Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony performing Mahler's Symphony No. 5 in September 2010. (Bill Swerbenski)
Classical music critic

Michael Tilson Thomas, once a bad boy of American music, has become one of its gray eminences, but he’s remained one of its great communicators all along. On the eve of his final American tour as music director of the San Francisco Symphony, a position he will leave in June 2020 after 25 years, he talked to The Washington Post about his career, his plans and Beethoven. (This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Q: Your tour program in D.C. opens with a work of your own. Will you be composing more now?

A: That’s starting to definitely ramp up. It’s not like I’m sitting down to write new pieces, because I have decades of pieces in sketchbooks in various forms. I just [have] to decide which ones to bring forward.

One of the two big piano pieces Yuja Wang is going to play at Carnegie Hall [on May 2] actually goes back to when I was 19 years old. One way I can get into thinking I’m regularly composing is to go back to an early period of my life, reconnect to who I was before all this happened, and think about what was most urgent to say back then. [When I work on that piece,] I absolutely am back there, in my parents’ living room in the San Fernando Valley. So this is very lyrical, adventurous, tonal, melodic music. It does not have much to do with the current idea of cultured music. I have no problem with that at all. [laughs]

Q: More than perhaps any other active conductor, you have followed in the footsteps of your mentor, Leonard Bernstein, when it comes to finding ways to get the message out on radio, TV and the Internet. Do you plan to continue this kind of work?

A: [I’d like to do] a lot more of that, because I want to continue the direction that those shows went in: talking about the backstory of the music and the actual ideas that the music represents.

“Keeping Score” [a TV and radio series about famous composers and their works] was kind of an homage to all the spectacular days of BBC production of music, a cultural era in which we are no longer living. How to accomplish those kinds of goals, but in a more efficient [way] and probably [with an] online focus? We are living in a time when production has mostly superseded content in every area you can think of. It’s very archaic to be holding on to what is the actual content and how to keep it meaningful.

Michael Tilson Thomas. (Brandon Patoc)

Q: Will you be working more with the New World Symphony, the training orchestra you founded in Miami 32 years ago?

A: That’s also where a great deal more of my attention will be focused. The New World Symphony does a lot of remarkable things in this area [of online communication and dissemination].

We did an online flute conference not so long ago, with people playing in Miami and Atlanta and Nashville and New Orleans and Colombia, people of many different generations talking about their experiences playing the flute. For me a highlight there was a young woman in Nashville, [who] played [Debussy’s] “Syrinx” for the first time in public to an audience of people around the country, including some people who have been playing that piece for 50 years.

But what was really nice, we preceded the performance with people saying what it had been like for them when they first played this. Everyone was very much on her side. In the end we all came to a certain agreement about what the dimension of the meaning of the piece is. Then the question is, so at this particular point in your life, what is the best way of presenting the message of the piece? There are lots of different ways that this music can be done. There’s a way that each person finds to do it that seems authentic to them.

Q: You're bringing Beethoven's third symphony, the "Eroica," on your U.S. tour, but you're not doing much Beethoven yourself in your final San Francisco Symphony season, even though it's the Beethoven anniversary year. What can you say about your relationship to Beethoven?

A: I don’t think much about anniversaries. Josh[ua Robison, the conductor’s husband,] says I live in the present. That’s both my strength and my weakness. [Next season, I’m] just doing a lot of pieces I enjoy doing with the orchestra. My old friend Mr. [Carl] Ruggles, for example. The [orchestra’s] brass section now is just so phenomenal I really wanted to have a chance to revisit some of his big pieces. In some ways making all these concert programs is like inviting people for dinner: What did we have last time, and what was the season?

“Eroica” was available; presenters wanted to do it, and it was a piece I have a long history with. It was a great breakthrough for me. I did it in Los Angeles a million years ago, and the only person who had done the piece there for a long time was [Carlo Maria] Giulini, and of course I had very different ideas about what should happen. But way back then, I perhaps wasn’t totally convinced about them, or wasn’t experienced enough to make that work. The orchestra was trying to do one thing and I was trying to do something else. Everybody retired to different corners at the end of the experience. [laughs]

But it was a breakthrough moment for me. This is a famous piece; everyone has a sense of, What is the tradition surrounding it? I have to get past that and get a sense of what I want to do. That took me down a fascinating number of years of experimenting with and thinking about it.

The essential thing became very obvious. It’s called “Eroica” (heroic); is it or isn’t it about Napoleon? In the course of writing, Beethoven realized he himself was the hero of the piece. He’s realizing as a composer, he can do anything he wants. Deafness is in no way an impairment. In the Heiligenstadt Testament [a letter he wrote in 1802 but that was not found until after his death], he expressed his biggest fear, that his ability to communicate intimately with people would be lost because of growing deafness. But then he realized he could write music that would be intimately connected with other people, even people he was never going to meet in his own lifetime . . .

It’s the first piece in which Beethoven’s idea becomes clear that there’s exposition, development and recapitulation, but there can’t ever be true recapitulation — things happen to us in life. The development section represents things that occur, unexpected things. Yes, we get through those things, and we go on being ourselves, but we’re not the same selves. Psychologically, that’s an enormous insight. There are things in Mozart and Haydn where the recapitulation is not exact, but not as much as this.

The last movement was also part of my big voyage. What is this last movement doing in this piece, and why was Beethoven so obsessed with this theme? It’s a kind of anti-theme. There’s nothing to it. It couldn’t be more skeletal and tossed-off and jocular — and then it comes to the last section, in which basically it’s transfigured. I think that’s the point: Beethoven is showing just what his abilities as a composer are. It almost doesn’t matter what the material is: “I could write great melodies if I wanted to, but I can make something very profound out of anything.”

If you go

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