Michael Tilson Thomas

National Medal of Arts Recipient
Michael Tilson Thomas

Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas: I'm very proud of being an American musician in many ways. Of course, I have been involved my whole life in playing music by American composers and encouraging a very great diversity of expression inside of American music, from very naive music to very brainient, thorny music. But I wanted people to understand that the range of musical expression is so wide and there's a lot of different kinds of work that can have very great merit and then also, as a musician, it's been my delight to bring generations of young American musicians closer to works from other centuries and other countries. And all the time that I spend as a teacher just is an honor for me to be able to contribute in my own way to this kind of tradition and that inside of an art, we all have to really care for the art and we also have to care for one another.

Jo Reed: That was conductor, educator and 2009 National Medal of Arts recipient Michael Tilson Thomas.
Welcome to Art Works, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.
Michael Tilson Thomas has long been a transformative figure in American classical music. Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony since 1995, he helped develop that organization into one of the world's leading ensembles. One that showcased the music of American composers, while honoring the great European classical tradition. In an era of a diminishing audience for classical musical,  San Francisco Symphony has seen continuous growth due in part to innovative programming and outreach. For Example, Tilson Thomas and San Francisco Symphony created Keeping Score, a groundbreaking, multi-year PBS series and multimedia project that has made the music of Beethoven, Ives, Mahler and others more accessible to people of all ages and musical backgrounds.   
Clearly an educator as much as a conductor, in 1987 Tilson Thomas founded the New World Symphony, an orchestra and academy for gifted graduates of  music programs. Here young players spend up to three years getting ready to make the leap to professional orchestras and ensembles. And since 2011, it  has a spectacular new home in the New World Center in Miami Beach, which was designed by Frank Gehry with a focus on making the classical music experience interactive and finding an audience outside the hall itself  with its 7,000-square-foot outdoor projection wall for audiences in the adjoining park.
With his commitment to artistic excellence, his nurturing of young talent, and his innovative ways of growing  audiences for classical music, it is little wonder that Michael Tilson Thomas was awarded a National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists by the United States government. I had the opportunity to speak with Tilson Thomas when he was in DC to receive his award. I knew he came from a long line of performers. In fact, he's grandparents were founders of the Yiddish Theater. I was curious though about what drew him to classical music, in particular.

Michael Tilson Thomas: I think there was a kind of truth in the music that really affected me from the time I was a very little boy. That I was aware when people spoke to one another, they sometimes said words, but perhaps they didn't mean the words quite as sincerely as they wished they did or they presented that they did. But in music, it was the absolute truth. The notes in the music-- in a song or in a symphony just said something which came so much from the heart and which just had a kind of power in that it kind of stuck with you when it was over and that's the thing, I think, that gets me about this music. That it does stick with you and that it changes your perspective on things as the years go by.

Jo Reed: You said music is most important when you're not hearing it.

Michael Tilson Thomas: Yes, I believe that for that exact reason. What do you take away from the performance?  Do you take away a melody, or a harmony, or a rhythm, or a kind of mood, or certain kind of energy, but something that is either confirming something that you already believe, or deepening that understanding, or perhaps giving you a completely new understanding of the way someone thinks about life, someone feels about life.

So classical music is unique in the world in that it is a continuous tradition about now 1200 years old. So from the first time music began to be written down, Gregorian Chant, you know, in the 800s, right through to now, it's one progression of ideas of the way people have thought about their lives, about their feelings and the process they've gone through which, believe me, it was a really difficult process to take all of those thoughts and write them down in what's essentially code books, that's what music scores really are, in ways that by hearing those exact melodies we can more directly experience the kind of inner life that these people had, much more so than we can through reading their words, which require complex shadings of translation or historical perspective. Through this music we can really have a sense of, "How do these experiences of love of mournfulness, of humor, of the drive for conquest or whatever the different themes that run through civilization, how did these give themselves voice in these people of long ago?" and from this, I think, we learn a lot about ourselves.

Jo Reed: So you're talking about apprehending an emotional experience that people had, not just an intellectual one, more of a total one?

