Fanfare for an Uncommon Man:
Michael Tilson Thomas
By Cheryl Gobbetti Hoffman

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Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the
San Francisco Symphony.
Photo: San Francisco Chronicle.
On March 17, 2001, Michael Tilson Thomas—celebrated Maestro and Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, visionary Founder and Artistic Director of the New World Symphony in Miami, flamboyant Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, mercurial Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic 1971-1979, charismatic champion of classical music in today’s world—returns to create glorious ruckus in the acoustic space he once called home. Buffalo’s original “Kleinhans Kid” has agreed to play the instrument that is the BPO in Kleinhans Music Hall, in a special concert evening dedicated to symphonic music (Igor Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and Peter Ilyich Tschaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36) and the Philharmonic’s educational outreach program.

Michael Tilson Thomas personifies American spirit in action. Characterized by fans as a thunderbolt of talent with tremendous audience appeal, Thomas remains as youthfully optimistic, tirelessly dedicated, and inventively non-traditional as the colorful wunderkind who first appeared on East Coast concert stages during the sixties, when the New York Times hailed him as “a refreshing breeze in the concert world,” adding, “Thomas becomes the music he conducts.” Today, his dynamic cultural leadership in San Francisco has hearts virtually soaring for the future of classical music in America at a time when most of its audiences are either graying, dwindling, or faltering due to a lack of basic cultural education. Mark Swed of the Los Angeles Times recently wrote, “...I thought for a moment I had been zapped to a Manhattan movie theater ... middle-aged and elderly culture buffs were surrounded by an array of young people in jeans, sport shirts, sneakers and other casual wear, as well as snazzily dressed young couples (mixed and same-sex), clearly enjoying a night out.”

Thomas walks the fine line between old and new with ease and finesse. A natural teacher with showmanship in his genes, he treats symphonic music as a living, local art form, somehow able to convince mainstream listeners that unfamiliar music, including new works however challenging and exciting, can be stimulating, surprising, even thought-provoking. San Francisco Symphony Orchestra staffers consider programming the secret weapon in Thomas’s campaign to ensure the continuation of classical music as a viable art form in today’s world. Innovative programs that juxtapose acknowledged masterpieces with the new and unfamiliar are always on his music stand. He plays music made for the people, engaging and empowering his audience with mind’s eye on context and third ear on pulse.

Born and bred in Los Angeles, Michael Tilson Thomas’s biography reflects the arts legacy left him by two generations of Thomashefskys. His grandparents were founding members of the Yiddish Theatre of America, his mother was head of research for Columbia Pictures, his dad worked in film and television. Ted Thomas also painted, wrote songs, and is fondly remembered via fortune-cookie maxims composed for his prodigious son: “C sharp and B natural”; “Moderato will get you no place”; “Talent plus Chutzpah equals BRAVO!” “He was my greatest musical influence,” Thomas lovingly acknowledged in a recent interview on CBS’s 60 Minutes.

The conductor first garnered international attention in 1969 by substituting mid-concert for William Steinberg and leading the Boston Symphony Orchestra in an inspired New York performance. A triple coup in 1971 validated his growing reputation for uncommon resourcefulness—appointments to Music Director for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts as well as High Fidelity’s Musical America Musician of the Year Award came his way almost simultaneously. Buffalo press called Thomas’s BPO debut a “smash hit,” with the “orchestra ... alive for its director.”

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Thomas with composer Primous Fountain III in Buffalo after the Blizzard of ‘77.
Photo: Terrance McCarthy.
Eager to sample every sensation in sight while gleefully questioning convention, Thomas and his Buffalo band traveled the U.S. and played Carnegie Hall regularly. Visiting-artist and guest-conductor rosters during the 1970s were more than star-studded; intriguing projects abounded. As a skilled conductor, gifted pianist, and some-time composer, Thomas unleashed a daunting command of diverse repertory and an incomparable flair for expressing style with abandon. His technical skill, powerhouse of energy, and uncanny ability to communicate musical ideas through compelling verbal images has only grown and developed over the years.

He fares well, our former maestro, and continues to play his part as a performer with big personality, shaping the next generation of American musicians.

Music and Imagination, a compilation of Aaron Copland’s Charles Eliot Norton lectures at Harvard 1951-52, reminds us that “No true music enthusiast wants to be confined to a few hundred years of musical history. A healthy musical curiosity and broad musical experience sharpens the critical faculty of even the most talented amateur.” Fearing a world seemingly plagued by soul-less channel surfers with shorter and shorter attention spans, a dispirited society deprived of what only the arts can bring, Thomas states, “My mission is to care for this incredible tradition, making connections between the past, present and future. It’s like I’m up to bat and trying to hit the ball out of the park so that, in the accelerated cyber-future, some of what we are doing will still resonate.”

