Copland’s Third, with the BSO and MTT at Tanglewood
Saturday, August 27, 2022
Michael Tilson Thomas returns to the Berkshires to lead the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Copland’s inspirational Symphony No. 3, and pianist Alexander Malofeev is the soloist in Rachmaninoff’s mighty Piano Concerto No. 3.
Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor
Alexander Malofeev, piano
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV Dubinushka
Sergei RACHMANINOFF Piano Concerto No. 3
Aaron COPLAND Symphony No. 3
This concert is no longer available on demand.
Hear a preview of the concert with Michael Tilson Thomas, who connects Rimsky-Korsakov's Dubinushka to great musical figures of the past, describes the special qualities he hears in Alexander Malofeev's playing, and recalls conversations with Aaron Copland that reveal the essence of the composer's music, with the audio player above.
Brian McCreath Michael Tilson Thomas, it's so good to talk with you. Thank you for a little bit of your time today. We'll talk about the programs that you're conducting at Tanglewood. And the first piece that you'll conduct on Saturday night is Dubinushka.
Michael Tilson Thomas "Du-BEE-nushka."
BMcC "Du-BEE-nushka." Thank you. Thank you for the correction.
MTT I've said it wrong for years too.
BMcC Okay, good. I guess I'm not alone. But, [it’s by] Rimsky-Korsakov, and it's such a small little piece but packs a little punch. And I'm curious about your choice of even programing it. What brings you to this piece at Tanglewood?
MTT Well, I'm kind of an expert at the obscure and the arcane, a little bit going back to the years that I was playing in and around the Heifetz / Piatigorsky masterclasses, because those guys were really big on little pieces, encore pieces. And Heifetz even sometimes would give a recital where he, first half was like the "Devil's Trill" Sonata by Tartini, is that someone like that?
BMcC Yeah. Yeah.
MTT And then would come, maybe, the, “Kreutzer” Sonata or maybe Beethoven C minor Sonata, you know, big piece, and, or Brahms Sonata, maybe. And then the second half was like five or six tiny pieces. Like his own arrangement of [Ponce's] Estrellita and Debussy La plus que lente. And there was another Strauss piece, [An] einsamer Quelle, I remember, was one of them, even the Vitali Chaconne, a preposterous piece, or one of the little Kreisler things, or so on. It [would] be six or seven small, very characteristic pieces, and they were just delicious and delightful, these things. [Christian] Sinding, I think there was a piece.
And I made a recording, actually, of a lot of these pieces, which I called Masterpieces in Miniature. And I'm very proud of that recording. And the kind of inside joke about it is that it was done for some anniversary or another of my collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony. And they were gearing up and they said, well, we want to do something really special. So how about let's do [Schoenberg's] Gurrelieder? And I thought about it and said, you know, it just requires millions of people, and I'm not totally convinced it actually works, and what it really means to anybody. How about instead, let's do an album of all of these little pieces, Masterpieces in Miniature. And so instead of Gurrelieder, we wound up doing [Sibelius's] Valse triste and [Debussy's] La Plus que lente, and [Delius's] On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring - there's a real tremendous masterpiece, by the way - and these require great subtlety, and the orchestra and I, in our communication, went to wonderful places. So that's just kind of a typical of me.
And this Dubinushka, if you're looking for a short opening piece before something as hulking as Rach Three [Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3], it's perfect because it is short, but it does really pack a punch. It starts very quietly and then repeats, again and again, this little folk, quasi-revolutionary song of the 1904-5 revolution. And it becomes something as big as the 1812 Overture, including, in its original version, it does actually have chorus, which comes in at the very end. So I love doing the piece, and it's always the case that no one has ever heard of it. The orchestra members have never played it and one reading or so through it, they're loving to play it.
BMcC Alexander Malofeev is the soloist for Rach Three. And you've spent so much of your career, your musical life, working with young musicians that I wonder, when you - and I think this is the first time you're actually able to perform with him, if I'm correct; you were supposed to and the concert had to be canceled or his performance was canceled. But you have worked with him, talked with him. What do you find in him that's exceptional, that prepares us maybe to hear him play Rach Three.
