In Memoriam: Michael Tilson Thomas Conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra

Memory and mourning was the theme of Michael Tilson Thomas’ concerts this weekend with the Philadelphia Orchestra. The long-time conductor of the San Francisco Orchestra has had a continuing relationship with the Orchestra, and his appearances are generally among the highlights of the season. With soloist Leonidas Kavakos, he did not disappoint.

Thomas began his program with the arrangement of the Andante of Ruth Crawford Seeger’s best-known composition, her String Quartet of 1931. A striking and innovative talent, Seeger did not follow up on her early promise, but this brief work, which Thomas has championed for nearly half a century, suggests pathways not fully explored until the latter half of the twentieth century. Though there’s no connection to anyone in particular in the score, its intense, drone-like character and its complex thread of voices suggests a general dirge, and it set the scene for what followed.

Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto was composed midway through what was undoubtedly the most productive decade for fiddle concertos in musical history, the 1930s, a stretch that saw major works by Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Syzmanowski, Schoenberg, Bartok, Bloch, Britten, Barber, and Hindemith. The Berg work was inspired by the tragic death of Manon Gropius, the child of Alma Mahler and the architect Walter Gropius, who died suddenly of infantile paralysis at the age of eighteen. Berg was devoted to the child, and he interrupted work on his opera, Lulu, to compose this requiem—his own as well as Manon’s, since he died shortly after finishing it, leaving Lulu incomplete. The mirror-like form of the Concerto, with its two movements consisting of two slow sections bookending two faster ones, and the consonant-sounding lyricism of its triadic-based tone row, has made it not only the most popular work composed in the serial idiom of the Second Viennese School, but a staple of the repertory as a whole. Kavakos played it with silken sensitivity, but also with a full sense of its emotional depths, and Tilson Thomas supplied a limpid accompaniment.

Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony, which closed the program, was not composed to memorialize anyone, but was dedicated to the very-much alive Napoleon Bonaparte, who represented himself as the son and heir of the French Revolution. The Revolution’s ideas, partly spread by conquest, had swept over Europe, and the young Beethoven—one year Napoleon’s junior—welcomed the breath of freedom they seemed to bring. He was abruptly and unpleasantly disillusioned, however, when Napoleon took the title of Emperor of the French in December 1804, and, striking the dedication from his newly-completed score, substituted instead the phrase, “To the memory of a great man.” Napoleon had half of Europe yet to conquer, and in 1809 he led a victorious army into Beethoven’s own city of residence, Vienna. For the composer, however, he had died long before.

The Eroica does contain a famous funeral march, but it was written with heroism rather than mourning in mind. Nothing like it had ever been heard in symphonic music, and on its own terms it makes fair claim to be perhaps the most revolutionary work in musical history. Singlehandedly, it transformed the idea of the symphony as handed down by Haydn and Mozart, and pointed the way to the Romantic century. Most conductors make of it a Romantic work, using the resources of a modern orchestra to heighten its sonic and dramatic qualities, as well as a certain freedom of rhythm and phrasing. Tilson Thomas’ approach was radically different. He conducted the Eroica not in terms of what it looked forward to but what it had emerged from, a classicism on the cusp of change but only in Beethoven finding its breakthrough moment. Colors were crisp, rhythms sharp, and tonal contrasts contained within the formal balances of the work. If a musical instrument such as the Philadelphia Orchestra had existed in 1804, might this be what the Eroica would or at least could have sounded like—to the composer’s ear as well as that of his audience? It’s an idle question, of course, not only because modern instruments and playing styles are so different, but because two hundred years of performance tradition can’t be revoked. But Tilson Thomas wanted us to hear what one might imagine this music might have sounded like to Beethoven’s inner ear, as the composer sought to express a sensibility that could no longer be contained within the structures of the past in a style that still reflected them. His argument, then, is that hearing Beethoven deal with the tensions between an inherited idiom and the revolutionary impulses that would shatter them is more instructive for us now than simply treating those impulses as unambiguously triumphant.

In short, Tilson Thomas wanted us to hear the Eroica as the classical symphony it still was as it was being composed, even as it reached toward what it could only later fully become. It was a fascinating excursion, with the Orchestra fully committed, its voices clear and distinct and its balances true. The audience responded as if it had just heard a new and very great work. In a sense, it had.

The Philadelphia Orchestra in concert at the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce StreetsMarch 10-12, 2017. With soloist Leonidas Kavakos. Ruth Crawford Seeger, Andante for Strings. Alban Berg, Violin Concerto. Ludwig van Beethoven, Symphony No. 3 in E-flat, Op. 55 (“Eroica”). 215.893.1999; www.philorch.com

About Robert Zaller 53 Articles
Dr. Robert Zaller is an American author, playwright, and professor of history at Drexel University. An authority on British political history and constitutional thought, he writes extensively on politics, modern literature, film, music and art. He has been a Guggenheim fellow and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society.

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