LOS ANGELES — At the beginning of the final movement of Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, the strings play a mellow, stirring hymn. Then a solo bassoon silences the warmth: A funeral dirge is passing through. But just a few moments later, the strings flood back, violas and violins swooping up through a sudden chord that conjures folk fiddling, energy, passion, life itself.
No, they seem to cry. Not death. Not that. Not yet.
I have rarely heard the strings’ rich, defiant answer to the bassoon as effusive, as certain, as it was on Sunday afternoon, in the last of three performances of Mahler’s Ninth at Walt Disney Concert Hall here, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic led by Michael Tilson Thomas.
It has been nearly a year and a half since Thomas, at 78 one of the world’s leading musicians for more than half a century, announced he would be undergoing treatment for an aggressive form of brain cancer. And five months since he told The New York Times that he had been contemplating the music he wants played at his memorial service.
Yet M.T.T., as he is widely known, is still with us, and still vital. Conducting Mahler’s valedictory masterpiece, whose ending is the repertory’s great evocation of letting go, he took his time on Sunday but refused to wallow in the obvious, unbearable emotions.
The performance came just days after another miracle of a concert from an eminent maestro lately forced to reckon with mortality. On Jan. 6, Daniel Barenboim, 80, stepped down from the podium of the Berlin State Opera, a position he has held since the early 1990s, after a year buffeted by health problems. The following day, he conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in a program streamed live.
Like Thomas’s Mahler, Barenboim’s Schumann and Brahms were autumnal but vigorous, more present-tense than elegiac. While neither man seemed interested in denying reality, both made clear their intention to affirm life while it lasts.
Not that. Not yet.
Together, these were among the most poignant spectacles I’ve witnessed as a concertgoer. However sketchy and inevitably arbitrary such milestones are, the recent struggles and remarkable late-career concerts of these two men will always mark for me the passing from the scene of their generation of artists — a generation that has loomed over the musical landscape, and stubbornly refused to cede it, for decades.
Although in fine health, Riccardo Muti, 81, is stepping down as music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra this season. The pianist Martha Argerich, also 81, who grew up with Barenboim in Buenos Aires and joined him in Berlin, has lately had her own health issues. At the Salzburg Festival last summer, the pianist Maurizio Pollini, yet another 81-year-old, canceled a recital because of heart trouble after the audience was already in its seats. Last year, a fall caused Herbert Blomstedt, 95, to briefly interrupt his calmly authoritative, jaw-dropping tour of the world’s top orchestras, which will continue at the New York Philharmonic in two weeks.
The fact that more attention is being paid to Blomstedt now than 30 or 40 years ago is telling about the field. While classical music has always been fascinated by child prodigies, it is a performing art in which older performers truly hold sway. Even as audience draws: Brian Lauritzen, the host of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s radio broadcasts, wrote on Twitter that Sunday afternoon’s concert was the most full he had seen Disney Hall since before the pandemic.
So audiences are sometimes witness to aging bodies pressing up against their limits. I was at Carnegie Hall in 2000 when the great tenor Carlo Bergonzi, who had never sung the title role of Verdi’s “Otello,” finally had to admit, after two painful acts, that his 75-year-old vocal cords were no match for the part and bowed out of the rest. At Salzburg this summer, Barenboim appeared a frail shell of his former self, straining to mount the podium as he led the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, the youth ensemble he founded with Edward Said.
But while his physical infirmity was disconcerting, what has stayed with me most was the sensitivity showed him by the superstar pianist Lang Lang, the soloist that evening. As they walked on and off and as they played, Lang both deferred to and deftly guided his maestro mentor in a way that did not ignore what was happening but granted Barenboim a full measure of dignity, and provided him the opportunity to make music as best as he was capable.
It was a moving reminder that even amid the little humiliations — when Thomas first returned to the podium after his cancer treatment, in November 2021, his slipping pants had clearly not yet been tailored to the changes in his body — aging and illness open a space for both performers and us in the audience to be vulnerable and graceful. To be connected to a long line of transmitted knowledge and beauty. To be grateful.
After he canceled a much-anticipated new production of Wagner’s “Ring” in October, it seemed possible that Barenboim might not conduct again. And when he did return, in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony on New Year’s Eve, critics’ accounts painted a grim picture, focusing mainly on the performance’s distended length.
But a week later, with the Berlin Philharmonic, he balanced natural flow and robust urgency in Robert Schumann’s Piano Concerto and Brahms’s Second Symphony. Without lacking vividness, the Brahms had a gentle cast in its opening; the Allegro finale sent off bright energy, but its colors were the blaze of a sunset rather than daylight brashness. It was just the right amount of goodbye.
And after the high-spirited delicacy of the Schumann, Barenboim joined Argerich, a musical companion of his since the 1940s, at the keyboard for Bizet’s four-hand piece “Little Husband, Little Wife” from the suite “Children’s Games”: a moment of aching tenderness.
Barenboim took the handful of stairs to the stage carefully but without relying on the handrail, and his motions on the podium were sometimes wide and sweeping. But he often seemed to be overseeing as much as conducting: leading with watchful eyes but keeping his arms down, experienced enough to know what the orchestra didn’t need him from him.
Thomas, too, told The Times in August that his illness had forced him to be more efficient in his gestures. On Sunday he was fluent but restrained, sometimes keeping a simple beat; sometimes slicing his baton horizontally; sometimes pumping his arms firmly downward; sometimes raising his hands, cupped around an invisible ball, as if both to summon and catch the sound.
There was the straightforwardness that has always characterized his Mahler. (Among many recorded cycles of the symphonies, his no-nonsense, beautifully performed set with the San Francisco Symphony, which he led for 25 years, was my choice to play straight through on a long road trip last year.) Here in Los Angeles, his pace was patient even in the middle movements, which, more than sardonic or sour, felt proud and feisty. Here I am, they seemed to say. Take me or leave me.
The work’s glacial final minutes, with the strings slipping past one another as the beat grows amorphous, seemed, more than ever in my experience, to describe the haziness of the end of consciousness.
But there was not, in the silence that follows the dying of the sound, the usual game of chicken between an audience raring to applaud and a conductor unwilling to release. On Sunday there was no battle of wills, no self-indulgence, before the ovation. Thomas let the quiet come, then let it go.