It’s a question that 15 years ago would have made me scratch my head, bewildered that a conductor who goes by his initials even got this far, associations with Lenny notwithstanding. Michael Tilson Thomas seemed to me to be the quintessential jagoff maestro, his face plastered on every CD cover, his persona seemingly crafted and polished to sanitary perfection like the classical music version of A-Rod or Kobe (where have I seen that fist pump before?).
A funny thing happened on the way to Michael Tilson Thomas being the biggest douchebag in the orchestra world, though. He became the anti-MTT.
Thomas was in some ways the archetype for the new music director we see now: young, handsome, and charismatic, experience and facility be damned. He got his start at 25 with the Boston Symphony, and went from stellar gig to stellar gig after that, recording a lot along the way.
It’s not that MTT wasn’t any good back then, but when compared to a still living and recording Bernstein, Karajan, Boulez, Haitink, et al, nobody is going to look all that great. When Karajan and Bernstein died, it was sort of the end of a magical epoch for conducting, the last holdovers from the epic days of Reiner, Szell, etc. We filled the void with names like Abbado, Muti, Chailly, and Dutoit, but Thomas was not generally thrown in there.
And he still isn’t. Abbado and the gang have been replaced by names like Dudamel and Gilbert, but one thing remains the same: Michael Tilson Thomas isn’t on the tip of your tongue.
In some ways, I feel like I’ve come around on Thomas because it seems like he’s the last maestro, certainly in America, with one of those awesome old-school conductor/orchestra relationships. When you think of great orchestras, you tend to associate them with great conductors and the periods in which they flourished: Furtwangler/Berlin, Solti/Chicago, Mravinsky/Leningrad. I’m not sure any orchestra and conductor currently active can lay claim to that type of legacy, but if there is one out there that is in the conversation, to me it’s Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony.
I couldn’t tell you if MTT spends more time per season with his band than any other MD does with theirs, but doesn’t it feel like he does? There’s a genuine connection there, and they have both benefited tremendously by the association. What’s even more amazing is that after 15 years they’re not trying to run him out on a rail; they are content to sit back, enjoy the partnership, and be arguably the best orchestra in the country.
You can make a fairly compelling argument that MTT is the best conductor still alive today. There’s Haitink and Boulez, sure, but Thomas is in the discussion, and he continues to gain ground if for no other reason than he looks like’s 20 years younger than he actually is and will probably still be around 30 years from now. And while it’s not the be all and the end all of a great conductor, Thomas has, in my opinion, the best top-to-bottom Mahler cycle of the bunch. Of any bunch. And a host of wonderful recordings of American music. And a terrific music education project (Keeping Score) that continues to be immensely popular.
So the next time you’re thinking about music, do yourself a favor and think about MTT. I used to hate those initials. Now? He just might be the best thing going.