This raises the question, among audience members and critics alike, of how well the Met players can handle the symphonic repertory. The answer, beyond their ability, can vary by conductor. At Carnegie Hall, Gianandrea Noseda conducted Mahler’s Fifth Symphony on May 30, and Michael Tilson Thomas led Mahler’s Fourth on Tuesday. The level of technical accomplishment was high during both evenings. But Noseda missed some of the Fifth’s unbridled passion, while Thomas folded in the Fourth’s ineffable warmth with a knowing hand.
Noseda, who became music director of the National Symphony Orchestra in Washington this season and is also a maestro of broad experience, kept a tight grip on most of the performance. Did he feel that he needed to do so with players who weren’t seasoned Mahlerians? Still, it was a vast improvement over the chokehold that Jaap van Zweden imposed on Mahler’s Fifth with the New York Philharmonic to start that orchestra’s season in September — and van Zweden had no such excuse.
Occasionally, the brasses seemed like they were about to veer into Wagner. (He and Mahler were little alike.) But at times Noseda eased up beautifully, as in the second theme of the Stürmisch bewegt (“Stormy, with turbulence”) movement, and the beloved Adagietto was expansive without becoming inert.
Thomas — who will leave the San Francisco Symphony in 2020 after 25 years as its conductor, specializing in Mahler in recent decades — was right on the mark through most of the Fourth Symphony, whose simplicity can be deceptive. The performance felt relaxed, even lived-in. If he slightly underplayed the climaxes in the first movement, it may have been to throw attention to the third movement, Ruhevoll (“Restful”), the work’s real center of gravity, with its grand closing climax.
That cathartic moment set the stage nicely for the simple song of the finale, “The Heavenly Life,” as rendered by the rising soprano Pretty Yende. Coming off a triumphant season of Donizetti at the Metropolitan Opera, with starring roles in “L’Elisir d’Amore” and “Lucia di Lammermoor,” she began Mahler’s delightful ditty with natural, childlike tone and sustained an awe-struck, yet restrained mood until the end.
This was in contrast to her stirring account of Mozart’s “Exsultate, Jubilate,” in which she let loose with a wild cadenza at the end of the first movement that threw pitch to the wind in a nosebleed ascent.
A reduced Met Orchestra can be a consummate Mozart instrument, as it shows often at Lincoln Center and as it showed here and in a performance of Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 (“Turkish”) led by Noseda. The soloist, James Ehnes, showed ample technique with a full complement of cadenzas but not a lot of warmth or personality, although he partially made up for the deficiency with two encores of unaccompanied Bach.
It might seem that the work that would have carried the orchestra farthest from its comfort zone was Carl Ruggles’ “Evocations” (1937-43), which opened Thomas’ program. (The concert was originally to have been conducted by James Levine before the Met fired him in March over allegations of sexual abuse, and to have included a new work by Charles Wuorinen instead of the Ruggles).
The Met musicians had never played any Ruggles, but few orchestras have. Thomas — who met Ruggles and spoke affectionately of him from the stage, calling him “a seriously cantankerous Yankee” — has long championed his music (a catalog of only a dozen works), especially in American Mavericks concerts in San Francisco.
Thomas led the Met players in taut, energized readings of “Evocations,” a suite of colorful miniatures, to excellent effect.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.