Michael Tilson Thomas: Making Anything Sound Good

Michael Tilson Thomas
Interview Excerpt #2

FRANK J. OTERI: You’ve said in a number of interviews over the years that in order to create music with an orchestra you have to transmogrify yourself. An orchestra plays standard repertoire originating from several different countries. An orchestra also plays contemporary music. Mahler one week, Debussy another week, and these are totally different worlds of sound…

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Conductors are performers. Being a conductor is kind of a hybrid profession because most fundamentally, it is being someone who is a coach, a trainer, an editor, a director… And at the same time, you are of course a performer, but it’s very important that you understand that your role as a performer is to get the best performance from those wonderful colleagues that you have the chance to work with. So most of your work really is done in the rehearsal process. But a large symphony orchestra basically is a repertory company and it has a very enormous repertoire and it is important for the performers to be able to know how to shift focus so that they instantly become part of the sound world that a particular repertoire demands. And the conductor’s job is very much to say: "OK, last week, we played this Mozart-Schubert experience. That was a certain type of sound, a certain type of articulation, a certain conception of sustaining… Now we’re into this Stravinsky-Ligeti concert." That’s a whole different series of assumptions. Just the very fundamental making of the sound, let alone all of the shaping of the phrases, the quality of the breaths, of the accents, of everything else that must go into that.

FRANK J. OTERI: And of course nowadays, we have a double-edged problem because we simultaneously live in an era of information overload and in a society where classical music is marginalized. There are all these other stimuli that the musicians are getting separate and apart from when they’re working within the orchestra. How much time do you need to work with them and how much time do you actually have to work with them given limited rehearsal schedules? And, how much time does any conductor have to work with an orchestra, given the intense touring schedules of many conductors today?

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Well, some pieces of course require much more rehearsal because they are unknown, and they involve very specific, complicated problems. But it is amazing what the great orchestras can accomplish in the amount of rehearsal time that they have if the conductor is really en forme and if he has done his work properly with the librarians, the concertmasters, and the section leaders, long before the week those rehearsals take place. That is a very essentially part of it, thinking ahead and seeing the whole shape of the season well before it happens. But what I want to get to is that little extra thing that performers do, that kind of ectoplasmic inhabiting of the space that is suggested by the notation on the paper that returns people to hopefully the moment of inspiration when someone thought of those wonderful ideas and was convinced enough about them to go through the fearful wrestling match that involves taking an idea that’s someplace up here in the world of poetry and getting it down onto the paper. The performers have to look at that code on the paper and make it come alive again. And to really, at the moment they play it, be that music. At the moment they play it, it has to be just as much, just as urgently about them, who they are, the people who are playing it, as about Beethoven or Debussy or John Adams or Charles Wuorinen. That is the quality that I believe is most essential. Of course, all the attention to balances, tuning, order, you know all the very hyper-technical issues which must be very satisfactorily dealt with, those must happen, but if beyond that there isn’t that extra drive that causes the whole thing to be animated, as I say whether it’s Beethoven or Stockhausen, they both have to have that. And that is what I feel is one of my greatest strengths as a musician. As a performer I’m sure it comes a lot from my grandparents’ background in the theater. That ability in a repertory situation to say "Right." Ok, this week, it’s all Hungarian music, you know Liszt, Bartók, and Ligeti, and then next week we’re suddenly moving into this whole Strauss world and to be able to immediately from the most moment of the rehearsal, in what I’m asking for and even in somehow amazingly just in what I’m showing in my arms and in my eyes, to make that really different. That is an essential part for the audience to truly get the message.

FRANK J. OTERI: You’ve worked with a number of American orchestras and you’ve also worked with the London Symphony Orchestra on an ongoing basis. How do you choose repertoire specific to those orchestras? Would you say a particular orchestra is much better at doing Hungarian stuff, so let’s do more Hungarians there… I’m being totally hypothetical here. But, for arguments sake, could Buffalo be better at doing Hungarians, and San Francisco be better at doing Romanians?


FRANK J. OTERI: You know, how do you determine or does that even become an issue?

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: I think the choice has more to do with music that I love that obsesses me and that I feel would be very nice to do in that particular city because it represents a process of making the music come alive with the musicians that I like very, very much and also bringing that to the audiences which I like very much. It’s all about that kind of partnership. If we are able to get inside the music and inhabit it convincingly enough, it will cause everyone to find each other in this new psychological space. And that’s most exciting. The other night here in Miami, I did a piece of Scelsi‘s. A composer I’ve been performing lots more of these years. And that was fascinating because it was an audience consisting I’m sure of three people who had ever heard a piece by Scelsi before.

FRANK J. OTERI: Was it one of those one-note pieces…

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Well, it’s not just one note. It’s very microtonal, trance music. And they went nuts. They absolutely loved it.

FRANK J. OTERI: That’s great.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: So that was very exciting that something as completely unknown should become something that they thought: "Oh, I’ve got to get to know this better; I’ve got to understand what this man was witnessing in his music." But from this standpoint I would say that it’s essential for me now that I feel that the music does have something of this sort to say. Earlier in my life, I performed a lot of music. Some of it because I felt it was a demonstration, or a representation of certain intellectual concepts that were very exciting and important. But over the years, I feel that what remains in the end is whether the pieces have some kind of urgent and convincing emotional message in sound. I can’t do pieces I only admire technically. I have to feel some direct contact with them. And the emotions that are expressed can of course sometimes be very perplexing, disturbing, violent, whatever they may be. But if I can be convinced and then through the work that we do together, the orchestra can really be convinced of the big sweep of that communication that the piece suggests, then the audience will get it and it will be a good experience for all of us.

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