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Michael Tilson Thomas On The Thrills And Challenges Of Conducting An Orchestra


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross.


BIANCULLI: That's Aaron Copland's "Billy The Kid" performed by the San Francisco Symphony, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, our first guest today on FRESH AIR. This weekend, Thomas will be one of five honorees saluted for lifetime artistic achievement at the Kennedy Center Honors celebration in a star-studded tribute, which will be televised December 15 on CBS. The other honorees this year are Sally Field, Linda Ronstadt, "Sesame Street" and the R&B band Earth, Wind and Fire.

Michael Tilson Thomas was only 24 when he first conducted the Boston Symphony, filling in midconcert for the ailing conductor. He founded the New World Symphony and also served as music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic and principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. Terry Gross first spoke with Michael Tilson Thomas in 1995, shortly after he became the music director of the San Francisco Symphony, which he continues to lead today.


TERRY GROSS: As a teenager, you participated in the premiere of works by Boulez, Stockhausen, Copland, Stravinsky. You worked with them directly, yes?


GROSS: Yeah. So did they give you a sense of what to expect if you made music into your life, you know, if you lived the life of a musician?

TILSON THOMAS: Well, they did. Many people did - I mean, also Copland. But I very early perceived that there were some people in the music business who had been playing music for their whole lives, who seemed to be ennobled and transfigured nearly by the process of making music and others who seemed to be very unhappy and embittered by the experience of making music. And so I was trying from the very beginning to understand what was the difference between these people and where did the choice lie between having a life in music that made you very, very happy or one that made you very frustrated.

GROSS: What were you able to figure out?

TILSON THOMAS: Well, I decided way back then that it was important for musicians to kind of take a musical Hippocratic oath before they went into the profession.

GROSS: (Laughter) And what is the oath?

TILSON THOMAS: That you have to discover that it's just necessary for you to make music. I mean, to be a musician, you have to love music as much as eating or sleeping or dreaming or all those other -ings. And you can't be sure when you enter the profession of music where it may take you. It is uncertain. It depends a lot on being very well prepared and being in the right place at the right time.

But I remember a moment when I was around 18 or 19 and I was walking on the USC campus, where I was going to school, and I thought to myself, well, I know that I'm good enough - I know I'm good enough I could be a university musician. And there are wonderful things happening at this music school of great quality and expression, and if I could do this as long as I can make music, I'll be very happy. And if it turns out that I can make music in some larger arena, well, we'll see about that.

But it's - I know that it's music itself, which is this process, this dialogue with something in my spirit that I must pursue. And then I knew I was going into music with no other agenda; it was just the music itself that mattered. And it was those people who - for whom music truly mattered who were the ones that had wonderful lives as musicians.

GROSS: When you said you thought musicians should take a Hippocratic oath, I thought it would be, you know, first do no harm...

TILSON THOMAS: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...And that it would be something like, never perform boring works.

TILSON THOMAS: Well, never perform with your heart not being in it. Never allow yourself to get to the point where it's a job. Always make sure that your spirit is focused so that communicating music to other people is a central priority for you.

GROSS: I have a conducting question - I mean, a stick question. You studied classical stick technique. How much of that do you use now, and how much of your technique is based on what you've, like, learned and improvised over the years?

TILSON THOMAS: It's definitely a mixture of both. I think the easiest way for you to understand this is that there's a constant give-and-take process going on in the rehearsals and in the performance itself. So there's certain key moments where I have to really indicate the exact ictus of a certain moment in time to get around a particular corner. And then having done that, then I - what I want to do is sort of turn over the lead of the music to perhaps a solo oboe player or perhaps the viola section or maybe a brass chorale. All those different groups within the orchestra have their own reaction time. They all take breaths at a different speed. They all have a different way of interacting.

And it's possible with my baton or with a little bit of body language or in using my eyes a lot, mostly, and using my facial expression, my contact with the orchestra shapes all those things.

GROSS: You were very close to Leonard Bernstein. Do you feel like you learned a lot about conducting technique from him?

