Michael Tilson Thomas.
Festival of American Music I: Maverick – A Celebration of Michael Tilson Thomas
Teddy Abrams, conductor, piano, and clarinet
Donata Cucinotta, soprano soloist
Michael Tilson Thomas, guest conductor
Review by Annette Skaggs
Entire contents are copyright © 2017 Annette Skaggs. All rights reserved.
If you are familiar with the orchestral world at all you should be familiar with Michael Tilson Thomas, affectionately referred to as MTT. While he serves as the Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony he is also the founder and artistic director of the New World Symphony. Even with his full schedule in San Francisco, the talented Mr. Tilson Thomas finds time to guest conduct for such venerable groups as the London Symphony Orchestra and Chicago Symphony Orchestra (CSO).
I’ll admit that when I saw MTT’s name on the roster of guests who would be making an appearance with the Louisville Orchestra for the 2016-2017 season I got a bit excited. Back in my early days, I got to perform under MTT’s baton when I studied in Chicago for a concert he did featuring the music of Charles Ives with the CSO. But I was probably even more excited for Teddy, and maybe a little nervous, too.
As Louisville Orchestra Board President James Welch said during his introductory speech, “…imagine standing on stage with your mentor under the bright lights.” I know how I’ve felt when I’ve been in that situation, so it wasn’t difficult to imagine how Maestro Abrams might feel. After a chance meeting with Teddy earlier in the day he was cool, calm and collected. With Maestro Abrams’ introduction, MTT came on stage, dryly asked why there was no drumroll and began sharing the genesis of he and Teddy’s relationship. It started with a 9 year old Teddy writing a letter to MTT after seeing his first orchestra concert and asking MTT for a lesson in conducting. MTT answered that letter and a few years later Teddy was indeed a student of MTT’s. Later, Teddy joined MTT in the New World Symphony.
The title of the program could not have been more appropriate: Mavericks. Bernstein, Copland, Gershwin, Adams and MTT. (In my opinion, Maestro Abrams can include himself in this elite club). In the timeline of musical history, all of these composers are connected to MTT, Teddy and the Louisville Orchestra.
We started with Leonard Bernstein’s Three Dance Episodes from On the Town. If you are familiar with this piece it certainly falls in line with Bernstein’s lauded use of familiar sounds in his compositions. The piece was bright and bouncy and near perfect save for a weird slide from the trumpets and an errant note from the flutes in the 2nd section. A strange string scratch from the lower end made my ears perk up in the final section.
In 1954 our Louisville Orchestra commissioned Aaron Copland for what turned out to be Orchestral Variations. Although the piece started as Piano Variations, I adore the orchestration. It is deep, layered, and a departure from some of Copland’s more light-hearted sounds. Save for a simple seven note theme that MTT shared with the audience with a simple song: “This is my song, my little song, not long, but this is my song”, found in the violas. The remaining instruments get down and dirty in constant variations of the theme. MTT even hinted that you might hear the Woody Woodpecker theme in the bass clarinet. Eh, maybe.
After the piano was raised our guest soloist Donata Cucinotta stood in its crook while Maestro Abrams accompanied on the ivories (with Sebastian Chang as the page turner). Ms. Cucinotta shared with us Maestro Tilson Thomas’ composition, Grace, which was written as a present for Leonard Bernstein’s 70th Birthday. A whimsical ditty to be sure and while there were some moments it was a little difficult for Ms. Cucinotta to be heard, there was no denying that she was using her pregnant belly to accentuate the line “…a tasty plate of herring…” to full staging capacity.
