MTT, Back In LA, Offers Riposte To ‘Exceptionalism’

Michael Tilson Thomas, shown with the San Francisco Symphony, returns to his hometown to lead the LA Philharmonic.
By Richard S. Ginell

LOS ANGELES – As Michael Tilson Thomas’ 25 years at the head of the San Francisco Symphony wind down to a close in 2020, he is stepping up his activities in a familiar place — his original hometown, Los Angeles.

Tilson Thomas (Photo by Vahan Stepanyan)

He grew up in the sun-bleached suburb of North Hollywood in the San Fernando Valley, which still had acres and acres of orange trees before uncontrolled development set in. He first attracted attention as a wunderkind at USC, Monday Evening Concerts, and the Ojai Festival; friends knew him as Michael Thomas or just Mike Thomas. Later on, after he established himself on the world concert scene, he became a principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, sharing the title with Simon Rattle from 1981 to 1985. Along the way, he spearheaded some memorable events like the Festival Of Music Made In Los Angeles at UCLA, and a wide-ranging Stravinsky Festival in the Hollywood Bowl. Many music lovers of an adventurous bent hoped that he would become the LA Phil music director someday.

But then came a long estrangement in which MTT – as he became known while in San Francisco — hardly ever set foot on a Los Angeles stage until December 2003, two months after Walt Disney Concert Hall opened. He has been a welcomed recurring guest here ever since. And now, as part of the LA Phil’s plan to invite its former music directors and guest conductors back during its centennial season, MTT spent two weeks with his former orchestra, starting on Nov. 30 in Walt Disney Concert Hall.

Meanwhile up north, a surprise announcement came Dec. 5: Tilson Thomas’ successor at the San Francisco Symphony will be none other than former LA Phil music director Esa-Pekka Salonen. This continues an astonishing sequence of synergistic career parallels of the two. Salonen’s career was launched into orbit when he subbed at the last minute for Tilson Thomas in London in 1983. The piece was Mahler’s Symphony No. 3, an MTT specialty. Both conductors built their California orchestras into world-class powerhouses over the same period of time, the 1990s and 2000s, maintaining a friendly rivalry unlike those of the warring sports teams in Los Angeles and San Francisco. Both are composer/conductors who gave up, or are giving up, long-running music director gigs in order to spend more time composing. Or at least that was the plan; now that Salonen has been lured back into the arena full-time, one wonders if his priorities have changed.

Tilson Thomas faces a different LA Phil now; only twelve members – mostly string players – remain in the ensemble from fall 1981 when he officially came in. Also different is that MTT, who turns 74 on Dec. 21, is no longer reticent about presenting his own music, rounded up from sketchbooks that he has compiled over the last 60 years and then shaped for performance. His Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind, played at the concert, is the wildest, most impressive piece of his that has escaped from his desk yet.

First heard at the New World Center in Miami Beach in 2016 and then in San Francisco the following year, Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind is supposed to be a setting of Carl Sandburg’s doomsday poem of the same name. The key lines, repeated like a refrain throughout the poem – “We are the greatest city, the greatest nation: nothing like us ever was” – soon become an ironic riposte to self-satisfied super-patriots who boast about “American exceptionalism” as the civilization crumbles from within.

The young Tilson Thomas (Photo by Hans Boedijn)

In Tilson Thomas’ hands, the poem becomes a flamboyant musical circus, a party on the day before the end, where a mysterious classical opening is blown up by the ringing of a cash register that ushers in a nine-piece bar band playing funky soul music. The score goes back and forth between vaguely tonal symphonic music and the American vernacular, sometimes intertwining them, at one point going all the way into an extended, pretty convincing James Brown groove (MTT was a fan of JB). A flexitone sent a sudden shudder of weirdness through the texture; mezzo-soprano Measha Brueggergosman reached down deep into her range to summon up the smoky timbre of Sarah Vaughan (reminding me of a Gershwin concert that MTT and Sassy did with the LA Phil in the 1980s).

As does LA Off-Grand’s production of Ellen Reid’s p r i s m, which was running downstairs in REDCAT simultaneously, Four Preludes wears its freewheeling musical eclecticism easily, as do so many pieces nowadays by young composers who don’t want to know about barriers between categories. But Tilson Thomas was doing his polystyled thing decades ago; he claims that he improvised what is “essentially” this piece back in 1976 at a Venice Beach party, though it wasn’t completed until 2016. I suppose Four Preludes also owes something to Leonard Bernstein’s Mass from 1971, but MTT takes the concept of mashing up the idioms further and feels them more authentically. It’s a wonderful work, and I hope it gets recorded.

For a companion piece (as in a performance of Four Preludes in Philadelphia in March of this year), MTT chose Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 (Pathétique), another work that could be interpreted as a farewell to civilization. Like his mentor Bernstein, Tilson Thomas has been increasingly preoccupied with Tchaikovsky since hitting his grand-old-maestro years, finally setting down his thoughts on the standard symphonies. An MTT Pathetique recording was recently issued by SFS Media as a download, but the LA Phil performance was almost of another species — faster, more explosive, not as neatly played but considerably more emotional. While Tilson Thomas’ movements on the podium are now comparatively restrained in San Francisco, with the LA Phil he reverted to his more physical, animated manner that I remember from his years in Los Angeles. It might have made the difference.

On Dec. 7-9, Tilson Thomas returns to the LA Phil podium with a specialty of his, the Holidays Symphony of Charles Ives. MTT has long been one of the most fervent champions of Ives, making first recordings of new critical editions of the cantankerous composer’s music as well as devoting one of his Keeping Score video programs in San Francisco to Ives – and the Holidays Symphony in particular. Tchaikovsky again rounds out the program with Romeo and Juliet and the Variations on a Rococo Theme with cellist Gautier Capuçon.

Next in the December stroll down the LA Phil’s memory lane is former music director Zubin Mehta, who on Dec. 13 starts a cycle of Brahms’ four symphonies and four concertos that stretches into the New Year (Jan. 6, 2019).

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.