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Michael Tilson Thomas


By Stephen E. Hefling

THE INEVITABLE DOOM of American musical life has been discussed with morbid relish by almost everyone concerned for years now. Composers, still suffering from the complications of the turn-of-the century stylistic crisis, lament the unwillingness of audience and orchestras to accept unfamiliar music. Conductors skillfully transfer the blame from orchestras to players, whose reticence and unionization undermine effective rehearsal of the unknown; but they, too, indict reactionary audiences and patrons. Professional players are often delightfully unaffected in their views-remarks like "I'd rather be at home driving splints under my fingernails" are a typical response to the rehearsal of particularly trying new works. The critics, still dazed by the mystifying complexity of dry post-Webern serialism, can rarely muster the cogency to suffuse their obfuscating verbiage with any genuine perspicuity. And audiences themselves are sullenly apathetic, compared to their predecessors who rioted at the premiere of Le Sacre du Printempus.

It can be said, without fear of premature optimism, that a few people are taking positive steps to bridge the chasms separating the various functions taking part in musical events. Most conspiciously promising in this respect among young conductors is Michael Tilson Thomas, who is clearly using his remarkable prominence beneficially. Even in his pre-Boston Symphony days. Thomas performed a remarkable amount of unusual music-his four years in Los Angeles, for example, included premieres of Stravinsky, Boulez, Stockhausen, Dahl, and Foss.

As Associate Conduction of the BSO. Thomas unfated the Spectrum Concerts, the most progressive step toward more interesting and realistic programming yet taken by the orchestra. And as Musical Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, he has made more impressive progress in renovating the nineteenth century museum status of the 'modern' orchestra.

"My object there (in Buffalo) is to present the complete music of Western civilization. We're setting up a series where people in the orchestra appear in chamber concerts, smaller concerts, in which they have the chance to prepare their own groups...and there are also some groups working with electronic music immediately within the orchestra; and I'm getting a group of people interested in old music..."

I've divided the year there between two kinds of concerts-Kaleidoscope concerts and Criterion concerts. Criterion is straight down music the line, standard rep,you can buy a ticket with no fears at all . And Kaleidiscope is,um...far out musiic from the eleventh century to the day before yesterday And amazingly enough,lots of people come to those concerts...... It partially has to do with the way the concerts are run a kind of 'dissection concert,' really a kind of dialogue between the audience and they can ask questions, and the piece is taken apart and put back together much more relaxed. People are turned on by the adventure of it, the uncertainty of it."

THOMAS' MOST RECENT such adventure in Boston was last weekend's Salute to Serge Diaghilev, the legendary Russian impressario of the arts, who, among other things, presented the first performance of Stravinsky's Le Sacre in 1913, with choreography by Nijinsky. Though he confessed that, because of a lot of schedule conflicts, Friday's program (L'apres-midi d'un faune and Jeux by Debussy: Scythian Suite 'Ala and Lolli' by Prokoflev: and Stravinksy's Les Noces) was not one of his more daring adventures. Thomas was justifiably excited about it: "...the figure of that man is monumental. It's just unbelievable the number of things he brought off!... The world needs more impressarios, not more composers and players (you've got plenty of good people)--especially now, the media situations are so complicated..."

Notwithstanding the laudable purposes, the fascinating theme of the program, and the enthusiasm and ability of the man who engineered it, Friday's Salute was less exciting than I had hoped. Presumably to avoid any overtones of pedantry. Thomas is quite casual in his commentary on the pieces: and the rambling result is often less than illuminating. Debussy's Jeux was the most complex work presented: and, as Pierre Boulez, who 'discovered' the work, lucidly notes. "Jeux marks the advent of a musical form which, instantly renewing itself, involves no less instantaneous mode of listening." Thomas excerpted several logical examples in attempting to facilitate the comprehension of this difficult genre of continuous musical development: but they were quite short, weakly described, and besides, the orchestra got lost in one of them. My impression that this particular 'dissection' had little meaning for anyone not acquainted with the score was verified later by several other members of the audience.

The actual performance of Jeax was exemplary-exceedingly clean in texture and rhythmic accuracy, and appropriately tensile in overall structural concept. Unhappily. Afternoon of a Fann was treated in much the same way. Despite the barrage of controversy concerning impressionism, by which the piece is usually described (Boule/ for instance, feels justified in saying that title is taken. Tilson Thomas' performancy was devoid of any impressionistic aspects.

THE SCYTHIAN SUITE was jovially described by Thomas as Prokoflev's attempt at a barbaric Russian ballet, in response to Le Sacre. Diaghilev rejected the score, and it is not too hard to imagine why, I cannot help but predict its future renown as music for a rousing John Wayne movie.

"There is little to say about Stravinsky's Les Noces," began Thomas after intermission, which prompted applause from an audience evidently not turned on by this particular adventure. The performance of Diaghilev's favorite Stravinsky piece was undermined by some fundamental problems, the most distressing of which was that scarcely a word of either the chorus or soloists could be heard. Both the intricate rhythms and texture of the composition were imprecisely handled, resulting in a generally mediocre performance.

The difficulties of Friday's concert, however, are far less significant than the progressive trend of Thomas' musical inclination. By the range of his tastes, his education, his inherent abilities, and the esteem now accorded him, Tilson Thomas is uniquely 'qualified to transform the symphony orchestra into a flexible nucleus for the continuing expansion of the musical spectrum. It is a creative project which he takes seriously. And, he assured me, he is having no difficulty in financing his novel programs. Why then, I naturally wanted to know, did so many others adamantly maintain that unconventional programming was unfeasible?

"Because they are lazy."

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