Q&A | Michael Tilson Thomas

Michael Tilson Thomas will conduct the Vienna Philharmonic with soloist Yefim Bronfman at the Royal Festival Hall on 9 April, and later this year will return for a series with Yo Yo Ma at the Barbican.

Michael Tilson Thomas will conduct the Vienna Philharmonic with soloist Yefim Bronfman at the Royal Festival Hall on 9 April, in a programme of Schoenberg’s Theme and variations for orchestra (op 43b), Brahms’ second piano concerto and Schoenberg’s orchestration of the Brahms piano quartet no 1. The programme is presented as part of the Southbank’s Rest is Noise festival in the Shell Classic International series but will also be performed in Vienna, Yerevan (Armenia) and Kiev. He will also conduct the LSO in three concerts with cellist Yo-Yo Ma on 9 June, 11 June and 12 June at the Barbican, in programmes centred on Benjamin Britten’s relationships with Aaron Copland and Dmitri Shostakovich and the cello music written for Mstislav Rostropovich.
Photo: San Francisco Symphony

Your upcoming programme with the Vienna Philharmonic is part of the Rest is Noise festival at the Southbank Centre. Does this make you approach each piece differently from how you would if they were in a different programme?

No, I made this programme quite independently of the festival so it turned out to be a happy confluence, but the nature of what I do in programming – what I’ve been doing for I can’t believe how long – is I’m very much involved in concept-driven programmes. I’ve just been looking at a series of things I did with the Boston Symphony in the 1970s, Spectral Concerts, which was very much in this direction – of large historical and intellectual concepts which were borne out in a great deal of repertoire. I love this kind of programming, I love Alex’s book, and that it’s being carried out on such a large scale.

Do you think 20th-century works are inherently harder to appreciate?

I don’t think that they are more difficult, except for the fact that people can have had much less opportunity to hear them. In my own case, as a boy I was hearing Schoenberg and Stravinsky and whoever, and I’ve loved that music since the very first time I’ve heard it. I don’t think that was a unique experience, I think the younger [that] kids are when they’re exposed to any kind of music, the easier it is for them to grasp it. But if you hadn’t heard anything like that then it can be disorientating to you perhaps. Music is in a way at a disadvantage which is that most people are much more comfortable with their sight than their hearing. So when people go to an exhibition, they walk into the room and can see the entire canvas, but in music that’s much harder: you have to hear something, you have to initially grasp it, then remember it, and understand it in context – by what shape it makes in time.

And you can close your eyes in an art gallery, but it’s much harder to scarper from a concert hall…

But that’s the great thing about this festival and Alex’s book – what he’s trying to do is make people understand that these things are interrelated, that they are culturally and aesthetically the same expression and it really is worth understanding them and getting to know the big picture.

You return to London later this year to perform a series of concerts with Yo-Yo Ma and the LSO, performing Shostakovich, Copland and Britten. How much are you looking forward to this series?

On a scale of one to ten? About nine point seven four. Yo-Yo and I have a very long relationship and the interesting confluence between Britten, Shostakovich and Copland which frames Britten’s life in an interesting way because of the association with Aldeburgh.

It’s 25 years since you were appointed principal conductor of the LSO before becoming principal guest conductor – what role has the orchestra played in your own development over this quarter-century?

I’ve always loved and still do love the spirit of the orchestra, the incredible speed of reaction of the orchestra, and its adventurousness. But I think having worked so long with an organisation which is a cooperative, and the nature of the relationship which one develops with them – it’s a different kind of a partnership – I think that has had an effect on my work with all orchestras. The kind of partnership that I like to seek out with musicians has, I’m sure, been influenced with my time with the LSO.

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