Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas emerges anew on ‘American Masters’

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Classical music documentaries tend to lionize their subjects, especially if they’re conductors.

But “Michael Tilson Thomas: Where Now Is” – airing at 9 p.m. Oct. 23 on WTTW-Ch. 11 via the “American Masters” series – goes in a different direction, offering a warmly intimate view of one of this country’s most prolific and protean musicians.

True, the program has its effusive moments, at least one of which might make even Tilson Thomas wince. But because the film largely avoids talking-head syndrome, we get to see him on the podium in rehearsal, in the studio with young talent, and at home with his husband, manager and longtime champion Joshua Robison.

The result is a portrait that avoids cliched comparisons with conductor-composer-pianist Leonard Bernstein, a Tilson Thomas mentor for whom there is no comparison. Instead, Tilson Thomas emerges as an innovator in his own right and on a more human, vulnerable scale than we’re accustomed to encountering him.

For starters, there’s the pleasure of hearing Tilson Thomas deconstruct what the conductor’s art is all about.

“The funny thing is about conducting: There’s not that much that you have to do, in terms of what you have to do with your hands,” he says early in the film. “You have to learn to beat. Much more difficult is learning how to learn the music in the first place. Learning how to sit down with a piece of music that’s written out for orchestra … and the way it should sound. Then the process begins which, unfortunately, no way has been developed yet of avoiding. And that is, sitting down at the piano and pounding out every note in the piece.”

As Tilson Thomas goes on to describe this process, we see footage of him as a young man doing exactly that, underscoring his point that most of the hard work occurs not in the glamour of the spotlight but in the labors of the practice room.

Yet when a seasoned conductor such as Tilson Thomas, 75, stands before an orchestra, he can transform a solid performance into a meaningful one. Footage of the conductor rehearsing with the San Francisco Symphony (which he led for 25 years starting in 1995) and the New World Symphony (a training orchestra he co-founded in Miami Beach) attests to how a few well-chosen words can enliven a phrase or dramatize a silence.

“What a conductor is doing is getting 100 or so people to agree where ‘now’ really is,” he says in the film. “The kind of pulse, the kind of underlying breath that animates the music. The conductors have the luxury of seeing the whole design in the score. So he is in a position to perceive the total design of what is happening in the performance.”

Of course, the film traces the arc of Tilson Thomas' career, from his legacy as a grandson of pioneers of the American Yiddish theater to his education at the University of Southern California; his appointment as the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s assistant conductor at age 24; and his tenure in top posts with the Buffalo Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestra and San Francisco Symphony. (He now guest conducts, composes and leads the New World Symphony.)

If there’s one passage of the film that we could do without, it’s when former BBC broadcaster Humphrey Burton effuses about Tilson Thomas' performances of music by Gershwin. Burton rhapsodizes that “the spirit of George Gershwin had somehow flown down from Valhalla and was entering into Michael Tilson Thomas' body.”


More cogent are the words of San Francisco Symphony principal oboist Eugene Izotov (formerly of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra) on Tilson Thomas' impact on young musicians via the New World Symphony.

“You’ll be hard-pressed to find a lot of great orchestras these days that do not have graduates from the New World Symphony,” says Izotov, himself a New World alum. “And New World is such a place where you know you’re starting to be good. You come from a lot of training, good schools and all that. But then you’re absolutely not just green, I mean you’re neon green. You have no idea what you’re doing. And you’re terrified, because in spite of how good you are, you know that there’s just so much talent in this business.”

Tilson Thomas has done more than most to propel that talent forward.

As he aptly says toward the film’s end, the New World Symphony “has been perhaps the most important thing I’ve done in my life.”

In so doing, he has pushed upward the trajectory of classical music in America.

Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.


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