MTT Well, I first became aware of him, many of his performances, which are online and especially in and around the last Tchaikovsky Competition. There were a lot of rounds of that and recitals that followed it. So he was well-represented in that. And I was quite amazed by his playing, which was quite aristocratic. And moreover, I appreciated that, when he plays, he is very self-contained and controlled. He's not gesticulating or making enormous gestures with his body or otherwise. It's very, kind of in a small area, geographically, but what he's playing is colossal. He has a really major, old fashioned, Russian, big piano playing way about him. So I thought it would be interesting to meet somebody new, young like that. And so I started to arrange some opportunities for us to make music together, which were supposed to have happened already in Montreal, but it was just, put it easily, which was it was one of the casualties of the pandemic that for one reason or another, that concert didn't happen. So here we are doing it for the first time here.
On the reverse side of the equation, I remember back when I was kind of the age he is now. I was a tiny bit older when I was like 23, 24. And I think the first time I accompanied a Rachmaninoff concerto, which was the Second Concerto, was with Artur Rubinstein. He was my number one soloist. And in those years, that was happening quite a lot with all sorts of amazing artists. Byron Janis and Van Cliburn and…
BMcC And some of that must have been with the BSO.
MTT … Michaelangeli, and, you know, these really legendary people.
BMcC That was during your time as, first, Assistant, and then Associate Conductor of the BSO, I think. And so maybe there must have been some BSO and even maybe Tanglewood performances.
MTT A lot of that was that. And then things with London Symphony and with the Israel Philharmonic.
BMcC Right. Sure.
MTT In Israel, I had the opportunity to work a lot with Henryk Szeryng.
BMcC Oh, wow. Yeah.
MTT Many people don't remember as clearly as they should what a phenomenal artist he was. I learned so much from him. And in another sort of way, I learned a lot from people like Ivry Gitlis, for example.
BMcC Say more about what you learned from, from...
MTT Well because he was such a high energy, searing kind of energetic player in, musically what he was doing. And he always said, after rehearsal he said, "Well, it was nice rehearsing, but I don't know, that was really any point because I like to play around, I like to be spontaneous." And that was the whole thing. You just had to be ready for anything to happen. And it was kind of scary at first, quite frankly. But eventually it became a very exciting challenge. And I always like people like that who had, you know, nerves of steel. Weissenberg was another pianist. I played with a lot.
BMcC Alexis Weissenberg. Really? Gosh, his playing...
MTT And he had that same thing. I mean, just astounding technique and the ability to turn on a dime or even less than a dime.
BMcC I think of him and I think, like, the image that comes to my mind of him, and I never was able to see him play or hear him play live, but I think of focus, it just seems like this enormous focus, like so completely involved in the moment.
MTT Well, I think the thing about Alexis, I think of him coming from that school, Russian kind of school, Rachmaninoff also was part of this, which is music of great emotional range, including great tenderness. But played by a hand of iron. There's no question that the hand, the arm, the whole equipment is this massive, all-powerful kind of instrument. And that it's capable of doing these very gentle and capricious things. But you're always aware that huge force is there.
BMcC Well, another person that you knew, especially back in those days when you were working with the BSO a lot and moving as well to the London Symphony was Aaron Copland. And so, I'm so interested in your recollections of him and, whether he also was someone, because we don't see him in the video clips and in the speeches that we might hear from him or even from his writing, we don't, I don't feel like we see him as a very scary individual. But was he intimidating to be around?
MTT Perhaps to some people. I think of him as being very friendly, very generous, very encouraging. Not that he liked everything. He was clear about what he thought worked and what didn't work.
But starting when I was about 18 or so, I had the opportunity to play many of his pieces for him, piano pieces. And he gave me a lot of instruction about how they would be played. And as is always the case, because I've been very fortunate to have that experience with a number of different composers, including Stravinsky and Bernstein and Boulez and so on, that no matter how precise the notation may be, when you hear one of these composers sing the music themselves, you understand it in a whole other kind of way. In a much more personal sort of way.
