Conductor  Michael  Tilson  Thomas

A Second Conversation with Bruce Duffie


It has been my distinct pleasure to have met with Michael Tilson Thomas on two occasions.  The transcript of the first encounter, from November of 1986, was published in Nit & Wit magazine, and can be seen HERE.

On this webpage is our second meeting, from March of 1994, which took place in one of the offices in the basement of Orchestra Hall (home of the Chicago Symphony).  On the wall was a painting of some buildings, with musical notes over the scene.  I remarked, facetiously, that it could be Augenmusik [literally eye-music, or graphic notation], and we both had a hearty laugh . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Do you ever conduct anything that is Augenmusik?

Michael Tilson Thomas:   I stay away from Augenmusik these days, although at one time I had a fair amount of experience with it.

BD:   Especially with new music, how do you decide which pieces you will spend your time on, and which pieces you’ll set aside and let somebody else work with?

MTT:   After a while, you have a track record with a particular composer, and you know his work.  You’ve maybe done his pieces before, and so you look forward to a new piece with great expectation.

BD:   But when an unknown comes to you, do you have to actually look at the piece?

MTT:   A big part of what I now have to do is look at a lot of scores, many of them unsolicited.  A committee of people works on it with me to look at them, and see which scores seem to have particular merit.  We then try to figure out if there is an opportunity to read these pieces [with an orchestra], and get some idea of what they’re like.  The mechanism of putting a piece onto a subscription concert for a major symphony orchestra these days is an enormously daunting one.  There’s enormous pressure on the orchestra, because of the public and the subscribers.  The tempo and intensity of modern times is such that to put on a new piece on a program, especially a vast piece, is a very serious commitment.

BD:   Is this why we have so many eight-minute works?

MTT:   It’s one reason.  I want to emphasize that I don’t take it lightly putting a new work on a program.  It is a real commitment for me.  It must be a piece that I firmly believe in, and feel has great communicative power.  Otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing it.  I don’t believe in the philosophy of programming bitter music that somehow is good for the soul to take in some time thereafter.  No, it has to have some immediate punch, some immediate communication.

MTT BD:   This is what I’m trying to zero in on.  What kinds of things in the score will touch you?

MTT:   That’s too technical a question to discuss now.

BD:   Okay.  The let me ask if you are pleased with a lot of the music that you hear coming off the pages of new works these days?

MTT:   I’m very pleased with a great deal of new music.  There’s some great scores out there.  Robin Holloway’s Second Concerto for Orchestra, which has just been recently recorded (by the BBC Symphony, conducted by Oliver Knussen), is a spectacular piece.  My God, it’s so inventive, so thrilling and exciting, so full of humor and invention.  (MTT would later record Holloway
s Third Concerto for Orchestra.)  Pieces like Oliver Knussen’s Third (recording by MTT shown at left), likewise are in this world of extremely eclectic, difficult to classify, but nonetheless very rewarding music.  Many of the pieces that Lutosławski produced in the last years of life are really sensational, and would definitely stand up.  We seem to have come past the years of dogmatic adherence to one particular stylistic credo, and composers are becoming more free again to write music that they really feel has something to say.

BD:   Is that a good thing?

MTT:   A very good thing, of course.

BD:   What advice do you have for the composer, young or old, who wants to write an orchestral work, or a chamber work?

MTT:   [Thinks a moment]  Don’t follow theories.  That’s my big advice to composers.  Follow your own heart.  Follow your own voice.   Write down what you think must be there.

BD:   Follow your own theories?

MTT:   I don’t think of music in terms of terminology.  I think of it in terms of a practice, which is the touch of the performers’ hands on the instrument, or the imagination of the composer delving in and out of the dream world, shall we say, trying to bring portions of that dream world back through the whole mechanism of notation.  Ultimately, the players’ fingers present it to people who are sitting in the audience, but this need to communicate must be the thing that drives music.  It cannot be to demonstrate the velocity of an acoustic theory.  It cannot be to prove some numerical game of the periodicity of a system of twelve or lesser or more numbers.  It has to be about something coming from the dream world into the real world with a purpose of communication.

BD:   You did a little bit of composing in your own youth.   Does this make you more sympathetic towards new compositions, or even any compositions?

MTT:   I look at all music for a sense of its design.  As I look at the page, I’m trying to look beyond the notation, and imagine what it is the notation may symbolize, what it suggests.  I know, from having written some music myself, that it’s ultimately impossible to write down exactly what you have in mind, no matter how specific you may try to be.  Greater and greater notational complexity creates as many problems as it solves, because beyond a certain point, the goal of a performance becomes more or less to be congruent with what these scores suggests.  In this way, you have an aesthetic of acoustic templates in which somewhere there’s a master performance that’s been carefully edited from something.  A live performance is measured against how exactly it can line up with that master performance.  That’s absolutely contrary to the whole history of music.  The nature of the pieces that have remained great classics have remained so because they will admit to many different interpretations.  They have a universal message to present, which can be focused and presented in quite a number of different ways.  That’s why the pieces stick around many hundreds of years.  They’re still interesting to hear.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve just come from a rehearsal of the Civic Orchestra, which is made up of young musicians.  Does your focus and your expectation of the group change if it’s the Civic Orchestra or the Chicago Symphony Orchestra?

