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Michael Tilson Thomas on Stravinsky

August 31, 2018

This month, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony present a two-week Stravinsky Festival framed by the mythical The Firebird (September 21-23) and the infamously riotous The Rite of Spring (September 27-30). For MTT, the music of Stravinsky has been a through line, from the formative concert experiences of his youth in Los Angeles and continuing through his many Stravinsky performances as a conductor. Here MTT reflects on the lessons he learned working alongside the master. 

Growing up in Los Angeles gave me the opportunity to hear and meet Stravin­sky on many occasions. Since my earliest childhood, he was one of my favorite composers. I had literally played through my parents’ wartime 78 rpm records of Petrushka and Le Sacre du printemps and sung the bits of quoted folk tunes along with my Russian grandmother.

When I was around ten years old, I was first taken to a concert Stravinsky conducted. I remember a very thin, energetic little man came out onto the stage and bowed in a courtly way I had never seen before. It was more the bow of a dancer than a musician. He then conducted many small pieces, some writ­ten many years before, some quite recently. His style of conducting was angular and concentrated and seemed to me very powerful. The audience was greatly divided in its appreciation of the different works. But to me, they all seemed wonderful. The newer, “more severe” pieces were so clearly made by the same mind that had shaped the old ones. They had the same gestures, the same sorts of chords, the same tension of stop and go rhythm. I was entranced. From then on, I insisted on going to every Stravinsky concert we could, especially the Mon­day Evening Concerts where Stravinsky frequently premiered new pieces in the context of Renaissance, Baroque, and avant‑garde music. It thrilled me to think of this master composer living right there in our town writing new and more challenging music for us to hear.

Years later, when I was around eighteen, I became a performer in that very same Monday Evening Concert series and on many other musical projects put on by the impresario Laurence Morton and by Ingolf Dahl, my teacher and a close colleague of Stravinsky since the 1940s. Now I began to have many more chances to observe and work with Stravinsky in rehearsals and performances. The performers usually were top‑flight studio musicians—all of them prodigious sight‑readers and technicians. The moment Stravinsky appeared, they leapt to their feet and treated the old man with great respect and affection. Stravinsky always spoke simply and directly about his music. He never referred to any abstractions of structure or rhythm. Numbers, other than rehearsal numbers, were never spoken. What he did say was something like “My dears, music must go tee‑tah, tah‑tah‑tah, tee‑tah.” He used a combination of singing, speaking, grunting and other whispery whistling noises to make his point. This unique solfège gave an absolutely clear sense of the music’s essential gestures. His approach to his music was dance‑like, witty, energetic, delighting in elegant surprise. He brought the same interpretive sweep to all his music. He had such energy. He was like an old bird of prey—a bit feeble but still dangerous. The sound of his voice singing his pieces is still the greatest influence on my approach to his mu­sic and the conversations we had on Beethoven, Monteverdi, Sacre, Les Noces, and Huxley Variations are treasures of my life.

Michael Tilson Thomas

Come Celebrate the music of Stravinsky during Rebellious Beauty, from Sept 21-30

Works include: The Firebird and The Rite Of Sping.