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For Michael Tilson Thomas, the grandeur of music answers a grim diagnosis

As he battles brain cancer, the conductor will lead the NSO in a pair of programs after stepping down from his own New World Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the YouTube Symphony Orchestra during a performance at Carnegie Hall in New York on April 15, 2009. (Stan Honda/AFP/Getty Images)
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Nobody knows the now like Michael Tilson Thomas. The acclaimed conductor and composer, 12-time Grammy winner and Kennedy Center honoree, 77, also has an aptitude for the idiomatic. “Being a conductor,” he’s noted, “means you’re trying to get a lot of people to agree where ‘now’ is.”

As conductors go, MTT — as he’s commonly known — has an expanded sense of the now: as a conductor who has led orchestras around the globe and through storied posts in San Francisco, London and Miami; as a composer with a wide-ranging appetite for American musical traditions; as an advocate for new music and mentor to thousands of young orchestral players; and as an artist able to pair a panoramic understanding of music with a microscopic delight in the details.

Over the past year, Thomas’s close relationship with the now intensified even further. Last week, the conductor issued a statement providing additional details about his ongoing treatment for the “stealthy adversary” of glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive type of brain cancer.

In August, Thomas withdrew from a slate of scheduled performances, revealing in a statement that he’d undergone emergency surgery and chemotherapy treatment. In his most recent statement, Thomas noted that “recurrence is, unfortunately, the rule rather than the exception.”

Thomas resigns from New World Symphony, lessens work

The statement also announced the end of his tenure as artistic director of the New World Symphony, the Miami Beach-based, postgraduate, classical academy he co-founded 35 years ago with Lin and Ted Arison.

“My return to performing these last months has been very special,” he wrote, referring to recent engagements with the New York Philharmonic, Los Angeles Philharmonic and San Francisco Symphony, where in 2020 he concluded a 25-year run as music director.

“Making music with these great artists and for so many friends in the audience felt like coming home, like coming back to life. I couldn’t have been happier. It takes strength to meet the demands of the music and to collaborate on the highest level with the remarkable musicians who so generously welcomed me. I now see that it is time for me to consider what level of work and responsibilities I can sustain in the future.”

This includes a two-week visit to Washington, where he’ll lead the National Symphony Orchestra in two programs that can only be described as extremely MTT.

On March 25 and 26, he conducts an evening bookended by Carl Ruggles’s “Angels” (a haunting 1921 short work for muted trumpets) and Aaron Copland’s generous 1944 slice of Pennsylvania pastoralia, “Appalachian Spring.” At the program’s core is MTT’s own “Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind,” a work for orchestra and “bar band” based on a 1922 poem by Carl Sandburg, and composed in 2016 for soprano Measha Brueggergosman — who will appear for these concerts along with soprano Mikaela Bennett and mezzo-soprano Kara Dugan.

And on March 31 and April 1, he’ll be keeping it simple (well, not really, at all) with an evening-length performance of Gustav Mahler’s sprawling Symphony No. 2 — the “Resurrection.” So much for taking it easy.

When I caught him for a morning Zoom this past Friday, the near future in question is merely a clear morning and a brunch under preparation. We’re not talking about how he’s feeling because, as per usual, he’s got music on his mind.

But to speak to MTT about music is not so far removed from speaking frankly of life and death. His music — whether conducting or composing — has everything to do with the push-and-pull of opposing forces and the musical space in between them: sound and silence, harmony and dissonance, instinct and intelligence. MTT understands music as both grand design and unsayable dream.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: Are there lessons you’ve learned about the “Resurrection” that still emerge when you perform it?

A: I think in all of [Mahler’s] symphonies, number one, it’s about following his instructions, because he’s very exact about what he’s asking for in terms of tempo, quality, the relationship between the tempo and the feel of different themes in different sections. And it’s tempting at various moments — because of the sheer, sumptuous power and grandiosity of the sound — to let your conductor-ego go crazy and stretch things out of proportion, because it just feels so good. But then I feel bad about that when I wake up the next morning.

Q: I love the beauty of the dissonances in the Carl Ruggles piece you’ve selected. As an educator and someone who’s constantly trying to connect people with music, especially music of our times, what do you think our aversion to this kind of dissonance is made of? Or is our aversion proof that dissonance is doing its job?

A: This Ruggles piece of course is a polyphonic one — it’s something that could be sung. And I think in Ruggles’s mind, that was his imagining what — in his kind of heaven — angels would sing. And that’s not an unwarranted assumption: If you look at the faces of angels singing in 16th- or 17th-century paintings, very often the ones who are closest to God in those paintings have expressions on their face such as only can be those of people who are sustaining dissonant suspensions. Putting off the moment — the delicious and agonizing moment — when they will finally be resolved. And that’s really true. If you look at van Eyck’s “The Adoration of the [Mystic] Lamb” right around God, the angels who are playing music for him have these expressions on their faces. Clearly, they’re singing dissonant music. For me it’s also a question about humanity since we are living in a moment in time where once again humanity is very busy attacking one another with hostility and antagonism. “Angels” is so serene, yet it does have some moments — kind of a descending stairway of dissonance before it reaches its ending. But I find it so spiritual and so deeply rewarding. I mean, the piece is four minutes long, but it says so much in those four minutes.

You call it a root canal. I call it a bittersweet symphony.

Q: Can you tell me your thoughts on including “Appalachian Spring” for this program?

A: I think it’s a very profound piece. It’s so pared down from some of the large expanse of music that [Copland] was writing a decade before, like the “Symphonic Ode” and things like that. But he did this for a purpose. Copland was a very, very generous, caring person. I think he was really trying to create a kind of musical American lingua franca that all people could listen to, and hear something in it that would make them think, “Oh yeah, I’m an American. That’s my tradition. I can hear that in the music.” It was opening up classical music to a much wider audience, because that was his way of caring about people. I think, in general, that very often musicians or artists are people who have something very profound to say, something they feel very deeply, but for whatever reasons feel somewhat abashed about actually saying that in words to someone. But in music, in your art, you can say anything.

Q: Your piece on the program [“Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind”] is based on a poem by Carl Sandburg. And poetry seems to spring up in your work a lot. Could you tell me about how poetry relates to music and what that relationship means to you?

A: My vision of the life — and therefore my vision of what I hope the music will testify — is very much shaped by poetry that I have read and that I continue to read. And there are certain poems that I have with me all the time, and I’ve read them constantly for 50 or 60 years, and I go on reading them. For example, [Walt] Whitman’s “Sea Drift,” which has been much set to music in all sorts of ways, from very minimal to super-maximal by some of the Romantic English composers. A couple of summers ago, I was out in the Hamptons and I went down to the beach, and I was just sitting there for a few hours listening to the particular sound of the waves on that beach, and I realized how much of the poetry was influenced by the sound of the waves on that particular beach: “Out of the cradle endlessly rocking, out of the mocking-bird’s throat.” Ultimately he gets around to springing the real mystery of the poem on you: And so the sea whispered me: “death, death, death.” And then he goes on. But it’s such a setup through the entire work just for that moment. He started with something and then along the way, a lot of these shapes probably started to emerge and make sense to him. But once he’s got the idea, he’s able to use it right from the beginning.

Michael Tilson Thomas leads the NSO in a program of Ruggles, Copland and his own work on March 25 and 26 and returns to conduct Mahler’s “Resurrection” on March 31 and April 1. Visit kennedy-center.org for tickets and information.

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