John Adams’ Short Ride in a Fast Machine closed out the first half of the evening. Mr. Adams has gained well-deserved acclaim in the music world for his operas, such as Nixon in China, Doctor Atomic, and the recent Girls of the Golden West. Being a Bay Area composer, Mr. Adams has a close affiliation with MTT. This evening’s selection was Avant Garde, much like many of his other pieces. The use of wood blocks acting as a sort of metronome centered through most of the piece is ostinato. The whole of the orchestra must, in most instances, not listen to the constant pulse being made by the percussive blocks, as the other instrumentation is written for different rhythm, and often, different times. The orchestration is deceptive in that what seems to be formulaic and sectionalized is not. The cadenza does not show up until the end of the piece. Minimalism indeed, and expertly delivered by our Louisville Orchestra. But, I have to ask, was that a Fisher Price 6-bar toy piano at the end instead of the xylophone? I kind of hope so!
The top of the next set was a delightful piece titled Agnegram, written by MTT for the 90th birthday of Agnes Albert, a long-time patron of the San Francisco Orchestra, She also is the center of a fabled story as the first person to ride a raft in the Grand Canyon. With borrowed melodies from the 1812 Overture and Tura Lura Lura (Irish Lullaby – played nicely by Jack Griffin) the piece is a fitting tribute. I dare say, though I can’t be certain, that I heard a little Danny Elfman within the piece as well.
Aaron Copland’s Our Town, in MTT’s words, is simple – a bunch of quarter and half notes. But when you combine all of those components together with the full orchestra, it becomes something quite breathtaking: elegant, reflective and hopeful. This particular piece has become an integral part of the American Musical Language. What Copland tried to do was to impart larger social purposes and rights and privileges that are self-evident and essential. This was Copland’s gift to us all. Perhaps the feeling this piece elicits is best summed up by a fellow audience member who, upon the final note, whispered, “Wow”.
George Gershwin’s An American in Paris most certainly showcases a similar feeling of pride for the old Red, White, and Blue. The piece is firmly in our lexicon, familiar from countless uses in movies and commercials. Gershwin’s mimicking of the sounds that he heard in the streets of Paris still sounds very New Yorkish to me. What I always found fascinating about the piece is that there is only a hint of what is considered French music, not even an accordion. But it still brings a day in the City of Lights to mind. The orchestration is a perfect illustration. And our Louisville Orchestra’s performance of this essential part of our musical canon was C’est Magnifique.
Before our own Maestro joined MTT on stage to perform the last piece of the evening, Mayor Fischer awarded both Maestros with keys to the city and gave MTT a proclamation of his visit to our fair town. In his acceptance, MTT shared two ways that one can become successful: 1) invent yourself, and 2) achieve that vision.
Soon a large chair was brought out for Maestro Abrams to use for this clarinet solo in Gershwin’s Promenade (Walking the Dog), written for the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers classic “Shall We Dance”. I could not help but to think, as Teddy sat in this chair, raised to where his feet could not touch the ground, of when he first played clarinet for MTT when he was 12 years old. As Teddy was making sure his reed was wet and ready for use, MTT leaned over and asked if it was the same reed he used then. Laughter and audible “ews” were heard throughout Whitney Hall. This piece was a perfect dessert for such a rich and fulfilling evening.
As I watched the two Maestros conduct I could see that Teddy inherited some of his mannerisms from MTT, but I also see that he has his own unique style. MTT is far from reserved, yet, elegant and precise, with a touch of fun.
Another observation that I made this evening is that American composers love the xylophone, so, way to go Percussion!
Between this evening’s performance and the night before with Ben Folds, I can only imagine what the rest of the Festival of American Music is going to hold. Thank you to everyone who has worked so hard to bring us this World-Class entertainment!
Festival of American Music I: A Celebration of Michael Tilson Thomas
April 15, 2017
Kentucky Center for the Performing Arts
501 W. Main Street
Louisville, KY 40202
Annette Skaggs is heavily involved as an Arts Advocate here in Louisville. She is a freelance professional opera singer who has performed throughout Europe and in St. Louis, Cincinnati, Boulder, Little Rock, Peoria, Chicago, New York and of course Louisville. Aside from her singing career, she has been a production assistant for Kentucky Opera, New York City Opera, and Northwestern University. Her knowledge and expertise have developed over the course of 25+ years’ experience in the classical arts.