TILSON THOMAS: Of course, I learned a lot from him by observing him and mostly through the kind of colloquy concerning music that we had over many years. When I was studying pieces, I had the opportunity to, you know, call him up and ask questions. And I - in the best kind of a rabbinic style, almost always when I asked him a question, he would ask me a question back, and by this kind of dialogue of questions, I - you know, he would help me to really find my own way of doing the music. And that was, of course, terrific.

And I guess my conducting style has become a lot freer. It's a lot more economical now maybe than it was 10 years ago. But, you know, these things change. I can only say that now it feels to me, in the repertoire that's really mine, that as if I'm making the music happen in space, as if I'm touching the notes and actually molding them and shaping them in some kind of plastic way, you know, within time itself.

GROSS: You were on the road with James Brown once, right?

TILSON THOMAS: Well, I was with him for a couple of days. I met him in Boston. He was doing a little - he was doing a show in a small jazz club. And I told him I was a great admirer of his, and he said, well, come on the road. You know, see how we do it. Because I asked him how he got the band to be so tight. And this is the time when he was doing - "Sex Machine" was his big hit. And I spent three or four days with him in Atlanta, in Augusta and in Washington, D.C., watching from backstage just what he did, and it was a great thrill.

GROSS: So did you learn anything you could apply?

TILSON THOMAS: Absolutely because what - I realized that he was focused on the exact duration of the perceivable present. In every particular piece, the stroke of the beat had a certain length. He wanted the trap drummer to be out in front and the hand drummer to be in the back and the bass player to be right in the center, and he had an exact idea of how wide in time that stroke of the chunk, chunk (ph) would be, and he used it. And it was something very sophisticated and just the kind of thing that composers like Igor Stravinsky thought about a great deal.

GROSS: So did it change the way you conducted at all or the way you organized your beat?

TILSON THOMAS: It didn't change the way I conducted so much, but it changed the way I could listen to music and imagine how the ictus, the exact moment of the attack in music, could be really artfully crafted to propel the music in different ways.

GROSS: But you didn't have the orchestra to do the beat on the one (laughter).

TILSON THOMAS: Well, I have the orchestra do whatever's necessary.

GROSS: Oh, right (laughter).

BIANCULLI: That's conductor Michael Tilson Thomas speaking to Terry Gross in 1995. After a break, we'll hear a more recent interview about his grandparents, the Thomashefskys, who were prominent stars of the Yiddish theater. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas is one of the honorees who will be saluted at this weekend's annual Kennedy Center Honors. Terry Gross spoke with him again in 2012, when he had written and appeared in a PBS "Great Performances" special honoring his grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, who were prominent stars of the Yiddish theater.

Boris was a producer. He built theaters, and he and Bessie starred in productions of new plays and musicals as well as classic plays translated into Yiddish. Boris did the first Yiddish production of "Hamlet." When he died in 1933, 30,000 people gathered on the Lower East Side for his funeral. Boris and Bessie each emigrated to America from the Ukraine in the 1880s.

Before we listen to Terry's 2012 conversation with Michael Tilson Thomas, let's hear an archival recording of Boris Thomashefsky singing a song in the film "Bar Mitzvah."


BORIS THOMASHEFSKY: (As Israel, singing in Yiddish).


GROSS: So that's Boris Thomashefsky, the star of the Yiddish stage, who is the late grandfather of my guest, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. Michael Tilson Thomas, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

TILSON THOMAS: Thank you. Pleasure.

GROSS: So your grandfather sang in synagogues in the Ukraine and on the Lower East Side of Manhattan before singing on the stage. Do you think he was influenced as a singer by the cantorial tradition?

TILSON THOMAS: Very much so because in Boris' family, all my great-great-grandfathers had been mostly khazns - cantors - except the ones who had become, instead, badchens - that's to say, kind of village entertainers, people who would get up on a chair at a wedding and sing a song, which was completely appropriate to the occasion, which was expected on that occasion. And yet, it would have improvised lyrics, little outtakes that made it completely individual to that night.

So there was that sacred and profane division always in the family. And Boris' father - who already had a kind of wandering spirit, as it was called - nonetheless sent Boris to the best cantorial school in Russia in Berdichev, where he became a star.

