Conversation with Conductor
Michael Tilson Thomas
By Bruce Duffie
Michael Tilson Thomas has been described as a musical dynamo, and that doesn’t even do him full credit. This still-young American musician is in the forefront of innovative and imaginative performances in capacities ranging from conductor to pianist to administrator.
1944, Thomas had the typical story-book events that shape a prodigious
career. His grandparents were founders
and stars of the Yiddish Theater in
Throughout his career, Michael Tilson Thomas has been a prime-mover in bringing the unknown and unusual to the concert hall. He considers Charles Ives and George Gershwin the pre-eminent American composers, and is now a champion of the minimalist Steve Reich. [See my Interviews with Steve Reich.] Thomas’ many recordings (as both conductor and pianist) have earned him high praise, as well as a Grammy Award.
dividing his time between concerts and operas, Michael Tilson Thomas
performances this past fall, it was my great pleasure to spend an hour
with this multi-faceted man. His
responses to my questions showed that he pondered the depths of many
philosophical ideas, and yet he never lost sight of the basic
life. Considering the works he is
Bruce Duffie: Tell me the differences between conducting opera and concert.
Michael Tilson Thomas: When conducting a concert, you have the illusion (at least) that you’re the center of attention, and in opera you certainly know that you’re not.
BD: Should the conductor of a concert be the center of attention?
MTT: When you’re conducting an orchestral concert, you feel to some degree that the impulses that you are giving are the leading edge of what is happening in the performance. There are moments when you turn that force, that leading role, over to a soloist in the orchestra or to a section sometimes. But at a number of crucial points in the piece, it is up to you to sort of set the momentum and the mood of what is to happen. In the opera that is also true, but it is less clear and less defined because you are dealing with the whole action of the stage, and the question of balances, and different weights of voices as they relate to the nature of the characterization that is being projected. I think one has to have a great deal of sympathy for the singers and what they’re living through while trying to carry out the direction very often. They not only have the problem of wanting to sing beautifully, but of having to accomplish all these tasks which are devised for them.
BD: Then let me ask the eternal question – in opera, which is more important, the music or the drama?
MTT: In a good opera, the music. The conductor Otto Klemperer once told me that projection of the form is the highest priority for a conductor. He said that form is not in your head, but is heart and passion. The way the whole work stacks up is the real drama. I feel that an opera has to have a swirling, Dionysian, gut-level appeal to it. Sometimes that appeal may be presented as a plea for a very exalted message, but there is something about it that is very direct in its communication.
BD: How do you decide which operas you will conduct?
MTT: I decide that based on whether the opera haunts me or not. That’s very much the way I decide whether I’ll do any piece of music, and also whether I feel that a really good cast, a sympathetic cast can be put together; also if I feel there is enough for me to do in the piece.
BD: You want to be more than just beating time?
MTT: Yeah. There are some operas that if you know the vocal line, you can just be sympathetic to the singers and move it along, and that’s really all you have to do. There are other operas that require more complex conductorial skills and musical skills, and as I’m not going to do opera full-time but only once or twice a year, it makes more sense for me to be involved in such operas. As much as I adore opera, I am essentially involved with the mysteries of abstract music. I think one of the major reasons I was drawn to music was that music spoke in a wordless language which seemed to fill in all the levels of expression between the words. All the things that were not spoken, all the feelings that couldn’t be spoken, that couldn’t be easily put into concrete symbols, that couldn’t be so easily quantified. Music addressed all these qualitative things in a truly eloquent way and put me in touch with the center of my deepest feelings, and I knew this already from the time I was a very small child. There is a tremendous joy about the wonderful dialogue between the meaning of the word and the meaning of the music, and the way they can be used to amplify one another’s meanings - or sometimes contradict one another’s meanings in very wonderful and deliciously confusing ways. There is the situation of the opera where you can have not only the words, but you have a rather specific situation which is presented. In any work of art, as you make something more and more specific, you run the danger of making it less and less universal and perhaps more and more – dare one say? – trivial. I’m interested in opera, but I still have as my major priority the investigation of the spirit which occurs more for me through abstract music What’s always interested me the most about music is not the music itself but the thought that lies behind the music; the nature of the person who wrote the music, the nature of what was going through that person’s mind exactly at the moment the music was composed and what the music suggests about that moment. That moment of decision says much more to us in the context of the ever-evolving new language than volumes and volumes of descriptions of words can tell us.
