Washington Performing Arts presents the San Francisco Symphony
Kennedy Center Concert Hall
Saturday, April 16
Though just four performances, the San Francisco Symphony’s current East Coast mini-tour features two programs.
The symphony will perform on Saturday, April 16 at 4 p.m. at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall performing Franz Schubert’s Symphony No. 8 “Unfinished” and Gustav Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde.” The players will be joined by mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and tenor Simon O’Neill. Two days prior, they’ll perform the same program at Carnegie Hall. The symphony will explore works by Copland and Schumann at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center this weekend.
We caught up with Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas, now in his 21st season with the symphony with whom he’s shared 12 Grammys, by phone this week. His comments have been slightly edited for length.
WASHINGTON BLADE: You’ve recorded many Mahler symphonies. What is it about his music that continues to resonate with you?
MICHAEL TILSON-THOMAS: His music is very central to my whole view of life and that was evident from the first time I heard his music when I was around 13. This piece in fact, which we’re about to play in Washington, “Das Lied von der Erde,” I heard the last movement, the farewell, called “Der Abschied,” and it was stunning, a shock to me to hear music which so completely described the shape of my own soul and what I felt to be my parents’ souls, where all the kind of aching questions about the meaning of life and all sorts of questions which I hadn’t even consciously formed, but somehow I just knew this was a testimony that meant so much to me. Part of that was the musical presentation of situations where there can be bitterness or frustration or conflict, but nonetheless there’s still an element of beauteousness as well. For me, the message of the music is to hold on to the beauteousness at whatever the cost. That resonated with me from the first moment and still does.
BLADE: Does the Schubert symphony you’re also performing contrast with or complement the Mahler?
TILSON-THOMAS: Schubert (was) … using this sort of haunted language that was very Czech-influenced because his parents came from what is now the Czech Republic and of course Mahler did as well, so there is this sort of major/minor haunted harmonic language that’s part of it. … On the piano you have a note which you sometimes call E flat or sometimes you call it D sharp. On the piano, it’s the same note, but in orchestral music, these two notes are actually different notes. They do different things and they lead in different directions. Schubert and Mahler are both constantly reinterpreting the meaning of a note. … You’re being kind of guided, pulled back and forth across the line of the meaning of a single note taking you into a brighter or darker world. That’s very much what they’re playing with.
BLADE: As you perform around the country and the world, do you sense differences in how the audiences receive the work?
TILSON-THOMAS: I think we’re very aware of the different audiences. They’re ectoplasmic almost. You come off the stage and you can just sense a certain energy and focus in the hall and that does affect the way you feel about the music. I’m fond of saying these big places for me are like national parks that you return to. You’ve wandered there before, but the company with which you find yourself is different and has an enormous influence on what the nature of the experience is going to be.
BLADE: Have you been insulated to some degree in San Francisco from the kinds of challenges many of our other national symphonies are facing?
TILSON-THOMAS: No, I wouldn’t say so. Like all the major orchestras, we’ve experienced different kinds of crises and growing pains, visions coalescing as different generations have moved through the orchestra. … These things are inevitable. I’ve been performing symphonic music now for 50 years. I started when I was 20, so I’ve seen many changes happen in music and society and music coming from China and Venezuela and parts of the world from which we didn’t used to see so many people. The growth of all these things is a very positive thing in the big picture. So there’s a very positive growth state and at the same time, there are definitely growing pains in society itself. How are these things going to be sustained and grown and what do young musicians coming into the profession desire? What kind of life do they want to have? All these things are being turned over and discussed even as we speak.
BLADE: Are you pressured to perform film scores or saw away under pop acts or that sort of thing to bring in new people? Or have you tried to stave off that sort of thing?
TILSON-THOMAS: There’s a balance that needs to be struck and there’s always going to be a concern of having too many programs that would be apart from the central mission of the orchestra. Not just in symphony orchestras but with any arts organization. There’s a lot of talk about searching for sustainable business models … but these are not businesses. These are idealistic organizations that are communities of people that were established to share a particular art as a living tradition and strengthening and preserving that and passing it on to many generations. That’s the real purpose. It’s necessary perhaps in each new generation to remind ourselves that’s what we’re doing and what we need to do.
BLADE: Your bio makes reference to your work “reimagining the concert experience.” In what ways have you done that?
TILSON-THOMAS: I’ve been very involved with multi-media, new technology and something of a pioneer in using the online resource Internet2 to reach people with educational messages in territories around the world. … Most recently with a process called LOLA, an information system that reduces online latencies and makes it possible now within a thousand kilometers to perform music with someone as if you’re really in the same room with them. … With the New World Symphony, we’ve done a lot of work in video that has been ahead of the curve. Not just concert performance videos … but creating kind of art installations inside the concert hall.
BLADE: Have you always been out professionally?
TILSON-THOMAS: Oh, I don’t know. That’s hard to answer. Joshua (Robison) and I got married a couple years ago but we’ve been together 40 years. Since the very beginning, we were together very clearly with no disguise and that goes back quite a ways at this point. To us, that didn’t seem so remarkable. We worked together in a production company that makes a lot of different musical products and education projects happen around the world and we’ve always done that. We haven’t been involved, as many others have been, in any courageous crusade of one type or another. We supported those things and I have such respect for people who did that. On the other hand, people now say it was somewhat extraordinary that we were living our lives that way in terms of being transparent about being together then and that was unusual, I guess, at the time.
BLADE: How gay are our orchestras in general?
TILSON-THOMAS: I’d say a very rough number would be maybe 10 percent or something like that. Maybe more.
BLADE: Perhaps more in San Francisco?
TILSON-THOMAS: Not necessarily. Orchestras are very individual animals. It was, of course, different when I first began conducting. In any major orchestra there might have been one or two people who were not even out but everybody just kind of knew they were gay. As opposed to now when there are many people in all the major orchestras who are LGBT and it’s not in any way a big deal and certainly not with the many young musicians. If people are thinking they might make music with someone, what’s going on with their gender or sexuality is of no interest whatsoever. If you’re talking about where you’re placing the third of a major chord or issues of tuning or articulation, then that’s a big deal.
BLADE: It’s interesting when you see the kinds of people given the Kennedy Center Honors over time and how popular acts are now being inducted much more often than performers from the classical arts. At the same time, there’s a lot of hand wringing in our symphonies and opera companies and so on. I could give tons of examples. Is society being slowly dumbed down over time?
TILSON-THOMAS: Well there are different kinds of occasions that serve different purposes. There are lots of awards and prizes that are given for certain types of work, like the MacArthur Fellows or the Pulitzer Prizes or the great number of other awards and prizes that are given to people whose names would be little known to the general public, but which nonetheless exert quite an influence within various arts worlds. … Some of these things are much more of an occasion in certain realms than something like the Grammys or the Oscars or those kinds of things which are really more shows. It used to be that if you were from the classical arts and you were up for a Grammy, you would go to the Grammys and you were presented with it there. That no longer happens. Something might happen in a hotel lobby earlier in the day or something because those awards are not in the mainstream.
BLADE: They only give out about six on the air anymore out of 90-some categories or whatever it is.
TILSON-THOMAS: Yeah, well, I guess in any art there will always be different sides. You have people doing quite specific work which they know from the beginning will appeal to a small number of people. Other people are working in much wider areas but it’s extraordinary at this particular moment, the diversity of work that is taking place. It’s really quite remarkable the very interesting experimentations with styles that a lot of people are doing. A lot of people are writing and thinking new thoughts, way more than you would think based on the gloomy predictions that are often made about the future of all of this. It’s not quite the way it looks from the outside when you see all the young people out there creating new work.
BLADE: Would you say the works of Mahler and Schubert don’t carry quite the cultural gravitas they might have a generation ago perhaps?
TILSON-THOMAS: I saw something in San Francisco the other night and one of the pieces on the program was written in 1199. It was the earliest and the most recent piece was written in 1963. So it’s extraordinary how much has changed in that period of 7- or 800 years. There were certain things about that piece from 1199 that were very reminiscent of works by Steve Reich or John Adams and that are still very influential in contemporary musical thought. A composer like Schubert or Mahler, the reaction to whom at the time was often hostility or incomprehension, over time it has been proven that there was something in that music that people wanted to come back to. Ideas that proved to be so powerful, so moving and so authentic that people wanted to hear them again and again and it’s fascinating because it’s the audience that makes that decision. I can be a big fan of some particular composer and can champion that composer through many times and create situations in which their music will be presented, but ultimately 10 or 15 or 20 years later, it will be the public that decides if that music means enough that they want to hear it again.
BLADE: Has audience etiquette improved or deteriorated to any noticeable degree over the course of your career?
TILSON-THOMAS: It’s very different in different places and even on different evenings. These things are very different from city to city and country to country. Even in San Francisco, there’s a certain sense of what the character of the audience is like. The Wednesday night audience, the Thursday night audience, they’re all slightly different in their reactions and in their focus. We created a new series called SoundBox which is designed for people who’ve never been to classical music concerts before with very experimental repertoire and it uses video projection and other things and is kind of set in a club atmosphere. Drinks are served and you have 20 minutes of music then 20 minutes of lounge-type activity and then the music comes back. Well, in fact these audiences are more quiet and focused than the subscription audience can be. They’re totally focused. When the music starts, they’re totally in it. What for me has been particularly gratifying is that with some of this earlier music we’ve been doing, we did one piece by Monteverdi from 1610, so many young people came up and said how transporting it was and you think, “God, here’s something from 400 years ago that can reach out and have that kind of emotional effect.” That really is one of the greatest treasures of my life.