Michael Tilson Thomas: Well, I think of the arts as a kind of wrestling match really, between intellect and instinct. Because in every artistic piece, I mean, certainly in a musical piece you think, "Oh, what would the coolest move to be made?", "Oh, it's this chord. Oh, it's this note" and you just kind of feel that, you kind of go for it. But then people who are really composers could also see, "Well, that's a cool move, but there another move you could make, which would mean that 295 moves from now, you could make a devastatingly cool move." It's that sort of chess-master aspect of being a composer that not only ties up that whole composition into something that has a kind of power of its organization as well as its expression that kind of represents the way our spirits work. I mean, everything we do in life is so much by our heads and so much by our hearts and the arts give you a kind of difference recipe of how much head and how much heart is involved in those decisions that are decisions we make everyday about just who we are.

Jo Reed: Let me ask you probably a very obvious question. Many people wonder, what is it exactly that a conductor does?

Michael Tilson Thomas: A conductor learns the "what" of the piece first. What is happening?  And then he tries to think about, why is it happening?  And then he tries to think about, what are you going to do about it? How are you going to make those ideas clear, and that means being able to help the musicians who are very, very busy playing a lot of notes. I mean, it's technically enormously challenging. You're kind of an athlete if you're a classical musician, an athlete who's still doing the most astonishing things in your 50s and 60s very often and even older. But the conductor's supposed to be able to hear the totality of what's going on and make suggestions, which hopefully will be useful ones to the people who are playing that helps them to focus and achieve even at a higher level of what their potential may be.

Jo Reed: It clearly has to be such a great collaboration between the conductor and the orchestra and you've been at San Francisco Symphony since '95, I believe.

Michael Tilson Thomas: Mm-hmm.

Jo Reed: I would imagine there are a great many benefits, but also some challenges being at the same place for that length of time.

Michael Tilson Thomas: Well, what's been great about being in San Francisco is that we have a real relationship and that relationship is built through the music that we play together and I have to say very honestly and with great pride, that we have grown together remarkably in this period of time. I feel much closer to the orchestra and I think they to me, much more directly in contact, in sympathy after all these years. Because we've- we've dreamed and we've dared many things together, of taking the music to a place, which has always been important to me, where the music would seem that it had never been written down, but was happening spontaneously at that moment and that's a really exciting and scary place to be and you have to really have a kind of trust and belief in one another to make that happen.

Jo Reed: And I would imagine a lot of that gets worked out in the whole process of rehearsal?

Michael Tilson Thomas: Yes, mostly it does. But, you know, in the rehearsal it's like-- well, if you imagine doing a.. trapeze act that you rehearse and you rehearse the flips and the turns and the person who is doing the trick has to know a lot, but the person who's catching also has to know a lot and they have to have confidence in one anther because one day the net will be taken away and at that moment, you have to be able to be free. You have to be able to fly and have no anxiety about, "Is there going to be someone there to catch you or not?"  You know that there will be.

Jo Reed: Well, your debut, your debut as a conductor. Was sort of that flying without the net. That was the quintessential show business story in some way. You were with the Boston Symphony, correct?

Michael Tilson Thomas: That's correct.

Jo Reed: And tell us what happened?

Michael Tilson Thomas: William Steinberg was on stage and he had conducted the opening piece and I was standing backstage. He came out and looked at me and said, "Put your suit on. You're going to conduct."  I didn't react at all because "Uh.. what? Uh..." He said, "Didn't you hear me?  Put your suit on. You're going to conduct."  So I ran and put my suit on and 15 minutes later I was on stage and then I was on stage for the remainder of that tour around the East Coast of the United States and over the course of that season that I was on stage for about 40 additional concerts and I was about 24-years-old. Only now do I realize how crazy that was.

Jo Reed: How did the orchestra respond when you walked out?

Michael Tilson Thomas: They were very much on my side. I could never have done it without them. They made it work.

Jo Reed: That must have been a good feeling.

