Life with MTT
Tilson Thomas, or MTT as he is often referred to, is the Music
Director of the San Francisco Symphony, so we often get the chance to
work with him on choral-orchestral pieces. It is an honor to work
with such a great conductor at the peak of his career. But it's also
a blast, because he loves his work, and he loves music, and so
rehearsals and concerts with him are full of joy. I wanted to share
some vignettes illustrating that, which is why I am putting together
this web page.
November 30, 2008
MTT quotes from rehearsing the CD recording of Mahler's 8th Symphony:
- "You see this stick I'm waving around? The tendinitis in my shoulder makes it hard for me to do that, but I'm doing these big waving motions so that we can stay in sync. Hey, maybe you should look at me so that I'm not doing this in vain." (ouch) (this was one of the moments I apologized for when I chatted with him on November 14th (see below))
- When he tried to take one part at half its normal speed, and some choristers launched into it at normal speed, he said again to do it slower: "This is called tuning."
- "Wonderful musical black'n'blue note"
- "Take that B natural and shove it down their throats. Or someplace else." (in reference to one of the many critical notes where Mahler is shifting keys yet again)
- In the boisterous "Hostem repellas" (Repel the enemies) section, "This is total fight song territory - Hostem, KICK!"
- He also connected that section to marching band music like Sousa - while rehearsing it, he would whistle Stars and Stripes Forever while counting us in.
- "God, there's a lot of notes in this piece!"
- "Can I request that it be my conception of a slower tempo?"
- "You need to sound way happier" in reference to the Gloria Domino Patri (Glory to the Lord our Father) section.
- "Bambi, you're still alive!" (a sappy section with harps playing)
- During a section when the women are singing as young angels, "You need to have a witty sly provocative attitude from the moment you start this, because you know what's going to happen"
- "It's difficult to get 500 people to charming and witty at the same time" referring to getting the whole ensemble into the same mindset.
November 14, 2008
Google runs a series where they invite authors and other prominent public figures to come speak. On November 14th, MTT came to speak. Unfortunately, I had a meeting that I could not miss at the exact same time as his talk, but I wandered over afterwards to see if the performance had run over. It hadn't, but MTT was still chatting with some folks when I poked my head into the theater. When he saw me, his eyes lit up in recognition and he waved for me to come over. I was like "Um, me?" I actually glanced over my shoulder to make sure he wasn't waving to somebody behind me. But no, it was me that he had recognized.
As I walked up, he said "So this is what you do when you're not singing Mahler". I said "Uh, yeah." I apologized for missing his talk for my mandatory meeting. We chatted for a bit about how the rehearsals were going - we had just had the first chorus rehearsal with him which had been a little rough, but he acknowledged that we'd get the hang of it, and that his goal was not to try to control the performers, but to assemble a common sense of the piece in us so that we could agree on tempos and dynamics and emotions. As I left, I told him what a privilege it was to work with him, and he thanked me.
But, dude, I'm one of two hundred singers in the chorus, and MTT recognized me immediately. Not only that, he treated me as an equal participant in the musical creation process when I'm just a part-time singer, and he's possibly the most prominent conductor in the world. It reminds me again of why I think he is so amazing, not only as a musician, but also as a person.
December 12, 2005
MTT quotes from rehearsing Stravinsky:
- "It should sound funny!"
- "Be as Stravinsky as you can." (I'm still not sure what this means)
- "My dental work hurt - [that was] so in tune, it hurts!"
- MTT discussing how to coordinate with the soloist Michelle DeYoung - "It's so much better when I take my lead from you". Michelle's response: "I like that too!"
June 26, 2004
MTT quotes from rehearsing the Mahler 2:
Plus, during one of the concerts, I saw Michael get so excited that he blew a kiss to his cello section. I think. Nobody else seems to have seen it, so I may be imagining it. But I can believe it - he's so enthusiastic. Really. People who watched the Keeping Score special may think that Michael was hamming it up for the camera, but no, that's really just how he is.
- "Sing this like the hammiest baritone soloist you ever saw...but tasteful, of course."
- In a section where the lyrics translate as "With wings that I have won, I will soar", Michael stopped us and said "I don't feel the spread of your wings!"
- "See that caret sign? That's the sign that means squeeeeze me!"
- "So much of Mahler sounds like the Queen Mary II is docking"
- "Can we a bit more hysterical here?"
- "This is the extrovert side of what the alto soloist sings in the movement before this."
- "This is sort of a tsunami hang gliding thing"
May 20, 2004
Some amusing MTT quotes from our Beethoven Journey rehearsals:
Another amusing incident happened in the concert itself. One of the
songs we sang has many verses, all sounding identical. Between each
verse, the winds play a line leading up to us singing. Except they
play it twice. And almost every time that we've rehearsed, some
chorus member screws up and comes in after the first time through.
We'd finally gotten over that. Finally. But during the second
concert, after the first verse, somebody screwed up again and came in
too early. Fortunately, it wasn't anybody in the chorus. It was
Michael - he started singing, loudly enough for us to hear him, and
then he realized he was wrong, and there was this priceless look of
mortification on his face. Meanwhile, everybody in the chorus is
laughing; I was laughing so hard I almost missed our entrance when it
did come around the second time.
- "This concert is everything you wanted to know about Beethoven but were afraid to ask."
