The Hollywood Bowl welcomed back an estranged old friend last week – Michael Tilson Thomas, who hadn’t conducted there since 1985. No longer the eternal whiz kid, now with twelve adventurous seasons as music director of the San Francisco Symphony behind him, Tilson Thomas returned to the Los Angeles Philharmonic as an eminent visiting maestro, tackling familiar American music Thursday night.
As co-principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Tilson Thomas had been omnipresent at the Bowl in the early 1980s – organizing a memorable Stravinsky Festival in 1982, energetically directing the late L.A. Philharmonic Institute for several summers. Some also remember the infamous night in 1985 when Tilson Thomas stalked off the Bowl podium in the middle of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 when a noisy hovering police helicopter refused to leave (he did so again at a subsequent concert, his last at the Bowl). Alas, the aircraft problem here remains, but now Tilson Thomas shrugs it off; he doesn’t have to live with it anymore.
Tilson Thomas draws upon an almost unparalleled tank of experience with American music, having associated closely with two of the composers on the program (Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland) and the brother of another (George Gershwin). He knows what makes this music tick; he can capture its idiomatic rhythmic snap, its slang and swing, its brashness and earnest grandeur.
For some reason, things didn’t ignite in Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances from “West Side Story.” Tilson Thomas seemed wooden, even a bit bored, the dance rhythms were surprisingly clumsy, the fight scenes lacked tension. Seek out his sizzling recording with the London Symphony on Deutsche Grammophon for a demo of what he can do with this music.
Yet at the other end of the evening, Gershwin’s “An American in Paris” brought out the real Tilson Thomas – jaunty, rhapsodic, swaggeringly at home with the homesick-blues episodes.
In between Bernstein and Gershwin were two of Copland’s so-called populist scores – again, prime MTT territory. He allied himself with the still-virile lyric baritone of Thomas Hampson in seven of Copland’s ten “Old American Songs,” playing off each other in a hearty, heroic, folksy, whimsical dialogue.
In Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait,” the narrator was the formidable literary warrior Gore Vidal, who in profile from his wheelchair now bears a ghostly resemblance to Carl Sandburg. His voice was high-pitched, his delivery so drawn out that Tilson Thomas sometimes had to hold the chords for an eternity in order to stay on track. But Vidal’s impressive aura of gravitas could not be denied – and Lincoln’s words resonated powerfully with Vidal’s own trenchant written broadsides about our present government.