Anne Midgette interviews conductor Michael Tilson Thomas

By Anne Midgette
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 21, 2010

Michael Tilson Thomas is a conductor -- he heads two orchestras (the San Francisco Symphony and the New World Symphony), has won 10 Grammys and led the YouTube Symphony at Carnegie Hall -- but he comes from a family of actors. His grandparents were major stars of the Yiddish theater a century ago, creating Yiddish versions of everything from "Hamlet" to Wagner's "Parsifal." And he is keenly aware that acting is in his blood.

"As a conductor," he says, sitting over breakfast at the Hay-Adams Hotel, "I'm not interested in telling people, 'Play the first three notes loud, the next three of them slower, the next two of them shorter . . . ' No director would say to an actor, 'Say the first three words slow, and then wait a beat, and then say the next five more trippingly on the tongue.' You wouldn't, because the actor has to become the person. The actor must be the role."

Tilson Thomas, or MTT, as he is widely known, has become the role himself. A notably boyish 65, his lean, handsome face framed with gently grayed hair, he's grown into his trademark air of aggressive precociousness; at his age, he's allowed to be the person in the room who knows the most about everything and to visibly expand when the focus of the conversation is himself. On the day of his Washington visit last month, he's scheduled to accept the National Medal of Arts from President Obama -- one of the country's highest artistic honors. (He'll be back in town Wednesday with the San Francisco Symphony when it performs at the Kennedy Center, courtesy of the Washington Performing Arts Society.)

Tilson Thomas is sitting in the hotel's elegant dining room in a refined haze of yellow light filtering through the floor-to-ceiling drapes and the smell of coffee. Not far away is his life partner, Joshua Robison, discreetly sitting in the wings, his silence belying the active role he plays as the conductor's business manager, in virtually everything MTT does apart from the conducting itself.

Tilson Thomas's eyes are brighter, his skin more aglow than in some earlier incarnations (particularly an infamous bad-boy period in the 1970s). Now, he's a passionate cook, and fresh off a stint at the Pritikin Center: For more than two months he's been living without salt, fat, caffeine, alcohol and sugar. "I feel so much better," he says. "I have more energy. I'm kind of eating the diet my ancestors ate in the Ukraine. Kasha and oat groats, whole grains. I sound like the most boring food faddist," he says, ever self-aware. "We'll see how long this lasts."

The most appropriate thing on the breakfast menu appears to be oatmeal souffle, a dish that attracts his curiosity through the very oddness of the concept: "I might have to have that just to find out, what could it be? One of the most dense, soggy things made into one of the lightest things."

It proves, when it makes its appearance, indeed to puff in the best souffle tradition. Rather deflatingly, though, as far as the conductor's new dietary regimen is concerned, it's also thickly sprinkled with powdered sugar and enhanced with a stream of thick raspberry puree poured out by the obliging white-coated waiter. Giving interviews can be dangerous to your health.

"Never mind," he says, calling Robison over so he can see the dish up close before he digs in. "It's an experience. It's like Mardi Gras or something."

A unique vision

MTT is used to occupational hazards. Conducting itself isn't the best thing you can do to your body; his Pritikin sojourn also involved some intense body work. "I've got lifetime repetitive stress nonsense," he says. "We all do. We deal with it." In his late 30s, when he first started to have problems, he went to Frank Jobe, the Los Angeles Dodgers team doctor who pioneered so-called Tommy John surgery.

"He said, 'Oh yeah, I see a lot of guys like you,' " Tilson Thomas recalls. " 'Pitchers, getting on. Normally I'd just shoot you full of cortisone and keep you going for another couple of seasons. But I guess in your line of work, you're just getting started, aren't you?' "

Sometimes it seems that he's still getting started. Even after 15 years in San Francisco, and 13 with the New World Symphony, he's hatching new projects with the slightly know-it-all enthusiasm of the smartest kid in the class.

With a unique vision for classical music, he pursues a range of projects outside the box -- some of which, perhaps precisely because of the slickness and sense that he is a known quantity, don't always get the attention they deserve.

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