SAN FRANCISCO -- There's a corner nook in Michael Tilson Thomas's kitchen where he likes to sit with a musical score, glancing up now and then to soak in an unobstructed view of San Francisco Bay. "It relaxes me," the conductor says. "And then once in a while I get up and stir the soup -- what could be better?"
On the eve of his 20th season as music director and conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, Tilson Thomas took time out to discuss his life, his philosophy of performing, his plans for the upcoming landmark season. Most of our 90-minute conversation took place in an upstairs office in his Cow Hollow neighborhood home, which was completed in 1906, just before the San Francisco earthquake. The home contains a lot of history: artifacts relating to his family's roots in New York's Yiddish theater and Orson Welles' productions, a room full of scores that have followed the conductor through the decades.
He touched on 1,000 years of classical music history, always considering his words, speaking in measured phrases. You could almost see him formulating his thoughts, moving from one theme to the next, seeking clarity -- the same qualities he strives for in his music making. As he spoke, he gestured fluidly with his hands, much as he does while on the podium at Davies Symphony Hall.
Tilson Thomas's interests are wide: He can move from Wagner to Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys in the space of a sentence. (He's a particular fan of "Good Vibrations" and "Surf's Up.") He wore a sport shirt, jeans and cool blue, owl-ish eyeglasses and, as he spoke, gave affectionate pats to his miniature poodles, Banda and Maydela, who wandered in and out of the room.
Q Michael, here's a question I've been meaning to ask you for ten years. I've read that you have a ritual: that before going on stage, you recite the Shehecheyanu (the Jewish blessing of thanks for special occasions). Have you done that in the past? Do you still do that?
A I still do that. It's a way of centering myself. Very often, to the last moment going on stage, there's conflicting issues. Has everybody made it there on time? At the last minute, perhaps we're missing a piece of music. There can be commotion backstage. And I'm also maybe working with soloists, trying to keep their spirits up. And that can be many different things, according to what their mood is before they play. Some are very hyper, and you need to calm them down. And some are very scared, and you need to kind of joke around with them, get them to open up.
So very often I'm concerned with what's going on with other people. But then in this moment where I actually have to begin myself to be inside the music -- I say that Shehecheyanu, and then suddenly I'm in the zone from then on.
Q So it works.
A Yeah. Then I'm completely inside the music.... It's a mantra. It's a mantra that I've found effective and moving, and that's what I do.
Q And what about your bow? It's done with a lot of care, it seems to me. It's almost like your conducting, almost like a series of connected gestures. It's not a frivolous sort of quick bow that you give to the audience. Is that part of the whole pre-concert focus ritual?
A I'm not so aware of that. From the first moment I'm on the stage, I am conscious of the fact that I am on the stage. I'm thinking that everything that happens in view of the audience is part of the performance. So anyway -- I guess I've said it before -- it's a different situation for a musician than for an actor. An actor, when he goes on stage, is in character from the first moment. But what are you supposed to do if you're a musician?
You're walking on stage, people are greeting you, and they are seeing the person that they imagine you to be. And you have to respond to that and then still go off and enter the piece and be someone else or something else. So that's kind of an interesting moment of transition at the beginning of a concert.
When the concert's finished, I just really feel very happy that the piece has gone well, and very delighted that I'm in the company of those people who were there that evening. I feel very at home on the stage, so I'm just as if I were welcoming someone to my house or (saying), "Thanks, glad you liked that." I try to keep eye contact with the whole hall, not to forget anybody. When I ask the orchestra to take a bow, I make sure that everyone in the orchestra is standing before I will take my bow. I kind of glance around.
Q Is the stage your most natural home? Or is it just one of the places where you feel at home?
A I can't say. It feels like home. There are people who feel scared on stage. But for me it's a very natural place to be. Earlier in the year, there was this incident in Chicago where people were coughing in the hall, and I realized that was going to be a problem. (We were) doing Mahler's Ninth Symphony. So at the end of the first movement, I walked offstage; I had noticed that there was a box of cough drops there for members of the orchestra. So I walked offstage, got a couple of arms full of cough drops and I came back and said, "Hi, I know it's tough. Can I help you? Can I just lob these out to you?" And they said yes, and so I threw, kind of lobbed them out, cough drops, into the audience.
