Composers from Amazon.com's Get Started in Classical:
Michael Tilson Thomas
This is from Amazon.com's Get Started in Classical.
List of Composers
Michael Tilson Thomas is firing up a new generation to get
hooked on classical music
Look around at who's leading the world's major
orchestras, and you still won't find many Americans on
the podium. But one who has made it big is Michael Tilson Thomas, considered by many the finest
American conductor of his generation. The success of
MTT--as he is universally known in the business--in appealing to
younger audiences and bringing a new vitality to San Francisco's
music scene is just one of the ways in which the youthful-looking
fiftysomething conductor resembles his former mentor Leonard
Bernstein. Extremely polished, articulate, and theatrical (his
grandparents were luminaries of the Yiddish theater movement), MTT
is also an extraordinarily gifted pianist and is belatedly coming to
terms with his aspirations as a composer, with his new Whitman
Songs to be premiered this season by the San Francisco Symphony.
Like Bernstein, MTT is known for the personally intense conviction of
his interpretations--whether that of the American mavericks he
champions (such as Steve Reich or Morton Feldman) or classics from
the repertory--as if he is channeling the composer in question. His
accounts of Stravinsky classics in fact draw on a personal relationship
with the composer, whose music he celebrated in the summer of
1999 in an acclaimed Stravinsky Festival with the Symphony. In an
interview with Amazon.com editor Thomas May, MTT shares his
views on the role of the conductor, on Stravinsky, and on the
paradoxes of the least-familiar of Mahler's symphonies, the
Symphony No. 7--a recording of which he has just released.
Amazon.com: One thing that 's immediately obvious at your concerts
is the wide cross-section of audience you attract, particularly a larger
group of young people than is usually seen in the classical concert hall. How have you
succeeded in enlarging your audience?
Michael Tilson Thomas: It's a process that's occurred over the years. Even earlier as a guest
conductor I'd schedule a mixture of very solid big traditional pieces with contemporary
American music, slanted toward a younger audience which would be more adventurous in its
tastes. But I think the public has picked up on the fact that in addition to the programming there
is a much more adventurous concept of music-making that the orchestra and I are building
together. It's presented in a much freer, more colorful, more gestural, more rhythmically
focused way. My relationship with the members of the orchestra has become based on the idea
that it's more fun to do these pieces in a way that is less ritualistic and more performance
Amazon.com: Have you consciously tried to redefine or demystify the role of the conductor?
MTT: I haven't consciously tried to do it--it's just my approach. I think of being a conductor
very much more like being a director with a great ensemble, where I work with the
players--who in this case are musicians but could just as easily be actors--and try to create a
situation in the rehearsals where they have a greater sense of freedom to be involved as
themselves in the performances. Very often I'm tailoring things to their specific strengths and
encouraging them to be more daring and more personal in the way that they approach this
music. In general, a lot of conductors try to control people--you know, to get them to kind of
make their music and color within the lines. I'm just the opposite. I'm trying to get them to
basically get past the notation so that they play the music as if they are improvising it.
Amazon.com: You personally knew Stravinsky when you were a young man growing up in
Los Angeles. What impact has that had on the way you approach his music?
MTT: I became captivated with his music as a child. I got to see him conduct on many
occasions and had a chance in my late teenage years and early 20s to actually
work under his direction. The most valuable thing to me was how he sang his
own music: [to] the orchestra, when he was giving his advice about how
something should be played. He was hugely interested in shape and in all the
issues of inflection, just as though you were a dancer being asked to make a
particularly complex and energetic gesture. He was quite obsessive about the beginnings and
ends of phrases and the kind of swing that went through the phrase. That's the fundamental take
that I have on the music and the way that I approach all of it.
Amazon.com: During your performance of The Rite of Spring at the Stravinsky Festival, it
seemed exuberant, not dark at all, with an acute sense of its folk basis.
MTT: I think of it as a very Russian piece. And also a very happy piece: it celebrates fertility
and regeneration. True, there is a human sacrifice at the end, but I prefer to think of that
sacrifice as if they have a big party to celebrate spring, and one girl has such a good time that
the next morning they found out she's dead. It's this enormously ecstatic dance-party aspect of
the piece which has always gripped me so powerfully. Basically the whole piece is melodic; it's
just rhythms--and melodies stretched over them--for nearly the entire piece. Even the use of
dissonance is to express the ecstatic and to bring you into this world of village music. It's not to
express some kind of angst or anger. It's like being in a village where people are playing music
on instruments which they've invented themselves: they aren't really tuned in accordance with
one another; they have odd squeaks and strange individualistic characters because they are folk
instruments. [That's why Stravinsky] puts instruments in the extremes of their registers: it
suggests this sort of rude music-making of villagers.
Amazon.com: Even though you obviously didn't know him, you seem to have a similar
intensely personal kind of relationship to Mahler.
MTT: I've always had this sleepwalking aspect when it comes to Mahler: I just feel so close to
that music. Sometimes it scares me that I understand it so well. The Ninth was actually the first
Mahler symphony I ever conducted--with the Boston Symphony when I was 24. I first started
getting into his music when I was 10 or 12 years old. So much of what that music expressed
[corresponded to] these sensitive, intelligent, lonely Jewish teenager feelings. I can still access
and feel very close to that.
Amazon.com: Your recording of Das Klagende Lied made an impressive case for this
relatively neglected youthful work.
MTT: It's a piece I absolutely adore. People have problems sometimes with what they
perceive as the discontinuity of that piece, but I think it's one of the most
astonishing representations of storytelling in music. The pauses and the
discontinuities are all as if you were telling a bedtime story to a child, and said,
"Then, the two brothers disappeared into the forest and were never seen again!"
It's like the way you play around telling a story to a kid, with the disappearances,
the suspense. In the case of the Seventh Symphony, it's also a piece which often does not get
as strong a performance as it needs because--especially about the last movement--people say,
"It's so incoherent, it's jumping around." I think that's the whole point. It's the most brilliant
study in psychological discontinuity. The scherzo is one of the maddest things he ever
produced. And that last movement is a series of jump cuts between moods, tempi,
orchestrations, everything. It's kind of like having psychotic breaks while conducting a
performance of Meistersinger.
Amazon.com: Where are we as a culture in our view of Mahler now? There does seem to be
a sort of sea change going on toward a more--for lack of a better word--"objective" view.
MTT: Not this puppy; I'm just the opposite. I'm heading toward performances which are
much more colorful, personal, in which every member of the orchestra is treated as a lieder
singer who is given lots of opportunities to shape and really interpret this music. I see [Mahler
symphonies] as enormous operas or song cycles. There are solo moments where it all hinges on
one player. Every member of the orchestra must play at that sort of level. It's all about the
inflection and confessional aspect of the music, and of course revealing its sources. That's the
whole thing in Mahler's music, whether it's folk, cabaret, military, dance, or religious music
sources. It's very important that at that moment the players be encouraged to play in those sorts
of styles, rather than just smooth all of that over. This is the opposite of what Brahms did, who
also used folk, religious, or cabaret music in his symphonies, to name just three sources. But
Brahms always covered his tracks in the orchestration and the way he presented things. Mahler
is throwing these things in highly contrasted profile. The art of the conductor and the performers
is to present this in as vivid a way as possible, and yet at the same time have it be structurally
Thomas May, Classical Editor
More Michael Tilson Thomas can be found in Musical Information and Recommendations for Adults
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