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May 13, 2009

Michael Tilson Thomas on 'Keeping Score' and more

Michael Tilson ThomasAt 64, Michael Tilson Thomas, who gave the keynote address at the PBS Showcase conference in Baltimore on Tuesday, is one of the youngest-minded conductors in the business. He has a keenly developed sense of what’s cool, what’s awesome and what’s next.

The New York-born music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra was the obvious choice to lead the last month’s Carnegie Hall debut concert of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble formed of musicians from around the world who uploaded their audition videos. MTT, naturally, has his own YouTube channel (check out his clever 4:30 history of music video).

He has long been open to the idea of applying technological advances to music, evidenced by such things as cyber master classes in conducting given at his second home, the New World Symphony in Miami, using Internet 2 to connect with students around the country. The New World is building a state-of-the-art, Frank Gehry-designed building where live Webcasts and other high-tech activities will be the norm.

MTT and the San Francisco Symphony have been just as tech-savvy. The orchestra just became the first of its size to create a social network online, for example. And the conductor has, with the San Franciscans, generated the most substantial cultural/educational programming for TV since his friend Leonard Bernstein led the celebrated Young People’s Concerts decades ago.

MTT’s PBS series, Keeping Score, which had its first series in 2006 and was seen in more than 5 million households, is aimed at general audiences. Next season, the second series will air with three one-hour shows that look deeply into the Symphonie fantastique by Berlioz, the Symphony No. 5 by Shostakovich, and the Holidays Symphony by Ives. A superb musician and natural story-teller, MTT is perfect for role of TV aural guide, and the top-notch San Francisco ensemble makes an ideal partner in the process of exploring great repertoire.

While in Baltimore for the PBS gathering, I caught up with MTT at his hotel, where he talked about...

the new Keeping Score shows, the future of music and more. Here are some excerpts:

Michael Tilson ThomasOn Keeping Score: It’s a three-part process — the broadcast shows, then the DVD versions, then the Web site, which backs up the shows in ever more ingenious ways, I think. The first shows continue to have a life. They have been subtitled in languages I don’t even know. The new shows are much more film-like, Citizen Kane-like, in a way, asking questions at the beginning and seeing if it is possible to work your way through the mystery. They offer fewer conclusions. They present possibilities, things that may or may not be so. I am trying to move away from vocabulary, to make them less lecture-y. 

On the YouTube Symphony: Normally, I get an idea, then an idea of the people with whom I’d like to do it. In this case, I was asked to do something where no one knew who it would be done with. But it was very satisfying because of the number of people worldwide who became aware of the program. I suspect there are far more people worldwide who care about classic music, but they are not aware of one another.

On the YouTube generation: According to a study I saw of people under 20, the first place they look for information, their primary source, is YouTube or other video sources, rather than a print source — paper or online. They are looking for someone to tell them something. To my way of thinking, that’s slightly frightening. I cannot imagine my morning without having my cup of coffee and reading a newspaper, even as I complain about what I’m reading or how thin the paper is.

On generational differences: The great orchestras always prided themselves on presenting totally excellent, cool professionalism. The manner of presenting themselves to the world was solid, subtle, energetic — but not demonstrative in terms of what the audience was seeing. Look at the [Simon] Bolivar Youth Orchestra, the Lucerne Festival Orchestra or other orchestras with mostly young players, and they’re doing a very different thing onstage. They are way more performers.

On enhanced musical appreciation: There are book clubs. Why not symphony clubs? I think the major performing organizations will have to look at the expansion of their roles in educating people, in leading the process, in creating new partnerships. And more musicians, from the beginning of their training, will need to know how to do this. Maybe musicians will reach some different balance point in the future, where they decide how much time they spend rehearsing, giving concerts, being online and having a teaching role. When an audience goes to see a play by Shakespeare, what percentage can follow it line by line? Not many. They can hear the famous lines. A good deal they pick up form the production, the way it is done. Maybe we’re going to see some kind of change in the musical fashion of performing. We’re in a bells and whistles age. We’re in a world of video, and some musicians treat it the way some silent movie stars treated talkies — it’s just a fad. It is important that musicians get inside of this, rather than have it forced on them.

On making music: For me, it has always been about when the music stops. What’s left when you’re in the silence again? What do you remember? How have you changed?



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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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