Michael Tilson Thomas

By Douglas McLennan

Published July 2, 1997 3:54PM (EDT)

There is no such thing as a truly spontaneous legend. Leonard Bernstein might have had a spectacularly dramatic start, but the Bernstein promotion machine was (and still is) the Maserati of the music world.

But Michael Tilson Thomas, aka "MTT," is pushing hard in the passing lane. The marketing of MTT as a brand name is to classical music what Madonna is to musicals about wives of South American dictators -- the star is understood to be at least as important as the project. A photo of a windswept San Francisco Symphony conductor dominates the cover of his Copland album, images of a matinee-idol MTT adorn his Mahler and Prokofiev discs, and he dons shades and holds a parrot in front of some potted plants for an album of Villa-Lobos. Press releases exhort about "one of the most exciting and innovative American conductor/orchestra partnerships in years." And at the MTT Web page you can join something called "Club MTT." At every opportunity there are attempts to link MTT with the musical legacies of such American greats as Bernstein and Copland. The promotional baggage that accompanies the release of a new MTT recording is as slick as anything in the classical music world.

If classical music is going to survive in the modern culture, it has to appeal to new audiences, and Tilson Thomas has demonstrated some early and encouraging success with that challenge. There was genuine excitement a few years back when Tilson Thomas was named music director in San Francisco, for not only is he native-born, he has also been a champion of homegrown music. Since arriving in the Bay Area in 1995, he has courageously and aggressively programmed contemporary fare and audiences have responded positively. A recent survey indicated that 68 percent of the San Francisco audiences are younger than 44 -- an astonishingly younger demographic constituency than most orchestras attract.

At a time when other orchestras have been losing their recording contracts, Tilson Thomas quickly got a contract to produce 15 recordings in five years -- a significant coup. The Mahler, Copland and Prokofiev discs have all been on Billboard's bestseller list, and the Prokofiev won a Grammy this year for best orchestral performance.

There's no question Tilson Thomas is a talented conductor who is tackling interesting projects. Villa-Lobos is an intriguing composer whose prolific output has perhaps daunted potential fans. The four examples of the "Bachianas Brasileiras" on this disc are among the composer's best and best-known work.

Mahler is hardly under-recorded these days, but "Das Klagende Lied," among the composer's earliest compositions, is a rarity. And the Copland disc has some terrific music -- the jazzy Piano Concerto with soloist Garrick Ohlsson, and the "Short Symphony," "Symphonic Ode" and the orchestral version of the famous "Piano Variations."

Tilson Thomas conducts tight performances, honing a professional edge on the Mahler and the first disc performance of Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" suite. But for all its polish, the Villa-Lobos is curiously flat, and while the Copland notes gleam, they lack organic purpose. Tilson Thomas' instincts don't seem to allow him to linger over unusual contours, and he lacks the rhythmic harmonic weight that marks the best Copland performances of, say, Bernstein.

On an accompanying press video interview, Tilson Thomas talks about "layering" some parts of his recordings track by track, a technique borrowed from the pop world that he says allows a kind of precision that would be difficult or impossible in a performance. Perhaps such studio engineering works well with some music. But perhaps the attitude that drives this approach also accounts for the pre-packaged feel of these performances. There's no push and pull for control of the musical ideas, nor is there a sense of musical narrative that resolves at the end. The music sounds about as real as the "MTT" campaign, and for all the luscious musical effects, the performances on these first discs are emotionally barren.

Hype is a time-honored American tradition. But hype demands a higher standard of substance to back it up, otherwise the purveyors of hype are likely to fall prey to that other time-honored American tradition -- the tearing down of hype.

Douglas McLennan

Douglas McLennan is the founder and editor of ArtsJournal.com. He has been a regular contributor to Salon, as well as Newsweek, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal and the London Evening Standard.

MORE FROM Douglas McLennan

Related Topics ------------------------------------------