February 10, 2002

Michael Tilson Thomas: Maverick in a City of Same


SAN FRANCISCO -- THIS endlessly charming city, you may recall, did not even register on Saul Steinberg's classic New Yorker cover of 1976, "A View of the World From Ninth Avenue." If blinkered New York music lovers do cast an occasional glance this far west, it is probably directed at the San Francisco Opera, which has attained prominence largely through its presentations of Wagner's "Ring" cycle. But oh, yes, isn't there also an orchestra here that plays in a bad hall?

Well, Davies Symphony Hall was vastly improved visually as well as acoustically in a renovation 10 years ago; and as music lovers here tell it, the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra has become increasingly exciting during Michael Tilson Thomas's seven-year tenure as music director. In a city that prizes mavericks, Mr. Thomas, at 57, has found a congenial home.

"The chemistry is that we are enjoying — all of us, the orchestra, myself, the audience — rediscovering music together," he said, "whether it's new music or long-familiar music."

Many around him seem no less elated. "The San Francisco Symphony is now doing everything I've wanted to do," said Charles Amirkhanian, a composer and, as executive director of the annual Other Minds Festival here, an important promoter of modern and contemporary music. "The landscape has changed. It has been a thrill to sit in the hall and hear the downbeat for Varèse's `Arcana.' "

The charged chemistry among maestro, players and community undoubtedly owes much to the nature and size of the city and the Bay Area, and it may be hard to replicate elsewhere. Still, it becomes all the more striking now that several other major American orchestras have lined up their next music directors. In large part, those orchestras were seeking expertise in contemporary and American programming like that Mr. Thomas has long demonstrated. In prospect, none of the new maestros — except, perhaps, James Levine at the Boston Symphony — seems as obvious a fit with his orchestra as Mr. Thomas proved here from the outset.

Although not an active participant in that extensive round of hirings, the San Francisco Symphony seems to reckon itself a winner for not having lost Mr. Thomas to, say, the New York Philharmonic or the Boston Symphony. "There is not another conductor that I would like to have here," said Nancy H. Bechtle, who recently stepped down after 14 years as president of the orchestra's board. "Michael gives us so much. I like that he is doing contemporary music. He believes in it so much."

Adventurous programming is indeed part of the story, and Mr. Thomas and the orchestra will offer a taste of their acclaimed American Mavericks festival from the summer of 2000 on Thursday evening at Carnegie Hall, presenting Ives's daunting Fourth Symphony along with traditional American hymns that went into it. A Carnegie program on Wednesday revisits other Thomas specialties: Mahler, who was the subject of a festival in 1998, and Schoenberg.

"Doing Mahler pieces is a journey that I have been on for many years," Mr. Thomas said, "and I've enjoyed taking this orchestra along on that journey." On its own label, SFS Media, the orchestra has just released a recording of Mahler's tragic Sixth Symphony, which was in rehearsal before and after Sept. 11.

"In this symphony and other works, the arts really can allow you to very directly experience something that would perhaps be too frightening or too overwhelming to experience in real life. I believe that music is the most important when the music stops. When a piece ends, that's when I really measure what effect it had on me or those who heard it. Did it in some way or another increase our sense of compassion or courage?"

More recently, the orchestra picked up the thread of the 2000 festival. A motley program of Italian Mavericks (Monteverdi, Luciano Berio and Respighi), heard in full, was followed by another of Pan- American Mavericks (Henry Brant, Varèse, Piazzolla and Villa-Lobos), sampled in rehearsal. For San Francisco, the Mavericks concept is more than a clever marketing concept; it seems to define the juncture at which Mr. Thomas connects with the community and perhaps the community's sense of itself.

WHAT is the appeal of mavericks for Mr. Thomas? "As an American I really like the idea of people who just roll up their sleeves and make a piece, using whatever is there," he said. "All the houses I've lived in in my life have been kind of carpenters' houses. There was no architect, even though they contained some utterly fanciful and amazing pieces of invention."

Mr. Thomas now lives with his business manager and companion Joshua Robison and their poodle in a large old house more or less straddling Pacific Heights, an elegant neighborhood overlooking San Francisco Bay, and Cow Hollow, which appears not as inelegant as it sounds.

The notion of spontaneous creation that Mr. Thomas so values in his programming also informs his view of interpretation. "You want the performance to sound as if the musicians were making it up at that moment," he said, "as if they were not reading music but playing with a kind of larger sense of commitment and abandon." Of another new recording, the delightful "Charles Ives: An American Journey," featuring the baritone Thomas Hampson and released by RCA Victor, Mr. Thomas said: "I rolled up my sleeves like one of the carpenters I admire and said, `O.K., this is what is necessary here.' "

Mr. Thomas looks forward to Mavericks events focusing on French and Czech composers before going back to what he calls "a proper American one." Yet to the very extent that he has a maverick streak of his own, he is leery of repeating himself. Once he has hit on a formula that works, he suggests, he is just as likely to turn around and do something different. In June, he will lead a three-week festival of Russian music, including a semistaged version of Rimsky- Korsakov's opera "Mlada."

"I don't think about the Mavericks project as being the center of my life," he said. "It's one of many projects that are going on. And in some ways I was quite taken aback at the attention and the level of surprise that greeted it, because, of course, it went back to my early concert days in Los Angeles with programs of Gesualdo, Webern, Ives, Cage and everyone else. These kinds of musical personalities and concerts that dealt in a high level of contrast were just sort of normal: the idea that the concert hall could be a place for a kind of musical inquiry and thought."

Conversation with Mr. Thomas, though full of thoughtful pauses, is a mercurial affair, with frequent digressions into musical fine points, often vigorously illustrated in song or at the piano. As onstage, where he conducts with broad, sweeping strokes, he exudes a communicativeness bordering on theatricality.

