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Michael Tilson Thomas Michael performing with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Photo by Kristen Loken

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Michael Tilson Thomas, Still Dancing

The Great American conductor speaks to The American ahead of two London concerts at the Southbank Centre (Saturday 21 March and Sunday 22 March) as he celebrates 25 years with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Published on February 4, 2020

Thank you very much for your time Michael; our traditional first question, where in the States are you from?

I was born and raised in Los Angeles, California.

You will be conducting the San Francisco Symphony in two concerts at the Southbank Centre this March. Part of the program involves a UK premiere of John Adams recent work, I Still Dance. The work is inscribed "for my longtime friends, Joshua and Michael" - how would you describe the piece, and how does it feel to be conducting a work dedicated to you?

I’m very honored that John dedicated it to me and my husband Joshua Robison. John told me the youthful energy that be believes Joshua and I have is the inspiration for the piece. But, as you can see in this super virtuoso piece, John Adams is the leader of the pack when it comes to youthful energy. It’s a piece of great wit and charm, but also reflection. I always enjoy conducting John’s music, ever since we worked together as young colleagues in Boston in the 1970s. I look forward to sharing John’s latest creation with London audiences.

What other music will be on the program?

The first of our two concerts in London is Mahler’s Sixth Symphony.

Mahler’s music has been a central part of my relationship with the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). Performing and recording all of Mahler’s works with the SFS over the past decade is right at the center of the kind of trust we have discovered in one another. This music requires a very special community of performers. Our journey with Mahler’s music has enabled me not only to deepen my relationship with the Orchestra but also to probe even more deeply my own feelings about each symphony and the way the symphonies all connect together to form one immense work. Our second program features I Still Dance, pianist Daniil Trifonov in Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 4 and Stravinsky’s Firebird. Growing up in Los Angeles gave me the opportunity to hear, meet and work with Stravinsky on many occasions. Since my earliest childhood he has been one of my favorite composers.

Michael Tilson Thomas Michael Tilson Thomas. Photo by Spencer Lowell

The UK seems to have featured in your career quite a bit, what does London and Great Britain mean to you?

I was 25 when I first conducted the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), stepping in at the last minute for a concert which included Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements. I had conducted the work several times before and my experience had always been that time was needed at the beginning for the players to get the feeling of the work. But with the LSO it was different: pulse, tempo, brilliance of execution, it was all there at the start, even though many of the players had never seen the music before. Over the past 50 years I’ve observed that the LSO spirit doesn’t just remain, it gets stronger. It drives their musical risk taking. Every player in the orchestra shares in its ideals, its goals and in that same unique musical spirit.

American music has been a big part of your career - what makes American music distinct?

Being an American musician means being adventurous. The whole path of American music has been so much about the recognition of stylistic diversity and the recognition of the importance of music which was from one of the vernacular traditions. The challenge of performing certain American repertoire is that you have to throw yourself into it. You have to have quite a courageous spirit to do that. That’s an ability that the San Francisco Symphony definitely has.

As conductor, what is your goal with the music you're conducting?

It’s very important to me what happens when the piece ends - what the audience will take home with them from the performance, what will stick with them. Will it be a melody or a harmony or a rhythm or just a sense of mood or the intensity of a particular artist, or somehow the warmth and inclusiveness that they feel from the music? All of these things are qualities which add to our experience. Composers are giving us other worlds and other perspectives that we can explore through their musical vision. It is our job to convey this to the listeners.

Whilst in Europe, if you have much free time, what do you like to do in cities like London?

Touring doesn’t usually present a lot of free time, but when in London, I very much enjoy spending time with the many friends and colleagues with whom I’ve worked since I began working with the LSO. It’s an amazingly vibrant city and I enjoy every one of my visits there.

2020 marks your 25th and final year as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony - does each performance have an extra dimension to it because of this?

From my very first encounter with the San Francisco Symphony in 1974, I was aware of the daring spirit of this orchestra and this city. That spirit has been very much at the center of our long and meaningful relationship. It takes a very special environment of people who have worked together and deeply trust one another to make music magical, and that is what has happened these last 25 years. This season is very much about celebrating the relationships we have built together. Many of the performances this year cover major signposts of my work together with the orchestra. These are pieces that we have developed together over the years, and that we’re quite happy to come back to. Our performances in London are no different, in which we perform Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 and Stravinsky’s Firebird.

What is next on the horizon for you?

Almost my entire adult life I’ve been the music director of one Orchestra or another. I have volumes and volumes of almost-completed compositions and stories and poems and collections and all sorts of things. For years I’ve been thinking that if I’m going to be able to devote time to making sure that these things are in good shape, now would be a good time. And, of course, I will be continuing my long time relationship with the SFS, the LSO and with the New World Symphony. I hope I can find the time to do everything that is already on my calendar!

Finally, what is the best thing about being Michael Tilson Thomas?

I am blessed with a life in music. I’m fortunate that so many friends and family have supported me and shared in a common vision. With all the difficulties in our world today, it means so much to me that I can share my life with the generous people who make music and that we can bring beauty and joy to so many people.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony at the Southbank Centre in two concerts on Saturday 21 and Sunday 22 March.

Saturday 21 March - Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony: Mahler 6 - Buy Tickets

Sunday 22 March - Trifonov and the San Francisco Symphony: Rachmaninov - Buy Tickets

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