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MUSIC : From Protege to Mentor : Michael Tilson Thomas comes full circle to direct young musicians at the same Ojai Festival that launched his career in the ‘60s

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Pluck a typical middle-aged concert-goer from the Music Center and ask him if he remembers Michael Tilson Thomas, and you might expect something like this in response. “Sure. He’s from around here. Wonderful Gershwin conductor. He often gave terrific, splashy performances of Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky, Copland, when he was principal guest conductor of the Philharmonic in the early ‘80s. But, you know, he was also kind of uneven. They say he was temperamental, a little immature. What happened to him, anyway?”

Now mention Tilson Thomas to someone in the audience at the Barbican Centre in London, where the London Symphony Orchestra performs, and she might tell you, “Well, the Arts Council said it all, didn’t it, when it selected the LSO as the main London orchestra? Tilson Thomas is known here for his elegant, inventive program-making, and, of course, he’s popular for American music. But it’s probably as a Mahler conductor that he has made his mark.”

Finally, try a young dude on Miami Beach newly turned on to classical music thanks to an appearance of Gloria Estefan with the New World Symphony, a training orchestra of young professionals that Tilson Thomas founded in Miami six years ago and turned into an almost overnight success. “MTT’s cool. He plays Latin music.”

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Michael Tilson Thomas returns to Southern California next weekend as music director of the Ojai Festival, where he will lead the New World Symphony in a series of concerts that pay tribute to the West Coast musical world in which he grew up. Neither these traditions nor Tilson Thomas is probably as familiar or obvious as one might at first imagine, unless, of course, you happen to live in London.

Tilson Thomas was once one of the best-known musicians in Los Angeles. As a teen-ager studying at USC, he was already a regular pianist at the Monday Evening Concerts devoted to modern music at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. At age 19, he was appointed conductor of the Young Musicians Foundation Orchestra, the prominent training ensemble. By 25, he already had a national reputation as an assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra with a flair for grabbing media attention.

Leonard Bernstein championed him, and he took over from Bernstein the New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts in the 1970s. He became music director of the Buffalo Symphony. He continued to regularly guest-conduct in Los Angeles and later served as a principal guest conductor of the Philharmonic from 1981 to 1985. But Tilson Thomas reportedly had a falling out with the orchestra management, disappointed to lose out to Andre Previn in the selection of a music director to succeed Carlo Maria Giulini. (Ironically, Previn had been a music director of the LSO in the ‘70s.)

Though little seen in Los Angeles since, Tilson Thomas, who will turn 50 at the end of the year, will be easily recognized. He looks as boyish as ever, and he remains the bouncy presence on the podium he’s always been. In conversation, too, he continues to exude the kind of unashamed exuberance for music that one finds in teen-agers, which surely helps make him popular with young musicians and young audiences in Miami.

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But there are some notable signs that he has changed; he is no longer quite so Californian. He pronounces certain words with a Boston accent, perhaps acquired in his Boston Symphony days, but London seems to have made it more curiously conspicuous. He conducts differently too. His music-making has evolved. He is more unabashedly romantic in his interpretations, stretching phrases, digging deeper than he used to. Europe has put a little more weight into his performances, especially of European music. Brahms and Schubert figure more in his repertory these days, and Mahler is an obsession. But he says that the kids at the New World Symphony, with whom he spends nearly a third of the year coaching and conducting, keep him lively.

Tilson Thomas, in fact, seems somewhat at a crossroads. Next season will be his last with the London Symphony, and he will leave in a big way, leading a cycle of all nine Mahler symphonies. Then, later in 1995, he takes over the San Francisco Symphony, returning to his native West Coast but to the city and orchestra often considered the competitors with his hometown and its band.

At Ojai, Tilson Thomas says, he will return to many of his roots, recalling a marvelous musical age in which he grew up in Los Angeles, an age that provides an important, if underappreciated, foundation for our own musical time. In fact, one way to understand the forces currently driving Tilson Thomas is to look at his Ojai Festival programs and listen to what he has to say about them. They are, in part, an autobiography of a complex musical personality.

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Speaking expansively over the phone from Miami, exhausted but also charged up after a five-hour rehearsal of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, Tilson Thomas says that the first time he appeared at Ojai was in 1965 in a program devoted to American musical pioneers. He credits such pioneers from the ‘30s and ‘40s with helping foster his own adventurous spirit.

John Cage, with his early percussion music, and Lou Harrison, with his Asian-tinged music, along with their predecessors Henry Cowell and the Balinese-absorbed Colin McPhee, will be the subject of a concert Saturday afternoon that also pays tribute to 100-year-old Russian emigre composer, conductor and lexicographer Nicolas Slonimsky, who early on befriended and championed many of them, while writing some pioneering and peculiar music of his own.

Although much of this non-European approach is peculiarly West Coast in spirit, Tilson Thomas is quick to point out that the Southern California tradition is rich in various kinds of more conventional music as well. He says he pays particular attention to his mentor at USC, composer Ingolf Dahl, who was music director of the Ojai Festival in which Tilson Thomas first performed.

“Ingolf was one of these super-accomplished musician’s musicians who had a very elegant and personal voice as a composer and was also a phenomenal conductor and music historian,” Tilson Thomas recalls of Dahl, a man who was once at the center of Los Angeles musical life but whose legacy is now sadly neglected.

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Tilson Thomas’ devotion to Dahl has led him to conduct an entire evening of the composer’s work in Miami (he has also recorded a disc of Dahl’s music with the New World Symphony for release on Argo), as well as to program Dahl in London. He has included Dahl’s “The Tower of Santa Barbara” on the late-afternoon final concert next Sunday, and not only because of the composer’s place in Ojai and Southern California history. The work also represents a deeper theme that concerns Tilson Thomas--the living today in the past, present and future all at the same time, as we do in the world of classical music.

