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“It’s OK if you outrage them a little bit”

In the course of their tour through Europe, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony will perform a concert at Musikfest Berlin. Tilson Thomas explained in an interview with SIEGESSÄULE why his orchestra is among the most thrilling and innovative in the US, and why their recordings sound always so incredibly fresh

Michael Tilson Thomas © Bill Swerbenski

Mr. Tilson Thomas, it seems that you are a fan of long-term relationships. In 2015, your stint as the Music Director for the San Francisco Symphony hit the 20-year mark. And in 2014, after 38 years of being a couple, you married your partner Joshua Robison, who is also your manager and whom you have known since high school. What is your recipe for a happy long-term relationship?
Long-term musical relationships are very important to me. This is my 20th season as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony. I founded and have led the Miami-based New World Symphony for over 26 years and have worked with the London Symphony Orchestra for the past 45 years. In all of these cases, the key to making the relationship successful is working together with the members of the ensemble, as well as the audience, to explore the whole realm of music; this personal approach grows and changes over time. I have been touring with all three orchestras this year. For me, this has been a wonderful celebration. My partner Joshua and I are the best of friends and colleagues. What better format could there be for a long-term relationship?

You and the San Francisco Symphony are famous for broadening the scope of orchestral music, performing many 20th-century works as well as contemporary music. How did you convince your audience to open their ears to new musical experiences?
In my view, the one unpardonable sin is to bore the audience. It’s OK if you shake them up a little bit, outrage them a little bit, do something for them to talk about. I once got a letter from a very sincere patron in San Francisco after I had performed a big new music piece. This patron wrote and basically said, “How could you do this to me?” And I said, “Well, just imagine we were going on an ocean voyage together and we came across a completely uncharted island – and as we looked at the shore with our binoculars, we saw it was teeming with flora and fauna that had never been described in any guidebook or encyclopedia. Wouldn’t that be a wonderful, exciting experience?”

What are your all-time favorites in classical music?
I have always identified with the music of Gustav Mahler. I heard his music for the first time when I was around 10 years old. That’s when I recognized a great deal of my own world. Some of the works that are closest to me have changed me as a person.

On the other hand you knew James Brown personally, and you also like music by Duke Ellington and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys. How do these experiences with pop and jazz influence your approach to classical music?
I think all listeners sometimes crave a less formal setting and the opportunity to experience music of other genres. I happen to love James Brown and have learned many things that I bring into my classical music practice from him.

From several Grammy-winning Mahler recordings to an internationally acclaimed recording of Bernstein’s West Side Story, your recordings with the San Francisco Symphony always sound incredibly fresh, lively and filled with color. What is your secret?
In San Francisco we record everything live. We find that to be a very satisfying experience; we are making music for people, there’s that sense of urgency to communicate with the audience. I have had that experience of going into the studio and rehearsing something and recording it, and you can lose track of why it is you’re doing it. It’s different when you’re playing for a machine than when you’re playing for people.

You are now 70 years old. Unbelievable – you seem to be much younger: What is your secret?
Music, and the opportunity to work with the great orchestras and musicians day in and day out, gives me the most energy and joy.

Interview: Eckhard Weber

Dieses Interview gibt es auf Deutsch hier

Musikfest Berlin: Sep. 4, 20:00, Philharmonie: Arnold Schönberg: Variationen Op. 43b, John Adams: Absolute Jest, Ludwig van Beethoven: Symphony N° 3 in E-flat major (Sinfonia Eroica)

St. Lawrence String Quartet, San Francisco Symphony, Synergy Vocals, Michael Tilson Thomas (Director)

New Release: John Adams: Absolute Jest, Grand Pianola Music, St. Lawrence String Quartet, Orli Shaham (Piano), Marc-André Hamelin (Piano), San Francisco Symphony, Synergy Vocals, Michael Tilson Thomas (Director), John Adams (Director), SFS Media



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