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     Cheryl North :: Interviews

Cheryl North Interviews Michael Tilson Thomas

Bay Area News Group Preview Section Classical Music Column, also posted on Inside Bay Area Web site, September 12, 2008, under headline,
"Links to Leonard Bernsteing bring Michael Tilson Thomas to Carnegie Hall"

Why would the management of New York's Carnegie Hall look all the way across the United States to San Francisco to fill the niche for its upcoming opening night gala commemorating the 90th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein's birth?

Because the Bay Area's maestro Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony are arguably the best qualified in the country to do the job. MTT, as Thomas is popularly known, is likely the artist most deeply influenced by, as well as possibly the foremost interpreter of, the music of the late great Bernstein.

Fortunately, we in the Bay Area will be treated to a home-town preview of the New York City program right here at Davies Symphony Hall next week. Works scheduled on both programs will include selections from Bernstein's operas, ballets, music theater productions and his Mass.

Similarities between Bernstein and MTT abound. To begin with, they share a deep ethnic commonality. Bernstein, born in Lawrence, Mass., descends from a Polish-Jewish family from the Ukraine, whereas the Los Angeles-born Thomas, 63, descends from the Thomashefskys, a Russian-Jewish family.

Much in common

Close friends until Bernstein's death in 1990, both were/are accomplished concert-level pianists as well as conductors and composers. Both shared a musical curiosity reaching through centuries of history into the present time. MTT as well as Bernstein possessed an almost clairvoyant affinity for the music of Gustav Mahler, and both have championed his works with preeminent recordings and concerts.

Interestingly, both had similar launches into the galaxy of musical stardom. Bernstein's catapult to the musical cosmos came in November 1943, when Bruno Walter, then the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, suddenly took ill. Bernstein, the orchestra's 25-year-old assistant conductor, was tapped to take Walter's place at the podium. His performance was so brilliant that he literally became an overnight sensation.

MTT's big night came a generation later, just shortly before his own 25th birthday. He, too, was an assistant conductor (of the Boston Symphony), when conductor William Steinberg suddenly took ill. MTT was asked to rescue the performance, which he likewise accomplished brilliantly.

Both gentlemen have been described as "fierce" advocates of multimedia music education. Whereas Bernstein was a media pioneer promoting classical music education with such ground-breaking television shows as "Omnibus" and in his innovative educational commentaries during his New York Philharmonic Young People's Concerts, MTT's more technologically sophisticated media excursions have included his own multimedia project, "Keeping Score," in addition to a nationally syndicated radio series on avant-garde American composers called "American Mavericks"; an award-winning children's Web site at; and the nationally acclaimed "Adventures in Music" education program in San Francisco schools.

MTT generously took a few minutes from his frenetic 2008-2009 season-opening rehearsals and concerts last week to share some of his thoughts on Bernstein via telephone. He recounted a recent conversation he'd had at the gym where he works out.

A familiar 'Story'

"I asked one of my trainers about his favorite Broadway shows," said MTT. "He didn't show much enthusiasm, until I mentioned 'West Side Story.' Then his face lit up with recognition. Like a majority of us, he knew, liked, and could instantly relate to 'West Side Story.'"

According to MTT, the name Leonard Bernstein holds an indelible place within the musical memories of those whose lifetimes trace back through the America of the 1940s, '50s and '60s.

"Leonard Bernstein created a tradition in American music of which we are all a part — whether we know it or not. Almost everyone alive today has been influenced in some way by his music," said Tilson Thomas.

When I asked if he could compare Bernstein's compositions to those of any other 20th century composers, he demurred. "Perhaps Gershwin," he said cautiously. "But the whole point about Bernstein is that he moved into new categories. The nature of the materials he used reflected jazz and music theater as well as the symphonic tradition."

In a previous interview by Synneve Carlino for the upcoming Carnegie Hall program, MTT explained further: "Over the course of time, it may be that the language of his music might become more remote from audiences, but I think there will still be a certain kind of heart inside of it that will always be recognized as symbolizing a particular period in the United States, when people were very confident and very generous "... To me, he represents someone from the generation of young victors of the Second World War."

The official Bernstein Web site goes even further: "The example of his (Bernstein's) thrilling, turbulent and generous life seems nothing less than the American dream come true."

ANG Newspapers Classical Music Column - February 27, 2004, under headline, "Tilson Thomas celebrates 10th anniversary with Symphony"

THE collaboration between conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony is a music lovers' dream come true.

