Thomas' CSO stint a long time coming

Yefim Bronfman
Chicago Sun-Times

By Andrew Patner

Like many conductors, Michael Tilson Thomas is devoted to the works of several composers who mean a great deal to him. But the ever-youthful music director of the San Francisco Symphony (who turned 65 in December) has a different list of favorites than most of his fellow conductors: Ives, Stravinsky and Copland. In addition, a long devotion to Mahler marks his repertoire, as well as a strong desire to make unexpected connections for his audience.

His concerts this week with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra allow him to offer an unforgivably belated CSO premiere by an American composer — Chicago-trained, no less — and a brilliant performance of a work that stands at an early crossroads of European 20th century music. Next week, he will lead an all-Stravinsky program that holds another Orchestra Hall premiere (!) and two large-scale scores that haven’t been heard downtown in almost 30 years.

This week, Tilson Thomas also has the privilege of working with a longtime colleague and one of the most thrilling pianists on today’s scene, Yefim Bronfman, in Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, a highlight of the CSO concert Thursday night at Symphony Center.

Ruth Crawford Seeger’s story was not fully told until the 1990s when major studies of her relatively brief life — she died of cancer at 52 in 1953 — and lamentably small catalog of compositions were published. Ohio-born and trained at the old American Conservatory of Music here, she was active in Chicago throughout the 1920s. Under the influence and initially at least, with the encouragement of her teacher and future husband Charles Seeger, she worked in a style called “dissonant counterpoint” that is much more seductive than it sounds.

Her sole string quartet of 1931 is a singular masterpiece unlike any other music, and her 1938 transcription for strings of its slow movement is both far ahead of its time technically and wholly captivating. Seventy-two years is a long time to test the better late than never maxim. Hats off to Tilson Thomas for this gift.

Alban Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, Op. 6 (1914-15), was heard here with some frequency from 1961 to the late 1990s (James Levine even offered it once at Ravinia); it stands as an arresting 20-minute encapsulation of music history. With a heart full of Mahler and a mind and ear being prompted by his teacher Schoenberg, Berg gives us a rich and complex tug-of-war without any losers.

Thursday, Tilson Thomas got on the spoken preview bandwagon, and while he is an elegant and perceptive talker and his musical examples gave many listeners something to hang on to, I’m not at all sure the piece needs even a non-defensive introduction. Either way, the audience was keenly focused, and the ovation was enthusiastic.

We don’t always associate Tilson Thomas with the standard repertoire. But with Bronfman at the keyboard this hardly matters. The Tashkent-born pianist just this week was announced as the 2010 recipient of Northwestern University’s $50,000 Jean Gimbel Lane Piano Performance Prize.

He’s a master at taking large-scale works such as the 1858 Brahms D Minor Concerto, and both playing them within an inch of their virtuosic lives and sharing his extensive analysis with an audience. Seldom does the combined presence of classical, romantic and baroque influences in this great orchestral calling card become as clear as it was Thursday. Tilson Thomas’ accompaniment seemed tentative in the broad first movement. But this was Bronfman’s piece, and he made it soar to cheers and repeated curtain calls.