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"We Are Trying to Figure Out, Well, Who Are All These New People?"

At the start of his 20th season, symphony conductor Michael Tilson Thomas faces a changed—and challenging—arts landscape.

Michael Tilson Thomas

Michael Tilson Thomas 

 

This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Name: Michael Tilson Thomas
Job: Music director of the San Francisco Symphony
Age: 70
Residence: Cow Hollow

This year is your 20th with the symphony. What has changed since 1995?
Our mission has always been to make classical music a living tradition. But we’re also going out of our way to present new music, to broaden the base of our audience. The changes that are occurring in the city—it’s a totally different situation. The population is entirely different. Like many other organizations, we are trying to figure out, well, who are all these new people? What does this mean for us as a cultural organization to take in these new people and see what it is that we can share with them? We want to make something that will delight them but also perhaps challenge them.

This season is full of new concepts: You’re opening a new performance space, SoundBox, but you’re also doing more semi-staged performances and video installations. Is this evidence of some big institutional facelift?
It’s just a confluence. Many of these ideas have been talked about for a long time. I’m always working to shape our programming in a way that works for as many people as possible and also has a sense of adventure and direction.

Tell me about SoundBox.
It’s a flexible space. It used to be a rehearsal space, but talk to any musician who’s had to rehearse in there—it was not something that people looked forward to. So how do you fix something like that? We installed a Meyer Sound Constellation Acoustic System that changes the sound in a room. It’s quite variable acoustically, meaning that the room can sound like a cathedral— which would be appropriate to music written in the 12th century—or it can sound like a present-day recording studio. So we’ll be able to change the acoustics to suit the music that we’re playing. That’s a brand-new ball game.

Who’s your audience for something like this?
I think there will be a lot of curiosity about it. But these issues of how much curiosity is out there and who’s going to come on each night are not what I think about.

But practically speaking, how does a symphony conductor like you go about attracting and retaining new audiences? How do you conceive of your role in that?
I find that it’s sometimes hard for me to take somebody who is used to hearing contemporary pop music and have them listen to a piece in which there are no production bells and whistles—it’s just about what the notes themselves actually say. And for me, that’s the biggest treasure, because the notes do describe a very particular place within the human spirit. I think that it’s my role to make the audience feel welcome, but it’s also OK for me to have ambitions for them, for what I would like them to know and gradually get to understand. There’s a certain amount of guidance in my responsibilities.

So you’re playing the long game.
That’s exactly it. We want to experiment, but at the same time, we know that we have to keep our center, because we see how important some of these great old pieces have become in people’s lives, what a transformative experience the symphony can be. That’s music’s highest ambition: to express things for which there are no words. That’s what we’re trying, above all, to keep alive.

Originally published in the December issue of San Francisco

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