Michael Tilson Thomas

September 24, 1998 at 12:00 AM EDT


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Opening night at the San Francisco Symphony.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The conductor is Michael Tilson Thomas.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The music is, of course, George Gershwin. These two musical personalities seem uniquely made for each other. It’s not just that their families came out of the same New York Jewish immigrant world and were friends. There’s also a connection through the music itself.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS, Music Director, San Francisco Symphony: You know, I think of him really like America’s village composer in the biggest sense that I think his music matters to people of so many ethnicities, and that he took things from Jewish music, from black music, from Irish Music Hall, from so many different genres. Somehow he made this into a language which is at once his own and at the same time says, hey, we all understand one another as Americans in this kind of music.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: American music has always been important to Michael Tilson Thomas. He grew up in Los Angeles, a young classical piano prodigy who as a teenager worked alongside musical legends like Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copeland. Tilson Thomas turned to conducting in college, earning awards and even some fame as a very young man.

There’s show business in Tilson Thomas’s background too. His grandparents helped found Yiddish Theater in New York, where they blended popular appeal with high art. Something of that blend survives in Tilson Thomas and has helped make him a classical music star and his show biz savvy has also brought new energy and excitement to the orchestras he’s directed in Buffalo, London, and since 1995, San Francisco.

The excitement is partly in Tilson Thomas’s musical programming. Tilson Thomas likes to challenge audiences, sometimes with difficult modern works like Alban Berg’s “Three Pieces for Orchestra.” But the conductor also works hard to make familiar works like “An American in Pairs” seem new and fresh again.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Good, good – a couple of small things here -

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: In this passage Tilson Thomas tried to bring out what he called the piece’s distinctive American accent – first the percussion -


MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: — at 29 – could we have shorter and snappier notes pulling to the cadence point – ba, ba …

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What were you doing there?

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Trying to get those little events to sparkle, to sort of pop out at you. When I was first string – and they were kind of undifferentiated – just a little bit murmuring, and I wanted them to speak really clearly, so that every listener will think – I never heard that before.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: It’s very difficult. It’s more difficult than Ricard Strauss often – and to clarify the music and to let it be inflected correctly is a difficult problem. It’s not just playing it accurately, but you also have to play it with a kind of American accent. And that’s a very specific thing that we Americans know how to do?


MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Well, because to make it really have swing, to make it seem bluesy – to make it seem as fresh as the pop idioms that spawned it, you have to have players who know that this note is shorter than the way it’s notated, and this note’s longer, and this note is a little bit flatter, and this note has to come around the corner in a certain way.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Finally he worked on the strings.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What is it that they need you for up there, that they can’t do on their own?

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Most of all, they need me to listen for them, to listen to the complete sound world of what is happening and to advise and help them to make music as wonderful as it can be. And I try to do this in a way that’s encouraging. There are conductors who are control freaks, who try to kind of hold people in, but I’m just the opposite.

I want people to open up, and I want them to try things which perhaps might scare them because they think, well, am I sticking out too much, or is this really too quiet, or, you know, but say, no, let me encourage you to inhabit the complete range of what your expression can be.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The relationship between musicians and their conductor is rarely as harmonious as the sounds they make together. But the symphony’s principal oboist says Michael Tilson Thomas’s methods are working.

BILL BENNETT, Principal Oboist: It’s great to have a conductor that really encourages you to take chances, and to really push yourself as far as you can so that – like I said – that wallop is communicated to the audience.

There’s a chemistry between him and this orchestra and this town that is very exciting, always has been. In a way it was inevitable that he came here. I think being a Californian, being a native American, being someone of our generation who’s really steeped in the tradition of the West Coast as well.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: His being steeped in the tradition of the West Coast may explain while Tilson Thomas brought in musicians from the Grateful Dead for a 1996 performance of music by avant-garde composer John Cage. And it may also explain why Tilson Thomas conducts a lot of inexpensive or free performances, like this one last week at an urban park in San Francisco, to attract people who might never frequent a concert hall.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: I believe so much in the spiritual and cultural force of music that it helps people to understand one another and that leads them to come to grips with big issues in their lives and that sticks with them after the performance is over, so in moments of their life when they need comfort or encouragement or energy or humor, they can think of a piece of music and be sustained by that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: San Franciscans, especially younger ones, have responded to Thomas by coming to the symphony in record numbers. The chemistry was undeniable on opening night earlier this month.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: There’s more spirit. There’s more liveliness to the music. The programs have changed. Their fantastic.

MAN IN AUDIENCE: He seems unafraid to take risks as well, you know, a little bit more diverse in his thinking.

WOMAN IN AUDIENCE: Michael Tilson Thomas for me captures the spirit of American music, and a new sound, and I am absolutely compelled to come to the symphony because I know he’s here.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: As the audience got seated, Tilson Thomas, or MTT, as he’s often called, warmed up in his office. His star power has made him a celebrity here. But it’s also led to some grumblings that he’s too flashy, too glib, too crowd-pleasing. But the music critic of the San Francisco Chronicle thinks there’s plenty of depth in Tilson Thomas’s work.

JOSHUA KOSMAN, Critic, San Francisco Chronicle: I don’t agree. I hear a lot of substance every time I hear him play. He makes clear to everybody that we’re not just going to be playing Beethoven and Brahms here. He played a lot of music that might have been scary on paper to people who weren’t used to contemporary music or American music. And, you know, what do you know, it didn’t bother me. In fact, a lot of it was really exciting.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The first violinist sounded the traditional “A” as the opening night Gershwin concert got underway. Tilson Thomas waited back stage to make his entrance. As always, he said a Jewish prayer to help rid himself of extraneous thoughts.

SPOKESMAN: Maestro, the house is yours. Enjoy, sir.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: As he often does, he explained a piece, in this case the Gershwin’s “Second Rhapsody,” as a way of helping the audience understand and enjoy it more.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: He thought of calling the piece “Rhapsody in Rivets.” It’s one of all those pieces on this whole evening – Gershwin’s obsession with rhythm – which, after all, is the rhythm of the great American construction site, but also there’s that other thing in this music that fascinating rhythm – fascinating rhythm – fascinating rhythm – which – let’s face it, folks – is not seven/eight. He’s talking about there – he’s talking about another kind of rhythm that we’ve all gotten a lot better acquainted with since the 20′s.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: His music is not hip because it’s very direct emotionally. It might be breezy sometimes; maybe it’s meant to be thrown off in a very sophisticated way. But it doesn’t flinch, doesn’t look away. It looks right at you and says, they can’t take that away from me, or how long has this been going on.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Breezy, sophisticated, emotionally direct, this description of Gershwin could fit Michael Tilson Thomas, himself. The opening night concert was, according to the reviews, a hit. And this week, Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony repeated their performance in New York’s Carnegie Hall. On Saturday, the 100th anniversary of George Gershwin’s birth, Michael Tilson Thomas will be conducting another Gershwin celebration at the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC.

JIM LEHRER: The Tilson Thomas Carnegie Hall concert will be broadcast on Great Performances on most PBS stations next Wednesday, September 30th.