Dec 9, 2018
By Mark Swed
“Other than a very occasional ‘Messiah’ or John Adams’ ‘El Niño,’ the Los Angeles Philharmonic doesn’t do holidays. That was obstinately true Friday at a Walt Disney Concert Hall bedecked with a Christmas tree and menorah for a seemingly recalcitrant Michael Tilson Thomas. He ended his program Friday morning with Charles Ives’ ‘Holidays’ Symphony. Ives’ holidays happen to be Washington’s birthday, Decoration Day, Fourth of July and Thanksgiving.
“Yet, in a glorious performance, Tilson Thomas incomparably embodied the good cheer and wonder of the season by going beyond specific holidays. Ives’ four separate pieces, written in the first decade of the 20th century, evoked the holidays as the composer remembered them in his New England childhood and in a manner, sentimental yet startlingly pioneering, that remains stylistically flummoxing even a century later.
“In his introductory remarks, Tilson Thomas reminded that investigations of the unconscious can begin anywhere, as Carl Jung noted. With Ives, they can also go anywhere in any way.
“Each holiday starts out musing on an old hymn and/or popular tunes of the day. Harmonies are unsettled. Music, solemn and fun — marching bands, children’s game, fireworks, funeral marches and sheer hokum — mingle and explode into exuberant musical chaos.
“With the Los Angeles Master Chorale on hand for Thanksgiving’s spiritual apotheosis at the end, Tilson Thomas put the singers to further good use having them sing some of the songs and hymns that Ives sneaked, some familiar (‘Good Night Ladies’), some forgotten. Christmas was turned on its head for Decoration (now Memorial) Day with ‘Adestes Fideles’ in its alternate form of ‘How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord’ joined by ‘Taps.’
“When it came to Thanksgiving, Ives’ intention was, Tilson Thomas said, ‘one great universal song of mankind,’ all these musics rising to one magnanimous zenith. And so it authentically did after nearly an hour of principled sentimentality, riotous playfulness, stylistic irreverence and majestic religiosity verging on downright (or should that be upright?) mysticism. In its versatile element, the L.A. Phil and magnificent Master Chorale embodied Ives’ ideal with an irrefutable rightness.
“Tilson Thomas began the concert roasting two Tchaikovsky chestnuts, the ‘Romeo and Juliet’ Overture-Fantasy and ‘Rococo’ Variations. He got from the orchestra a sound as rich as the most lavish holiday feast. Cellist Gautier Capuçon brought his stunningly beautiful tone to ‘Rococo’ Variations, adding what sounded like new glory to every phrase…”