GROSS: The role of the Yiddish theater was very important for Jewish immigrants to the United States, many of whom spoke only Yiddish. And so they couldn't read the regular newspapers. A lot of the English-language theater would not have literal meaning to them because they wouldn't understand the language. So the Yiddish stage, I mean, that was a really important - particularly in New York - a really important place for gathering and for doing anything cultural.

TILSON THOMAS: Well, absolutely. Of course, there were very many Yiddish newspapers in New York and Philadelphia and Chicago and all of these major cities at that time. But for the audience to go to the theater, to experience a show - especially a show which was, very often in my grandfather's case, a kind of spectacle - gave them a sense of the importance, the sheer scale of what was achievable by an immigrant in the United States. It inspired them.

Old ladies used to come up to me on the street and said, we were kids. We had nothing. But once a week or once a month, we went to the theater. And we saw the red velvet curtains with the name Thomashefsky in large gold letters. And we thought, if that's possible for him to do then it's possible for us to do.

GROSS: The name Thomashefsky is such a famous name in the world of theater and in the world of Yiddish theater. I grew up knowing that name. I knew that they were - Thomashefskys were famous performers on the Yiddish stage, but that's about all I knew. Your last name is Thomas, which is an abbreviated version of Thomashefsky. How did Thomashefsky become Thomas?

TILSON THOMAS: It really started with my father, who was trying to make his own way in life in the theater, and he simply was unable to do that. Everywhere that he went, he would mention his last name, and right away, it was, oh, you're Boris Thomashefsky's son. And therefore - he didn't want that. He just wanted to be able to find his own way in life and in the theater, so he was the one who changed his name initially to Ted Thomas.

And quite frankly, he also wanted to escape from that whole crazed celebrity situation which my grandparents inspired. And I think he also wanted to protect me from that because there were crazed fans - is the only way of describing. There were stalker kinds of people who were pursuing my grandparents and their children and with the same kind of ardor that we're accustomed to thinking of crazy paparazzi or fans pursuing stars today.

GROSS: Were you aware of that when you were growing up? Your grandfather was dead, but your grandmother lived until you were 16 or 17. And she lived nearby, and I think you were pretty close to her. Did you get a sense of people stalking her? Or was it, like, way too late for that because she was already in her 70s?

TILSON THOMAS: Well, she had also moved out to LA. And one of the reasons for doing that, outside of getting some character parts in movies she hoped for, was that she wanted to get away from the whole scene in New York - a town, as she said, with too many ghosts. But when I really became aware of the shadow of Boris for the first time was when I went back East when I was perhaps 11 or 12. And I was going to a lot of shows. I had stage manager cousins of mine - because so many members of the family were still in the business, in show-business, not necessarily as actors on stage, but in everything having to do with the behind-the-scenes life. And I - we used to go to just one scene in every play. So theater people, they'd say, oh, kid, the good scene to see - The Lunts' (ph) Act 2 finale is good; Eddie Foy's joke in the second scene of the first act is good - you know, so that kind of stuff.

But there was this one show, "My Fair Lady," and everybody was talking about it, and I thought I'd like to see it. My mother said, don't ask Cousin Georgie (ph) to get you into that show. It's the hardest ticket to get and just don't be a monster. So, of course, when I saw him, I immediately said, could we see my fair lady? We went to the theater. People were lined up around the block to hopefully get some returns. And he went over to the stage door, knocked and said, hey, is Izzy (ph) around? And Izzy, company manager, came out, and my cousin indicated me and said, hey, Izzie, see this kid? Boris Thomashefsky's grandson. Two minutes later, we were in row 5, right in the center of that theater.

GROSS: Although your grandfather died before you were born, you got to know your grandmother, Bessie Thomashefsky, pretty well. And tell us about the kind of parts that she played in the Yiddish theater.

TILSON THOMAS: Bessie started out as a young girl. She was about 5 when she arrived in the United States from the Ukraine. And she met Boris, kind of eloped with him when she was a young teenager and 14, 15 years old. And she began finding her way in the theater, first playing kind of innocent young girl roles.

