Michael Tilson Thomas © Kristen Loke
The Amstel Hotel is totally unsuitable for a good conversation, especially with a musician. The ‘Muzak’ in the background is annoyingly present and the search for a decent space takes up a lot of time. Michael Tilson Thomas – tall, slim, dressed in black jeans and a checkered jacket – doesn’t seem to be bothered by it.
Two days earlier he conducted an extremely exciting concert in the Amsterdam Concertgebouw with music by Berg, Mahler and Brahms. Looking back at the concert I ask him if he did not feel the Brahms started a little too fast?
And was the order of the composers: Berg, Mahler, Brahms not a bit strange?
“Sometimes I do it the other way around”
So there I am! Fortunately, Tilson Thomas is able to laugh at my stupid questions and I decide to start with his ‘roots.’
Boris Thomashefsky, Michael’s grandfather was THE man behind the Jewish theatre. He wrote the lyrics, composed the music and performed it together with his wife Bessie, one of the greatest tragediennes of her time: she was the first Salome in America, in Yiddish!
Boris Tomashevsky & Yiddish Theatre – BBC Broadway Musicals: A Jewish Legacy (2013):
Der Yeshiva Bokher Kadisch ( Boris Thomashevsky – Louis Friedsell ):
Michael Tilson Thomas was born in Hollywood where his father found work in the film industry. Father Ted Thomashefsky worked a lot with Orson Welles and with Marc Blitzstein, Michael’s cousin. In order to avoid going through life as the ‘son of’ he changed his name to Thomas.
His theatrical background would have meant a certain predisposition for music theatre, but with the exception of a few concert performances he has not (yet) conducted an opera. And all this while he considers Puccini to be one of the greatest composers. Why?
Tilson Thomas explains this by the insufficient preparation time at most opera companies. To the six weeks of rehearsals in Amsterdam I mention, he has a rebuttal: they are rehearsals for the director who works with the ‘actors’, not for the conductor, singers and musicians.
It is really a pity, because he loves opera and he loves working with singers. This is how he works with musicians as well – looking for character, for expression, for colours. Breathing in music means nothing more than the music itself, and that is something you learn best from singers. Working with an orchestra is the same for a conductor as working with actors for a director.
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra © Bill Swerbenski
For Tilson Thomas, communicating with the audience is the most important thing. In Davies Symphony Hall (THE house of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra) he often rehearses from the hall. If the music is complicated, he calls in an assistant, but he himself, seated on a high chair, leads the orchestra from where the audience sits: only there can he hear what it will actually sound like.
He conducts a lot more than we can imagine, with the Russians, Mahler, modern Americans and the Impressionists as his guides. Is there something he doesn’t do?
“Bruckner. Of his symphonies only numbers 6, 8 and 9 are on my repertoire and for the time being I don’t feel like doing the other ones as well. Bach’s ‘Matthaeus Passion’? Why? It is music that I think should be performed like chamber music, in a small, intimate hall and I work with large orchestras.”
“What do I do if there is a difference of opinion between me and the soloist about tempi or interpretation? I listen to the other person. There are no absolute truths in interpretations. And (smiling): I can usually choose the soloist myself.”
Michael Tilson Thomas on music and emotions through the ages: