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Michael Tilson Thomas Q&A

The out conductor on his long career in classical music

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Michael Tilson Thomas, gay news, Washington Blade
Tilson Thomas, gay news, Washington Blade

Michael Tilson Thomas says the public ultimately decides what works are retained in the classical canon.

Washington Performing Arts presents the San Francisco Symphony

 

Kennedy Center Concert Hall

 

Saturday, April 16

 

4 p.m.

 

$55

 

washingtonperformingarts.org

 

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.

Michael Tilson Thomas, gay news, Washington Blade

Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, says managing an orchestra like a business is a mistake. (Photo by Bill Swerbenski; courtesy San Francisco Symphony)

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.

Michael Tilson Thomas, gay news, Washington Blade

Michael Tilson Thomas (Photo by Spencer Lowell; courtesy San Francisco Symphony)

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Rodriquez scores historic win at otherwise irrelevant Golden Globes

Award represents a major milestone for trans visibility

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Michaela Jaé Rodriguez, on right, and Billy Porter in 'Pose.' (Photo courtesy of FX)

HOLLYWOOD – Despite its continuing status as something of a pariah organization in Hollywood, the Hollywood Foreign Press Association has managed to cling to relevance in the wake of last night’s behind-closed-doors presentation of its 79th Annual Golden Globe Awards by sole virtue of having bestowed the prize for “Best Leading Actress in a Television Series – Drama” on Michaela Jaé Rodriguez for her work in the final season of “Pose” – making her the first transgender performer to win a Golden Globe.

The ceremony took place as a private, no-press-or-audience event in which winners were revealed via a series of tweets from the Golden Globes Twitter account. No celebrities were present (not even the nominees or winners), although actress Jamie Lee Curtis participated by appearing in a video in which she pronounced her continuing loyalty to the HFPA – without mention of the  longstanding issues around diversity and ethical practices, revealed early in 2021 by a bombshell Los Angeles Times report, that have led to an nearly industry-wide boycott of the organization and its awards as well as the cancellation of the annual Golden Globes broadcast by NBC for the foreseeable future.

While the Golden Globes may have lost their luster for the time being, the award for Rodriquez represents a major milestone for trans visibility and inclusion in the traditionally transphobic entertainment industry, and for her part, the actress responded to news of her win with characteristic grace and good will.

Posting on her Instagram account, the 31-year old actress said: 

“OMG OMGGG!!!! @goldenglobes Wow! You talking about sickening birthday present! Thank you!

“This is the door that is going to Open the door for many more young talented individuals. They will see that it is more than possible. They will see that a young Black Latina girl from Newark New Jersey who had a dream, to change the minds others would WITH LOVE. LOVE WINS.

“To my young LGBTQAI babies WE ARE HERE the door is now open now reach the stars!!!!!”

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As You Are Bar and the importance of queer gathering spaces

New bar/restaurant poised to open in 2022

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As You Are Bar had a pop-up venue at Capital Pride's "Colorful Fest" block party in October. (Washington Blade photo by Michael Key)

More than just a watering hole: As You Are Bar is set to be the city’s newest queer gathering place where patrons can spill tea over late-morning cappuccinos as easily as they can over late-night vodka-sodas.

Co-owners and founders Jo McDaniel and Rachel Pike built on their extensive experience in the hospitality industry – including stints at several gay bars – to sign a lease for their new concept in Barracks Row, replacing what was previously District Soul Food and Banana Café. In a prime corner spot, they are seeking to bring together the disparate colors of the LGBTQ rainbow – but first must navigate the approval process (more on that later).

The duo decided on this Southeast neighborhood locale to increase accessibility for “the marginalized parts of our community,” they say, “bringing out the intersectionality inherent in the queer space.”

Northwest D.C., they explain, not only already has many gay bar options, but is also more difficult to get to for those who don’t live within walking distance. The Barracks Row location is right by a Metro stop, “reducing pay walls.” Plus, there, “we are able to find a neighborhood to bring in a queer presence that doesn’t exist today.”

McDaniel points out that the area has a deep queer bar history. Western bar Remington’s was once located in the area, and it’s a mere block from the former Phase 1, the longest-running lesbian bar, which was open from 1971-2015.