And they were very appreciative, and it became quieter thereafter, not only that evening, but in succeeding evenings. And again, if someone came to my house and suddenly were coughing, I'd say, "Can I get you a glass of water? Can I get you a cough drop?" It would be something as natural as that, wanting you, as a guest in my house, to be comfortable.
Q I also wanted to ask you about a theme that came up in conversations I've had with (San Francisco Symphony concertmaster) Alexander Barantschik and composer Samuel Adams. Both pretty quickly came around to a similar theme: your fundamental concern that music, down to its smallest details, must have meaning -- that the musician must understand what it is that's being communicated by a piece of music and by its performance. Could you talk a little bit about this idea of "meaning" in classical music?
A That's a very big question. Classical music consists of pieces, which very often are like testimonies. Perhaps they don't have a story, but they certainly present situations which have a strong resemblance to things we experience in life. Classical music has always interested me because -- unlike pop music, which is totally wonderful and which I enjoy listening to -- classical music is about many things at once, and many things that are changing at once. So a pop tune defines that mood, that kind of moment, and does it very well in an iconic way.
But in classical music, usually you have several different streams of feelings going on, and they're all contending with one another, sometimes cooperating, sometimes conflicting, transforming one another. The language the composer is using can be a simple, straightforward one with sudden unusual outtakes to something unexpected, (which) a composer like Schubert, for example, can do. Or it can be a composer who is presenting a world much closer to village music, where there's a certain astringent quality to the music and a certain kind of primitive edge of untutored voices, perhaps.
Or the music can be, just in its time-scale, so many different things. There can be long, great minimalistic pieces like Steve Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians" that very, very, slowly reveal changes of mood, changes of perspective, in a very different way than, let's say, a movement of Bruckner's Ninth Symphony does. But there can also be pieces that are very short, like one of my all-time favorites, Webern's Op. 19 (Two Songs for Mixed Chorus and Chamber Ensemble). This is a piece that is scarcely three minutes long, which I have thought about countless hours since I first discovered it when I was a teenager.
Because just in those two or three minutes, there are so many fascinating situations of the way words and music can relate to one another. It's not just about those particular words, those particular settings. It's about a vision of how words themselves work, how music itself works.
So ... it does seem to me always that it is about something -- that the kind of music you're hearing has a certain confidence, perhaps, or a certain wariness or a certain skittishness or a certain apprehension or yearning or some essential quality, which is then transforming into something else. And that for us as the performers, being very certain about what those qualities are, how we feel about them (is essential) -- because it doesn't make sense unless it's things we also experience, and can make them come to life again through our understanding of them.
I'm not sure that's anything like a complete sentence. But you've got some of the idea.
Q Speak a little bit more about one particular piece that means a world to you, and how you feel about it. People always talk about being transported by music. What does that mean to you, and what do you hope is happening to an audience when the piece ends?
A It's very important to me what happens when the piece ends, because I'm thinking about what the audience will take home with them from the performance, what will stick with them. Will it be a melody or a harmony or a rhythm or just a sense of mood or the intensity of a particular artist..., the warm inclusiveness that they feel from the artist, or the mournful perplexment that also seems to be in some of these pieces?
But all of these things are qualities which are adding to our experience. These composers are giving us other worlds and other perspectives that we can explore through their vision of them. So that's very much about the end of the piece.
But I'm going to be doing Schumann's First Symphony later this season. And doing any piece by Schumann, you're aware of his amazing pianistic ability, and also his amazing gift for songfulness, and also the very perplexing way in which the music is actually written for the orchestra, which suggests that it was often rewritten. And these rewrites may have something to do with actual events, turbulent events going on in his own experience as a performer.
But there is a place toward the end of the first movement, where, after the confident first movement has been churning its way along, making its points, he comes to a moment where the piece might come to an end. But instead, there is this little extra section. It's thematically related to things we've heard before, but it is suddenly in a much simpler, more songful style. And the message I get from the music is thankfulness.
It seems to me like somebody who's just made it through this first bracing walk up a mountain, and now he says, "Oh! I'm so grateful to have gotten here. And I'm so grateful for this opportunity to share this with you. Because I am by nature a songful person, and so here is, in an undisguised way, my song. And now that you've heard that, let's get on with the business of ending this movement."