But as time went on, she'd also discovered her enormous abilities as a comedian, and she very often played trouser parts or parts involving women being disguised as men for particular political or educational social purposes, a little bit like what the story of "Yentl" is, right? So Bessie did a lot of plays like that, where a woman disguises herself as a man in order to gain the advantages of education or whatever that a man can have.

GROSS: What did she tell you about women's rights and the disparities facing women when she was young?

TILSON THOMAS: Well, she went from being a little girl in a village that was asked to bring in the goats and do other domestic chores to working in a tobacco factory in Baltimore and then suddenly finding herself on stage as a star, pretty quickly. But she went beyond that. She wanted to know everything about the structure of the theater, and she became a very effective producer and manager and someone who paid far more attention to the whole business and organization aspect of the theater than my grandfather did, who was the kind of big dreamer and partier. And that was so unusual for a woman of those days.

I have some correspondence of hers where she's writing to some people who put into an ad in some big paper that she was going to be a part of some season they were doing. And she writes to them saying that she absolutely has not agreed to do this, and these are the conditions which they must immediately fulfill in order for this to happen. It's really very tough and straight talk. And there's a lot of stuff about her I didn't have room for in the show, remarkable things, like when she was arrested by Theodore Roosevelt.

This happened in this way - in New York, there were blue laws at the time, meaning that performances were forbidden on Sunday. But of course, in the Yiddish theater, Sunday was a very big day because Saturday was the Sabbath. So they played on Sunday. And at one point, when T.R. was police commissioner of New York, he and some of his men raided one of the Thomashefsky theaters. And he came in and he saw Bessie, who was very young and who looked much younger than she was always. And he said, look out, little girl. And she said, Little girl, my ass; I'm the star here. If anybody's being taken in, it's me.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's so funny. So she got arrested.

TILSON THOMAS: She did. That's exactly the way she told me the story, little...

GROSS: Like she insisted on getting arrested (laughter).

TILSON THOMAS: Yeah, she was going to be in the center of it. And I mean, women's rights, feminism was a very big part of the Yiddish theater, but along with a lot of other social issues. The Yiddish theater plays even the so-called shunts, sort of low, everyday plays, were about issues like women's rights, like about labor, capital and labor, child labor, about degrees of religious observance, about the whole issue of assimilation, about reproductive rights of women and also a lot about the language. Are we going to speak Yiddish? Are we going to speak English? What language at home? What language in the rest of the world?

And what about the much larger issue, which is how can it be that somebody who was such a big shot in the old country became a nobody in America, and some little schlemiel from nowhere in a tiny village has suddenly, in the United States, become such a macher, such a big shot? And what does an immigrant pool of people do to understand where now is honor? Where is tradition?

BIANCULLI: Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas speaking to Terry GROSS in 2012. After a break, we'll continue their conversation. And we'll also remember children's advocate Mary Previte, the New Jersey politician who died last month at age 87.

I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 2012 interview with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. He's among this year's recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors for lifetime artistic achievement, which are given out this weekend. When we left off, Terry was asking about Michael Tilson Thomas' his grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, who were stars in the Yiddish theater. They emigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine in the 1880s.


GROSS: So I want to play a recording by your grandmother, the late Bessie Thomashefsky, singing a song, and I'm going to have you introduce it. This is actually from a DVD outtake from your show. So tell us about this song and when you think it was recorded.

TILSON THOMAS: This is a little introduction to a song called Minka's song - "Minka's Monologue," one of Bessie's most famous parts in which she's playing a girl from a little village who's come to the United States and is on the eve of a huge adventure, a "Pygmalion"-like experiment in which she will be elevated from her lowly parlor maid status to being the lady of the house.

GROSS: OK. So this is Bessie Thomashefsky, recorded approximately when?

TILSON THOMAS: 1920-something.

GROSS: Wow. OK, here we go.


BESSIE THOMASHEFSKY: (Singing in Yiddish).