BD: When you’re researching a piece, do you go back to the composer’s letters and diaries to help you understand the life of the composer and his emotions?
MTT: I do that, but you bring up how I grasp a piece of music and how I study it, and I don’t want to present some of this out of context. I approach the piece of music first because it speaks to me. It grabs me, it insists that I pay attention to it. A lot of that is an experience of recognition. Something in the piece calls out, and I recognize in the piece – or at least in part of the piece – something that is familiar to me from my own life. There is a resonance between the message of the piece and what my own life tells me. Then, through the process of study and analysis and many other skills that I’ve learned, I reach out to put the piece into shape and into focus, and to establish priorities. In this way, the process of learning the piece is a kind of dialogue between the rational and non-rational faculties in my mind. It’s a faith/reason dialogue that’s going on. They I try to put that in context in terms of the historical period, in terms of letters of that particular person, in terms of all kinds of material that may be available which lets me be more in touch with the day-to-day kinds of occurrences – the smells, so to speak, of that particular historical moment. But we live in an age where musically – and perhaps artistically and in every way – we are so impressed with the possibilities of scholarship and analysis and all of our intellectual facilities and quests for authenticity. We forget that ultimately it is this moment of recognition that happens between the performer and the composition, and finally between the audience and the performer. That is the point of all of this, and no amount of justification through whatever scholarly means can ever replace that essential experience, that essential feeling of contact with another spirit, with another soul, that comes through from the composer and from the performers.
BD: All of this becomes very deep and very meaningful for you, but in a performance, where is the balance between “art” and “entertainment?”
MTT: I think that balance must be very different in every place in which operatic works are performed. Entertainment is something which seems to conjure up the ideas of perhaps wit and laughter, subtly-shifting meanings, a kind of virtuosity of intent. Many of the places in which opera is performed are utterly unsuited for such an experience, so in place of that, what is presented is spectacle, which in itself can be entertaining, albeit in a more monolithic kind of way. In recent years there has been talk of the predominance of the director in opera, and I’m very old-fashioned in this matter. I believe totally in the primacy of the singers.
BD: You don’t want to turn it into a concert, though, do you?
MTT: I would rather err more on the concert side than on the production side. That is to say, all elements of the production that get in the way of the singers should be removed. I think that the quest and the direction we should be going is to search for artists, and the director should work as a trainer with such artists to set up a situation in which that artist’s particular gifts and powers can be most focused towards their supreme goal – which is communication with the audience. I think it’s very nice that the situation exists where you see Mimi and Rodolfo are together and they’re falling in love at the end of the first act of La Bohème, but I feel that Mimi’s lover really isn’t Rodolfo, but rather the audience. When Mimi sings, she sings through Rodolfo and through the situation which we are observing, but she sings to each member of the audience. The performance is just as successful as that particular Mimi’s ability to really put herself emotionally on the line for those people to whom she sings at that moment. Directly in proportion to how real, how vulnerable they sense she is, they will love the performance. And Rodolfo must be in love with life and with people, and he must sing through Mimi to the whole world. For me, the excitement of opera always comes back to that electricity of a performer on the stage with nearly nothing else, and hindered by nothing else, to vault over the footlights and powerfully imprint emotionally on the audience that’s there.
BD: Do you feel the same thing in a concert – that the orchestra must vault over you to the audience?
MTT: Absolutely. I like to sense the personalities and energies of the orchestra in my performances. If they just listen to what I say and do what I tell them, that’s not interesting to me. It’s not enough. What’s interesting and fun for me is to point out certain things or make suggestions and have them take those ideas and re-form them and present them as their own. The finished product is truly a collaboration.
BD: Let me get into a very delicate area. What about recordings?
MTT: Recordings explore music through other means, and explore music with other priorities. Through some of the recording techniques we have, it’s possible to see down through all the texture to the fiber and flesh of the composition. It’s possible to produce a recording which is a kind of anatomical drawing of an orchestral piece of music which reveals all kinds of things happening in the midst of the orchestral texture which would not clearly be discernible in a live performance.
BD: It is possible for that recording to be too technically-perfect?
