San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas to speak in Tulsa
BY JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer
Sunday, November 25, 2012
11/25/12 at 4:42 AM
Growing up in Los Angeles, Michael Tilson Thomas often heard tales of a seemingly magical place located in the country's heartland.
"I've been hearing about Tulsa all my life," Thomas said, during a phone conversation last month, as he was preparing to lead the San Francisco Symphony on a six-city, 10-concert tour of Asia.
"My grandparents and parents were theater people, and one of my father's good friends was Theodore Viehman," Thomas said. "He was the director of the Tulsa Little Theatre for many years, and had helped make it nationally known. He and his wife would come to stay with us, and he would tell us all about what was happening in Tulsa."
For Thomas, those stories about Tulsa resonated with him in a way that continues to influence his own work as a conductor, musician and educator.
"I could imagine how inspiring the things Mr. Viehman talked about were to the city and community of Tulsa," he said. "In some of my own projects, I have tried to build that same sort of community identity through the arts, and those stories about Tulsa were definitely an influence."
Thomas will be making his first visit to Tulsa on Tuesday, as the first guest for the University of Tulsa's Presidential Lecture Series. It is a rare appearance for Thomas, in that he will be speaking, rather than performing.
Thomas has been music director of the San Francisco Symphony for the past 15 years; during his tenure, the orchestra has won numerous awards and acclaim for its recordings of the complete orchestral works of Gustav Mahler, for the innovative "Keeping Score" program that presents music education over a variety of formats including television and the Internet, and for its summer music festivals, such as the recent "American Mavericks" program that led to the orchestra's most recent recording.
Thomas is also founder and artistic director of the New World Symphony and principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble for which he served as principal conductor for seven years.
As for the subject of his Tulsa lecture, Thomas said, "I recently did one of those TED talks, that took more of a technological look at music, but it got me thinking about other perspectives I could look at - such as the rationale for why music exists and what is so special about classical music in particular."
Thomas has no qualms about technology - the "Keeping Score" program includes a TV show, Web-based content, radio programs and in-school performances in the San Francisco area.
"Technology will always enhance the concert experience, not replace it," he said. "There are musical works from earlier periods in musical history that you can almost sense that the composers wrote them with a view of one day integrating image and light with the music.
"Even the presentation of music online is an enhancement," Thomas said. "Audiences wants to know more of what is beneath the surface of the music - its backstory, so to speak. And having that available is more direct than to have them read the program notes at the concert. It helps an audience become more involved with the music and the artists playing it."
While Thomas' career in music began when he started taking piano lessons as a youngster, he acknowledged that his family's theatrical heritage - his grandparents were founders and stars of the Yiddish Theatre in New York City; both his parents worked for movie studios in Los Angeles - has had an influence of his own work.
"In the theater," Thomas said, "the highest goal is for the performers to become the part they are playing. They rehearse and study to get past the words to get to the essence of their characters.
"That's my own goal in the music-making process," he said. "Music is so technical in many ways - a great many, very specific activities that all must occur at the same exact moment in time. So the challenge is to present it in such a way that, no matter how intricately organized it is, the music sounds as if it were being generated spontaneously."
Thomas said he often conducts his rehearsal more like "a director working with actors. I try to help the players understand clearly what's in my mind, what role they are to play, so that we can achieve the most expressiveness of sound, the most brilliant articulation.
"And I'm frequently not on the stage during rehearsals," he said, "because I will go out into the hall to get that perspective of the audience."
It's all part of Thomas' firm belief that the concert experience is primary. While the San Francisco Symphony regularly releases recordings - on its own SFS label as well as other major imprints - Thomas is certain recordings will never take the place of hearing great music performed live.
It is one reason why the San Francisco Symphony regularly tours abroad, he said.
"Touring is beneficial for the orchestra in two ways," he said. "We recently performed music by Mahler in Vienna, which is the city of Mahler. Those concerts were very well received, and it served as a confirmation that the way we had developed this repertoire, which was new and different.
"But likewise, it's thrilling to present music that no one in the audience has ever heard before, or to people who haven't had the opportunity to hear a great orchestra," Thomas said. "When you play for new audiences, every performance has that commitment, that this will be the finest concert we can present, that we are going to do everything in our collective power to give the most transforming performance we can."
MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS
part of the University of Tulsa
Presidential Lecture Series
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Where: Lorton Performance
Center, University of Tulsa, 550
S. Gary Place.
Tickets: Admission is free.
Original Print Headline: Michael Tilson Thomas to speak in Tulsa
James D. Watts Jr. 918-581-8478
Michael Tilson Thomas will speak as part of the University of Tulsa Presidential Lecture Series on Tuesday at the Lorton Performance Center at the University of Tulsa. Courtesy