Life with MTT

Life with MTT

Michael 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:

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:

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.

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.

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 before...

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:

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.

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.

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