MTT MTT:   Of course it changes, because with the Chicago Symphony I’m working, luckily, with a group that has an amazing history, and an amazing richness of tradition.  It’s a delightful encounter each time to see each other.  They play this with a certain turn of phrase, and that’s very interesting.  Now, when I do something different, I wonder how we can together make a mixture of what our previous assumptions of the piece may be.

BD:   So it’s much more of a collaboration than you’d imagined?

MTT:   I hope that music will always be a collaboration.  I don’t think it’s interesting to hear exactly your own ideas coming back at you.  It’s much more fun to work with an orchestra, and with a soloist who have personalities.  That way you discuss some aspect of the music, and through their own spirit they make something new of the ideas.  So, the final idea is really a collaborative effort.  It’s the synthesis between your idea and their idea.

BD:   When you’ve got four performances of a concert, is the final idea the same at all four performances?

MTT:   No, every night should be different.

BD:   Do you purposely leave something for that spark of the evening?

MTT:   You don’t have to consciously leave something.  There will be something on the evening which will happen in a different way, because all of us performers are different people when we are playing for an audience.  There is an electric charge in the air.  There is a sense of expectation, and there is a different sense of time and space in that situation.  It’s as if suddenly all the events of the piece stand out in a kind of aural 3-D.  Everything suddenly is very present, and very significant.  Things which may have rushed by in a thoughtful moment of rehearsals, suddenly seem enormously important, and take an enormous amount of time.

BD:   You can’t predict any of this?

MTT:   I wouldn’t want to predict any of it.  I rehearse very intently, and with the goal of establishing a certain mood, a certain conception, and certain priorities.  But the intensity of the rehearsal is specifically to allow there to be great freedom in the performance.

BD:   Do you get enough rehearsal time?

MTT:   Oh, yes.

BD:   Do you ever get too much rehearsal time?

MTT:   In Europe sometimes there’s too much rehearsal time.

BD:   Then do you work on something else, or do you let them go?

MTT:   Not in London, but in some of the orchestras on the Continent, particularly the ones associated with some of the great radio stations.  You can sometimes have a situation where there really is so much rehearsal time, that the work goes much more slowly because it expands to occupy the amount of rehearsal time that there is.

BD:   Do you feel you’re wasting any of the time?

MTT:   No, but I sometimes wish that I could have already done that concert.  I am thinking of accomplishing other things, and we’re still slowly putting together that event.  Of course it’s exactly the opposite here.  The virtuosity of the Chicago Symphony is that it can respond so quickly, and no matter how specific, or complex, or demanding what it is that one may ask, it is totally possible for them to do it, and to do it with an almost terrifying swiftness.  So, it’s really a question for any conductor doing a piece of standard repertoire with an orchestra as great as this to think more of how ideally you would like the music to feel.  It’s not a question of adjusting mechanical things within the orchestra.  For example, it’s not technical matters, but it’s more a question of comfortably finding together this mood of relaxation.  Then, suddenly a new group of instruments come in, and even though they’re playing pianissimo, the music they’re playing is not actually dolce.  It’s actually quite animated, and perhaps even has a certain jeering cast to it.  That quality, that mood of this acerbic pianissimo is fun to find.

MTT BD:   How much of this is in the score, and how much is in your heart?

MTT:   As I’ve said, the score is a suggestion of what the composer wants, and in the case of Mahler, over the course of his life he became much more specific about the kinds of things he wrote into his symphonies.

BD:   Is that because he was working conductor, and knew the logistics of the rehearsal period and the performance practice?

MTT:   That’s right.  What’s so interesting is that when he rehearsed other people’s music
which after all was most of the time, and most of his career was conducting other people’s musiche rehearsed very systematically, but he did not actually mark the parts for the orchestral players with anything like the detailed instructions he used in his own music.  You can actually see the sets of parts that he used of Beethoven and Wagner and so on, in the Vienna Philharmonic library.  It’s almost as if he felt that he didn’t dare, he didn’t presume to actually mark into the materials of a Beethoven or Brahms symphony, or a Mozart opera.  These kinds of very specific things he wanted would have been a kind of profanation.  He would work the people to an absolute state of craziness, insisting that they play it on a particular part of the bow, or that the tremolo be a certain speed, or that the fingering be such and such, but he wouldn’t mark those things.

