Interview with Michael Tilson Thomas
Boston, 1970 – London, 2013

On 22 October 1969, Michael Tilson Thomas replaced William Steinberg midway through a Boston Symphony Orchestra concert at Philharmonic Hall in New York. Steinberg, the orchestra’s newly appointed music director, fell ill while conducting Brahms’s Second Symphony, and the twenty-four-year-old, newly appointed assistant conductor was asked to step in after the interval to lead a complicated new double concerto by Robert Starer and Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel. ‘A tall, thin young man came on stage with an air of immense confidence and authority, and showed that his confidence was not misplaced,’ Harold C. Schonberg wrote in The New York Times the following day. It was ‘his golden opportunity,’ Schonberg declared. ‘Mr. Thomas knows his business, and we shall be hearing from him again.’ There’s no doubt that the publicity generated by such a high-profile, unscheduled New York debut gave a significant boost to Thomas’s career. Yet, in a brief interview that appeared in the Times a few days later, Allen Hughes noted that Thomas was ‘by no means a wide-eyed unknown getting his first big chance’. Indeed, even in New York, he had already established a reputation as ‘a conductor of complicated avant-garde music’ – or at least that’s how he was described in a review of a Town Hall recital he had given with cellist Laurence Lesser a few months earlier. Even at this relatively tender age, Thomas had worked closely with a diverse array of some of the brightest musical lights of the age, including Stravinsky, Copland, Boulez and Heifetz.

Tilson Thomas’s association with the Boston Symphony began in 1968 at Tanglewood, the orchestra’s summer home, where he was awarded the prestigious Koussevitzky Prize. The following summer, he made his Boston debut as a guest conductor with the Boston Philharmonia, a cooperative ensemble connected with Harvard University. Steinberg attended that performance, and was impressed, appointing Thomas to be his assistant when he took the helm of the BSO that autumn. (The Boston Philharmonia was by all accounts a fine ensemble; Seiji Ozawa, Claudio Abbado and Alexander Schneider also guest conducted that orchestra around that time.) The performance presented here of Ives’s Three Places in New England comes from a concert recorded at Symphony Hall in Boston on 13 January 1970, and was a repeat of a programme that had been presented in Boston the previous October, and then again at Carnegie Hall just a week after Thomas’s surprise debut. Haydn’s Symphony No. 98 in B flat opened the programme. A lengthy profile of Thomas in The Boston Globe from November 1969 noted that ‘he is informed on matters of scholarship as they pertain to problems of performance practice far more than most of his colleagues’ – a comment that likely stems from the fact that he had very recently conducted the symphony from the harpsichord. Ives’s work followed the Haydn; Variations (Aldous Huxley in memoriam), Stravinsky’s final orchestral work, and Debussy’s La Merf made up the second half.

Ives’s music has played a central role throughout Thomas’s career, and features prominently in his large discography. In fact, the conductor’s first major-label orchestral recording – a highly praised and much-prized coupling for Deutsche Grammophon of Three Places in New England and Carl Ruggles’s Sun-treader (1970) – was made soon after these BSO concerts. This live performance is marginally more free-flowing and looser-limbed than the studio recording, but both interpretations favour long-lined lyricism over syncopated raucousness. In his Times review of Thomas’s Carnegie Hall concert, Allen Hughes succinctly sums up the conductor’s approach to Ives’s pieces: ‘To Mr. Thomas they are not curios, nor novelties to be done tongue-in-cheek, but just beautiful music.’ In that same review, Hughes also aptly describes Thomas’s crystal-clear, conducting technique as ‘businesslike’. Hughes continues: ‘His gestures were precise and economical in most cases, he stayed pretty much in one place on the podium, he used a baton and he conducted from scores.’

This live broadcast of Ives’s Three Places vividly conveys Thomas’s early enthusiasm for a composer that he has steadily championed for decades now, while the recordings of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony and ‘Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’ from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung are valuable as they are entirely new to Thomas’s discography and videography. Both come from the same 10 March 1970 concert. Sibelius’s Symphony was preceded by Beethoven’s Egmont Overture; the Wagner followed Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra Op. 16.

Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony has always been a tough sell. William Pierce notes in his pre-performance commentary that it had been thirty years since the BSO’s previous performance (conducted by Koussevitzky). As in the Ives, Thomas’s approach is primarily lyrical. The opening is brooding rather than taut, though the reading catches fire at the agitated climax of the first movement’s central development section. Craig Smith, reviewing the first concert of the series in the Boston Globe, declared Thomas ‘to be in every way equal to the demands of the difficult work’. Smith continued: ‘If the performance was lacking the absolute rhythmic steadiness that can make a diffuse work like this coalesce completely, it had the virtues of extraordinary care in the clarification of the interesting textures that Sibelius devised.’ Following study with Wagner’s granddaughter, Friedelind, Thomas spent the summer of 1966 as assistant conductor at the Bayreuth Festival. Karl Böhm’s controversially fast-paced performance of Tristan und Isolde was recorded by Deutsche Grammophon that year, and Thomas’s expressively streamlined interpretation of ‘Dawn and Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’ has similarly propulsive intensity.

Indeed, Craig Smith in his Globe review praised the orchestra’s ‘brilliant brass playing’ and the interpretation’s ‘rhythmic vitality [that] made “Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” an exciting close to a fine concert’.

Andrew Farach-Colton

Movie director : Humphrey Burton
Collection : ICA Classics

Duration : 32 min
Production date : 2013
Production : © & (p) 2013 Boston Symphony Orchestra & WGBH Educational Foundation under exclusive licence to International Classical Artists Ltd
Available version(s) : EN