Ever since Michael Tilson Thomas emerged as a '60s Wunderkind on the local scene--introducing works by Stravinsky and Boulez at Monday Evening Concerts--music pundits have been expecting him to lay claim to a major career and, at least, a world-class orchestra. But that has eluded him until this month.
Now, at 42, the native Angeleno has belatedly landed a primary post with the prestigious London Symphony Orchestra (LSO)--after being passed up three years ago as successor to Carlo Maria Giulini at the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
Tilson Thomas inherits the LSO baton from Claudio Abbado, current principal conductor of the British ensemble; he officially begins his tenure in September, 1988.
"I was particularly happy to be elected by acclamation," said Tilson Thomas, explaining that the orchestra players themselves, who operate as a collective and make their own decisions, voted him in.
Two years ago, when the Los Angeles Philharmonic let his contract as principal guest conductor and artistic director of the summer training institute expire, Tilson Thomas said: "It's no secret that (executive director) Ernest Fleischmann and I have little to say to each other."
By contrast, his connection to the LSO is direct and does not depend on maintaining diplomatic relations with management.
"I can't answer whether it's easier for me to deal with musicians than executives," he said, acknowledging that his record would suggest a higher premium on his services than the conductor-short market has so far reflected.
"But everything with the LSO seemed to fall naturally in place. One step led to another. It was the orchestra with which I made my London debut, 15 years ago. And when we got re-acquainted recently--going together on a tour and doing some really hot concerts--and Abbado gave notice that he would be leaving for the Vienna State Opera, I was the logical choice to replace him."
Tilson Thomas cites his value as a Gershwin specialist as also being a factor. He brings to the American composer the same affection and care and sensitivity that others reserve for Mozart--to say nothing of his championing of other natives, such as Carl Ruggles, whose complete works he has recorded, and Charles Ives.
Two months ago, Tilson Thomas organized a Gershwin festival in New York and this summer he will lead the LSO in a variation of it at the Barbican Centre, to be televised July 2 throughout the United Kingdom and in this country.
"To give just one example of how differently Europeans and the English regard American music," he explained, "Cambridge University has a whole course on Gershwin, with scholars studying and analyzing the structure of his songs. Nothing equivalent happens in this country. We don't honor our own."
As it turns out, Tilson Thomas and Andre Previn (who did succeed Giulini here) both grew up in Los Angeles. And the two, though markedly different in musical interests and personality, continue their game of musical chairs. When Previn began his stint at the LSO (from 1968 to 1979) the 24-year-old Tilson Thomas had just won the prestigious Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood.
Then, in 1969, the younger conductor rocketed to fame, replacing an indisposed William Steinberg at the Boston Symphony, where he went on to become assistant and then associate conductor. And after reincarnating television's Young People's Concerts a la Leonard Bernstein, his mentor, many of the same career features marked the protege. Both he and Bernstein descend from Russian Jewish immigrants, both were precocious intellects as well as gifted pianists, both boast ongoing and considerable discographies.
But apart from his appointment to the Buffalo Philharmonic (1973 to 1979), the award of a key post with a major ensemble eluded Tilson Thomas. Highly successful with pre-professional musicians, he began his own conducting career here with the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra at age 19. Last week he was also appointed artistic adviser of the Miami-based New World Symphony, a training group.
Whether Los Angeles will be welcoming Tilson Thomas in the foreseeable future remains an unanswered question. When he finished his commitment to the Philharmonic two summers ago there was nothing on the books.
"That's still the case," he said, after a long silence. "Previn asked me a few weeks ago if I would be interested (in accepting some guest engagements). I told him I'd be happy to. I have great affection for the Philharmonic. Lots of what I'm doing now relates to my work there. The conversation ended without setting any dates."