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An American Conductor

Michael Tilson Thomas leads the Houston Symphony in a neglected Bernstein and an overlooked Gershwin

Hopefully, Houston won't have to wait another 14 years for the next guest appearance of Michael Tilson Thomas. The eminent American conductor, who currently serves as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, last appeared with the Houston Symphony in 1979. He finally returned December 11 to lead the HSO in an unusual program of Bernstein, Gershwin and Debussy.

Thomas opened the concert with the Houston premiere of the Orchestral Suite from A Quiet Place, the 1983 opera which Leonard Bernstein conceived as a sequel to his earlier stage work, the 1953 Trouble in Tahiti. While Trouble in Tahiti explores suburban tensions in postwar America, A Quiet Place addresses more topical anxieties, including those involving sexual orientation. If Trouble in Tahiti was Ozzie and Harriet through a glass darkly, A Quiet Place was All in the Family over the edge.

At the world premiere in Houston in 1983, most critics panned A Quiet Place. Since then the opera has had a rough time of it, and it was Thomas's own idea to give the work wider exposure by arranging some of the music as an orchestral suite.

The suite makes for interesting listening. The prologue begins with fragments from Trouble in Tahiti; although it expressed some hope for the future at the time Bernstein wrote it, it is now cast within a setting of dazed shellshock. The existentialist despair and campy humor that had long been Bernstein's trademark here descend to a bitter chill. The traumatic events of the composer's life -- McCarthyism, the Kennedy assassinations, Vietnam, promiscuity, alcoholism -- all took their tolls. Bernstein's life ended not in affirmation or resignation or even tragedy, but in disillusion. Still, the music is so direct and personal that it's hard not to admire it.

Thomas generally conducted the music with affection, but he made a major miscalculation by including some jazzy music from Trouble in Tahiti in the midst of the suite. Bernstein meant this music to sound like a radio jingle, a mock sendup of the American dream. Thomas perhaps felt that the gloomy Quiet Place could use this kind of comic relief, but it clashes with its surroundings.

In Gershwin's 1930 Second Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra, which followed, Thomas both played the solo part and conducted. A surprisingly obscure work, it offers a refreshing alternative to the much-overplayed 1924 Rhapsody in Blue, which it resembles. It may not have the jazz-age giddiness of the earlier work, but in many ways it's a more interesting and mature composition, even if it's a piece of fluff. Thomas, who has long been known for his Gershwin, played and conducted with consummate flair and sophistication.

The second half of the concert consisted of two works by Debussy: Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun, and La Mer. These brilliantly scored masterpieces of the orchestral repertory allow the individual symphony musicians to shine.

One can hardly blame the HSO if it occasionally sounded like a bull in a china shop. The music is often treacherously exposed, requiring the most sensitive blending of soft woodwind and brass sounds. But there was enough good playing to offset the slips in intonation, ensemble and sound quality. The cello section seemed particularly inspired by Debussy's sweep, as did concertmaster Uri Pianka. And the harps and glockenspiel took glorious advantage of their many opportunities.

Some of the unevenness in the Debussy was Thomas's doing. He seemed most in his element in the fast, climactic sections; the more exquisite moments lacked delicacy. A real American conductor -- understated, vigorous, a bit brusque, even plain -- Thomas's strengths seem better suited to the likes of Bernstein and Gershwin than to Debussy. Thomas, in any case, avoided any old-fashioned preciousness, emphasizing the music's modernity. Some passages even sounded a bit like minimalist Steve Reich, whose music Thomas has championed.

 
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