Any serious discussion about music and meaning with Michael Tilson Thomas invariably begins with the childhood experience. He credits extraordinary musical training from the age of ten or eleven years for helping him develop into the uncommon man he is today. Always participatory in nature, his educational experiences granted him the wherewithal to move past passive consumerism and actively claim ownership of music and music-making.

He fares well, our former maestro, and continues to play his part as a performer with big personality, shaping the next generation of American musicians. Take, for example, his New World Symphony, the place for America’s brave young musicians to continue their musical odysseys after graduating college. It is America’s only full-time, national orchestral “academy,” founded in 1987 with fourteen million dollars in seed money from Ted Arison of Carnival Cruises. Equipping young musicians for the job market is its primary mission. “We examine what young players will need most for their future, anticipate what life might ask of them, and prepare them not to be fazed by anything,” says the current New World Symphony management.

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Thomas now.
Photo: Terrance McCarthy.
In a recent Wall Street Journal article on the NWS, Gwendolyn Reed writes, “Years of training and experience, stacks of recordings, reams of glowing reviews of concerts past and present are rendered meaningless by the here and now of symphony auditions. Hundreds turn up for the chance to play for three minutes behind a screen: anonymous performance, out of context, under brutally stressful conditions. A few are lucky enough to satisfy the whims of nameless, faceless judges. The system may be fair, but most musicians will agree that winning is like hitting a balloon dead center with darts at the county fair.“ Drama coaches, preparedness-training experts, opera singers, and noted professionals from the music world at-large join Thomas each year to mentor these passionate young performers hoping to secure symphony positions as part of their life’s work.

“Michael really enjoys getting to know a person’s ability, encouraging you to express something individually with music,” says one NWS alumnus. “I’m on his team, and he’s on ours.”

Each year eighty-three musicians between the ages of twenty and thirty are selected through competitive audition to occupy the stage of Lincoln Theatre, a converted 1940s movie theater located on a trendy pedestrian outdoor mall in Miami Beach. Remunerated in fellowship stipends and housed in Art Deco hotels owned by the orchestra, young musicians commit to a full concert season that includes training in educational outreach, chamber music performance, music recording, touring, and multi-faceted coaching. “There’s a special type of involvement,” says Thomas. “They are still in the process of discovery.” Alumnae rolls to date exceed 400, with more than half of NWS graduates presently enjoying full-time orchestral positions—no small feat in today’s musical marketplace where, in a typical year, only slightly more than a handful of jobs open promising an annual salary of $25,000.00 or more.

Throughout the history of Western Music, composers and musicians have bewildered and confounded as they suggest new thoughts, new language, new forms. Avant-garde, if you will, but not for long. Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times asks, “Why is it that America’s ‘art’ music— unlike its architecture, visual arts and literature—fails to connect with American lives? The very orchestras that introduced the so-called nineteenth century standard orchestral repertory were, in essence, contemporary music ensembles driven by the public’s demand for the newest in symphonies and concerti of the day.”

“The ‘classics’, whatever they are,” says Thomas, “have something about them that draws you back time and again, and each time you hear something different. They still reflect their time, place, and era, but something more than that seems to travel across time.

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A drawing of Thomas by his father, Theodor Thomashefsky.
“After sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll, what will be left?” he queries. “I see the answer as classical music, with its enormous legacy of great notes, great grooves, great harmonies. I feel so lucky to be here because of the partnership I have with everybody who’s performing with me. We’re in a moment when the totality of musical language is at our disposal. We need for people to use what is available to say what they have to say in the most effective way possible.”

I raise my hands; invite them to meet me in psycho-acoustic space; we find the music together... Miraculous!

In 1878, Tschaikowsky wondered about his newest (fourth) symphony, “What lies in store...Will it remain long after its author has vanished from the face of this earth? Its technique and form represent a step forward in my development, despite my mature years... It is because of this that I value life so much.” In 1910, Stravinsky envisioned Petrouchka as an elegantly clad, Romantic figure, rolling incongruous objects about the piano amidst an orchestra’s vehemently flung commentary. His finished score was a bizarre and brilliantly inventive virtuoso orchestral vehicle, driven by “... sonorous magic, a mysterious transformation of mechanical sounds that become human through the spell of which you seem to be the unique inventor,” (Claude Debussy).

In 1995, Thomas spoke to David Schiff of the New York Times about his vision of orchestra, “I raise my hands; invite them to meet me in psycho-acoustic space; we find the music together ... Miraculous!” The orchestra is his instrument, he builds it impressively, and plays it brilliantly.

As Friedrich Nietsche predicted in Also Sprach Zarathustra, “Awaken—listen, you solitary ones! Winds are coming from the future with mysteriously beating wings, and good news is reaching sensitive ears.”

Michael Tilson Thomas performs with the Buffalo Philharmonic at Kleinhans Music Hall, 8 p.m., March 17, 2001.

Flutist Cheryl Gobbetti Hoffman is a member of the Music Performance Faculty at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and was previously a tenured musician and Board Director for the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.


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