Native Son Returns to Hollyood Bowl - Site of Previous Triumphs ... and Tiffs
L.A. music fans of a certain age can’t help having slightly bittersweet feelings about the brilliant conductor, pianist, composer, and teacher Michael Tilson Thomas, who kicked off the LA Philharmonic’s season at the Hollywood Bowl with a glorious rendition of Mahler’s Second Symphony Tuesday night, and returns for an evening of music by Rimsky-Korsakov, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky Thursday night, July 11.
Make no mistake: we are very glad to see him! But we missed him so much in recent decades, it’s been like an ache. You see, we watched him flourish in his late teens and twenties as Music Director of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra in the late 1960’s and early ‘70’s; we watched him work with Stravinsky, Boulez, Stockhausen, and Copland on premieres of their compositions at the Monday Evening Concerts, and, in the 1980’s, he became a supremely confident Principal Guest Conductor of the LA Philharmonic. But after an apparent falling-out with then Philharmonic management, he was such a scarce presence on local podiums that LA Times Music Critic Mark Swed sounded downright grief-stricken reporting in 2000 on a rare appearance MTT made at the Music Center Pavilion with his San Francisco Symphony:
“Now Angelenos watch from afar as their native son, the musician who far more than any other is the proud sum of Los Angeles' diverse musical culture--of Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Gershwin, Cage, Heifetz, Piatigorsky, Rubinstein and Wolfman Jack--invigorates Bay Area culture as music director of the San Francisco Symphony. There hasn't been such a synergy between city, symphony and conductor like this since Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic.”
It was in 1985 that Michael Tilson Thomas famously stormed offstage during an LA Philharmonic performance of Mahler’s 8th Symphony due to a particularly recalcitrant helicopter. When in 2007 he walked back onstage at the Hollywood Bowl for the first time in 22 years Swed reported he asked the audience, twinkle firmly planted in eye, "Now where were we?"
I find Tilson Thomas not only a thrillingly dynamic and incisive interpreter of everything from Beethoven to Boulez, but also simply one of the smartest and most thoughtful speakers about music I’ve ever heard. I had the privilege of “conducting” an interview with MTT backstage at the Bowl following a rehearsal earlier this week. Our chat ranged from the music he’s programmed this week, to an unusual new commissioning project in San Francisco, to the tragic loss this past season of the San Francisco Symphony’s longtime Principal Oboist. William Bennett collapsed onstage at Davies Symphony Hall while performing the Strauss Oboe Concerto February 23, and never regained consciousness. He was 56.
I began my chat with MTT by asking him about his own early memories of the Hollywood Bowl. Listen to the whole thing here:
Here's MTT and the San Francisco Symphony performing the second movement from Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 featuring Principal Oboe William Bennett.
For more from the marvelous musical mind of Michael Tilson Thomas, here’s a recent Ted Talk he gave in homage to his father, Theodore Thomas.