Michael Tilson Thomas: Making Anything Sound Good

Michael Tilson Thomas: Making Anything Sound Good

Michael Tilson Thomas
Interview Excerpt #3

FRANK J. OTERI: When you’re thinking of playing music with an orchestra, how much do of a commitment do you feel toward American repertoire, specifically the work of living composers?

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Well, a lot. The first year I started in San Francisco, there was an American work on every program and there’s been a lot of music by living composers and gradually that was part of the process of getting the audience really to trust me. They would know that the kind of pieces I was going to program would be pieces they would find either fascinating or provoking, challenging, perhaps infuriating, but not boring. I was not going to present pieces in which they would think: "Oh, right, uh-huh, OK what’s next." They would have to take notice of these pieces that would cause them to talk about them. They would go to a symphony concert and for the next several weeks would say: "I heard the damnedest thing at that concert, it was so loud, it was so odd, it was so exhilarating, it was so mystical, it was so…" But something about it, even if they didn’t like it, would make them feel they should share that with some of the people who hadn’t been there.

FRANK J. OTERI: Now you said it began that way, but it’s no longer the case. You don’t always do an American work.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: No, I think it’s more mixed up now. And of course, over these last years the Mavericks Festivals have come in so that there’s a specific time period devoted to an exploration of just that kind of music. But still as compared to many, many orchestras in the world, I think you find a lot more new music and living composers on our programs than many other places.

FRANK J. OTERI: It’s fantastic in fact. I wonder, judging from the audiences when you go to these concerts, do you notice a different audience for the American Mavericks series than for the regular season?

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Yes, it’s a younger, more adventurous audience. I remember a program we did where we did a Beethoven Mass and John Adams’s Century Rolls and there a quite a large audience which appeared for the Beethoven and then split before John’s piece. But there were an equally large number of people who didn’t come for the Beethoven and came specifically to hear Century Rolls. Now of course, both of these kinds of behavior annoy and disturb me in different ways because I love all that music and it’s not even a question that these musics both have a lot of very wonderful, powerful things to say. In some ways, I actually think it’s more difficult in the long-term to get younger audience members who are fascinated with contemporary music because of the sort of musical language—the kind of hooks, bells, and whistles which are in that music, many of which they also can hear in contemporary pop music, or film music, or some other kind of musical experience in their lives. It can be more difficult to introduce these younger members of the audience to something as incredible as Schubert‘s Unfinished Symphony or Winterreise or something like this where there are no sound gimmicks in it. It’s just the pure subtle sophistication of harmony and melody basically. It really takes time to get them to slow down enough to hear this. It’s partially because they, in their lives, have not had the kind of experience with music that people of former generations did. In earlier times, so many people sang much more. You know as a kid you’d go to some kind of religious training and or summer camp or whatever it was and you’d learn to sing a lot of songs. And these songs were in major keys and minor keys and had various notes associated with those particular harmonies. Melodic moves. Various words that you’d say: "Oh right, this is a sad move, this is sardonic move, this is an irreverent move." Different sorts of perception of what the notes themselves were saying. And therefore when you heard these same moves—you knew from songs you sang—occur in a Haydn string quartet or a Brahms overture, or a Mahler symphony or whatever, you had a very clear idea of what the composer was saying, even though it was being said in the process of a much bigger musical design. Today I think it’s a problem that many young people have not had those kinds of experiences either in school or in any of their social or religious organizations. They just don’t know those things. They sort of know them from whatever music they happen to have heard. But without the experience of actually singing or playing these things yourself, you don’t have the same kind of involvement or understanding of what these musical moves mean. And that is a very big problem in addressing the future of music.

FRANK J. OTERI: Well it’s interesting in terms of audience development because the classic model for years has been to sneak in a contemporary piece of music. You know, you’d have a contemporary piece hidden in with a famous symphony and a concerto performed by a famous soloist. But now, if you really want to bring in a younger audience, you might be better off sneaking in the older repertoire. The selling point for orchestras really can be the new piece of music. And then, through showing up for the new piece of music, they’ll hear the older piece of music and get enriched by that as well.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: It’s possible. Repertory suggests to me that there are many different audiences and that even as in the theater, it’s possible to put on a very important season which includes plays by Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Genet, Neil Simon, as well as a group of young avant-garde playwrights. All of that would be perfectly fine in the course of a theatrical season. And I think such things could also take place in the symphonic world.

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