McDaniel and Pike hope that As You Are Bar will be an inclusive space that “welcomes anyone of any walk of life that will support, love, and celebrate the mission of queer culture. We want people of all ages, gender, sexual identity, as well as drinkers and non-drinkers, to have space.”

McDaniel (she/her) began her career at Apex in 2005 and was most recently the opening manager of ALOHO. Pike (she/they) was behind the bar and worked as security at ALOHO, where the two met.

Since leaving ALOHO earlier this year, they have pursued the As You Are Bar project, first by hosting virtual events during the pandemic, and now in this brick-and-mortar space. They expressed concern that receiving the Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration (ABRA) liquor license approval and the local Advisory Neighborhood Commission, or ANC, approval will be a long and expensive process.

They have already received notice that some neighbors intend to protest As You Are Bar’s application for the “tavern” liquor license that ABRA grants to serve alcohol and allow for live entertainment (e.g. drag shows). They applied for the license on Nov. 12, and have no anticipated opening date, estimating at least six months. If ABRA and the city’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Board give final approval, the local ANC 6B and nearby residents can no longer protest the license until the license comes up for renewal.

Until approval is given, they continue physical buildout (including soundproofing) and planning their offerings. If the license is approved, ABRA and the ABC Board can take action against As You Are Bar, like any bar, at any time if they violate the terms of the license or create a neighborhood disturbance that violates city laws such as the local noise ordinance.  In the kitchen, the duo snagged Chef Nina Love to develop the menu. Love will oversee café-style fare; look out for breakfast sandwiches making an appearance all the way until close. They will also have baked goods during the day.

McDaniel and Pike themselves will craft the bar menu. Importantly, they note, the coffee bar will also serve until close. There will be a full bar as well as a list of zero-proof cocktails. As with their sourcing, they hope to work with queer-, minority-, and women-owned businesses for everything not made in-house.

Flexible conceptually, they seek to grow with their customer base, allowing patrons to create the culture that they seek.

Their goal is to move the queer space away from a focus on alcohol consumption. From book clubs, to letter-writing, to shared workspaces, to dance parties, they seek an all-day, morning-to-night rhythm of youth, families, and adults to find a niche. “We want to shift the narrative of a furtive, secretive, dark gay space and hold it up to the light,” they say. “It’s a little like The Planet from the original L Word show,” they joke.

Pike notes that they plan on working closely with SMYAL, for example, to promote programming for youth. Weekend potential activities include lunch-and-learn sessions on Saturdays and festive Sunday brunches.

The café space, to be located on the first floor, will have coffeehouse-style sofas as well as workstations. A slim patio on 8th Street will hold about six tables.

Even as other queer bars have closed, they reinforce that the need is still present. “Yes, we can visit a café or bar, but we always need to have a place where we are 100 percent certain that we are safe, and that our security is paramount. Even as queer acceptance continues to grow, a dedicated queer space will always be necessary,” they say.

To get there, they continue to rally support of friends, neighbors, and leaders in ANC6B district; the ANC6B officials butted heads with District Soul Food, the previous restaurant in the space, over late-night noise and other complaints. McDaniel and Pike hope that once nearby residents and businesses understand the important contribution that As You Are Bar can make to the neighborhood, they will extend their support and allow the bar to open.

AYA, gay news, Washington Blade
Rachel Pike and Jo McDaniel signed a lease for their new concept in Barracks Row. (Photo courtesy Pike and McDaniel)
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Need a list-minute gift idea?

Books, non-profit donations make thoughtful choices

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‘Yes, Daddy’ by Jonathan Parks-Ramage is the story of a young man with dying dreams of fame and fortune, who schemes to meet an older man.

You knew this was coming.

You knew that you were going to have to finish your holiday shopping soon but it snuck up on you, didn’t it? And even if you’re close to being done, there are always those three or five people who are impossible to buy for, right? Remember this, though: books are easy to wrap and easy to give, and they last a while, too. So why not head to the bookstore with your Christmas List and look for these gifts.

And if you still have people to shop for, why not make a donation to a local non-profit in their name? A list of D.C.-area suggestions follows.