But that little oasis of simple songfulness is so important. And finding a really personal way to let the orchestra express that after all the agendas of moving structures forward, which they, before that time, have been following -- that's a very interesting thing to imagine. How exactly would that happen? It will happen with a certain degree of rubato being introduced into the pulse. And this is a tricky thing.
You know, I also have a record coming out -- I'm so happy with it -- a record the orchestra and I did called "Masterpieces in Miniature." It's coming out very soon, which is almost entirely of what used to be called encore pieces or salon pieces. It's all pieces eight minutes long, basically, but they have very strong emotional characters.
If a soloist does those pieces, they just play them and play them, and they find their way of doing it. And each time is quite spontaneous in how it might happen, and it has the greatest of tenderness and sensitivity. But the more people who are involved in playing such a thing, the more someone has to imagine how that quality will be achieved.
So in this (other) case in the Schumann symphony, I'm imagining -- as I'm walking down the street or sitting at the piano, singing this phrase -- how that ebb and flow would happen. (Tilson Thomas at this point sings the phrase from Schumann.)
But then I have to really think about it: "OK, what does that mean to somebody playing second clarinet or viola or first trumpet? What are they hearing in the place that they are on the stage, and what specifically do they need to know to make this possible?" That's the kind of thing I spend a great deal of time on.
Or in this same symphony, Schumann's First Symphony, at the end of the scherzo, there is a section which sounds to me like somebody blowing on a -- what is the name of that little plant where you blow on it? (He cups his hand in front of his face, and blows air through them: poof!)
Q A dandelion?
A Yes, exactly! You've been hearing this music, and then suddenly it's like someone's holding the dandelion, looks at it and just goes "pooooof." (He blows air through his hands again.) And all of it just goes in all directions and then settles down, and then the piece is over.
Q And you have to keep track of each particle of it?
A Yes. So the way Schumann has notated this would be fine for a soloist. But it's very, very difficult for a large group of people to play this. And having worked on this for quite a number of years at this point, I gave it some thought: "You know what? I'm re-notating this." ... I haven't changed the notes; the notes are exactly the same. But the way they look, because of the way the bar structure is, is much easier to understand. You can understand the actual musical design far more clearly.
Q You've done this already?
A Yes, I've done it.
Q And you've performed it that way?
A No, I haven't performed it, but I've worked it out with the library. So our parts now -- when you come to this end of the movement, there's a few new bars there. It's the same music, but it looks different.
Q Were the musicians surprised to see it? Did anybody object?
A They haven't seen it so far. Of course, with a large group of people, it's possible somebody may object. But I don't think so, because it will be so much easier for them to do it that they'll be able to get themselves into the spirit of the music much more freely and, therefore, more pleasurably.
So I'm just trying to give you a little idea of this kind of two-part thing, whether it was with Sam Adams' piece ("Drift and Providence," which Tilson Thomas and the orchestra will perform at Carnegie Hall in November), or whether it's with Schumann's piece, of saying, "What exactly is happening here? What are we meant to feel? What is the gesture, and how should that really happen?"
And sometimes that can happen just by my being very clear in the spaces that I'm giving, because I love to give space to the musicians for them to do their particular magic. And sometimes it can be something as specific as this: "OK, let's actually re-notate this." Or, you saw in the other room, these scores, the parts from which we make the music. These are often sets of parts which I have developed over years, which have a lot of additional markings in them as far as balance and quality of articulation and many things like this.
Q What were you playing, when I was walking up the street toward your house? The windows were open, and I could hear bits and pieces.
A That was the Liszt "Hexameron" (which he will perform with five other pianists at his 70th birthday concert at Davies Symphony Hall in January).
And that's another thing -- that there are these big projects which come up. And so I have to be working on what's happening now for next week. But I also have to be thinking about something that's happening six months from now or even a season from now. And how exactly that will happen, and how it will come together, and who's going to do it and what types of partnerships need to be made, and all that stuff.
Q It seems like such a landmark time for you. It's about to be your 20th season, and in a few months you'll be 70 years old.
Q And then you've been conducting for 50 or 51 years; I think you started in 1963.
A Yup. Something like that.
Q So I wanted to ask you this: You have had, and you are having, such a life.
A (He laughs.)