He comes by it rightly. His paternal grandparents were stars of Yiddish theater. He was born in Hollywood in 1944 to Theodor and Roberta Thomas, who were also musically and theatrically inclined. Precociously musical, he started conducting "by accident," he said, when he was 13, and he formed ensembles three or four years later. Put forward by his teacher Ingolf Dahl, he played piano and conducted in premieres of works by Dahl, Copland, Stravinsky, Pierre Boulez, Karlheinz Stockhausen and William Kraft, often with the composer present.

He graduated from the University of Southern California in 1967 and won a conducting fellowship at the Tanglewood Festival in Massachusetts the next year. There he encountered Leonard Bernstein, who would loom over him like a shadow for two decades. Mr. Thomas began to seem the obvious heir to Bernstein's mantle as the American maestro. His gifts were similar: a prodigious natural musicality and a communicative gift as much verbal as musical.

Mr. Thomas moved in quick succession from assistant conductor to associate conductor to principal guest conductor of the Boston Symphony. He was music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic from 1971 to 1979 and director of the Young People's Concerts of the New York Philharmonic for several of those years. He was principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1981 to 1985. Meanwhile, he had sowed wild oats, including an involvement with drugs that led to an arrest in 1978. This, and a widespread perception of brattiness or arrogance on his part, deflected his rise to superstardom.

Mr. Thomas began to chart an original and quieter course in 1987, when he founded the New World Symphony, a training ensemble for young musicians in Miami, which continues to thrive. The next year he became principal conductor of the London Symphony, where he stayed until 1995. He is now its principal guest conductor.

Through it all, he maintained a relationship with Bernstein until his death in 1990. This reporter fondly recalls a rollicking performance of a four-hand version of Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" in 1981 at Alice Tully Hall in which the commanding Bernstein all but elbowed Mr. Thomas off the bench and Stravinsky out of the picture.

When the subject of the Bernstein legacy comes up, as it must, Mr. Thomas bristles. "I suppose I thought it was inevitable that you would ask me this," he said wearily, "because in almost any interview I ever do, people ask me this."

So? "As it was all happening, I couldn't perceive it in that way," he said. "I was too busy living life and learning pieces I had to learn. But of course Lenny himself introduced me the way Schumann introduced Brahms. I think he couldn't have perceived how difficult that sometimes was, because I had to lead my own life and make my own mistakes. I couldn't be that next musical messiah that some people wanted me to be. I was a young guy learning a lot. And I never stopped learning."

One moment Mr. Thomas, now seasoned, compares the orchestral enterprise to filmmaking. "It's very clear to me that I am not giving the performance," he said. "I am like a director who has the luxury of being able to see the big scene and be very helpful at focusing the ensemble and encouraging a section or an individual soloist to deliver a line expressively. The vision for the future of orchestral-music playing is that it can become much more soloistic and much more personal than was heretofore imagined."

The next moment he likens the orchestra to a large company, with all its directors, shareholders and the like. The San Francisco Symphony is in fact a large corporation, with an annual budget of $47 million and an endowment of $140 million (down from $190 million, largely because of plummeting technology stocks). These compare, for example, with the Philadelphia Orchestra's budget of $35 million and endowment of $75 million.

With some justice, administrators of the San Francisco Symphony and the Los Angeles Philharmonic have long complained of persistent references to the Big Five American orchestras (with New York, Boston and Philadelphia, the Cleveland Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony). The distinction was originally based on size of budget and other factors, like recording (which is everywhere in disarray) and touring (which has become more or less universal).

What counts for more, in any case, is sheer quality, these days typically based on chemistry, as with Christoph von Dohnanyi and the Cleveland Orchestra. On that score, San Francisco seems better placed than ever to challenge the longer-established institutions. And in terms of the criteria urged on orchestras in their recent music-director searches — notably, an interest in thematic programming, contemporary repertory and American composers — San Francisco is far ahead of the game.

"I think my role here has become clear in that I certainly have brought a lot of conservative members of the public into a greater state of appreciation of what new music of various kinds has to offer," Mr. Thomas said. "But also I've been working at really getting young audience members who would primarily only be interested in Mavericks sort of repertoire to recognize that Beethoven and Schubert and Debussy have a lot to offer to them, that they have to open their ears just as much.

"In some ways, I think that's the more difficult part of the process, because with really contemporary music, there are so many sonic hooks, with lots of percussion and dynamic extremes and things that people who are not necessarily classical-music followers can relate to. What separates a lot of the audience from classical music is that it's as if they were going to hear a play in a language that they don't speak, or don't speak well."

Mr. Thomas took leave of performing last summer to compose, as he plans to do in future. He was working on a commission for the soprano Renée Fleming, "Poems of Emily Dickinson," to be performed this month and next in San Francisco. He is also writing orchestral pieces. More whimsically, he recently dashed off a ditty for Ms. Bechtle, the departing president, "It's Tough to Be a Cowgirl When You're President of the Sym-pho-nee."

Mr. Thomas describes his musical task now as connecting the dots between the various experiences in his life. For one thing, he is still grappling with the disparate influences of his youth, from the "clarity" of music and performances by Stravinsky and Boulez to the "luxuriousness" of performances by Heifetz and Piatigorsky.

Showing a visitor out, Mr. Thomas removed a framed manuscript miniature from the wall and played through it twice at the piano with obvious delight. It sounded sweet but just a bit prickly, like fractured Satie. It turned out to be an unpublished piece by John Cage. Clearly, Mr. Thomas's affinity with musical mavericks runs deep.  

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