MTT: That may be so. That certainly has been an ideal of making records for the last twenty years or so. What direction we are all going to go in in the future remains to be seen, but instrumental music, in the wonderful way in which such paradoxes work, has to strive to do what the singers do – it has to strive to be articulate. It’s wonderful to have orchestral sound which is rich and mellifluous and has a kind of grandeur just as sound. But ultimately the phrases that have been written by the composer are meant to be inflected in one way or another, possibly very subtly. The art of classical-music is the art of inflection of the time, of the rhythm, of the pitch, of the length and pacing of breath, of dynamics, of vibrato, of balances. You can go on and on. The more complicated the piece is, the more details there are. And yet, all of these details are comparable to the complexity of a great blues singer singing a couple of choruses of the blues. Just in that one human voice are the incredible richness and subtle shiftings on very much the same level of expression that’s involved in a great orchestral work.
BD: Are we moving forward in time to where the music is getting too complicated?
MTT: There’s a danger that here in the twentieth century is perhaps as great an intellectual excess as the nineteenth century was in its emotional excess. Probably historically, such things are always going back and forth. There will always be a movement that re-consolidates the center of the language and then moves forward. But there’s no doubt that in the twentieth century, we’ve had the situation of so many new ideas being introduced into music in such a short space of time, that there has not been time, nor have there been the masters who come along and consolidate all of these advances into a new language.
BD: So there is no main-stream at the moment?
MTT: There is no main-stream. There are all kinds of international styles which are being pursued in many different places. There has not yet been a Mozart- or Haydn-figure to come along and take all the ideas and really do them right. In the second half of the twentieth century, we have had no such figure. We have had some very interesting pioneers, experimenters, visionaries, and they’ve given us a lot of terrific new visions. Some of these pieces are very gripping and are pieces we will never want to give up. But no one has succeeded in bringing this excitement, this baited-breath excitement of wondering what the next piece will be like.
BD: Is there a place in the concert or opera repertoire for pieces you know are not masterworks but are pretty good, or just OK?
MTT: Oh yes, absolutely. We’re very intolerant now about the music we’ll suffer to appear on a concert program. At the same time, audiences complain about the same repertory coming around again and again. A masterpiece is one of those things which exists on all levels. There is something in it for the person who hears it for the first time, and it still arresting and still presents you with something to think about many hearings later.
BD: Is the public expecting each new piece to be a masterpiece?
MTT: I’m also speaking now about old pieces which are wonderful and which should be heard and are not heard. The audience now is expecting to be impressed or even stunned by the experience of hearing something new. Not every piece can be such a piece. There has to be room for other musical messages.
BD: What do you expect of the audience that comes to hear you – and does it change from opera to concert?
MTT: I can’t say what I expect, but what I hope is that people will love music and have open minds and be excited by the idea of hearing something that is new – either from the past or the present – and be excited by hearing something fresh in a piece that is already familiar to them. One of the greatest dangers we have faced in this century has been the curse and the blessing of recordings and all the other systems of information gathering and retention in the arts. It makes us forget that music is a performing art, and was designed to be different every time. Every reading has a slightly different slant, and each new production is designed to show the piece in a different way. Increasingly we have people who love music, but perhaps love only a version of that piece of music and think that a live performance is successful or unsuccessful on the basis of how congruent it is with a performance that they already have on disc or cassette at home. That’s not good for the piece. It’s not good for the composer because it boxes his universal ideals into too limited a frame. For me it’s all very exciting, and very hard work at the same time. But the most exciting part is this on-going dialogue with the spirits who have created the music, and the greater and greater simplicity that comes into your thinking. The bewildering number of details and consideration of a piece of music can, after a time, start to be simpler and simpler. After a time, it comes down to one essential quality, one essential idea. I do the pieces because I like the notes, and that makes me an enormous conservative. I’m interested in what the notes actually say. The orchestrations and textures are OK, but it’s what the notes actually say that’s most important for me.
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Bruce Duffie is an announcer/producer with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, as well as a regular contributor to Nit & Wit. In the next issue, a chat with Composer Donald Erb, whose “Concerto For Brass Section” will be given its world premiere performances with the Chicago Symphony in April.
This is the first of two interviews with Michael Tilson
Thomas. It was recorded at his hotel in Chicago on
November 7, 1986. It was published in Nit & Wit Magazine in March,
1987. Sections were used (along with
recordings) on WNIB in 1988, twice in 1989, and again in 1990.
A copy of the unedited audio was placed in the Oral History of American Music
archive at Yale University.
To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been
transcribed and posted on this website, click here.
Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001. His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests. He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago. You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.