A case of Bernstein redux

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LENOX - Some sort of destiny seemed to have been at work at Tanglewood on Saturday night when - in the absence of James Levine - Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the annual Leonard Bernstein Memorial Concert.

Tilson Thomas and Bernstein met when Tilson Thomas was a Tanglewood student and Bernstein a teacher in 1968 and 1969, and they remained close until Bernstein's death in 1990. People in the audience have been busy comparing Tilson Thomas to Levine, a less kinetic but no less impassioned conductor. Tilson Thomas comes out on top but a better comparison is to Bernstein. Both men have pursued careers as composers, conductors, pianists, teachers and ambassadors of music. Beyond that, Tilson Thomas, though less flamboyant, is heir to Bernstein's larger- than-life conception of music.

Mahler's Third Symphony was Tilson Thomas' vehicle Saturday, climaxing his two- week stay as Levine's stand-in. The Third is the pantheistic counterpart to Mahler's "Resurrection" Second Symphony, with which Tilson Thomas opened the season a week before. The difference between the two performances was not just a matter of different routes to divinity.

With the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the Second, Tilson Thomas wasn't able to pull his ideas together in coherent fashion. In the Third, with the student Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra, he had more rehearsal time and the energy of young players. And what emerged in 105 minutes of music went to the heart of Mahler's far- reaching universe.

The playing was more than simply responsive to the swirling, stabbing gestures from the podium. With a few professional players providing support in the ranks, it was blended and rich in the climaxes, tender and whispering in the calmer and darker moments. The brasses, and particularly principal trombonist Samuel Schlosser, were outstanding in their splendor. Two timpanists gave their all to the cause. At every turn, Tilson Thomas heightened the contrast between elements in Mahler's conception. Fast was faster, slow was slower.

The long first movement, with its crunching funeral marches, emerged like a force from the earth. The second movement mixed delicacy with a touch of the fantastic. In the third, amid the arguments between the cuckoo and nightingale, David Cohen's mellow posthorn calls wafted in from offstage as if from afar.

Next, mezzo- soprano Karen Cargill wakened mystical spirits in Nietzsche's ode to midnight and eternity.

The finale opened with bells and angels evoked by the American Boychoir and the women of the Tanglewood Festival Chorus. The long orchestral summation wound from ethereal murmurings to a mighty affirmation.

Was there a bit of exaggeration in all this? Of course. Bernstein used to say that when he conducted, he became the composer - meaning that he sometimes knew better than the composer what the composer intended.

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Tilson Thomas and his players and singers followed in that tradition, enlarging Mahler's cosmic embrace.

On a smaller scale, Tilson Thomas returned to the BSO Friday night in a program of two unlikes that made a pair: Stravinsky's " Symphony of Psalms," composed for the orchestra's 50th anniversary, and Mozart's Requiem, composed for the mysterious Count Walsegg-Stuppach.

Two composers, two approaches to the sacred. Dry and astringent in an orchestra without violins and violas, Stravinsky's 1930 work sets three Psalms in Latin. If some playing turned scrappy in wilting heat, Tilson Thomas, who in his early years worked with Stravinsky in California, drew out the tart sonorities, chugging and droning rhythms, and wandering counterpoint.

Details were sharply etched. The trumpet of praise stabbed out of the orchestral backdrop. Throbbing timpani accompanied the closing lauds.

The Tanglewood Festival Chorus, 120 strong and singing from memory as usual, came through with concentrated intensity, though the sheer numbers sometimes overwhelmed the reduced orchestra.

In the Mozart, Tilson Thomas' tempos were on the fast side, with little or no pause between movements, creating a nimble Requiem.

As in Mahler, drama ran high. The fires of hell burned hotter than usual. The name of the Lord in the " Rex tremendae" came with a tremendous shout.

John Oliver's festival chorus, celebrating its 40th anniversary, and a full-sized BSO rose to the occasion. The soloists - soprano Soile Isokoski, mezzo- soprano Kristine Jepson, tenor Russell Thomas and bass Jordan Bisch - made a well- balanced quartet, with Isokoski a shade more expressive than the others.

Tilson Thomas not only filled in during Tanglewood's hour of need, but also showed again why the buzz about his San Francisco Symphony is so good. His experience with his New World Symphony, a training orchestra like the TMC Orchestra, was a plus.


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