An Insider's View
Jeff Woodruff- Exec.Director of The Harrisburg Symphony
Orchestra, and member of the 1961 graduating class, reflects
upon the career to date of - Michael Tilson Thomas
My earliest recollection of Michael Tilson Thomas goes back to my 11th grade year at North Hollywood, which would be the 1959-60 school year. I was in the trombone section in the school orchestra and Michael came in that year as a 10th grader playing the oboe. That’s right, the oboe. In fact, if you look at the orchestra page in both the 1960 and ‘61 yearbooks, there’s Michael sitting in the middle of the orchestra with his oboe. We knew him then simply as Michael Thomas, long before the moniker MTT came to identify the world famous symphonic conductor. While most of us in that high school orchestra were at best only semi-serious about music, certainly about classical music, Michael was different. I think he knew even then that his talent ran deep and that he was headed for a musical career. He was certainly busy preparing himself for one. In addition to playing the oboe, he was also an accomplished pianist. And I seem to remember that he was carrying scores around with him and was serious about score study. Keep in mind that in the fall of 1959 he was not yet quite 15 yrs old. He was not content to just play the oboe part. He wanted to know everyone else’s part, too. I suspect that Michael knew that his ultimate professional destination, the place where he would find his true calling, was the podium. I can remember watching Michael conduct the student orchestra at an assembly in the No. Hollywood High School auditorium, in a performance of a Rossini overture. Did the kids understand what they were witnessing? Of course not. If anything, they were dismissive of it. And that’s probably being polite. But I suspect that Michael knew that even those few minutes in front of a scrappy student ensemble, in front of a live, if unappreciative, audience was a necessary step along the path to a career as a conductor.
Michael really goes against the stereotype of the late 50s Southern California teenager. From the land of palm trees, backyard barbecues and surf music, in the shadow of Disneyland and the Hollywood dream factories, here comes a kid from the LA suburbs – this dead serious kid who would come to personally know Stravinsky and Copland and become authorities on their music - who would eventually be able to step in front of orchestras at the very highest professional level, from New York to Berlin, from London to Tokyo, and not just survive, but thrive as one of the foremost classical musicians of his generation, a musician with something to say. And he’s done it not only with a profound musical talent, but also with a probing intellect, a self-assuredness which by the way is absolutely necessary in his profession, and, perhaps most importantly – that one trait that is a must in any of the performing arts - personality, a true personality with a point of view, and a charisma that engages audiences, both sophisticated and novice. In that respect Michael very much reminds people of his most famous mentor, that indispensable icon of American classical music, Leonard Bernstein. Like Lenny, MTT is much more than just the guy on the podium beating time. Michael is a communicator, a passionate advocate not only for a faithful rendition of the score at hand, but a musician who probes beneath the surface of the notes on the page, digging not just for the letter but also the spirit and the meaning of the music. What was life like in late 18th or early 19th century Vienna? Listen to Michael conduct a Haydn, Mozart or Beethoven symphony and it’s like being transported back 200 years. What makes French music French or Russian music Russian or American music American? Listen to Michael conduct Debussy or Tchaikovsky or Gershwin, and these very different styles will come to vivid life. This is the real job of the conductor.
And what about the music of our own time, this thorny and difficult world called modernism? Programming new music in the 2nd half of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st has been a particularly difficult challenge for symphony orchestras, especially in America, where orchestras are for the most not subsidized by the government and where audiences and those who support the orchestra are notoriously conservative in their tastes. How do you program modern music without alienating your core audience? Here again, Michael has been a pioneer and a leader, never shying away from programming and beating the drum for contemporary music. For many years in the 1960s and 70s Michael had a close relationship with the famed Monday Night Concerts in LA. This was a series that actually sought out the new, or sometimes the very old, famously avoiding the hackneyed, the mainstream, or the tried and true. Michael was one of the leading lights of this series early in his career. This was where he learned to speak the complex language of contemporary music and rather than run away from it, he embraced it. Everywhere he has held a conducting post since - and this would include orchestras in Boston, New York, Buffalo, Los Angeles, London, Miami, and San Francisco - he has been the modern composer’s advocate.
Although I first met Michael almost 50 years ago, I never developed a personal relationship with him. I’ve watched him and his career for many years, but only from a distance. After high school I went to school in Santa Barbara for a couple years, but then caught up with Michael again in 1965 after transferring to USC where Michael was already an advanced student specializing in piano, composition and conducting. There were many very talented kids studying music at USC, but Michael really was in a class by himself. At the age of 19 he became the conductor of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra, at the time one of the finest youth symphonies in Southern California. His first big break came in 1969 when, after winning a conducting competition at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony, he was named an Assistant Conductor of that venerable orchestra. Shortly thereafter, he filled in virtually with no notice for the orchestra’s music director, who was taken ill mid-concert at New York’s Lincoln Center. Like Leonard Bernstein, who similarly filled in for an ailing elder colleague at the New York Philharmonic some 20-odd years earlier, Michael became an instant celebrity. There was a definite buzz and the hard-boiled New York critics took notice. The 1970s saw his career really take wing, when he became Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Director of the New York Philharmonic’s famed Young People’s Concerts for television, Director of the Ojai Festival in Southern California, and Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic in upstate New York. His career in Europe blossomed in the 1980s, culminating with an appointment as Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. In 1987, underscoring his commitment to education and to working with young musicians, he became founding music director of the New World Symphony, a training orchestra based in Miami Beach, Florida, a post he still holds to this day. In 1995 he became music director of the San Francisco Symphony, taking that orchestra over the past 12 years into a new era of international importance and critical acclaim. In addition to these important posts, MTT has become a much sought after and welcome guest conductor with the finest orchestras around the globe. And he continues to strive to expand audiences and to cut across generations in his quest to develop a better understanding of classical music with creative use of modern media. His PBS series called Keeping Score - each one exploring in depth composers like Beethoven, Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, and Copland - has been seen on television and is available in DVD format and over the internet through the San Francisco Symphony website. And just recently he has launched a series of provocative radio programs on PBS called The MTT Files, where Michael again takes you into his world of music and musicians.
MTT is now in his early 60s, relatively young for a symphony conductor. In fact he exudes a kind of youthful exuberance and I would suspect that if he stays healthy – and many conductors seem to live very long lives – he will be enriching the world’s musical life and giving new meaning to a tradition-bound art form for decades to come. Many believe that classical music has lost its relevance in today’s disposable consumer culture. If MTT has anything to say about it, I think the opposite may be true. It will be interesting to watch, and to listen.