Ten years ago, when MTT assumed the post of music director of the San Francisco Symphony, he knew he was in for something special. ("MTT" is the nickname affectionately bestowed upon the maestro by his Bay Area audiences).

"I expected I was in for a very exhilarating, no-holds-barred, time," he said during a telephone interview. "That expectation has been absolutely realized."

Milestones of the MTT and SFS collaboration include the commissioning of 20 new works and a number of fresh new insights into masterpieces from the past. There have been four Grammy Awards, nine acclaimed recordings on the BMG label, and the birth of SFS's own recording organization with the stated goal of committing to disc all nine Mahler symphonies over a five-year period (Six and Three have already garnered Grammies). And, perhaps best of all, the San Francisco Symphony, under MTT's guidance, has won worldwide recognition. It is often placed by critics among the world's top five orchestras.

The maestro's gentlemanly diffidence, as well as his unabashed musical genius, has contributed much to the decade's successes. A couple of times during the press conference to announce the Symphony's upcoming season, he made sure to emphasize that these are not "his" performances. "No, no -- these are all performances by members of the orcheatra, not by me," he stressed. "They are representations of many shared hours of collaboration between us all. That's the real nature of the relationship the orchestra and I are trying to build." He then noted that visiting conductors have more than once said things to him like, "This is extraordinary -- that you and the orchestra members are getting along so well after all these years."

Fortunately, according to MTT, there's more of the same in the foreseeable future. "I plan to stay right here (leading the SFS) for my day job," he said. Then, jesting, he continued, "Oh, maybe I'll try out to be a celebrity chef on 'The Iron Chef' TV program, or something like that on the side. But there's much more to be done musically right where I am."

Plans are in the works for an exciting 2004-2005 SFS season, its 93rd, which also happens to be MTT's 10th on its podium. There will not only be reprises of several of the MTT/SFS "Greatest Hits" of the past decade, but also at least a quarter of the season's scheduled works will be new to local subscription audiences. Among the past greats will be Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" music, Copland's "Orchestral Variations," Mahler's Symphony No. 9, and selections from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet." The season's grand finale will be a performance of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.

Two world premieres -- a Rhapsody for English Horn, composed by Berkeley's John Thow in honor of SFS English horn player Julie Ann Giacobassi, and a new commission to William Kraft to feature SFS timpanist David Herbert in a concerto -- will keep local ears tuned in. Among the other relatively unfamiliar contemporary compositions animating the season ahead will be works by Oliver Knussen, Alfred Schnittke, Karl Amadeus Hartmann, Robin Holloway, Steve Reich and John Adams.

A work called "Three Screaming Popes" written by Mark-Anthony Turnage, jolted my sensibilities. "What kind of piece is that?" I asked MTT.

"Oh, it's based on Francis Bacon's painting named 'Three Screaming Popes,'" he explained. And, ever the educator, he quickly clarified that Bacon was a 20th century abstract painter.

Among the vaunted "war horses" included in upcoming programs are Beethoven's Opus 61 Violin Concerto with Midori as soloist, Leif Ove Andsnes as soloist in a performance of Rachmaninoff's pulse-pounding Piano Concerto No. 2, and Britten's Double Concerto in B Minor featuring SFS concertmaster Alexander Barantschik on violin and popular principal violist Geraldine Walther. Other stars in the SFS firmament will be Joshua Bell in a performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto, Barantschik staring both as soloist and conductor in selected Brandenburg Concerti by J.S. Bach, as well as significant forays into the music of Debussy, Bartok, Richard Strauss, Ravel, Schoenberg, Schnittke, Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Bruckner, Berio, Bernstein, Hayden, Dvorak and more.

Unusual among the coming attractions, both involving world-class vocal soloists and the Grammy-winning San Francisco Symphony Chorus under Vance George, will be Janacek's "Glagolitic Mass" and Robert Schumann's obscure "Das Paradies und die Peri."

The new season also includes MTT's 60th birthday, with a gala, star-studded musical celebration scheduled for Jan. 13.

MTT is an uncharacteristically youthful 60 -- slim and lithe as a dancer with salt and pepper hair that often falls boyishly over his forehead. He attributes his youthful demeanor to "spending hours waving arms in front of the orchestra most days, climbing a lot of stairs, and walking my beloved dog Sheynah up and down San Francisco's hills."

Even though he can be theatrical and can quite effectively lapse into a foreign accent to amuse or to make a point, he is most often soft-spoken, direct and sincere. However, when he talks specifically about music and its significance his eyes assume a laser intensity and he commands rapt attention. So, MTT, SFS and audiences across the Bay and the world, can expect more good years and high musical times together.

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