BD:   And yet he re-orchestrated Beethoven and Schubert.

MTT:   That’s right, he ‘retouched’ them, which is the polite word for that.  He ‘retouched’ things extensively, as many people of that time did, but he did these things to make the ideas clearer.  One also has to remember that these
retouches were done for very specific halls and very specific orchestras.  It’s a mistake to look at some of these very idiosyncratic things that Mahler did when he was in Budapest, or when he was working with the Vienna Philharmonic, and think these apply to every orchestra, or every acoustical situation.  They don’t.  In the Musikverein with the Vienna Philharmonic of that time, they applied.  For an orchestra in rural Bohemia, or in some place in Hungary, they were not applied.

BD:   So, if we want to re-create it, we should find that instrumentation, and those instruments, and that number of players, and put it in that hall to see if he was right?

MTT:   For me, that would be too much in pursuit of too little, because the most important thing in music is the notes themselves, the expressive message that is contained in whatever style of music it may be.  For example, on the same program with this Mahler symphony, we’re doing a piece by Steve Reich called Three Movements, which is a wonderful piece, a delightful and very, very expressive piece.  Strangely enough, it is one with many turns of phrases, particularly in its second movement, which remind me of a movement of a Mahler symphony
slightly Ländler-like, vaguely similar to a Jewish dance with serenade steps, very nostalgic, turning back in on each other.

BD:   Is this something you discovered when programming them together, or is this why you put the two side by side?

MTT:   It’s one reason I put these works on this program.  This particular piece is about twelve or fifteen minutes long.  Its title says it’s in three movements, and the outer movements use the powers of a divided orchestra.  It is actually a piece for double orchestra, surrounding a continuo group of mallet instruments, who keep very driving rhythmic figures going through the whole piece.  One side of the orchestra plays a particular rhythmic figure, which then interlocks with the orchestra on the other side of the stage, and produces between them a very, very bouncy kind of ping-pongy melodic contour that rushes back and forth from one side of the stage and the other.  It’s quite delightful.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   The music that we’re talking about, the music that you conduct, is this music for everyone?

MTT:   I don’t know who everyone may be.  Classical music itself is not music for everyone, despite the large audience that classical music has.  A great thing here in Chicago is listening to this remarkable radio station.  Relative to the number of people who are listening to rap, or Latino music, or all sorts of pop music, or rock music, and so on, it’s a smaller number of people, but it’s a group of people who have discovered the message of a particular kind of music, and discovered that classical music really is offering a lot more than just the diversion of listening to music.  What most top-forty music offers is a momentary kick, a novelty of hearing a particular new tune, which, likely as not, is more about the rhythm track and the various hooks and tricks that the arrangers use to make it seem very hip.  There is planned obsolescence in this music.  After a few weeks, Number One in the charts is no longer on the charts at all, and the next thing you know we’re seeing it advertised on television as part of a collection,
“Not available in stores.  So, order now!  [Both laugh]  That all happens very, very quickly, whereas with classical music, we’re dealing with music that, as part of its purpose, does not completely reveal itself at first hearing.  It presents many things which are attractive and engaging, but somehow, over a longer period of time, it seeps into us.  It has a larger effect emotionally on us.  It’s like what poetry does.  As we live longer, we start to understand more of what the piece says, and, in some cases, what it doesn’t say also becomes very, very important.  We suddenly find that in a moment of crisis in our lives, or at a moment of reflection, quite spontaneously a phrase of music may come to us, and we realize that some part of ourselves has become woven into that music.  That music is just as important an experience for us as one of the major events in our lives.  It really has a history with us.

MTT BD:   Should we try to get more of the top-forty audience listening to classical music?

MTT:   Of course.  It’s a very important process.  In recent years in the United States, the whole issue of arts education and music education has been largely abandoned, so it remains now for orchestras everywhere to take up the cause of audience development.  But we shouldn’t be frightened of this.  This is something which was part-and-parcel of the creation of the great orchestras in the United States in the first place.  When you read about Theodore Thomas’s work here in Chicago, it’s very much a story of reaching out to the people, making them aware that this music was great, and interesting them in programs.  At first, they had small samplings of a lot of different kinds of music, and accustomed them to the language of a particular composer, so that in the end it was the audience itself that wanted to hear the whole piece.  Then they wanted to hear more works by some of the master composers.  We have to realize that audience-development is like the quest for better education, or the war on poverty
it’s never going to be won, but it must always be fought.  We always have to get the message out there, and make sure that this quality music really gets through to the widest number of people who, in childhood, might find a sensitivity and interest in it.

BD:   Is this part of your aim with the New World Symphony that you have in Miami?

