On Tuesday evening I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the final musical event of my 2017-2018 season as Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the Met Orhestra in a program that included yet another Mahler symphony, by my count the seventh I've heard this season.
The program opened with Evocations (1934-1943) by Carl Ruggles, a composer with whom I'd previously been unfamiliar. Tilson Thomas has always been a great champion of Charles Ives, so it only makes sense that he would also promote the music of another idiosyncratic American composer. (Another link between Ruggles and Ives was John Kirkpatrick, the pianist who premiered Ives's Concord Sonata and to whom the second movement of Evocations was dedicated.) And idiosyncratic Ruggles most certainly was, both in his personal life and his career as a composer. He wrote relatively few pieces in spite of having enjoyed an extraordinarily long lifespan and spent an inordimante amount of time on the composition of each. His works have been compared to those of Schoenberg, though Ruggles had no connection with the Second Viennese School or, for that matter, with any European composers. The present work was originally written for solo piano and was only later arranged for orchestra. It was an impressive piece, roughly twelve minutes long, and received a huge round of applause from the audience.
The next work was Mozart's Exsultate, jubilate, K. 165 (1773) and featured soprano Pretty Yende as soloist. The work, written when the composer was only 16 years old, is in the form of a motet, an ambiguous term defined by one of Mozart's contemporaries as follows:
"In Italy nowadays this term is applied to a Latin sacred solo cantata consisting of two arias and two recitatives, concluding with a Hallelujah, and sung during the Mass following the Credo, generally by one of the best singers."
The work was in fact composed in Italy where Mozart had traveled with his father for a performance of his opera Lucio Silla. While working on the opera in Milan, Mozart and Leopold renewed their acquaintace with the multitalented castrato Venanzio Rauzzini whom they had previously met in Vienna and for whom Mozart composed the present work. At least one source has noted the structural similarities it shares with the violin concerti Mozart was soon to write. To me it had much more an operatic character than a liturgical.
After intermission, the program concluded with a performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 4 (1899-1900). This was the last of the composer's "Wunderhorn symphonies" and was built around a single song Mahler had adapted from that collection; entitled Das himmlische Leben, the 1892 piece was a song of innocence told from the point of view of child. Mahler had originally intended to use it in the finale of the Symphony No. 3 but then decided to drop the entire movement in which it was to appear and instead built the following symphony around it. Thus, in a sense, the No. 4 becomes a continuation of the No. 3 and by extension of the two that preceded it so that all four become parts of a larger whole. Everything in the first three movements of the No. 4 leads up to the soloist's part in the final movement. As more than one commentator has noted, it is a progression from dark to light If the No. 4 is the most popular of Mahler's symphonies this has as much do to the gentle childlike verses that end it as to the entire work's brevity (it is the shortest of all the symphonies and uses a smaller orchestra than the others while following Haydn's classical four movment structure).
Michael Tilson Thomas is one of the foremost American conductors (though these days that's not saying a great deal) and is to be praised for consistently bringing attention to lesser known works. His conducting on Tuesday evening was by far the best of the Met Orchestra's current three-concert series. At the helm of a truly excellent ensemble, he led one of the finest performances of Mahler's Fourth that I've heard. Soloist Pretty Yende, who has become something of fixture at the Met, was superb on both the Mozart and Mahler works. This was as fine a way to end the season as I could have wished.