Q And when you think about it, about the many remarkable people you've known very closely -- whether Stravinsky or Bernstein or Copland -- is it something you look at with nostalgia? Does it ever seem not real? Or maybe it just seems very normal: "This is what I do, and how I live, and these are the people I've met along the way." Outsiders like me might romanticize it, but what does it feel like to you?
A (Long pause) It seems to me to have been about many of the same things from the beginning. That for whatever reason -- the way I'm wired, the way my molecules are, that the kind of feeling I got about music and life in my parents' home, the patience and devotion that my teachers so generously gave me -- I've just tried to stick with these qualities.
I believe that making music, making art, is an idealistic and sincere process, and it does transform your life. There's no question that in being a musician, in being a professional musician, there are at times frustrating and even frightening moments, moments that make you angry or fed up. But the music itself is so wonderful that I think most musicians find a way to still maintain contact with the wonderful, idealistic part of the music-making, which is all about why they decided to be musicians in the first place.
And along the way, these various people that I met seem to be, in some ways, people I already had known. There was a sense of recognition somehow between me and them -- you know, in different ways. It wasn't all the same kind of experience.
So, an example I'm fond of remembering is, there was a period in Los Angeles for a while there, where I was making music with Jascha Heifetz and Pierre Boulez. And it was remarkable to me that they were both asking for so many of the same things, the same kinds of sensitivity, of expression, very clearly defined and sensitive colors and shapes. They were just very different kinds of shapes! And they were being used for very different purposes.
But the way I felt, as someone playing and working under their direction, was: "Oh, yes, I understand. We're trying to get this very clear, an idea very clearly expressed." And that was the same with Stravinsky, as well. There is sometimes a notion that Stravinsky wanted his music to be played in a very flat, intellectual sort of way, which was not so. He wanted his music to be played in a very clear, inflected way, a very -- as they would say in the dance world -- "turned out" sort of way, very gestural. And he, too, was very clear about what he wanted and actually, I thought, very good at expressing that.
His conducting was not the most reliable at times. But what he did show was a real window into his mind, the mind that created the music, for sure.
Q He showed this through his conducting?
A Mmhmmm. Or through his singing, when you heard him sing a phrase. And that's a wonderful thing. I really am very grateful to have known as many composers as I have, and to have had the experience of hearing them sing the music to me in their own voices. Because there are inflections and kinds of intentions that you hear in their voices that no amount of notation somehow can express.
Q You were a teenager when you met Stravinsky?
A Yes. But you have to remember that I was growing up in a house in L.A. in which the reigning personality was my grandmother, Bessie Thomashevsky. And all sorts of people were coming to sort of pay court to her, all the old great Yiddish actors. And my dad, who had worked with Orson Welles on Project 891 and a lot of other stuff in New York, would again be visited by all sorts of actors and production people, who had started out in New York, (and who came) out to Hollywood to make one deal happen or another.
Some of these people were very big personalities and tremendously eccentric and spoke with (Tilson Thomas now puts on an exaggerated, high-toned accent) very fanTAHstical accents. So I was kind of used to people like this. So when I got to the music world, I began meeting people like Rubenstein or Maria Callas, who are -- OK, I'd say, "Oh, yes, I know people like this. I've experienced people like this."
Q In what sense is your identity as a performer related to what you got from your family, especially your grandparents, who founded the Yiddish theater in New York? How does that flow through you in your personal and professional life?
A Well one way these days it really is flowing through (can be seen in) my ongoing interest in video and in creating environments in the hall -- different ways of representing the music, of installing the music in some cases, such as this last "Peter Grimes" production we did, or such as a performance coming up later this season of Beethoven's Missa solemnis, which is conceived for the stage by me in a very different way.
But in every one of those cases what I'm imagining -- the purpose of using these other forms; lighting, projection, online resources, whatever they are -- it is to make something about the music clearer, more vivid, something in the music that the audience might perhaps overlook.
Q And you're saying that this is drawing upon your personal history, your family history?
A Yeah, well, I grew up in a house (where) sometimes we had a movieola, if you know what that is, in the dining room. And people were coming in and out, cutting film. And I was on a lot of sound stages and seeing things go together. And I was also just very aware of how even a single person can absolutely captivate an audience. I was in the presence of a lot of great storytellers over the years, and that way in which the storyteller can kind of make everything else go away, and you're just inside that story, even with very minimal means.
