For 25 years, Michael Tilson Thomas honed the San Francisco Symphony to reflect the eclectic, open-minded tastes of its city. How has his maverick reputation held up as classical music faces new challenges?
Cellist Barbara Bogatin remembers when things shifted, as if by a gale force wind, in 1995. It was Bogatin’s second year at the San Francisco Symphony. Like most major American orchestras then, it was helmed by a foreign “old-style” maestro: Swedish conductor Herbert Blomstedt. He addressed players formally, as Mr. or Ms. “When Michael came, there was a huge burst of energy,” Bogatin recalls. Tilson Thomas — with institution-jolting ambitions, diverse tastes and a wunderkind rise — led with characteristic dynamism. “It was a more contemporary, informal approach,” Bogatin says. And: “Within the first week he was saying, ‘Hi, Barb, how ya’ doing?’”
He befitted sophisticated, open-minded audiences embracing experimentation. Music directors often oversee programming, secure commissions and guest artists, and assert new initiatives and a vision. That of Tilson Thomas — known, naturally, as MTT — seemed clear: Almost every first-season concert featured a contemporary American work. “As if to say, it has a place in every concert,” Bogatin says.
From the start, Tilson Thomas was named an innovator. Survey profiles and you’ll spot metaphors for revolution: “disruptor,” “upheaval,” “rattling the bars,” “bad boy.” Twenty-five years later, nearing his closing season as music director, he rings less as classical music’s peace breaker and more as its keystone. He’s the founder and artistic director of the New World Symphony and conductor laureate of the London Symphony Orchestra. He’s won 11 Grammys. In 2009, Barack Obama awarded him the National Medal of Arts. He’ll be hailed at the 2019 Kennedy Center Honors.
Amid mounting accolades, some wonder if he’s tamed. Vulture mused, “Somewhere along the way, then, this onetime disruptor became an apostle of the mainstream.” His “tastes for unconventional seem to be mellowing,” wrote the Washington Post, pointing to many pre-20th-century composers and few “shakeups” in his final San Francisco programs. “Is the real statement you want to make about your supposedly innovative music director that he can lead programs of standard repertoire with assurance?”
“WHEN I WAS A KID, I WAS SO INTERESTED IN THE IDEA OF MUSIC SHAKING PEOPLE UP … STARTLING THEM TO KIND OF TAKE A LOOK AT THE WORLD AS IT IS. NOW, THERE ARE SO MANY STARTLING AND JARRING EXPERIENCES ABOUT LOOKING AT THE WORLD AS IT IS THAT I’M THINKING, MAYBE MUSIC DOES HAVE A ROLE OF PRESENTING A CERTAIN OASIS, A KIND OF HAVEN.”
Perhaps the expectations for uninhibited boundary pushing lie within context. Today’s landscape — which MTT helped terraform — expects unrepressed innovation alongside beloved classical standards. But there are also scrambles to boost engagement in the smartphone epoch. Underrepresentation is perhaps the most pressing institution-wide problem; 1.8 percent of American orchestral players are African American and 2.8 percent are Latinx. San Francisco’s players, of which MTT oversaw the hiring of half, reflect this. More listeners demand bolder initiatives and fairer platforms for women and people of color. It’s tumefied beyond one symphony to solve, but maybe these imbalances are why it’s puzzling when MTT, the mighty innovator, doesn’t dazzle or challenge.
Is this true? Instead of stepping outside the box, is he keener on polishing it? Jesse Rosen, president of the League of American Orchestras, disagrees. “He’s pursuing parallel paths — investment in the core and also staying consistently at the forefront of real important break-throughs.” Parallel is the operative word. He’s burnished interpretations of standard repertoire, for example, in establishing the symphony as a Mahler powerhouse by recording all works for orchestra. Yet also consider the American Mavericks festivals, spotlighting unorthodox 20th-century American composers like Charles Ives, Meredith Monk, Carl Ruggles and John Cage. In San Francisco, where Mavericks underpinned the centennial season, it thrived. “I don’t think Mavericks would have taken off in Detroit,” Rosen says, adding that it complemented the zeitgeist. “It’s not just this idea of innovating and expanding repertoire but also positioning the orchestra in very central way, connected to its community.”
“When I started in the orchestra business, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring was considered a modernistic avant-garde piece, and now, you can almost do it at a pops concert,” says Stephen Paulson, the symphony’s principal bassoon. “But the first time I ever saw an audience go absolutely wild about the Rite of Spring was with Michael.”Paulson, a player since 1977, also recalls that “he made the different sections of the orchestra seem more like characters in a play rather than just an abstract structure of the music.”
Tilson Thomas often addresses audiences, creating an aura of intimacy, observes Paulson, “like you and he are in his living room having a friendly conversation over a glass of wine.” He’s brought this educational connection building to radio, YouTube and Keeping Score, a PBS documentary series.
Altering music’s harmony with the American consciousness began long ago. “You could see how his mind was thinking about the future of music and the place of music in society,” says Gerard Schwarz, former longtime music director of the Seattle Symphony. Like many, Schwarz likens Tilson Thomas to Leonard Bernstein “in the sense of his wit, pianistic ability, sharp mind and excellent conducting.” Springing onto the scene at 24 years old, he was the fresh antithesis to old-guard stuffiness; he’d wax poetic over classical composers, but also James Brown. (His own compositions have myriad influences, from Emily Dickinson to Gershwin.)
Schwarz remembers when programming new music was odd. “Now,” he remarks, “they play new pieces almost every week.” Female composers have had spotlights at the San Francisco Symphony; this season features an evening of world premieres by seven women. In defining the symphony’s personality, Tilson Thomas told the San Francisco Classical Voice there are many sides to it: “We’re comfortable going to a lot of spaces that other orchestras are too paralyzed or vulnerable to consider.”
Sometimes, spaces are literal. Take SoundBox, an immersive concert and night club mashup designed to lure new — hipper, younger — audiences like a gateway drug to Davies Hall. Yet it seems Tilson Thomas is more occupied with a higher purpose. In 2010, he told The Washington Post: “When I was a kid, I was so interested in the idea of music shaking people up … startling them to kind of take a look at the world as it is. Now, there are so many startling and jarring experiences about looking at the world as it is that I’m thinking, maybe music does have a role of presenting a certain oasis, a kind of haven.”
As he exits, whether you see a former boundary pusher or an evolved pioneer, the crux of Tilson Thomas’ San Francisco legacy is in raising the symphony to a higher level. Bogatin painted it thusly: “It’s a real artistic partnership.”