That MTT Feeling (Or, Haskalah Vista)

This week Michael Tilson Thomas announced he will retire as music director of the San Francisco Symphony after the 2019–2020 season.

That was huge news in our house.

The Fabulous Wife and I have been San Francisco Symphony subscribers since 1994–1995. Back then, Herbert Blomstedt was the music director. We liked him, but he was more comfortable conducting Northern European composers than the early twentieth century French, Russian, and American composers I had come to love (and The Fabulous Wife had sort of come to love). When Tilson Thomas, who in his youth hobnobbed with Igor Stravinsky, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein, took over the orchestra, we were thrilled.

He didn’t disappoint us. I was in the throes of a massive musical crush on Dmitri Shostakovich, and MTT (as he’s known in San Francisco) navigated the long, complex, ambiguous arcs of Shostakovich’s symphonies better than anyone, including Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, who knew Shostakovich well, conducted his symphonies often, and was widely reputed Shostakovich’s foremost interpreter. (Rostropovich once admitted he could hear Shostakovich’s ghost scolding him that his tempos were too fast, but actually that was me.)

The peak musical experience of my life came on Saturday, February 12, 2000, when Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony through a light warm-up (Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony!) before plunging into Shostakovich’s Eleventh. I don’t cry, but that performance left me in tears. And the most serendipitous musical moment of my life came a year or two later, when The Fabulous Wife and I were picking through the bins of classical CDs at the old Rasputin’s Records on Powell Street and found a private pressing of that very performance. It remains one of my most cherished possessions.

Shostakovich drew inspiration from Gustav Mahler. So did MTT, who embarked on a project to record Mahler’s symphonies with the SFS. Despite lifelong misgivings, The Fabulous Wife and I decided to give Mahler a try. On October 7, 2000, we heard MTT conduct one of Mahler’s easier symphonies, the Seventh. And we got it!

Actually, I got it on a scarily deep level. I soon realized that Mahler, Tilson Thomas, and I had something in common: we were Haskalah Jews. Haskalah was the Jewish Enlightenment, a movement that encouraged Eastern European Jews to engage the wider intellectual and artistic culture and embrace what we today call secular humanism. My maternal grandmother’s family came from Lemberg — currently Lviv, Ukraine — an early hotbed of Haskalah.

Haskalah Judaism didn’t last. By the twentieth century most of its adherents had become Zionists or emigrants. Heir to a fading legacy, in declining health, and sensing the darkness about to descend over the continent (he died shortly before World War I), Mahler transformed his depression and despair into haunting art. At times his music is too florid, and MTT unabashedly plays up that aspect of it. But as I watch modern Judaism lapse into insularity, recognize that my time grows short, and fear that global tragedy looms nigh, I feel in my bones where Mahler was coming from, and I’m grateful to MTT for connecting me to a rich cultural inheritance I once shied from.

Like all of us, Michael Tilson Thomas has multiple identities. He’s proudly American, and interprets twentieth century American titans like Ives, Gershwin, Copland, and Bernstein with insight. He also presents the works of living American composers like Bay Area residents John Adams and Mason Bates in a straightforward, accessible manner that subverts the impulse to shut one’s ears at the mention of contemporary classical music. I particularly recommend his version of Adams’s Harmonielehre and Bates’s The B-Sides, Liquid Interface, and Alternative Energy.

There have been a few flops. For me, the low point of MTT’s tenure was The Thomashefskys, a tribute to his grandparents, stars of the Yiddish theater — a self-indulgence so nauseatingly schmaltzy I had to leave at intermission, dragging The Fabulous Wife out of Davies Hall with me. Then there was his attempt to revive Debussy’s Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, a piece that for all his flogging stayed resolutely dead.

But the failings are few and far between. It’s going to be one hell of a challenge for the orchestra to find a new music director of MTT’s caliber.

Former Risk Manager at UC Berkeley, author of four books, ectomorphic introvert.

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