Q You have a reputation as a big technology guy. (He laughs.) But are you really that kind of nuts-and-bolts technology guy, a geeky technology guy, or do you just have a vision of what you want and an ability to corral resources.
A More like the latter. I think my strength is that I very often see demonstrations of some new technique, some new principle for which no real purpose has yet been imagined.
Q Like what?
A Like working on a bunch of videos of John Cage music, which I'm doing now. I'm looking at certain video edit techniques. And these are, many of them, things that are used in sports reporting and other things; they have commonplace usages. But I kind of look at them and say, "Well, wait a minute. Let's take this and completely change the parameters to be THIS way, and then change the scale of this, and then flip it" -- whatever, to arrive at something which is actually a new image and which has a different quality.
Or sometimes I'll say to the team, "Look, this is what I would like to see, what I would like to do. How can you make this happen?" But I can't crunch the numbers. No, I can't do that.
Q Is the New World Symphony kind of like an R&D lab for you? (New World is a blue-ribbon training orchestra that Tilson Thomas directs in Miami Beach, Fla. It's headquartered in a state-of-the-art concert hall designed by architect Frank Gehry.)
Q Its influence seems increasingly to feed into what you do here in San Francisco. You're experimenting with things there that you're now doing here.
A Yes, that is so.
Q What can we expect to see here as a result in the next few years?
A Well, later this season there's going to be this performance of Cage's "Renga," which will involve ideas that were developed and used at the New World Symphony.
Q And are you going to elaborate on what happened there, or are you simply moving the production here? Do you have new ideas each time?
A Yes. The piece will have to be installed in Davies, and the installation will make its own particular demands and cause some different things to happen.
Q What would you like to see happen in Davies in terms of upgrades to the hall? I've heard you talk about tweaking the concert hall to allow for individual mini-events happening all around it. What can realistically happen? What would you like to happen?
A What should happen is that the interior of the hall, the performing space, should be brought up to current specifications, as far as the sound system, the lighting system, and any of the other technical support systems are concerned. We're now working with systems which were wonderful in 1987, but now make it more difficult for us to do imaginative things.
There are things about the stage that should be worked on to make the stage a bit more spacious, to make the entrances and exits for the musicians easier, more comfortable -- which would allow us then to use different configurations of musicians on the stage more easily. The backstage, the loading dock, rehearsal spaces for musicians -- all of these things need to be upgraded.
Q Do you think it can happen?
A Yes. I think doing that is essential for the growth of the orchestra and for the ability of the symphony to continue to present the kind of programming, the kind of new directions in programming, which will go on attracting new audiences.
Q Is there serious discussion under way about how to do it and fund it?
A Well, I've been away (on vacation), and I have no idea. Maybe if you ask that question a couple of weeks from now, I could give you a more realistic answer. My impression is, from the discussions we DID have, that there are many people on the board and many people among the musicians who think that doing something to make our musical life better is a good idea.
Q Let's talk about your 20th season. There's a lot happening: so much American repertory, from the get-go, and then the new SoundBox alternative performance space -- and the Beethoven festival, all that wild stuff at the end of the season.
A Wild Beethoven; I like that.
Q What are you especially excited about, and when did you start planning the season?
A I don't know exactly when I start thinking about these things; generally, years before. That's a little bit the way the classical music world works, so that various organizations, worldwide organizations, are talking with me about doing projects in '17-'18, '18-'19, these kinds of dates. So it does come into your thinking: "OK, here's a group of artists that I'm enjoying working with, and here's a kind of music that we're enjoying playing." So maybe that's possible that three years from now, that all might coalesce into something that has a particular design. And you do your best to make it happen. Sometimes it happens. Sometimes it takes more than one attempt to make it happen.
This Missa solemnis is an example of that. This is something that I had hoped to do a couple of years ago. But the project was so big and the space of time in which to do it was too limited in many ways. And also, in the intervening time I've thought about this a lot. So although the project didn't happen then, I've still been thinking about it pretty much continuously during all the rest of this time, between then and now.
And again the motivation for that was that Missa solemnis, which is one of my favorite pieces -- but I completely understand why it is mysterious for many members of the audience, because it is big and many different things are going on in the piece, and they're all sort of happening on top of one another. So I began to imagine: How could staging, lighting, projection, assignment of forces -- how could all of these things be used in a way that would make it easier and more enjoyable for the audience to follow and understand the piece.