- "What he's asking for is outrageous; there's no point in trying to do it subtly."
- It's "football music!"
- (to the women singing a gypsy-like movement) "You are Hungarian virgins!"
- "This needs to be much more extravagant, almost vulgar."
- (after speeding through one section) "My coffee just kicked in, I'll try to slow down."
- "This song answers one of the three ageless questions of show business: Do you do schtick?" He tried to go on, but we demanded to know what the other two questions were, but he only gave us one of them - "Do you belt?"
- "What's the musical term? ... Bloodcurdling"
Oct. 28, 2003
There was a nice article about MTT and his
connection with San Francisco and its symphony in the Wall Street Journal.
Oct. 11, 2003
Following up on the previous entry, a few of us were hanging around
backstage before the last performance of the Berlioz. Since the men had to
do an offstage chorus during the first half, we never got a chance to
see and hear the soloists. But from the backstage area, they have
speakers and TVs to monitor the performances, and we figured we'd
watch on those. The orchestra goes by and gets on stage, warming up
and tuning. Then the concertmaster and MTT walk in. MTT sees us
standing around, asks us what we're doing, and we tell him we just
want to see the first half and the soloists. Then he starts talking
about the bass soloist who sings the part of Friar Laurence, and says
that wouldn't it be great if Elvis sang that solo? And, once again,
he launches into an Elvis impersonation, if Elvis were to sing a
French aria ("Jurez donc, par l'auguste symbole"), complete with MTT
gyrating his hips. Totally hilarious. We were falling over
laughing. Then it was time for him to go on stage. He turned around,
straightened his coat, took a deep breath and walked out there to the
applause of the crowd. I just have to wonder what some of those
audience members would think if they had seen him just a minute
Oct. 1, 2003
Rehearsing for Berlioz's Romeo
and Juliet, MTT was trying to get us into the spirit (and rhythm)
of one bit of music. So he said something like "You have to imagine
yourself as doing a really slow karaoke version of an Elvis song", and
launched into a warbling version of Heartbreak Hotel that you had to
hear to believe. Our accompanist launched some blues chords under
him, and, well, wow. He got a spontaneous round of applause for that.
I'm not sure it necessarily helped with the music, though :)
June 2002 update
Back in February, the New York Times did a piece on MTT and his Mavericks
concerts that I grabbed a copy of, but failed to post until now.
Also, check out my comments on
Mlada for more MTT quotes.
May 2001, Mahler 8th
In our rehearsal with MTT for the Mahler
8th, we got yet more great Michael quotes:
- "This piece has a lot of football music!", meaning rah rah
shout-it-out type stuff. Or as he later put it, "Blah blah KICK!"
- "That Elgarian feel that I have sworn a vow to eradicate from my
- "Don't shy away from the Jewish note!", referring to a plaintive
note in a minor key.
- "This bass line is like an organ pedal line." as he stomped around
the podium simulating an organist playing a vigorous bass line. He
stopped himself and said, "Or perhaps a clever horse."
February 2001, Das Klagende Lied
In a recent rehearsal, we were working on Mahler's Das Klagende
Lied, after coming off a couple weeks of doing Stravinsky. This prompted some amusing
quotes from MTT during rehearsal that inspired me to start this page.
- "I know what you meant." - shouted out without stopping after a
mistake by the horn section.
- "You've been playing nothing but Stravinsky for a while - you must
play broader for Mahler."
- "Play Siegfriedian! This is Son of Siegfried!"
- "Play staccato, but not a short staccato."
- "Shut up, I'm calling the cops!" - after a particularly frantic
section which ends with the men and women of the chorus shouting
(well, singing loudly) at each other.
- "Wheeeeee!" - squealed just before launching into a fast section.
He actually scared the chorus into missing our entrance :)
February 2001, Svadebka
Another great moment came today when MTT was reviewing the Stravinsky concert. In our third
performance, we managed to spectacularly blow the ending of one
movement, with the chorus finishing a full measure before the
orchestra. Oops. I saw it coming about a page away (I could tell we
were off from him), but I couldn't figure out how to get back on, so
we just kind of lurched onward. It was frustrating because it was one
of the places where we normally lock in nicely, so I couldn't figure
out what had happened.
He explained it this evening. Apparently, things were going well with
the performance that night. He had kept the soloists in sync (which
had been a problem previously), and the chorus and orchestra were
sounding great. He recalled that there had been problems with the
balance between the orchestra and chorus at the end of this movement
(the orchestra had been a bit too loud, covering up the chorus), so he
figured he'd go ahead and fix that too. So he caught the eyes of the
brass section, hushed them, fixed the balance, it sounded great, and
then realized he'd completely lost track of where he was in the
music. As he put it, "I know there's a 5/8 bar around here
someplace. I wonder where it is." Oops. :).
I think that's what I like about MTT. He could be a prima donna,
egotistical beyond all measure, placing all blame on the inferior
talent around him. There are certainly plenty of those in the musical
world. But he's not. He's just a guy who loves to make
music, and loves to share the experience of music with everyone around
him, with events like the American
Mavericks festival. And we all get caught up in his vision, and
are moved to excel ourselves. It's a great feeling.
Back to Eric's chorus page
Eric Nehrlich's WWW home page / firstname.lastname@example.org