Originally created 06/17/04

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas works to help the public keep score of living classical music

NEW YORK -- When it was over, he glowed ... and growled.

Then conductor Michael Tilson Thomas walked to his office at San Francisco's Davies Symphony Hall, pondering. He had just conducted Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony for perhaps the 100th time. Yet, he recalled later, he was thinking about how he would do it differently next time.

"That's the whole point of classical music," Tilson Thomas said in a recent telephone interview. "It's meant to have various intriguing and alluring, questioning things that you hear on first hearing. But by its very nature it's holding a lot of other secrets or a lot of other perspectives much closer to its chest, which only with repeated hearing you start realizing are there.

"And perhaps with more and more living, you start to recognize more and more of your own experience in the piece as times goes on."

Now approaching his 60th birthday, the former boy wonder who began conducting in his teens and had a bratty reputation in his early years is joining the ranks of elder statesmen among American-born conductors. In this role, the still-youthful maestro is embarking on a five-year multimedia project to help people - novices and longtime concertgoers alike - make their own discoveries.

The project, "Keeping Score: MTT on Music," debuts nationally Wednesday night on PBS' "Great Performances." The two-hour show, which has an accompanying Web site offering deeper explanations, starts with an inside look at the making of an orchestral performance and concludes with Tilson Thomas leading the San Francisco Symphony in Tchaikovsky's powerhouse work.

Three programs a year, with DVDs, are planned, the next being about how Beethoven's revolutionary changes still affect music.

In the first program, Tilson Thomas brings viewers to his home, pulls out the Tchaikovsky score from his library, sings passages the way he wants them played and then tries them on the piano. Later, he plays them with concertmaster Alexander Barantschik to determine just the right phrasing. Next, librarian Margo Kieser takes the annotated score and writes in Tilson Thomas' new markings in each part.

In other scenes, bass player Stephen Tramontozzi romps at home with his four young children, then excuses himself to practice. Timpanist David Herbert demonstrates how he soaks the head of the drum to make the animal skin more resonant. Principal oboist William Bennett cuts his reed, then chisels it again to make it just right for the atmospheric conditions in the hall. Piccolo player Catherine Payne practices and practices the knotty, 21-note run in the third movement and tells of her anxiety about flubbing what she calls "THE Olympic event for piccolo players." (She doesn't, and when she completes the three-second passage, her face betrays a triumphant twinkle.)

As fate would have it, Tchaikovsky's Fourth was picked as the starting point for no particular reason other than it was already on the orchestra's schedule when "Keeping Score" was being launched, Tilson Thomas said.

Still, he says on the show, "Very few people have captured life's roller-coaster ride of emotions better than the great Russian composer."

Tchaikovsky composed the work in 1878, around the time he married a young admirer in a hasty attempt to silence gossip about his homosexuality. The marriage lasted two weeks and drove the composer to attempt suicide.

"It's a hugely dramatic piece," Tilson Thomas said. "It has a sort of leitmotif, a big symbol that runs through it. ... This fate motif keeps appearing and blots out anything else that is going on, including in the last movement this hugely joyous music - one of the most riotous examples that you could imagine."

Despite the intrusion of fate, the symphony ends in a triumphant frenzy by the full forces of the orchestra.

After the final cutoff, Tilson Thomas jabs the air with his baton, growls to the orchestra and bows to the audience. Then he walks backstage and growls again. "That was definitely in the pocket! Felt great," he tells a stagehand. "That was a growl-worthy performance. Carnivorous wolfpack noises. Alright!"

While savoring the moment, he also started thinking about next time.

"That's the way it is, and it has to be," he said. "Otherwise it's no longer a living tradition."

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