MTT:   It is part of the aim in the sense that the New World Symphony is not just there to train musicians who have a knowledge of the repertoire and are technically able to fill the ranks of great orchestras around the world, but also to focus people on their reasons for being musicians.  Often it can be that young musicians have pursued their whole careers in music to please other people.  Perhaps they played music originally to please their parents, and they worked to please their teachers, then they worked to fulfill the requirements of a particular curriculum.  They can suddenly come through all of that, and really wonder what they are going to do with all of this musical knowledge that they’ve gathered.  They also wonder what sort of life there is out in the world.

BD:   Life after commencement.

MTT:   Yes.  Is it in an orchestra?  Is it in chamber music?  Where is it?  What is it?  It’s terribly important when you go into music that you swear, at least to yourself, a kind of Hippocratic Oath, because you can’t know at the beginning of your career, no matter how talented you are, exactly what breaks you’re going to get.  It can be a very rewarding life, or it can be a very frustrating life.  But if you truly have a desire, if you truly have the need to make music every day, if that’s your compulsion, if that’s your obsession, then you can be happy because you can find a life in which you do have the opportunity to play music.  Then the question for you is if you’re making good music.  It’s not so important whether you are making great music in one town or another town, or at a university or in a chamber ensemble, or in an orchestra or as a soloist.  There are joys of music to be had in all of those situations if you are of a mind to appreciate it.  You can see in the ranks of musicians some people who are really joyous and transfigured by their life-long devotion to music, and other people who, in the very same situation, are very unhappy and embittered by this same life of music that they’ve experienced.

BD:   Because they haven’t achieved what they expected?

MTT:   Because they were perhaps expecting things which were unrealistic, or maybe didn’t have quite that same devotion of the process of actually making music itself.  Maybe the music for them was a means to an end, to achieve something else which perhaps didn’t work out.  It’s terribly important that, from the very beginning, we examine that music-making is meant to be a joyful experience, and something in which one delights in communicating with other people.  It is the most effective way we have as musicians to reach other people.

BD:   Not too long form now you’re going to hit the big Five-Oh.  Are you at the point in your career that you expected to be, or want to be?

MTT:   I don’t think about my career much.  [Laughs]  Because of the frustration of some of the marriages I’ve worked with at times in my life, I really think about musical adventure.  I think about whether, on some level or another, I’m taking a piece further forward, or discovering an era of music which I didn’t previously know, or do a little bit of writing myself for uncovering something new.  That’s what’s the most important for me
the adventure of it.  I get frustrated if I feel I’m repeating the same things.

BD:   You’re also about to take over the San Francisco Symphony.  What are your expectations of the west coast?

MTT:   This is a great joy for me because I’m returning to the west coast from whence I came.  A lot of my perspectives were shaped very much by growing up there, and being involved in the new music scene.  There is the greater closeness to Asian music, and World music, which has always been very much a part of the perspective of the west coast, and I hope to coalesce a great deal of that tradition in my new position in San Francisco.  I will not only be able to continue playing lots of international music, I will play masterpieces, and doing lots more with the orchestra in all the great music centers.  I will also really be trying to examine what is of essence in the American music tradition, and, particularly, what contributions from the west coast made to that history.  It’s extraordinary to be in Europe
in Holland and Germany or Englandand be aware of passionately interested young musicians, young Europeans who are into American music.  I really believe that in the next century, American music will be of central influence that Russian music was in the twentieth century, with the sense of so many romantic musical ideas, adventurous new music ideas, the whole folklore of it underneath the surface of it.  America is poised to be all of that.  We have some symphonic music, solo music, chamber music, and we also the incredibly rich vernacular of musical history with all these cultures of pop music, and patriotic music, and dance music, and folk music.  It’s all there, and people are mightily interested in it worldwide.  If you consider the influence of American music in total, it is the dominant music of the entire world through pop music, through electronic reproduction in music, and through technology.  It is the world’s musical culture.

BD:   But it seems that the symphonic music and the chamber literature from America is almost on the periphery of that.

MTT:   What’s going to happen is that more people will be listening through the hooks and devices of the pop music, and will wonder about the source of all of it.  Is there something that’s speaking in a voice that we want to listen to for not just a week but maybe for years, or even for our whole lives?  There will be all this wealth of music of Ives, Copland, and all the American masters.  There are some great American masters who wrote only three or four pieces which really stand up in that way, but are unquestionable masterpieces.  It doesn’t make any difference, but those three or four unquestionable masterpieces are great contributions to the world.

BD:   Thank you for coming back to Chicago, and for speaking with me again.

MTT:   Thank you.


© 1994 Bruce Duffie

This conversation (my second with MTT) was recorded in Chicago on March 28, 1994.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB in December of that year, and again in 1999; on WNUR in 2007, 2010, and 2018; and on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio in 2008, and 2011.  A copy of the unedited audio was placed in the Archive of Contemporary Music at Northwestern University, and in the Oral History of American Music archive at Yale University.  This transcription was made in 2020, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

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.

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.