Michael Tilson Thomas, a Disruptor Who’s Become the Comfortable Center

Michael Tilson Thomas. Photo: Spencer Lowell

It’s 1 p.m. and I’m in the mood for a good meal, so I’m looking forward to lunch with the conductor Michael Tilson Thomas at his club, a 140-year-old holdover from Knickerbocker New York that would prefer not to be named. I find my way to the dining room, a deluxe basement with soft lighting and red walls adorned with portraits of and by past members. And there he is … finishing up lunch with a party of four, including his husband Joshua Robison. I set my stomach on survival mode and slink back up to the parlor, and tuck myself into one of the lavishly upholstered armchairs next to a fireplace the size of a minivan.

He arrives a few minutes later, a little more muted than I have seen him before, though it’s hard to know whether that’s owed to lunch or the aftereffects of having conducted the Vienna Philharmonic in Mahler’s 90-minute Symphony No. 9 at Carnegie Hall the previous night. In any case, he seems content. “Being able to stay here has changed my perspective on the city,” he says. “It’s quiet, it’s small, it’s genteel — a throwback to another kind of experience one does not necessarily associate with New York today.”

Tilson Thomas is 74, a good age to be in a profession where someone under 50 can still considered be “emerging” and nonagenarians maintain grueling schedules. Still boyish, lean, and hyperactively busy, he will nevertheless step down as music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra at the end of the 2019–2020 season, a job he’s held for 25 years. MTT, as he is widely known, has music to compose, vlogs to produce, and young musicians to mentor. (Three decades ago, he founded the New World Symphony, a Miami-based training orchestra, and he brings the group to Carnegie Hall on May 1 and 2.) But he’s also in a retrospective mood, and within minutes, he’s followed a train of thought back to Los Angeles in the 1950s. Born into a Yiddish-theater dynasty and raised in Hollywood, he attached himself to some of the legendary émigrés who settled in Southern California after World War II, including Igor Stravinsky and Arnold Schoenberg. “I’m one of the last remaining people who has a personal connection to that world — the remembered urgency of the actual people, and how completely they lived their view of music.”

Then, suddenly, we’re in the 1960s and early ’70s, when Tilson Thomas, equipped with phenomenal talent, a reputation for arrogance, and a well-honed fashion sense, sauntered into the heart of the classical music Establishment and started to rattle its bars. In 1970, when the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s music director William Steinberg fell ill for part of the season, the 25-year-old assistant conductor took over. He was ready for fame and eager to pry the symphony orchestra away from its fixation on 19th-century European masterpieces and unseat Leonard Bernstein as American classical music’s hippest star. “My all-time favorite hero is James Brown,” he casually told the Times that year.

Rather than competing with his peers for who could conduct the sleekest Mozart or the most heaven-storming Beethoven, Tilson Thomas championed living (though usually older) composers: Luciano Berio, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Lou Harrison, John Cage, and Steve Reich. “When I was really young it was quite confusing to some of my older colleagues, the things that I was up to,” he recalls. He sometimes flummoxed audiences, too. In 1973, he talked Reich into letting him give the Boston and New York premieres of the mercilessly repetitive Four Organs, and the concert caused a celebrated commotion at Carnegie Hall. One woman marched down the aisle, banged on the stage, and yelled, “Stop, stop, I confess!”

Those years, when a precocious hotshot with the look of an overgrown Bar Mitzvah boy was evolving into a glamorous maestro for the rock-and-roll era — when People magazine assured its readers that he had matured beyond his drug arrest and frequent visits to Studio 54 — keep coming up in our conversation, and not just when I ask him about them. We’re talking about the versatility of today’s orchestra musicians, for instance, when he remarks that today, “players in the major orchestras really understand [James Brown]. If I ask a brass section to play a chord like in the climax of ‘Cold Sweat,’ they know exactly what I’m talking about.” Tilson Thomas first heard that song on a car radio sometime in 1969, and the impact was so powerful that he pulled over to listen. Five decades later, he interviewed Brown for a radio show, months before Mr. Dynamite died, and described the effect that first encounter had on his life in music. “Being a conductor means you’re trying to get a lot of people to agree where now is,” Tilson Thomas lectured his idol. “The way that Ba-ba, anh! comes in [at 1:11 of ‘Cold Sweat’], that is my definition of together.

“You’re the man for me!” Brown answered.

The excitement has barely faded. Tilson Thomas mentions his 2016 work Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind, on a text by Carl Sandburg, which the New World Symphony will perform at Carnegie Hall. “That has some very obvious references to [Brown’s] kind of abstracted funk language.”

