September 12, 2008

Links to Leonard Bernstein Bring Michael Tilson Thomas to Carnegie Hall

By Cheryl North

Why would the management of New York's Carnegie Hall look all the way across the United States to San Francisco to fill the niche for its upcoming opening night gala commemorating the 90th anniversary of Leonard Bernstein's birth?

Because the Bay Area's maestro Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony are arguably the best qualified in the country to do the job. MTT, as Thomas is popularly known, is likely the artist most deeply influenced by, as well as possibly the foremost interpreter of, the music of the late great Bernstein.

Fortunately, we in the Bay Area will be treated to a home-town preview of the New York City program right here at Davies Symphony Hall next week. Works scheduled on both programs will include selections from Bernstein's operas, ballets, music theater productions and his Mass.

Similarities between Bernstein and MTT abound. To begin with, they share a deep ethnic commonality. Bernstein, born in Lawrence, Mass., descends from a Polish-Jewish family from the Ukraine, whereas the Los Angeles-born Thomas, 63, descends from the Thomashefskys, a Russian-Jewish family.

Much in common

Close friends until Bernstein's death in 1990, both were/are accomplished concert-level pianists as well as conductors and composers. Both shared a musical curiosity reaching through centuries of history into the present time. MTT as well as Bernstein possessed an almost clairvoyant affinity for the music of Gustav Mahler, and both have championed his works with preeminent recordings and concerts.

Interestingly, both had similar launches into the galaxy of musical stardom. Bernstein's catapult to the musical cosmos came in November 1943, when Bruno Walter, then the conductor of the New York Philharmonic, suddenly took ill. Bernstein, the orchestra's 25-year- old assistant conductor, was tapped to take Walter's place at the podium. His performance was so brilliant that he literally became an overnight sensation.

MTT's big night came a generation later, just shortly before his own 25th birthday. He, too, was an assistant conductor (of the Boston Symphony), when conductor William Steinberg suddenly took ill. MTT was asked to rescue the performance, which he likewise accomplished brilliantly.

Both gentlemen have been described as "fierce" advocates of multimedia music education. Whereas Bernstein was a media pioneer promoting classical music education with such ground-breaking television shows as "Omnibus" and in his innovative educational commentaries during his New York Philharmonic Young People's Concerts, MTT's more technologically sophisticated media excursions have included his own multimedia project, "Keeping Score," in addition to a nationally syndicated radio series on avant-garde American composers called "American Mavericks"; an award-winning children's Web site at; and the nationally acclaimed "Adventures in Music" education program in San Francisco schools.

MTT generously took a few minutes from his frenetic 2008-2009 season-opening rehearsals and concerts last week to share some of his thoughts on Bernstein via telephone. He recounted a recent conversation he'd had at the gym where he works out.

A familiar 'Story'

"I asked one of my trainers about his favorite Broadway shows," said MTT. "He didn't show much enthusiasm, until I mentioned 'West Side Story.' Then his face lit up with recognition. Like a majority of us, he knew, liked, and could instantly relate to 'West Side Story.'"

According to MTT, the name Leonard Bernstein holds an indelible place within the musical memories of those whose lifetimes trace back through the America of the 1940s, '50s and '60s.

"Leonard Bernstein created a tradition in American music of which we are all a part -- whether we know it or not. Almost everyone alive today has been influenced in some way by his music," said Tilson Thomas.

When I asked if he could compare Bernstein's compositions to those of any other 20th century composers, he demurred. "Perhaps Gershwin," he said cautiously. "But the whole point about Bernstein is that he moved into new categories. The nature of the materials he used reflected jazz and music theater as well as the symphonic tradition."

In a previous interview by Synneve Carlino for the upcoming Carnegie Hall program, MTT explained further: "Over the course of time, it may be that the language of his music might become more remote from audiences, but I think there will still be a certain kind of heart inside of it that will always be recognized as symbolizing a particular period in the United States, when people were very confident and very generous "... To me, he represents someone from the generation of young victors of the Second World War."

The official Bernstein Web site goes even further: "The example of his (Bernstein's) thrilling, turbulent and generous life seems nothing less than the American dream come true."

Contact Cheryl North at [email protected] preview-- WHO: Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony -- WHAT: An all-Bernstein program-- WHERE: Davies Hall, 201 Van Ness, S.F.-- WHEN: 8 p.m. Sept. 17-19-- HOW MUCH: $30-$81-- CONTACT: 415-864- 6000 or

Originally published by Cheryl North, Times correspondent.

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