Review: The Philadelphia Orchestra Performs Seeger, Berg & Beethoven with Guest Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas

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Contrast was stark in the concert which Michael Tilson Thomas led with The Philadelphia Orchestra. The first half displayed two radically dissonant pieces from the 1930s — Ruth Crawford Seeger’s Andante for Strings and Alban Berg’s Violin Concerto, while the second half was devoted to Beethoven’s classic Symphony No. 3 (the Eroica).

Michael Tilson Thomas. Photo by Kristen Loken.

Michael Tilson Thomas. Photo by Kristen Loken.

You could make an argument that there was a tie-in because Beethoven was radical in his time—but his tonal language was not so different from his predecessors (Haydn, Mozart) as were Berg and Seeger from almost everything that preceded them. True, Arnold Schoenberg pioneered atonal serialism, so-called twelve-tone music, but that was only in 1912, just three years before Berg began writing in that style.

Most of the audiences at Verizon Hall have scant interest in atonal music, but they put up with the Berg and Seeger because they respect Tilson Thomas. More than that: Their welcoming applause indicated that they have warm affection for the 72-year-old conductor. For years he was viewed as a junior version of Leonard Bernstein — energetic, intellectual, urban, Jewish, devoted to Mahler and Copland. Now he is recognized as a pioneer in his own right. He has encouraged innovative composers, helped them edit their scores, and conducted their works. He has also hired diverse young players for the two orchestras he heads, the San Francisco Symphony and the New World Symphony in Miami.

As they gave their polite attention to Berg’s concerto, listeners should have fallen under the spell of the lyric diatonicism of his 1935 composition. Berg established his own arrangement of twelve notes which were used repeatedly in sequence. That was an artifice that bothered traditionalists, but Berg included a strong tonal undercurrent: the first three notes of the row make up a G minor triad, and his tone-row has other accessible chords.

To add intellectual appeal, the last four notes of Berg’s tone-row are also the first four notes of Bach’s chorale, Es ist genug (It Is Enough). What’s more, the notes that comprise chords from his tone-row spell the name “Bach.” The first half of the concerto rhythmically presents recurring passages that build to a climax, then the final part is a slow and calm adagio.

Michael Tilson Thomas. Photo by Kristen Loken.

Michael Tilson Thomas. Photo by Kristen Loken.

Even if all of that didn’t grab each listener, everyone had to be moved by the lovely, sunny final chord with which Berg said that everything was okay in the world. Tilson Thomas anticipated that chord with a slight pause that emphasized the change in mood. Bach’s cantata included the line “O Eternity, Thou Thunderous Word.” Unexpectedly, Berg died four months later at the age of 50.

Although the concerto was a remembrance of Manon Gropius, the daughter of Alma Mahler and Walter Gropius who died at the age of 18, Berg wrote, “The work gave me more and more joy.”

The lanky, shaggy-haired Leonidas Kavakos gave meticulous attention to Berg’s violin writing, interacting closely with the orchestra.

The opening piece is barely known and is less than five minutes in length. It’s interesting, though, because it was written just four years before the Berg, and the composer used some of the same techniques as Berg. Seemingly opening with random notes, Seeger grouped them in her self-devised row and transformed them in color and volume until her composition reached a satisfying climax. She was an accomplished ultramodern classical composer who married Charles Seeger, the collector of folk music who had a son from his first marriage, Pete Seeger. The composer always used her maiden name, Crawford, but Tilson Thomas chose to bill her with her husband’s surname (possibly because it’s known to a wider public.)

When it came to the Beethoven, MTT led an interpretation that was not at all like Bernstein, the man with whom he apprenticed. It was clear, crisp, understated in all movements except the second, the famous funeral march which is the emotional core of the symphony. There he brought out warm emotionality. In this form, the Eroica seems like a logical progression from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, more so than a brother of his Fifth. That pounding drama was coming soon, but his Third was presented as a more restrained composition.

Michael Tilson Thomas. Photo by Kristen Loken.

Michael Tilson Thomas. Photo by Kristen Loken.

The Philadelphia Orchestra; Michael Tilson Thomas – conductor; Leonidas Kavakos – violin. Seeger – Andante for Strings; Berg – Violin Concerto; Beethoven – Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”) was performed on March 10, 11 and 12, 2017, at Verizon Hall at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts – 300 South Broad Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets to future concerts and shows, call the box office at (215) 893-1999, or purchase them online.

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