Michael Tilson Thomas: Making Anything Sound Good
Michael Tilson Thomas
Interview Excerpt #8
FRANK J. OTERI: So, how do you get turned onto new repertoire?
MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Oh, very often I hear it, you know, people send stuff to me. Other performers tell me about some new composer, some newly discovered something. It’s a serious commitment as I was saying, because I am a performer. I can make things work. I can make nearly anything work. As a boy, I was on the fringes of the émigré circle in Los Angeles. I used to be taken sometimes when I was a very small lad to some amazing parties and poetry readings and things like this done by some extraordinary people. And I remember hearing Charles Laughton on one occasion read the telephone book. That was one of his great stunts. He would just open the telephone book and read peoples’ names and as he read them, he could make you laugh or cry or any other possible emotion. And he just did that as an example of what, as a total performer-actor-technician, he could do. And I realize that to an extent, I can also do that. I can take a piece of music and I can find something in it that will make it work, that will make it go over the footlights. But I am respectful of that ability and also really kind of looking at the music to say, is there something here that is worth bring out, that is essential for me to do this.
FRANK J. OTERI: You’re made tons of recordings over the years, some of which are among my favorite recordings. There are a number of recordings that I still have on LP that haven’t even made it to CD yet that really should. I hope someone would reissue that complete Carl Ruggles set on Columbia Masterworks…
MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: I would want to do it over again.
FRANK J. OTERI: Well, do it over again, but all that music needs to be out there because it was a definitive set. And this is a major composer of our last century.
MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: But that’s a perfect example. That music I’ve lived with for so long now that its expressive intention is much clearer to me than it was at that time. That’s what happens with life. [laughter]
FRANK J. OTERI: Are there any other projects, any other composers that you feel you want to do more with or that you haven’t done work with that you would like to work with?
FRANK J. OTERI: Carl Phillip Emmanuel Bach is sort of an odd person in that list!
MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Oh, he’s always been one of my big favorites. Very important composer…
FRANK J. OTERI: Now, we talked about Cowell in passing, both of us mentioned him from time to time. Here’s a guy who wrote a tremendous body of symphonies that nobody does. Most of them haven’t even been recorded. A good many of them have never had performances in most of the major cities. It seems like a body of repertoire that’s just waiting for somebody to unleash it.
MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Yes, I mean Cowell is a very interesting case. There’s so much music by Cowell. That’s part of the problem. People can’t get a grip on it because there’s so much of it. It’s hard to take in all of it and see what it really is. And it includes of course the inspired little piano miniatures and expansions of those pieces. Very often they exist also orchestrated. But then there are also sprawling experimental pieces from the early years. And some of those pieces are just that. They’re experiments. I actually read through quite a number of his symphonic works sometimes down here with the New World Symphony. And you understand their importance as a moment in 20th century music, but the ongoing search for pieces which hold up is a wider issue and there are still some pieces that are just in manuscript which need to be known. But a few years ago for example, Wayne Shirley and I worked on reconstructing a piece by Cowell called Atlantis, a ballet with voices that he had done quite early which has some outrageously irreverent things in it. But it is a kind of curiosity. I kind of like some of the music that Cowell did in his later years which was a combination of some very folksy, homespun American things with some of this still out there.
FRANK J. OTERI: Like the Hymn and Fuguing Tunes. Then there’s his Icelandic Symphony which is very accessible. There’s a piece for chorus and orchestra that I really like called if He Please.
MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: I don’t know that work.
FRANK J. OTERI: It features tone clusters done with voices a decade before Penderecki. But the thing with a lot of these pieces is that they only exist on recordings of varying quality. Some were done by some little known orchestra somewhere. They sound like they were just read through once. They’re not ideal performances. And the only we can hear this music is through these people who were just sort of sight reading these scores and there’s nobody who has lived with his music.
MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Well that is a provocative issue because learning to play these pieces and to do the best thing is part of it. You can hear archival recordings of the first performance of Bartók‘s Concerto for Orchestra or other pieces and you can tell with the musicians playing this that they don’t yet understand the music. And the whole gestural panache with which it needs to be played is not yet there. And that has a lot to do with the effect of the music. And it’s also very true in early performances of Janacek. It took people a long while to get past the notation to where they could most effectively play that music. So that is an issue. But there are composers like that who wrote so much music. I mean Cowell, Krenek is another composer who wrote so much music in so many different styles. It’s very difficult to get a grasp of which are the most essential pieces of different periods of his life. But there certainly is some excellent music there.
MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Absolutely.
FRANK J. OTERI: You hear a piece like the Fourth Symphony. And then you go back to a piece like Symphony on G and after awhile, the longer you live with both of those pieces, you realize it’s from the same person. But initially it’s another whole universe.
MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: Correct.
FRANK J. OTERI: And it would be great for sombody to do, on that level, a complete cycle of Lou Harrison. But I’m just tossing out ideas here…