The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra filed onto the stage of Carnegie Hall last night. They were dressed in their Sunday best, or Tuesday best. The orchestra tuned. The lights were low. There was silence in the hall.

Is there anything better? The anticipation of a concert?

Then the conductor walked out and, of course, he took a microphone and turned to the audience to talk to them. What a letdown. What a deflation. The magic of a concert is instantly killed.

The conductor was Michael Tilson Thomas, the venerable American, the longtime music director of the San Francisco Symphony. It occurred to me that I had heard the VPO dozens and dozens of times, on two continents. I have seen them led by many conductors: Jansons, Muti, Haitink, Boulez, Maazel, Salonen, Gergiev, Mehta, Welser-Möst, Dudamel, and so on. Never—ever—had I heard a conductor talk at a VPO concert. Until last night.

One of the blessings of the new music directorship of Jaap van Zweden at the New York Philharmonic is—no talking. He is happy for his baton, the orchestra, and the music to talk. To communicate to an audience.

But some conductors, especially Americans, just can’t help themselves. They cannot shut up. They must play musicologist onstage. They must hear the sound of their own voice. Critics like it, and administrators like it. Do audiences? Well, they are used to it, for sure.

And MTT is such a wonderful, earnest, valuable guy, who can begrudge him (except crochety old me)?

He and the VPO began the concert with Ives, a composer whom MTT champions. Plus, this was a nod by the Viennese orchestra to an American audience. The piece was “Decoration Day,” which is the second movement of Ives’s Symphony: New England Holidays. It was fine. Dutiful, pedestrian, uninvolving—sort of paint-by-the-numbers—but fine.

Next came a Beethoven concerto, a piano concerto, No. 3 in C minor. The soloist was the great Igor Levit (barely into his thirties, but great nonetheless). The opening section from the orchestra was, you know, fine. Laid back, not very crisp, but fine, I guess. Intensity began when the pianist entered. In a sense, Beethoven began.

Intensity began when the pianist entered. In a sense, Beethoven began.

Levit was alert to rhythm, as always (though he rushed a little). He played as if every note, or at least every phrase, mattered, as always. In certain passagework, he accompanied players in the orchestra. The passagework was not front and center, as bravura. It was true accompaniment. I had never heard a pianist do this before. In trills, he was a model. In tonal subtleties, he was a model.

And the cadenza? Holy Moses. It was suspenseful, beautiful, and thrilling. You could hardly believe what you were hearing.

I have never heard this first movement played better. I have never heard better Beethoven playing.

The second movement, the Largo, was “daringly slow,” as critics say. It was also a little retiring. I would have preferred a richer, more substantial sound from Levit. His was a bit superficial or mousy. There was beauty in this movement—but the music was also somewhat stagnant. Too careful, almost precious.

At the beginning of the third and final movement, the Rondo, Levit was again mousy, or at least very quiet. Furthermore, I would have liked more of a snap—a de Larrocha snap. But snap and fire soon came, and Levit went to town on this movement. He was slithery and smart. The C-major section, he took like the wind. The final octaves should be broken, and I think Levit cheated—I think they were unbroken. But no matter.

He played an encore, namely a couple of slow pieces from Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood. They were very thoughtful—too thoughtful? Too “profound”? In any case, Igor Levit is extraordinary.

This is a relaxed symphony, yes, but it also must have sinew. It should not be like a jellyfish, floating at random (seemingly) in the water.

The second half of the VPO concert was given over to one work: the Symphony No. 2 in D major by Brahms. This is a relaxed symphony, yes, but it also must have sinew. It should not be like a jellyfish, floating at random (seemingly) in the water.

At a minimum, you could enjoy the sound—the sound of the Vienna Philharmonic in partnership with the acoustics of Carnegie Hall. That is a killer combo. Strings were warm, woodwinds were warm, French horns were unflubbing (largely). Tilson Thomas was reasonable, always reasonable. Some entrances were bad, really bad. Pizzicatos tended to be hopeless. Some sections tended to sleepiness. In the final movement, there ought to be tingling anticipation, and there was none—at least none felt by me. The whole symphony was, you know, fine, just fine.

Perhaps I am being picky, or greedy. But I am paying Michael Tilson Thomas and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra the compliment of expecting a lot from them.

They played one encore. Before they launched into it, MTT turned to the audience and said, “This is a Brahms Hungarian Dance—but not the one you know.” Actually, audiences know three or four. But, true, this one was obscure—and MTT’s remark had been charming, and charmingly delivered.

Didn’t I say I like it when he talks to an audience?

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