Like most successful revolutionaries, Tilson Thomas has seen his radicalism become institutionalized, his tastes quasi conventional. The Finnish-born conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen nudged the Los Angeles Philharmonic in an MTT-esque direction during his 17-year tenure there, and he will succeed Tilson Thomas in San Francisco. The world has caught up to him, both within and beyond music. In 1970, the Times coyly mentioned that “He is still unmarried; music, he says, takes all his time.” In 2014, he finally married Robison, his partner of 38 years.

Meanwhile, MTT has immersed himself ever deeper in old passions — in works like Mahler’s Ninth, which traverses an immense emotional landscape and ends in a long, dark hush. When I heard him conduct the piece at Carnegie Hall the night before we met, it struck me that, as a Jewish composer-conductor, itinerant intellectual, and city kid with a fondness for open horizons, Tilson Thomas may identify strongly with Mahler. They even look a bit alike: a high forehead, long face, and reticent smile, aquiline nose topped with wire-framed glasses, hair swept back to fall over the ears and neck, even a characteristic forward tilt of the head. Certainly the symphony’s colossal drama and big spaces, bristling with detail, bring out the best in Tilson Thomas.

“That piece is part of my consciousness — the way it unfolds from the first moment of the piece to its ending. I’ve learned a lot [from that score] about savoring life, about making sense of the inevitable frustrations and torments and giddy surprises. That’s why Mahler wrote these pieces. He was trying to tell us: Whatever happens, don’t give up. Don’t give up on wonder.

He grows more animated as he talks of Mahler, shaking off fatigue, dragging his voice out of hangover range, describing in detail how he communicates the precise length of a Vorschlag, a quick burst of notes that lands on the beat like a spray of gravel when a wheel brakes. “The more people are playing a piece, the harder it is to be personal, because the many different activities of different people can produce an average. Finding a way to make it specifically personal — that that’s the real art of making orchestral music.”

The Vienna Philharmonic players have Mahler’s sound in their bones, and it’s charged with everything they know about Freud, Alpine landscapes, village feasts, and Central Europe’s pessimistic wit. On the other hand, when Tilson Thomas conducts the young Americans who comprise the New World Symphony, he has to lead them by the hand into a culture that feels ancient, foreign, and immeasurably complex. “The cultural surround of the piece, the era it comes from, the Zeitgeist, the kind of place within the human spirit from which the pieces speak — those are all things I have to share with them, and I have to get them to discover those places within themselves.”

Somewhere along the way, then, this onetime disruptor became an apostle of the mainstream. “I’m definitely a partisan for very old-fashioned musical values,” he admits. “A lot of people go to college, but very few have ever taken what used to be called ‘Man & Civilization,’ which is a tremendous shame because it’s so thrilling to understand the basic outline of this big cultural swath. And now we should know much more about the Asian and African cultural swaths. That’s so essential to my experience of music.”

He must be gratified, I suggest, that today’s composers (and audiences) have such easy access to “cultural swaths.” Instead of trooping off to study sitar with Ravi Shankar or waiting for the next World’s Fair to roll around, they can just pop down YouTube rabbit holes and follow their sudden interests in Inuit hunting songs or didgeridoos. Tilson Thomas looks skeptical. “Does the accessibility of all that information prevent it from actually sticking?” he wonders — “from leaving a more telling trace inside of wherever it is that the consciousness may truly dwell?”

After the Mahler high has crested, Tilson Thomas drops back into the club’s padded armchair and waxes ever more wistful. “We live in a time in which by and large production values have superseded content,” he declares. I ask him if he has developed any new enthusiasms to supplement his undimmed admiration for James Brown. He thinks about that for a minute, then shrugs. “I don’t have so many,” he says, but insists there’s a specific reason for that: the life of a conductor can get quite hermetic; a full schedule of concerts and rehearsals doesn’t leave much time for listening to music you don’t already know. And as a composer, he needs to reach inward and find the music that’s been rattling around his head for years. “I’m kind of shielding myself from other experiences,” he says.

Few of us find it easy to change points of reference as we age, or to stay thirsty for the new. That challenge is multiplied for a cultural leader who came of age trying to force a backward-looking business to embrace the future, or at least the radical present. “In Song of Myself, Whitman describes himself as being ‘both in and out of the game, and watching and wondering at it,’ ” Tilson Thomas muses.

Now he’s observing himself with the same curiosity, wondering how strong the pull of a more contemplative life really is, and how often he’ll choose to step back onto the podium and into the limelight. “I have a checklist of things I want to get done before I’m outta here,” he says. “What I don’t know is: Just how much applause do I actually need to hear?”

Michael Tilson Thomas, a Disruptor Turned Musical Centrist