Michael Tilson Thomas: It was a very good feeling and then we began to voyage into other repertoire. I mean, I, as a youngster, was very interested in music by Charles Ives and Carl Ruggles and also in music by composers like Barrio and Stockhausen and John Cage and all sorts of people that the orchestra didn't know. So that was a voyage in which I was able to introduce them to this music and at the same time, I was performing music by composers like Beethoven and Ravel, you know, music that they had performed countless times and these pieces were new to me and in those pieces, they kind of helped me to find the way. So it was a very good relationship.

Jo Reed: As you say with the San Francisco Symphony, it's been a wonderful marriage. New works commissioned, Grammy Awards and through the symphony, you're a great advocate for arts and arts education and with the symphony you've done some really extraordinary work in that regard and I'm talking most specifically about Keeping Score, which...

Michael Tilson Thomas: Right.

Jo Reed: I was all over the website this weekend having the best time.

Michael Tilson Thomas: Thank you. Well, for years I've been doing concerts, family concerts, or discovery concerts, whatever they've been called, where I've spoken to the audiences, and where I've spoken to young people and older people together and tried to find a middle ground where there was something entertaining, but challenging and engaging for them as really a way of bringing them inside the music. So it was the, sort of back story of the music and also the back story of those who were playing the music because the music wouldn't exist without those who are playing it and that developed into the idea of doing a television series about it. But not only a television series, a series which would also exist on radio, and which would also have a presence on the Internet and the idea of that was a recognition on my part that what you can do on television is relatively limited because the production of television is very complicated and very expensive. The number of time slots available to show it are limited. So I began to imagine using television as a kind of introduction. As we'd say in the business, a kind of tease in a way to introduce subjects hopefully in an intriguing enough way that people would be drawn to follow-up those subjects on the website, which would be interactive and tied to the programs, and allow you to go into all of this with great depth, and that it would be structured in such a way so that it could be experienced. It could even be played with according to your age and desires.

Jo Reed: Classical music seems to be losing audiences and losing younger people, you're not. You're growing your audience.

Michael Tilson Thomas: We are and we are because we're caring about it and working on it. I think that will always be the case. I don't know of a single situation where there is an educational program that is bringing classical music to young people that is not successful. If you bring it to young people, they get it. They have no blocks about imagining that it's high brow, or low brow, or anything else. It's just gets to them directly and as I'm always saying, "The only thing you need to be in order to appreciate and love classical music is you need to be alive and you need to have the chance to hear it."  Because it is the music that most resembles the way our thought really is. Pop music, as much as I love pop music, is mostly about one feeling, one emotion, one groove, whatever, at a time and it sort of, that's nice. It kind of is in that place and we all love to experience it and taste that and it kind of can go on in the background. It kind of creates a general aura in which we can all kind of, you know, settle back and do what we're going to do. Classical music is not like that. Classical music is, as our thought is, always changing into something else. So when I ask you, "Are you happy right now?"  If you honestly answer me, you're going to say, "Yeah, I'm happy but I'm a little bit concerned that such-in-such didn't happen just as I thought it would and I'm a little bit apprehensive about-- I'm actually a little bit angry that I didn't see such-in-such before."  It's a very complex field of emotions and it's constantly refocusing itself. Well, that's exactly what classical music is. It's very much like our actual minds and that's why it teaches us so much about ourselves.

Jo Reed: In a way, you've picked up the baton that Leonard Bernstein presented with his Young People's Concert and took it to another level. But I read you said Bernstein could make certain assumptions about people's understanding of the music or their ability to conceptualize. You've seen that diminish in this 20-year-span.

Michael Tilson Thomas: Yes, I think I was commenting that when you listen to Berstein's programs, there's just a level of vocabulary. There's a certain loftiness that he employs because he assumes people will know all sorts of things, terminology and otherwise, and I keep trying to find ways of talking about these things with no terminology, but just using direct examples and this means I'm functioning more as a filmmaker. I'm using the techniques of making a film to present the ideas without having to take them through the translation of vocabulary so much and that's just a different process which newer technology has made more possible.