GROSS: So that was the late Bessie Thomashefsky singing in Yiddish. And she and Boris Thomashefsky are the late grandparents of my guest, conductor Michael Tilson Thomas. So what kind of music did your grandmother introduce you to?

TILSON THOMAS: I was lucky enough to hear her deliver a lot of her biggest numbers right there in our living room since she would arrive every weekend to our house, and we would put on a little show together, which I would accompany her in some of her songs, and she would do recitations, and we did little scenes together. So although it was my parents' fondest hope that I would become some kind of scientist or mathematician, I realized that she was already getting me into the whole theater experience right there at home.

GROSS: That's really interesting. You know, one of the things she says - one of the things you describe her having said to you when you were young is, you're more like me than your parents are; they're more conventional, and you have more of a - what'd she say? - like, a creative spirit or something.

TILSON THOMAS: That - she said, your parents are very lovely people, but terribly conventional. You're like me; you're an adventurer. You'll have to prove something.

GROSS: Did you take that to heart?

TILSON THOMAS: I paid attention to it. I didn't know quite what it meant. And as I listened to her tell all these stories of her life, from her childhood through her stardom and then even her reflections on the way fashions changed and the way she was in her late life, a quite lonely person, I took it all in. And what I kind of understood from her was that it had been a very interesting ride, that she really was proud of what had been accomplished.

And when she saw somebody, a very successful entertainer coming up, and she could see in them something that had come from the kind of things that they had done in the theater, she was very proud of it. She recognized them and appreciated them.

GROSS: So when your grandmother died and you were, I don't know, 16 or 17, was there music at her funeral?

TILSON THOMAS: There wasn't much music at my grandmother's funeral. There were a few prayers, and there were very few people there. And her plaque just says, Bessie Thomashefsky, Yiddish theater pioneer and star, which is exactly what she wanted it to say. But of course, there's a whole repertory of songs that we played at home all the time whenever we thought about her and that I still play.

It was a very big moment, a big rite of passage in my life the first day that I took over playing her songs, instead of my father playing them, and measuring the way I was playing them against the wonderful nuances that he and my grandmother had brought to the music. I was lucky to hear my family play that music for me. I wanted to keep in my ears exactly the way they had sung the songs and play them, with all the irony and mordancy and snappy little gestures and comebacks.

GROSS: So you mentioned some advice in your show that your grandmother gave you about - when you're on stage, you have to remember that the people in the uppermost balcony are the people who paid the least but are enjoying it the most, and you have to - even if you're whispering, you have to make sure that those people can hear you. How has that affected you as a conductor?

TILSON THOMAS: My way of expressing what she said to me is, what is it like for people beyond the sixth row?


TILSON THOMAS: That we play in such big halls sometimes in classical music, and they're halls designed to be very rich, which is on the one hand, very nice, the gorgeous sound that's there. But to get the sound to be distinct is difficult. And I sometimes tell my students that playing classical music is like making an announcement in an airport, that you hear someone say, passengers on Flight 391, the (unintelligible)..

GROSS: (Laughter).

TILSON THOMAS: ...Immediately, please.


TILSON THOMAS: So you're trying to make every single moment completely distinct. Another way Bessie had of saying that - she said, listen - when you're doing an accent, you've got to watch out for the ninth word. It's the ninth word that's dangerous because you're saying, I was going to the park one day, and I noticed - the most beautiful...

GROSS: (Laughter).

TILSON THOMAS: And suddenly, you know, around that - you'll suddenly drop the accent. You'll drop it. You've got to keep the contour of it all the way going through. Same thing in music.

GROSS: That's really great.


GROSS: Michael Tilson Thomas, thank you. It's been great.

TILSON THOMAS: As always, thank you.

BIANCULLI: Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas speaking to Terry Gross in 2012. He's one of the honorees who will be saluted at this weekend's Kennedy Center Honors. The annual salute to the arts will be televised on CBS December 15. After a break, we remember child advocate Mary Previte. As the director of the Camden, N.J., correctional center, she was devoted to the compassionate care of troubled young people. Previte died last month at age 87. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF CYRUS CHESTNUT'S "LOVE ME TENDER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.