And the Cage project, "Renga," was a piece originally written for the (U.S.) Bicentennial (in 1976). And I was with John in New York when that happened. But in the score of "Renga," it says that, in addition to celebrating the Bicentennial, that it could be used to memorialize a head of state or great artist. I quipped with John at that moment that I might one day do that piece in memory of him. And over the years I thought about how that might be done. And we did it one way in New World last year. But the way we're going to do it here in San Francisco has some elements that are the same, but a number of other things which will be different. But it is about John and his world.
Q Certain themes keep coming through in your comments: this idea of clarifying music for the audience, and also the idea of accessibility.
A Or for the musicians. As it happens, we talked about Missa solemnis -- all this work I'm doing with directors and designers and projection people, building this conception of this piece. But also there's a place in Missa solemnis which is notationally monstrous.
Q And let me guess: Are you doing something, as with Schumann, where...
A Yes! So I've re-notated that (the Beethoven passage) in a way which will make it much easier for the musicians to really go after it with the ferocity which he, for sure, desires. It's not that it can't be done the way he's written it. But it makes the process of doing it much faster to do it this way. Remember that most orchestra concerts that you see are done in... roughly, let's say eight hours of rehearsal. So all this poetry and fantasy and beauty and spaciousness -- all these things we've been discussing here -- have to be accomplished in a very efficient way. And part of my responsibility is to prepare myself, prepare the material, to speak to musicians who may be having important solo parts in some piece, especially if it's a piece that the orchestra has never played.
So that's all part of my responsibilities.
Q I'm going to skip around now. The last time we spoke, you said, "Don't get me started on Brian Wilson." (Laughter). I think you described yourself as a Brian Wilson fanatic.
Q Tell me what you love about his music, and why you feel it's important. And maybe you can mention a few tunes by him that you think are perfect.
A I always liked his music because of its harmonic audacity, because of the complex polyphonic writing in parts of it, because of the unusual kind of otherworldly production techniques that he used in the songs, so it seems like they cut from one world, one reality, to another.
So I had a very formative moment with his music. One summer I was playing as a rehearsal pianist at Bayreuth; I was a rehearsal pianist for a year. And so after months of nothing but Wagner stage rehearsals, I happened to be in a little diner, I guess you would call it, and there was a jukebox. And on the jukebox came "Good Vibrations." It was the first time that I'd heard the song. And I was just BLOWN away at the joy of it, the longing of it, the big perspective of it -- AND the astonishing brevity of it!
So many of those emotions that I'd been playing for all those months in those Wagner operas -- there they all were, but they were all just in this super-compressed form. So I was even more of a fan there.
And I was watching with great interest during the years that the "Smiley Smile" album was trying to come together. And of course, various parts of it were released -- and the various versions of "Surf's Up, which I think is also a remarkably interesting song, and which I really liked best when it was not completely produced. It was first issued in a way that sometimes it was just Brian playing the piano, and then sometimes it was full production, and then it went -- they obviously had achieved different parts of it and they just made a cut which put all those different pieces together. I thought that was terrific.
Only a few years ago it was finally released with the production, everything completed.
Q Right, in that box set.
A Which I didn't find as interesting. But that earlier version of "Surf's Up," where it's just sometimes piano and voice, sometimes it was full choral treatment, sometimes it was bass guitar, sometimes it was whatever....
Q Did you ever know him in L.A.?
A No, sadly I didn't. I never met him.... He has a very original harmonic and melodic gift.
Q Are you doing any of your own composing?
A I'm doing a very little bit of composing, which is mostly neatening up of things that already exist.
Q For large ensembles? Singers?
A At the moment, everything seems to be for singers or keyboards. I was just in the house that Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner lived in, in Martha's Vineyard. And as I was in there, I was thinking about this whole other world of pieces that I've had the ambition to do and made starts on -- and I even like the starts. But I find it possible only to work on small-sized pieces somehow, in the midst of the morass of what it means to run two major musical organizations in the United States, plus have creative associations with some other ones in the rest of the world.
What pleases me very much, I'll tell you though, is that there are some very wonderful people like Ted Abrams, whom I first met when he was a clarinetist in the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, and went to Curtis and then was with me in New World for a few years as the assistant conductor, or conducting fellow.... And now he's taken over as the music director of the Louisville Orchestra. This is his first season.
