeti and American minimalism. Here it made an apt ear-opener to the Berg Violin Concerto. Written just a few years later, next to the Seeger it seemed more lyrical than ever.

That lyricism was parsed out in the most judicious ways by Leonidas Kavakos. Astonishing as always, the violinist is ideally suited to the piece. His attention to details was fastidious and finely calibrated. And was there a more touching moment than that point when, in response to the orchestra’s quote of the Bach chorale, he warmed up his sound? The ensemble was on its mettle, giving great presence to the dozen or so signature coloristic-harmonic moments that make the work singular even today.

In the broad sweep – tempos, phrasings – there was nothing radical in Tilson Thomas’ conception of the Beethoven. There were, however, provocative touches. The third movement – why so slow? What was the expressive point to a quick breath taken between sections? 

If the Seeger was a blow-up to a larger format, there was a lovely surprise touch in the last movement of the Beethoven when single voices of strings took over for a few bars. There may or may not have been some larger point to it. But there’s value in such a moment, a quick hiccup of joy, and it is just the sort of thing that makes Tilson Thomas good to have here.