California dreamin.'(Michael Tilson Thomas Takes over San Francisco Symphony)

By Ames, Katrine | Newsweek, October 2, 1995 | Go to article overview

California dreamin.'(Michael Tilson Thomas Takes over San Francisco Symphony)


Ames, Katrine, Newsweek


IN THE BEGINNING, THERE WAS LIGHT. The first musical memory Michael Tilson Thomas has is of reaching over his head to the piano. He was trying to accompany the dust dancing in the light that streamed through blinds in his San Fernando Valley house. It's a burning image: the golden boy making a metaphysical reach for the sky. And it's really only now, at 50, that he has finally shed the tattered underkind label and come into his own.

This season, Michael Tilson Thomas has become the music director of the San Francisco Symphony. After decades of global guest conducting, after seven years with the London Symphony Orchestra--an organization he helped bring back from artistic and near financial ruin--he has come home. For years, Tilson Thomas didn't seem to live up to advance billing as the next Leonard Bernstein, a label that would have flattened anyone else. He confounded critics by refusing to specialize and create a niche for himself. He didn't land a major American orchestra directorship, for reasons that still aren't clear: was he too abrasive, or not political enough? But now, record collectors and British audiences know what others may not: that Tilson Thomas has become a great conductor, able to convince listeners of his take on even the gluiest old warhorse. With him, the San Francisco Symphony could move to the very front ranks of American orchestras.

You can see him everywhere in the city: on huge billboards that blare MTT, in full-page welcome ads in the local papers. You might even see him in person, tall and lean in black jeans, with a hawklike nose he has finally grown into, walking down the street, singing. One recent day he segued from vocalizing bits of Beethoven's Ninth to a Smokey Robinson tune to a medieval French song, on another day, Gershwin's "How Long Has This Been Going On?" led seamlessly into a 16th-century motet. "My mind is constantly making these connections between centuries and style," he says. He has recorded with Sarah Vaughn and played organ for James Brown in his "Sex Machine" days. ("It was only a couple of notes. I was just pleased that he'd let me be there.") A friend says MTT stands for Musical Time Traveler, and Tilson Thomas agrees. "That's what I kind of am, that's what music is to me."

That attitude is reflected in his programming, which may look eclectic but is, in fact, logical. One SFS concert includes suites by 17th-century French composer Jean Joseph Mouret, the Brahms violin concerto and the eighth symphony of America's William Schuman. The link? "It's three pieces in D, three different concepts of D major." His programs usually include something American. On opening night, there was a premiere by Bay Area composer Lou Harrison. "This was a sign to say, `This repertory is going to be here now. It's part of our town and our heritage and we must reclaim it'."

Americans still have an unaccountable inferiority complex about homegrown conductors. As one St. Louis player put it, "most managements would rather hire a second-rate European conductor than a first-rate American one." Still, it's surprising an appointment like the San Francisco one was so long in coming to MTT He grew up in Los Angeles, where his mother taught junior high and his father worked, unlucratively, in the movie business. They hoped their only child would go into science, but he said, "No, I have to make music." At the University of Southern California (he graduated summa cum laude), he accompanied cellist Gregor Piatigorsky and violinist Jascha Heifetz. He played for Igor Stravinsky and spent a summer at the Wagner shrine, Bayreuth, teaching the Nibelungs "to scream on cue."

At 23, MTT won the Boston Symphony Orchestra's Koussevitzky Prize. In the '70s, as the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic and principal guest conductor of the BSO, he was already programming thorny contemporary music and championing neglected American composers. He was relentlessly compared to Bernstein, who had become a close friend. …

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