Having turned 70 last December, American maestro Michael Tilson Thomas shows no signs of slowing down. A regular in Bachtrack’s busiest conductor statistics, he juggles a full schedule as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony – Beethoven, John Adams and his beloved Mahler featuring prominently this season – with being Artistic Director of the New World Symphony Orchestra, which he founded in 1987 as the only full-time orchestral academy in the USA. Tilson Thomas joined the SFS in 1995, following seven successful years at the helm of the London Symphony Orchestra. Fashionably late to the birthday party, the LSO teams up with Tilson Thomas, now Principal Guest Conductor, for a ten-concert tour of the US, including two concerts on his home turf at Davies Hall.

The LSO Sound

MTT first conducted the London Symphony back in 1970, when he stepped in for an indisposed Gennady Rozhdestvensky. The programme included Ives and Stravinsky, two composers he would become indelibly associated with over the coming decades. The young conductor made a big impression and was eventually appointed its Principal Conductor in 1988. “The outstanding quality of the LSO has always been its immense rhythmic drive and cohesion, which is unique in the world of music,” he explains. “It was always there, I think, but in our years together, we worked a lot more on the variety of sound, paying attention more to the quieter, more lyrical possibilities of sound; it became an area of our extended vocabulary, which we’ve kept to this day.”

A commitment to programming American music was evident, with a 1987 series on Gershwin winning acclaim and forming part of Celebrating Gershwin, a television series commemorating the 50th Anniversary of the composer’s death. Tilson Thomas also did much to promote the music of his great mentor, Leonard Bernstein, with LSO performances of On The Town televised and recorded.

Education and new technologies

Following in Bernstein’s footsteps, Tilson Thomas has always been a compelling educator, as well as a keen advocate of using new technologies to enhance the listening experience. These included a series of films for the BBC during his LSO years. “I began doing all this back in the 1970s with a series of concerts with the Boston Symphony called Spectrum concerts which explored many thematic ideas of programming. They also used projection and lighting, although these things were much more primitive in those days.

“The idea of Keeping Score was to try and create a much more personal, intimate experience, as if you were sitting next to me at the piano and I was playing some things from the score pointing out things. Suddenly, by magic, we could suddenly have an orchestra there or we could suddenly be in Heiligenstadt and see where Beethoven went through one of his crises. ‘The magic of television’ we used to call it!”

His appetite for developing these ideas is undiminished. “Now I’m exploring new ideas through creating quite different experiences in the concert hall which involve the current state of multimedia possibilities.” Semi-staged performances of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis complete with lighting and video effects struck some as sensory overload. “It’s about capturing a performance which has been produced in a particular way – to use that performance as the raw materials for creating an entirely different artwork. It is no longer the piece itself, but is founded upon the piece that exists in its own right as a kind of beautiful object you could happily have on a large screen in your sitting room.”

Selecting repertoire

The repertoire chosen for the upcoming Barbican concerts and US tour is rich and varied. “It’s the nature of these tours to present quite vivid, iconic repertoire.” Championing new music has always been at the heart of what Tilson Thomas does. Colin Matthews’ orchestration of his chamber work Hidden Variables was done at the request of the conductor as a joint commission between the London Symphony Orchestra and the New World Symphony Orchestra. “I premiered it with the LSO and I wanted to do something British on the tour,” he explains. Tilson Thomas also includes the Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. He conducted the opera to great acclaim just last summer, in semi-staged performances with tenor Stuart Skelton in the title role.

American repertoire is represented by Gershwin’s Piano Concerto in F, a very personal connection: “My family has an association with the Gershwins going back to the 1930s, so that’s kind of a direct line for me.” Chinese pianist Yuja Wang joins the LSO for the tour. “Yuja and I have known one another since she was around 16 and we’ve worked on a lot of repertoire together over the years including this concerto.” She also performs Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no. 1 in C minor on the tour, which also features the LSO’s principal trumpet Philip Cobb in its madcap chases.

In addition, symphonies by Shostakovich (the Fifth) and Sibelius (the Second) are on the musical menu. One of the most engrossing of MTT’s documentaries for the BBC during his spell at the LSO was Journey into Silence from 1988, a programme about Sibelius’ enigmatic Sixth Symphony. “The LSO has quite a history playing Sibelius with Sir Colin Davis so it’s a luxury to do something that’s within their tradition. Of course, I have some different thoughts about the piece, but that’s the nature of my relationship with the orchestra. It’s a kind of collaboration and what’s fun about it is that something new emerges every time and that, for me, is the biggest delight of it.

“I know there are some conductors who have a control freak ‘you must do exactly what I say’ attitude about things, but I try and work more the way a director would with a great actor in the theatre. It’s very much a recognition of how outstanding the performers are; you’re putting some ideas out there knowing that they will bring their own creativity to it and something new will emerge. Otherwise, it seems to me that one’s talking to oneself all the time!”

The challenges of touring... and acoustics

The LSO tour – the first to the US with Tilson Thomas since 1993 – takes them to nine different halls for ten concerts in 15 days. What challenges does touring bring and how does MTT help keep the performances fresh night and night? “For a band like the LSO, touring is a wonderful experience because the great thing about it is we have two programmes we’re doing. As you know, very often most London orchestras do a programme just once – they’re often doing two different programmes every week, so the idea of having these two different programmes and having the chance to play them over the course of many weeks allows you to inhabit the music in a much more human and involving way. The performances grow enormously from evening to evening, even though there’s little further rehearsal. Well, there’s a little acoustic rehearsal, but just the pleasure that the musicians have in being inside a particular group of pieces that they come to know better and better – it’s a lovely experience.”

The halls differ, but MTT admits that, despite the odd dryness, they all have fine acoustics. “The hall is really like an instrument, so we performers get very much used to the idea of how to play these different instruments. Of course, we’ve played in a lot of these halls before, but even with a new hall, that’s the purpose of getting the band onto the stage maybe for half an hour just so you can gauge what type of instrument this is and how you need to deal with it. There’s still a certain amount of ‘veteran experience’, a judgement system which I and members of the orchestra have, which when the hall is empty – and of course the acoustic of the hall is very different when it’s empty – we can make a rapid savvy conjecture about what it will be like when we’ve got people in it.”

If the hall is like an instrument, I wonder how difficult an instrument the Barbican is to play. Tilson Thomas is diplomatically philosophical. “The Barbican has fine acoustics, it just doesn’t have enough of them,” he smiles. “It has a very focused acoustic, it has a very nice sound but beyond a certain size of ensemble it’s very difficult. If there’s not enough volume, the sound saturates. Also, because it’s very wide – and it was conceived partially to be a conference centre – it makes it very difficult for the people on the sides to maintain their focus.

“The Barbican has made enormous improvements from the years I was first working there and I really enjoy making music there. When you have a situation with large chorus and a large orchestra, there are some very definite challenges in trying to make the sound balanced and trying to make it mellifluous and powerful.

“I’m aware of all this wonderful talk around the possibility of a great new hall, which would be a fabulous thing for London. I very much hope it happens, but I think there will still be a very important role for the Barbican in the future and they’ll be able to focus on the type of project which do work wonderfully well there.

Wherever the LSO plays, one suspects that MTT’s restless creativity will still be playing a part in its future.  



Michael Tilson Thomas performs two programmes with the LSO in the Barbican before embarking on their US tour. Click here for dates and venues. 

This article was sponsored by the London Symphony Orchestra.