In early August, the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas announced that, following surgery to remove a brain tumor, he was withdrawing from his upcoming performances to receive treatment. “I look forward,” he said, “to seeing everyone again in November.”
Even coming from such an indefatigable musician, still dynamic at 76, that promise seemed optimistic.
But on Thursday at Alice Tully Hall, looking a little weather-beaten but still vigorous and bright-eyed, Thomas took the podium to lead the New York Philharmonic in inspiring performances of demanding works by Ruth Crawford Seeger, Berg and Beethoven.
This was his first public performance since his announcement, as well as his first time with the Philharmonic in 10 years, and he was clearly determined not to miss it. He is scheduled to lead two upcoming programs with the San Francisco Symphony, where he ended a quarter-century tenure as music director last year. But returning to the Philharmonic at this difficult time was very meaningful, he said in a short video released this week.
What moved me most about the video was that Thomas said nothing directly about his illness. Instead, ever the educator — the best explainer of music to general audiences since his mentor, Leonard Bernstein — he shared keen insights into the works he was offering. He kept it all about the music.
On Thursday at Tully, the hearty ovation that greeted his appearance might have gone on longer had Thomas not quickly taken the podium to get to work — standing to conduct and looking alert and immersed, his cues a deft combination of precision and flexibility.
He began with Crawford Seeger’s visionary Andante for Strings, written in the 1930s but anticipating experimental styles of 30 or 40 years later. The quasi-atonal music unfurls in small recurring motifs that overlap and build into outbursts of intensity. It was gripping.
Thomas, with the superb Gil Shaham as soloist, then turned to Berg’s Violin Concerto, one of the greatest works of the 20th century. Berg dedicated the piece to “the memory of an angel” — the 18-year-old daughter of Walter Gropius and Alma Mahler Werfel, who had died of polio. In the video Thomas says that the piece contemplates death, but “goes beyond that to a really big and beautiful vision of what the totality of life is, in our whole planet, and in the whole universe.”
Berg drew upon 12-tone techniques here, though the first movement deftly folds in musical evocations of a young woman’s youth in Vienna, with bits of waltzes and folk songs. From the start, Shaham (with glowing sound and, when called for, spiky intensity) and Thomas (drawing rich, lucid sonorities from the orchestra) brought out the lyrical elements that run through the score.
In the second movement, which begins with wrenching expressions of grief and anger, Shaham dispatched the tangles of skittish lines and blocks of heaving chords with eerily controlled vehemence. The strains of “Es ist genug,” one of Bach’s most harmonically daring chorales, gradually enter as a gesture of consolation. Yet this performance remained alert to the unresolved, searching strands that linger until the end.
During the bows that followed, Thomas interrupted the applause. “I forced Gil to learn this piece,” he told the audience, smiling. “Good idea, wasn’t it?”
After intermission — the Philharmonic’s first this season, after a run of shorter performances — Thomas led a compelling account of Beethoven’s “Eroica” Symphony. In the first movement, rather than just going for stirring energy and grandeur, he seemed intent on bringing out the intricacies and inner textures of the music.
Perhaps overly so — though the performance gained in sweep and determination as it went on. The slow movement, a noble funeral march, was magnificent, almost Mahlerian. And the Scherzo showed that Thomas was in no slow-tempo mode: The music whisked by with fleetness and crackling rhythms. The Finale was joyous — majestic and exciting, even teasing out the touches of silliness.
At one point, between movements, Thomas unabashedly pulled up his visibly sagging pants, which elicited some good-natured laughter from the audience. He turned around and said, “Post-pandemic waistline,” prompting more laughter.
But in general he looked fit and lively. Beethoven famously scratched out the original dedication of his “Eroica” — to Napoleon — and instead titled it in honor of a nameless hero. On Thursday, that hero was Michael Tilson Thomas.
New York Philharmonic
This program is repeated through Sunday at Alice Tully Hall, Manhattan; nyphil.org.