Pure Instinct

Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas talks Mahler, Stravinsky and the future of contemporary music — in real space and in cyberspace.

By Ben Finane


Illustration by Riccardo Vecchio

I think performers go through different phases. Right now I’m finding myself very much drawn to Schubert’s music and Alban Berg’s music and I’ve spent a lot of time working through their music in a different way than I have before. Of course, Stravinsky — again someone I knew as a boy, somebody I really come back to — I’ll be performing Stravinsky that I’ve not performed before (and I’ve performed just about everything) next season at the San Francisco Symphony, his great serial choral piece Threni [Lamentations of Jeremiah], which I’ve always admired but never had the chance to do.

It’s always a pleasure for me to come back to this music. Debussy is certainly somebody that continues to fascinate me. I think I’m a bit more off the beaten track with some of these composers, performing many of their pieces that are not necessarily the one or two most popular ones, and that makes me happy. Next season I’m doing the first performance of a Stravinsky piece with the Chicago Symphony, called Ode, and it’s fun to be able to do something like that, even in this day and age.

Stravinsky is one of those composers who, every time I hear anything by him, I’m so immediately struck by his genius. What is it about his music that so readily separates itself from the rest of the canon?

Hmmmm . . . Well, he started with a very opulent and exotic style and moved in a much more reductive and hard-edged direction and then so extraordinarily went through the first of his stylistic changes. But the nature of the super-discriminating choices that he made — as far as what the notes should be, what the voicings should be, what the crystal clarity of the music should be — became more intense as the years went on. So a piece like Apollo, written in the ’20s — it’s hard to imagine hearing that piece as written by the same man who wrote Firebird and Petroushka. Yet listening down through the layers of incredible invention — a piano piece like Serenade in A — you still hear this amazing mind that was searching always for the most original solution.

Stravinsky was also a composer who composed seated at the piano. And I saw him often seated in a room where he was playing a piano but there was no piano: he was just moving his fingers, moving the fingers of both of his hands quite clearly, trying out new sounds and combinations of notes in space, feeling these notes in combination under his fingers on this kind of phantom piano that was always with him . . . very striking to see.

That’s interesting, as I remember composition professors always warning students: ‘Don’t compose at the piano — you’ll fall back on familiar shapes and limit your output.’

That’s what most people do say. He was a great exception; he would get ideas at the piano, notate lots of them and then cut out the best bits that he liked, recopy them, and gradually see the potential in the large design of the piece. It was a unique method.

I’ve heard that Stravinsky would even paste motives on his wall and then take a look and decide what went where.

Yeah, that did happen.

Eight years or so ago at Carnegie Hall I was watching Pierre Boulez give a masterclass on a work of chamber music by Schoenberg. When the group first played the piece, I felt that I couldn’t understand it. When Boulez was through with them an hour and a half later and they played it again, I felt I understood it a great deal. Does the responsibility for the illumination of twentieth-century masterworks fall to the conductor, and are there or will there be enough Boulezes and Michael Tilson Thomases to continue to illuminate these works?

Gosh, what a serious question. . . . Sure, there are always going to be people who are interested in contemporary music, and I think by and large young performers who do interest themselves in contemporary music have a capacity to absorb amazing levels of complexity much more easily than I remember being able to do. That’s very heartening, but there will be a sort of natural order to things, a natural balance. Certain pieces will be played, certain composers will be played more than others because in the big space of time, it will be felt that their message is more . . . more powerful, more meaningful to an audience that comes along later.

Part of the question is just familiarity and how dense the language of a work is, whether it’s a musical work or a literary work or a visual work — how much effort does the listener or the reader or the viewer want to go through in order to understand what the composer is saying. So Schoenberg sometimes goes to a place where it really requires a considerable effort on the part of the listener. Basically, you have to hear the piece enough to almost know it by heart to appreciate the events that are coming next. It’s hard on first hearing to absorb it.