Jo Reed: Okay. You established this, The New World Symphony in 1987 and tell us what your vision was.

Michael Tilson Thomas: One of the main ideas behind the New World Symphony was my concern for great young artists, people who were acquaintances of mine that I would meet at the end of a summer in Tanglewood or Aspen or someplace and they would have been superstars of the summer and when I asked them, "What are you going to do next year?" They would say, "Well, I was going to go back to grad school, but I really don't-- I really don't need to, but I-- well, I uh.. maybe I'll do some freelancing, I'll take some auditions and whatever."  It was very iffy and I thought this is not right. They should have a place where they can really continue to hone their skills and use as a kind of platform for, you know, launching their careers and it could be a kind of community of musicians in some sort of way and I had this idea for a number of years and I had the good fortune to one day meet Ted Arison, remarkable patron who was the founder of Carnival Cruise Lines, who himself, deeply loved music and had been reading of this idea. I'd been talking it up in various journals and he said, "Great. Terrific idea. I want you to do it."  So I had the opportunity to actually put it in place. The New World Symphony has about 90 musicians every year in it who audition from all over the world really and they have fellowships, and they have a place to live, and they work with me, but also incredible numbers of the most outstanding conductors, and soloists, and chamber musicians both in person and a lot online, and they are with us for a few years and they take auditions and they go off and have amazing careers. The Great American Orchestra is great. World orchestras are filled with alums of the New World Symphony and many of them, I'm happy to say, are leaders in those orchestras.

Jo Reed: And you're there for 10-weeks out of the year?

Michael Tilson Thomas: Yes, sometimes a bit more.

Jo Reed: Mm-hmm.

Michael Tilson Thomas: So yeah, all-in-all, it's about three months.

Jo Reed: And you have-- well, it's still a fairly new building.

Michael Tilson Thomas: It's a building unlike any other created for the performing arts. It's a kind of laboratory, both for the musicians who will be performing in it and for the audience, in that the building is an address in physical space, but it is also parallel to an address in cyberspace and we will have an amazing capability of posting all kinds of things from this building, both in the form of lessons, and examples, and interviews, and being able to be kind of a hub of exchange of information between centers of advanced music learning all over the world.

So essential to the New World's Symphony's mission is that it is guiding young musicians to ask very important questions. One of my four musical questions, which I perhaps mentioned before, that I ask myself, with any new piece of music, I'm always asking, "What is happening?" which is a lot of things, what's the phrasing, what's the orchestration, about anything, what it is?  "Why is it happening?  To what purpose is it happening?"  Question number three, and this I find is a question very often no one has ever asked a young musician, "and what does all this mean to you, what resonates with you in all of this?" and then question number four, "What are you going to do about it?" So this idea of helping people to focus on what it all means to them, what is their urgent message that they, as living embodiments of this tradition, who are really in their own lives connecting the past, the present, and forming a future. It's through them. It's through their living tradition, that is their lives and how much they are investing, how much they are risking of their own futures in this. This is what I am trying to get them to focus and understand that it's this message of passing this music on to other people, their delight in sharing this with other people, which is paramount, and which will be the salvation of the profession as it goes forward.

Jo Reed: Yeah, it's interesting as an audience member, I've sat there and felt the people playing were not very engaged. But boy, is there a difference when you feel the absolute commitment and engagement to the music.

Michael Tilson Thomas: You're absolutely right and perhaps because I come from a theatrical family, where the issue of going on stage was so important. I mean, the moment you went on stage, you were aware people are looking at you, and even if you're not saying anything, you're listening to what the other people are saying and you're reacting to it, and the quality of your reaction is affecting how the audience is reacting to it. So all of this is part of the mix and this is the kind of message that I'm working to develop with the young musicians I am so lucky to work with. It's a little bit more like the way Stanislavski worked with actors, I think. It's about the motivation. It's about the projection. It's about them developing confidence as musical communicators, but also as spoken communicators. Just as we're speaking now, I want to have legions of them who can go out there and effortlessly speak to people about their music, of whatever age and whatever background.