BOOKS: NONFICTION

If there’s about to be a new addition to your family, wrapping up “Queer Stepfamilies: The path to Social and Legal Recognition” by Katie L. Acosta would be a good thing. In this book, the author followed forty LGBTQ families to understand the joys, pitfalls, and legalities of forming a new union together. It can’t replace a lawyer, but it’s a good overview.

For the parent who wants to ensure that their child grows up with a lack of bias, “Raising LGBTQ Allies” by Chris Tompkins is a great book to give. It’s filled with methods to stop bullying in its tracks, to be proactive in having That Conversation, and how to be sure that the next generation you’re responsible for becomes responsible in turn. Wrap it up with “The Healing Otherness Handbook” by Stacee L. Reicherzer, Ph.D., a book that helps readers to deal with bullying by finding confidence and empowerment.

If there’s someone on your gift list who’s determined to get “fit” in the coming year, then give “The Secret to Superhuman Strength” by Alison Bechdel this holiday. Told in graphic-novel format (comics, basically), it’s the story of searching for self-improvement and finding it in a surprising place.

So why not give a little nostalgia this year by wrapping up “A Night at the Sweet Gum Head” by Martin Padgett? It’s the tale of disco, drag, and drugs in the 1970s (of course!) in Atlanta, with appearances by activists, politics, and people who were there at that fabulous time. Wrap it up with “After Francesco” by Brian Malloy, a novel set a little later – in the mid-1980s in New York City and Minneapolis at the beginning of the AIDS crisis.

The LGBTQ activist on your gift list will want to read “The Case for Gay Reparations” by Omar G. Encarnacion. It’s a book about acknowledgment, obligation on the part of cis citizens, and fixing the pain that homophobia and violence has caused. Wrap it up with “Trans Medicine: The Emergence and Practice of Treating Gender” by Stef M. Shuster, a look at trans history that may also make your giftee growl.

FICTION

Young readers who have recently transitioned will enjoy reading “Both Sides Now” by Peyton Thomas. It’s a novel about a high school boy with gigantic dreams and the means to accomplish them all. Can he overcome the barriers that life gives him? It’s debatable… Pair it with “Can’t Take That Away” by Steven Salvatore, a book about two nonbinary students and the troubles they face as they fall in love.

The thriller fan on your list will be overjoyed to unwrap “Yes, Daddy” by Jonathan Parks-Ramage. It’s the story of a young man with dying dreams of fame and fortune, who schemes to meet an older, more accomplished man with the hopes of sparking his failing career. But the older man isn’t who the younger thinks he is, and that’s not good. Wrap it up with “Lies with Man” by Michael Nava, a book about a lawyer who agrees to be counsel for a group of activists. Good so far, right? Until one of them is accused of being involved in a deadly bombing.

For the fan of Southern fiction, you can’t go wrong when you wrap up “The Tender Grave” by Sheri Reynolds. It’s the tale of two sisters, one homophobic, the other lesbian, and how they learn to forgive and re-connect.

NON-PROFIT GIVING

Like nonprofit organizations throughout the country, D.C.-area LGBTQ supportive nonprofit groups have told the Blade they continue to rebuild amid the coronavirus pandemic, which disrupted their fundraising efforts while increasing expenses, at least in part by prompting more people to come to them for help.

This holiday season, if you’re looking for a thoughtful gift, consider making a donation to one of our local LGBTQ non-profit organizations in someone else’s name. This list is by no means exhaustive, but a good place to start your research.

Contributions to the LGBTQ supportive nonprofit organizations can be made via the websites of these local organizations:

• Blade Foundation, which funds local scholarships and fellowships for queer student journalists, bladefoundation.org

• DC Center, our local community center that operates a wide range of programming,  thedccenter.org/donate

Food & Friends, which delivers meals to homebound patients, foodandfriends.org

HIPS, which advances the health rights and dignity of those impacted by sex work and drugs, hips.org

• SMYAL, which advocates for queer youth, smyal.org

Wanda Alston Foundation, which offers shelter and support for LGBTQ youth, wandaalstonfoundation.org

• Whitman-Walker Health, the city’s longtime LGBTQ-inclusive health care provider, whitmanwalkerimpact.org

Casa Ruby, which provides shelter and services to youth in need, casaruby.org

• Us Helping Us, which helps improve the health of communities of color and works to reduce the impact of HIV/AIDS on the Black community, ushelpingus.org/donate

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