So, in the first piece I played for Aaron, the Piano Variations, which is a very difficult piece, so there's a phrase in the Piano Variations that goes [sings], like that. And it's written as a 32nd note before the beat, I think. [sings] So, and I was playing for him and he said, "Well, doesn't make any difference, does it go before the beat or after the beat or whatever? But don't worry about whether it's a 16th or a 32nd. It should sound like "Atta boy!" It was like this very kind of sports team, something a couple of baseball players would say to one another in the dugout, maybe, something like that. Or sometimes those things came from, of course, other sources, folkloric sources or...
In the Third Symphony, the second movement has this wonderful quotation of a song, a cowboy song called "I'm Leaving Cheyenne." And I'm sorry, I can't remember all the words of that right now, but it's like, [sings] "Because I'm leaving Cheyenne." That's the whole thing, "because I'm leaving Cheyenne," and I find that enormously helpful in getting the sense of the music. And it's first introduced as an oboe solo, but the oboist has to find this beautiful, naive, but open, expressive thing. And it also is a demonstration that one of Aaron's stylistic features is he likes starting something over again. So, in the case of that [sings] and so on. Or not to mention, how about [sings]. Once you start thinking about that...
BMcC Yep, yep, Appalachian Spring.
MTT You can go through nearly all of his music and you'll find that happening.
BMcC Right. Absolutely.
MTT So, you know, many starts and starting over, changing key maybe but, you know, he loves to try to keep that bouncy, excited energy of, "Oh we're starting again. Where's it going to go this time?"
BMcC Well, I love, in the episode of [the PBS series] Keeping Score that you did on Copland, I love the way that you set up his personal background as having deep roots in the Brooklyn Jewish community and the music of that era and the newly available recordings of jazz that he could take home. As you put it in the show, you could annoy your parents by playing it endlessly on the phonograph.
When we get to the Third Symphony, that's so far later in his life. Do those elements of his Jewish background and that world of music and the jazz that he was hearing on these early phonograph records, do those still exist within the Third Symphony, or is it so many layers removed through the course of his life that that's more of a memory than really part of the piece.
MTT Oh, no, it's there. I mean, maybe the mixture, the proportions of what's going into the recipe of the Third Symphony cake, shall we say, are a little bit different. I guess the Third Symphony would have to be looked at as a symphony like Shostakovich 5 or like Prokofiev 5, or, you can probably think of others, that are in some way or another related to the struggles around the Second World War. What's interesting about Copland 3, I think, is that it is a much more gentle and optimistic symphony than those other symphonies we mentioned.
And the way it begins, this just beautiful evocation, perhaps, of some peaceful place in nature or in the human spirit. [sings] Which turns out to be the main theme of the piece. [sings] It's very lullaby-like almost. And then the second big theme, which is much more confrontational, [sings] In various ways throughout the whole piece, those themes are developed into other things, as notably [sings] becomes the really radiantly beautiful third movement, which is my favorite of the whole piece, with the fiddles very high up, not in my tessitura anymore. [sings] And the haunting unfolding of that music that happens, that's still very, very Jewish sounding.
And then of course that [sings] that's leading to [sings] Of course Aaron had that fanfare from before, Fanfare for the Common Man. But in the way positions it in the symphony is like unto Mahler's positioning of the Grosse Appell in the Second Symphony. This whole big brass piece, which kind of ushers in the last movement and the whole peroration of the piece and that it reaches this enormous, rather jazzy, I think, as you mentioned, jazz, I think the [sings] Which more accurately, perhaps could be described as a kind of fusion of ragtime and Latino music.
BMcC Which he was very familiar with.
MTT [sings] You know, that's very Hispanic. And that was the thing that Aaron was doing at that time, was to take all these echoes of different musical languages and try and meld them into a kind of language that many Americans could, in some way or another, relate to, recognize as having something to do with their own heritage.
BMcC Yeah. Well, Michael Tilson Thomas, it's just always so good to talk with you. I feel like we could talk all day. Every interview I've done with you, I feel like we could talk all day. But we'll end it there. So thanks so much. I appreciate your time.
MTT Thank you.