Jo Reed: There is what's seen as in the arts of trying to bring younger people to the arts, to cultural events and of course, the cutting of arts education in school budgets seems to come into play and we're losing a generation of people.

Michael Tilson Thomas: We've already lost one, I'm afraid.

Jo Reed: Who have...who didn't grow up with an experience of...

Michael Tilson Thomas: Right.

Jo Reed: …of listening to classical music and the difference that does make.

Michael Tilson Thomas: It's essential that schools present a wide music program, not because it increases math test scores, but because it does something to people's souls. It gives them a kind of focus, a kind of tranquility that they need to center their lives and at the same time, families must also be a part of this. Anyone who has music in his life probably had some experience of it through his family and I understand that it's intimidating for parents to think, "Oh, my Gosh. How am I ever going to present this whole huge corpus of music, or arts, or whatever to my child?"  But it can be done by just doing a little bit at a time. I mean, I was hearing music in my house a lot, but my parents also did things like before dinner, we would spend five minutes looking at the work of some artist, like Velazquez, or El Greco, or Murillo...I'm mentioning all Spanish ones now, but we had a little book that we got from the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which just had pages describing pictures and the artists and then had a big sheet of postage stamps of those pictures that I could then cut out the right picture and paste it with the right description and it was just a kind of little five-minute thing that we did before dinner. But it meant that by the time I was 12-years-old, I could go to a museums and say, "Oh, yeah. That's a Utrillo. That's an early Picasso. That's a Monet. That's a whatever."  It just was natural. I just knew it and was excited to see more work by those artists. In a way, this goes back to what you were asking me about the website that I think the issue is not so much concerts. Concerts are wonderful and important and people get a great energy and revivification from concerts because we do have this experience of wanting as people to share together great words, great music, great art. But I think it's more important, the experience of these great arts in people's daily lives. So by having this website, I'm hoping to make it attractive enough eventually that people say, "Oh, let's take a five-minute break."  I'm in my office. I want to take a five-minute break. I'll go to this place on the website and some kind of shuffle throughout the centuries format. It'll play me something amazing that I never new existed that I'll think, "Oh, that's such an insight. That's a gorgeous thirteenth century love song or that's a fantastic diverting dance from some other country, in some other century," and get people to have that kind of spontaneous moment-by-moment reaction to the arts. Because if it's in your daily life, then it becomes an ongoing way at the way you think about life, the way you think about people, the way you think about yourself.

Jo Reed: What I think is also so wonderful about your website is that it opens the music up and I have found, and I'm sure many of us have as well, that horrible sense of when you love a piece of music, or a piece of art, piece of literature and somehow you confront it in a classroom with a teacher who just shuts down your emotional response to it and then there are teachers who just make you see it in whole new ways and those are the wonderful moments.

Michael Tilson Thomas: Well, you're absolutely right and, you know, it's the same even within the music business. When I first became a member of the Boston Symphony when I was 23, 24 and I was the pianist and assistant conductor and I was surrounded by incredibly able professionals, master musicians. But I noticed that many of them seemed a little bit detached or embittered perhaps. But there were some that seemed to be radiant, on fire, even after 30 years of playing the music. They were just glowing from their excitement and sense of wonder in the music and I thought, "Gosh, where do you need to sign up to be one of those people?" and of course, you have to establish habits of asking questions, and taking nothing for granted, and really guarding your enthusiasm, not only for what you do, but for what other people do.

Jo Reed: That was conductor, educator, and 2009 National Medal of Arts recipient, Michael Tilson Thomas. You've been listening to Art Works, produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. Adam Kampea is the musical supervisor. Excerpt from "Short Ride in a Fast Machine," composed by John Adams, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas and preformed by the San Francisco Symphony, used courtesy of San Francisco Symphony Media. The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at Arts.gov. You can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U. Just click on the iTunes link on our podcast page.

Next week, artist Nick Cave. To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog or follow us @NEAarts on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas discusses his dual career as conductor and educator. [30:49]