And you can imagine, with all the other people who have been in the New World Symphony and who are now in outstanding positions in orchestras around the world, including in our own orchestra, many of them -- that makes me feel quite good.
Q You're turning 70 in December. Any thoughts on the advancing years?
A I still feel like very much the same person. My outlook on life, my idealism, wanting to work with people in a way that is collaborative -- I think those are very much the same. I know there are some musicians who knew me way, way, way back then -- there are still a few people in the Los Angeles Philharmonic, for example, who were there when I was conducting there. (That was) when I was 19 or 20, very young.
Q And they're still in the orchestra?
A Yeah, because they were about my age. And I had heard, when I went back after having not conducted there for many, many years -- I did something with them last year. And I think they said ... something like, "Well, Michael is exactly the same. He is asking for and working on exactly the same things. It's just that he's become very focused at how to achieve these ends."
Q Did they say this to you, or you heard about it?
A I kind of heard it. It got to me. So I was very pleased about that.
But what I'm looking for is real quality of generous, confessional, vulnerable music making. And even with the biggest old warhorse, as we sometimes call 'em, I think that's the way it should be. And when I was in the Boston Symphony, one of the wonderful old veteran players said to me something like, "Yeah, well being a professional musician means that you play a fine performance even if you don't feel like it."
And I thought about that. And then I thought, "You know, I'd much rather be in the place of finding a way to ALWAYS want to give a fine performance." And that has to do, I guess with maybe one of the reasons that I use the Shehecheyanu. But I feel the people who are in the audience that night -- for many of them that will be the first time that they've ever heard the piece, or potentially the first time that the piece will really connect with them. So those are all vitally important things.
Q If you were to speak directly to non-classical music listeners -- if you were to tell them what you hope they will get out of a fine performance -- what would that be? What's your invitation to them?
A Well, this is an experience of live music. And live music making, where you feel the passion and desire of the players to present the music to you, is a very gripping and possibly transforming experience. Most of the music that's played at those concerts was written with the intention of reaching all people -- because classical music has had, longer than any other kind of music, the ability to survive, to continue on through time.
We can really hear love songs of 11th-century Provence or 16th-century England, and we can hear the reflection of all those love songs and work songs and hunting songs -- everything -- inside of the symphonies and the concerti. It's a language that's been built up from music of the people over about 1,000 years. And the people who wrote these things were hoping that their music would be heard and be known by people in the next town, the next city, the next country -- the next century. That's why they were taking such care to make it as clear as they did. And I think that comes through at our concerts.
Q That's a good invitation.
A I'm aware of how fortunate I am to be here working with this orchestra, and to be in this community. I've always felt welcome here, going back to when I first guest-conducted in San Francisco, which would be 35 or 40 years ago.... And I'm proud of the fact that, after 20 years, the level of communication that I feel with the musicians is strong, and that we are still finding new and wonderful pathways to explore.
Q You feel it's still on the upswing?
A Yes. Our conception of music together -- lots of things we're doing are more subtle, more lustrous. There's a certain kind of elegance in a lot of things we do. This new recording I mentioned -- it's the kind of playing I heard in Haifetz's and Piatigorsky's class, which always made such an impression on me. And to hear a whole group playing this way is inspiring.
For instance, when we do Mahler ... there's a vulnerability in the way the phrases are played, a sense of, yes, we're really playing this together. It's what we want to communicate. So it inspires me to keep developing these qualities with the orchestra. And I may point out something in the music, some turning point, some quality, but what always so amazes me is what they do. They take the suggestion, and then they completely do it in their own way. They absolutely find a way to make it their own. Or we're going along, and someone does something I've absolutely never heard before. And I think, "Oh, maybe that can be part of the larger vision."
As an example, I'm hearing the direction the brass section is going in, being able to spin their breath over longer and longer contours and with more and more colors. There's always something going on in the orchestra, something new and inspiring. And it makes me so happy to be part of it.
I think it's kind of special that, after 20 years, we can be enjoying these qualities of one another.
Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony
Their 20th season together
When: Sept. 3, 2014, through June 27, 2015
Where: Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco
Tickets: $15-$163; 415-864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org