The conductor Michael Tilson Thomas has always been a performer who communicates joy when sharing the music he loves. On Thursday, there was also a deep sense of gratitude: Speaking from the stage, he called his appearance with the New York Philharmonic “a lovely, affirming surprise.” Although he made no direct mention of his health, many in the audience understood the context: In the summer of 2021, Thomas, 78, learned that he had glioblastoma, an aggressive and terminal form of brain cancer. For him, every performance now is an opportunity to revel in the present.
There are only two works on this program, both of them discursive and ruminative: Thomas’s “Meditations on Rilke,” which had its premiere in San Francisco in 2020, and Schubert’s “Great” Symphony.
Thomas has always been a raconteur, and on Thursday he gave a 12-minute spoken introduction to “Meditations” from the podium. His speech may be more halting now, but the storytelling is as fluid as ever. And his quirky piece, which opens with a piano rag and quickly plunges into Mahlerian orchestration and psychic depths, needed at least some of that contextualization.
“Meditations” is a song cycle for mezzo-soprano (the luminous Sasha Cooke), bass-baritone (an impassioned, rich-voiced Dashon Burton) and orchestra, with autumnal, meditative texts by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke. It’s also partly an instrumental fantasy based on an episode from the life of Thomas’s father, a scion of Yiddish theater giants who was thrust into a gig as a saloon pianist in an Arizona mining town (hence that opening rag); a zigzagging thesis on the similarities between cowboy songs and Schubert lieder; and a tribute to composers whose work is most deeply imprinted on Thomas, including Berg, Copland, Schubert and Mahler.
Schubert’s “Great” Symphony did not need any introduction. It’s a broadly grand piece that was praised by Robert Schumann for its “heavenly length,” though many listeners have found it in need of a rigorous edit. In Thomas’s hands, it had a brilliant moment-to-moment tautness that made you forget the expanse of Schubert’s canvas, in which fine-honed details can sometimes get lost.
The orchestra reveled in all those small turns — in each of the first movement’s gentle curves and crisply articulated angles, and in the surprising juxtapositions of the second movement, which shifts from proud march to sweet tenderness. Thomas, communicating with the most economical of arm gestures, made those internal transitions of mood and harmony seamless, their logic unstintingly clear. Many conductors treat the third-movement scherzo as an exercise in dance rhythm; here, the energy was certainly propulsive, but Thomas also coaxed out a riot of colors and textures.
The final movement was nothing short of a joyous celebration, and more than a few of the Philharmonic’s players had barely sounded their last notes before erupting in laughter. Whether it was from the sheer pleasure of making music with Thomas or a quiet joke he might have made from the podium didn’t really matter; their delight was palpable — and shared.
Michael Tilson Thomas at the New York Philharmonic
Through Sunday at David Geffen Hall, Manhattan; nyphil.org.