Classical music is haunted by the past as no other art form is. The majority of concert-goers, record buyers and radio listeners steep themselves only in music of the last century and earlier. The majority of musicians play only that music. For some listeners, the recent past of up to half a century ago (or even more) is also the future--those pioneers mentioned above are still considered ultramodern. But the future requires from us a present that can deal with the past more creatively.

Dahl offers one solution. “Ingolf’s piece,” Tilson Thomas explains, “is full of references to medieval and Renaissance music. He constructs his own cantus firmus, which is a kind of distillation of various medieval and Renaissance sources.” That, of course, also has an additional unexpected currency, given the present rage for medieval chants.

Tilson Thomas has joined Dahl’s piece with a number of other works that offer approaches to the notion of looking back--and no two do it in remotely the same way. Charles Wuorinen’s “Machault Mon Chou” is a more up-to-date academic approach to the same issue of reinterpreting medieval music. Lukas Foss, a former Ojai Festival director and onetime member of the UCLA faculty, is a composer who has modernized much old music, and his psychedelic version of Bach, “Phorion,” is music history as musical happening.

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Luciano Berio’s “Rendering,” meanwhile, is a postmodern non-completion of the sketches from Schubert’s uncompleted 10th Symphony. Berio’s technique is to join the fragments Schubert wrote, orchestrated in Schubert’s style, with modern filler of his own, the composer likening the finished product to restoring an ancient mosaic by filling the spaces between missing tiles with neutral cement.

But the past also means the past. For Tilson Thomas there is the simple personal nostalgia that is found in his own brass quintet “Street Song,” which reveals some of his own roots. “Street Song,” he says, “is really based on the kinds of harmonies that hover over a lot of the music that my father used to play on the piano.

“My father was a self-taught musician--well, he had a little bit of piano instruction from George Gershwin when he was a kid, because Gershwin used to hang around my grandparents’ house,” Tilson Thomas says, his grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, having been founders of the Yiddish Theater in New York.

“And my father played, for at least a couple of hours every day, his individual sort of music, which was mostly in F major and was kind of a mixture of Broadway, Tin Pan Alley and Yiddish theater, with a certain kind of mystical Debussyan harmony, and that world is evoked in this quintet.”

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Tilson Thomas is so tied in with the music of our period, in fact, that a surprising number of the works he has selected have personal significance. For instance, “Threnody II” by Aaron Copland, for whom a teen-age Tilson Thomas first played backstage at the Hollywood Bowl, was written in memory of Beatrice Cunningham, the sister of Lawrence Morton, the original guiding spirit of Ojai and one of the first important Angelenos to recognize Tilson Thomas’ talents.

As for “Arias and Barcarolles,” Bernstein’s last piece, Tilson Thomas played in its original two-piano version and calls it Bernstein’s most confessional score. “I always told Lenny that I thought it was a wonderful example of insomnia in music,” he recalls. “He never slept and late at night would work on theses pieces, asking all the time, ‘What does it mean?’ ” It, too, has its references, Tilson Thomas says, pointing out that Mahler and Mussorgsky are used in it in humorous ways.

In fact, once you start looking back it’s hard to stop.

“As I was listening the other day to Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements,” Tilson Thomas observes of the work that will close the festival, “I had forgotten just how many references there are to Monteverdi, and troubadour and trouvere music, and, my God, to Tchaikovsky and Rimsky in a few places. It’s amazing how one can still hear that.

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“But you also have to remember that the person I met in Los Angeles who was by far the most adventurous music spirit on the West Coast was Igor Stravinsky. As an old man he had such astonishing curiosity and desire to understand the new and to uncover, in the old, things that he had never experienced, and this was to me the greatest inspiration of what a musician should be.”

And just what a musician should or should not be seems to be very much on Tilson Thomas’ mind these days. In London, where a musician’s work is more grinding than in the States--the orchestra prepares two major programs on the average week--Tilson Thomas says he has learned much from the fact that the ensemble is self-governing: “It has increased my sense that the responsibility of the sort of music that is made rests with the musicians.”

At the New World Symphony, that spirit is even stronger. Tilson Thomas says that another way he has changed since leaving Los Angeles is that he has become more of an idealist, perhaps needing to leave the West Coast to recapture some of its spirit.

“The work that I’m doing here (in Miami) is tied in with the idealistic work I did in the first years of my musical life, and it reminds me very much of the work Ingolf (Dahl) and so many others did with me and reminds me of my first years at Ojai,” he says.

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In Miami, Tilson Thomas has a laboratory for trying out new ideas, for musical experimentation and collaboration unlike anywhere else.

“As a conductor I am utterly uninterested in going out on the stage and giving beats and having people follow them,” he says. “That is not my style of music-making. What I’m interested in doing is helping to create a kind of musical space, a kind of space in time and spirit in which music can take place. And I enter this space with my ideas, and all of my colleagues with me enter this space with all of their ideas, their past experience, their perspectives. And somehow in this space we find one another.”

What in this space-time continuum is past, present, future? It all becomes so intertwined that it needs its own laws of relativity. But space, we know, is curved, and for Tilson Thomas the return to Ojai “is kind of a completion of a circle for me--bringing this repertoire with these musicians of an entirely different generation who play all this music as if it were written for them."*

* The Ojai Festival begins Friday at 8:15 p.m. in Libbey Bowl. Saturday’s performances are at 4:30 and 9 p.m. Next Sunday’s events are at 11 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Single tickets range from $15 to $35. Mini-subscriptions to four concerts cost $56-$130; subscriptions to five concerts, $66-$157. Information: (805) 646-2094.

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