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May 25   -   Guardian

Michael Tilson Thomas: 'The most important thing about music is what happens when it stops'

The conductor on his relationship with the London Symphony Orchestra, the importance of Mahler, and musical cats and dogs

When conductor Michael Tilson Thomas emerged as the wunderkind of American music and heir apparent to Bernstein in the early 70s, the London Symphony Orchestra were the first orchestra to invite him to perform in Europe. The relationship has proved a long and fruitful one, with him becoming their principal conductor from 1988 to 1995 and principal guest conductor ever since. But while the 40 years since his debut has seen Tilson Thomas, now 67, make the familiar journey from enfant terrible to eminence grise, he says what is more remarkable is how little the essential character of the LSO has changed over the same period.

"I remember very powerfully that particular spirit the orchestra had back then. There was a rollicking attitude, a swiftness with which things came together as well as the idea that every performance was the ultimate performance. And all these years later, when there are now no members still there from when I first conducted it, the spirit remains the same. As Whitman once wrote: 'Muscle and pluck forever!/ What invigorates life invigorates death.' Nothing endures like personal qualities and it is not only what is done, it is also the spirit in which it is done that matters."

Tilson Thomas is back in London for a series of Mahler concerts at the Barbican with the orchestra. His engagement with this music goes back to childhood and he has recorded all the Mahler symphonies, as well as other major works, with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, where he has been music director since 1995. "In that cycle I was trying to encourage the musicians to take some risks. Mahler requires players to play with great delicacy and beauty and refinement. But equally, at moments, he wants them to play like street musicians in rough and desperate and abandoned ways.

"I would not be the person I am without a piece such as Mahler Nine. But it is not necessary for me to hear the piece. It is always with me. What Mahler's music says is part of the way I look at the world and have felt this since the age of 13 when I was so shocked to discover that it described the shape of my own unresolved life. What could be more important than something that seemed to both answer and ask questions that I had not at that point even dared to frame."

The task of the conductor in this instance, he says, "is to expand the vocabulary and range of expression of the orchestra. Perhaps because I come from a theatrical family, much of my perspective as to how to do that is influenced by the way a director works with actors. I think I'm somewhere between a director and a sports coach. You recognise how uniquely talented the different musicians are and try to imagine how they can come to the fore in performance. No good director, working with a particular cast, would try and force them to be something other than what they are. Nor would a good director say to an actor, 'say the first three words quickly, then the next two slowly', and so on for the whole of the play. The point is that the actor must become the role. It's the same with music. You try to show the musicians ways they can make the most out of the music and get the most out of each other."

Tilson Thomas was born in Los Angeles in 1944. His father worked in theatre, TV and films, his mother was head of research at Columbia Pictures and his grandparents had been renowned figures in Yiddish theatre in New York during the early part of the 20th century. He says the default tone of the family was the Jewish-inflected wisecracking that became the default setting of American mainstream humour. "You always had to be ready with a quick line. It took me a while to realise that wasn't how you related to every aspect of the world, especially the press. But it has stuck with me. I am very serious about the way I approach music and my aspirations for it, but I don't assume the mantle of a professor. Maybe because I have this absolute need for excellence that I fear I could tear things apart if I wasn't a little bit light about it as well."

As a child he was prodigiously talented and was not only interested in the likes of Stravinsky, Boulez, Stockhausen and Copland, but he also worked with them. He first saw Stravinsky perform when aged 11, was involved in his rehearsals by 16 and at 19 was playing under his direction. "I had a very clear exposure to his spirit and to his insatiable curiosity about new music." Did he ever become blasé about such privileged access? "Oh no. In Los Angeles musicians do get used to having major celebrities around. But whenever Stravinsky came into a session, the whole orchestra would stand up."

Tilson Thomas won a scholarship to study conducting at Tanglewood where he won the prestigious Koussevitzky prize in 1969, the same year as he was subject to the classic showbiz break when he took over the Boston Symphony Orchestra, mid performance, when a conductor fell ill.

It was a curious echo of what had happened to Leonard Bernstein a quarter of a century before when he had made his debut as a replacement for Bruno Walter with the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein became something of a mentor to Tilson Thomas at a time when, "it was important to have a older colleague who I could trust. He was generous with his time and I could call him and ask him things. And that whole snappy, rapid-fire comeback thing came in very handy. That was very much his preferred form of communication. It was all fast repartee. He enjoyed being competitive, slapping things back and fore and testing people."

In 1971 Bernstein passed on his role conducting CBS's televised Young People's concerts to Tilson Thomas. The same year Tilson Thomas became music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra where he pursued his commitment to American music and began to cement a reputation as the premier interpreter of the likes of Copland, Ives and Reich. It was while conducting a performance of Reich's Four Organs at Carnegie Hall in 1973 that he found himself featuring in what has been described as the last ever classical music riot.

"I didn't expect that response, and it really did go on for an extended period of time. By the end it was like a Roman arena with all the booing and shouting, but it was elating to realise that an audience could still react that way. We came off stage and Steve was ashen-faced. I said: 'By tomorrow morning everyone will have heard of you.' And that is precisely what happened."

In his early career Tilson Thomas was not only a challenging figure to audiences. There are stories of strained relationships with players and administrators, and he admits things were often "fraught". "I was finding my way. When I look at young conductors today I so sympathise with what they are going through. That process of having to learn so much while being under such close scrutiny is difficult. Musicians who worked with me then and who work with me now say that I'm the same in that I want the same things, and am interested in the same things. But the good news is that I've become way clearer about how to achieve them."

The vehicles by which he has attempted to achieve his goals have included founding the New World Symphony for gifted young musicians from all over the world, becoming the public face of classical music in America via his Keeping Score documentary and concert TV series as well as more recently working with Google and YouTube on projects such as the YouTube orchestra, whose members were chosen from 3,000 online auditions.

"The internet is a remarkable medium and we are only at the beginning of discovering how it can be applied to music. I sometimes try to think of the most obscure artist or performance to see if I can stump YouTube. It doesn't happen very often." And it is not only the elevated end of the spectrum that attracts him. "Elton Dog is very good. He has his own range of T-shirts. Catcerto is a very sophisticated piece of work. Vivaldi on wheels …."

It wasn't until Tilson Thomas was appointed as the San Francisco Symphony's 11th Music Director in 1995 that he really had a stable American base. The longevity of the appointment has been one of his greatest satisfactions. "It allows you the time to confirm beliefs that you have, to build audiences and encourage their adventurousness of spirit. And when it goes well, everyone co-mingles in such a way that you wonder who is actually making this wonderful music. It is as if it is just happening."

But whether on the podium, in the studio, on TV or on YouTube, he claims his essential ambitions remain the same. "The most important thing about music is what happens when it stops, what remains with the listener, what they take away. A melody, rhythm, some understanding of another person or another culture. The way those experiences add up, in the soul of a person over the years, is the biggest prize classical music possesses. It is an art form in which instinct and intelligence are equally balanced. They take the measure of one another and they reflect, across centuries and composers and pieces, how our minds really are and the way our consciousness is ordered. You want to shake people even when they're not listening to the music."

• Michael Tilson Thomas and the LSO perform Mahler at the Barbican, London, on 27 May (symphony No 4), 31 May (symphony No 1), and 3 June (symphony No 5).

Classical musicLondon Symphony OrchestraGustav MahlerNicholas Wroeguardian.co.uk © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds


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