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COVER STORY

Return of the Prodigious Son

Michael Tilson Thomas left his hometown of L.A. in disappointment 15 years ago. Now the conductor is revisiting his heritage in more ways than one.

March 05, 2000|PAUL LIEBERMAN | Paul Lieberman is a Times staff writer

SAN FRANCISCO — The key to understanding Michael Tilson Thomas must lie in his extraordinary ancestry. He's the first to say as much, this celebrity maestro known to conduct Beethoven one moment and dance like James Brown the next, to pose in leather by the Golden Gate Bridge then scoop up Grammys by the handful, all while imploring his orchestra members--and audiences--to trust him, trust him and "come inside the music."

But where in his prodigious artistic pedigree do we look? And do we see his roots as a blessing or burden?

We could start in Ukraine, where generations of Thomashefsky men were celebrated cantors, masters of the sacred songs for whom music had one purpose--expressing love of God.

Then came his immigrant grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, who for half a century were icons of America's Yiddish theater. Boris launched the nation's very first Yiddish production in 1882, at age 13 or 16--depending on the account--while laboring in a New York cigar factory. He soon was taking the stage in tights and plumed hats to perform Yiddish versions of Shakespeare, musical farces or melodramas, riding in atop a horse if that's what it took to win an audience, and always getting the girl.

Today, you see the theatricality of Boris' shund productions every time his grandkid takes the podium with the San Francisco Symphony, looking like a stork with his light feet and vast wingspan, pumping a right fist to a trumpet player, or going on tiptoes and reaching a feathery left hand toward the heavens during a sublime moment of Shostakovich, or--as the audience applauds--departing right through the orchestra, then leaping from the upper level of the stage to the lower.

In trying to get a handle on the conductor known by three initials--"MTT"--others look to the man who was a surrogate father to him, Leonard Bernstein. It was three decades ago that the 20th century's most successful American-born orchestra leader flung around the word "genius" and said of his protege: "He reminds me of me at that age except that he knows more."

Then there's MTT's parents--his schoolteacher mom who hoped he'd be anything but a performer, and his father, Theodor Thomashefsky, who began in New York theater but found the family legacy too much, shortening his name to Ted Thomas and fleeing west. Ted wound up working on Roy Rogers cowboy serials and became fascinated by the Mojave Desert, where the serials were filmed.

Tilson Thomas thus grew up with a father whose passion was . . . cacti. Figure that out. MTT tries.

"I think a lot about what was obsessing them," he says of the previous generations, "what they were pursuing, what were their demons.

"My grandmother"--Bessie--"she said, 'You can't give an impassioned performance unless you have a little raw material.' That's a powerful statement: You can't really give witness to these emotional roller coaster rides of repertoire unless to some degree in your life you have lived those things." It was not an offhand observation, for Tilson Thomas was preparing to lead the San Francisco Symphony on a national tour that would take him to places where he rode his own roller coaster. They'd start in New York, where he inherited Bernstein's Young People's Concerts but also hit a low, in 1978: a drug arrest. They'd go to Boston, whose orchestra made him an instant sensation--as a 24-year-old fill-in--then cast him off.

And this week the tour reaches Los Angeles, where he was born 55 years ago and first established himself as a boy wonder. Five Southern California stops include a Wednesday night performance at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, which might have been his musical home to this day, but which cast him off, too. He hasn't been back there for 15 years.

*

Before Beethoven's Fifth, there's pizza. The 104 musicians of the San Francisco Symphony assemble for lunch in the bowels of Davies Hall before rehearsing the piece that will be on five of the tour's 14 programs, including the one in L.A. Tilson Thomas doesn't avoid such musical staples. "People," he notes, "want to hear them."

But people also know they will hear something not so familiar with him. Thus this lunch: to tell his orchestra what he plans for its June American Mavericks Festival.

Before he became San Francisco's music director in 1995, there already was a festival. All Beethoven. Every year.

But his festival was all-American from the start, the first featuring works of Bernstein, Copland and Cage and beginning with a headline-grabbing jam session with surviving members of the Grateful Dead. Tie-dyed Deadheads grooved on the electronic music of Edgard Varese.

Soon after, Tilson Thomas led his new orchestra to a Grammy Award for their debut recording together of Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet." It's been a love story here ever since.

"Right place, right time," says the orchestra's ponytailed principal pianist, Robin Sutherland. "California boy gets a California band at a time when boy needs band and band needs boy."

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