A Famed Composer Plumbs His Second Avenue Roots

By Michael S. Markowitz

Published March 12, 2004, issue of March 12, 2004.
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Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall is a long way from Second Avenue, yet there is a potent link, both spiritual and intellectual, between the home of the San Francisco Symphony and the Manhattan street where Yiddish theater first flourished in America. Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the SFS and the man largely responsible for its burgeoning reputation as one of the nation’s best and most adventurous orchestras, traces his passion for performing to his paternal grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, legendary stars of the Yiddish stage.

Tilson Thomas credits his grandparents with passing along their devotion to music and theater, their enthusiasm for innovation and their unshakeable belief that the arts can help transcend cultural differences. “Certainly my involvement in and understanding of music comes from them — the influence was very powerful from that side of the family,” Tilson Thomas said from San Francisco in a recent telephone interview. “Their theatrical sense, their use of theater as a vehicle of social transformation — those ideas are similar to the way in which I see music.”

Next season in New York, Tilson Thomas will celebrate the work of his grandparents, determined Ukrainian immigrants widely acclaimed as pivotal figures in the development of the Yiddish stage in America. Carnegie Hall’s recently announced 2004-05 schedule features Tilson Thomas conducting “Remembrances of Thomashefsky’s Yiddish Theater,” a musical revue evoking the heyday of the Lower East Side. The concert is part of Carnegie’s “Perspectives” series, which gives major musicians an opportunity to create concerts reflecting their artistic visions.

Although he has not been known as a Jewish musician, Tilson Thomas said that even his more typical concert programs display the imprint of his upbringing, especially his affinity for certain Jewish and Russian composers, his zeal for music education, his championship of “maverick” voices and a certain theatricality that animates much of his work.

“The powerful sweep of the message of yidishkayt is something that I have always heard in music,” Tilson Thomas said. “A lot of the composers that I have been most closely associated with — Gustav Mahler, Schoenberg, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein — obviously these are people who dealt with various aspects of yidishkayt in different ways on one side of the Atlantic or another.”

Some of these traits will be evident as Tilson Thomas visits Carnegie Hall twice in the next few weeks, in late March with the SFS and again in April, when he leads his Miami-based New World Symphony, an acclaimed training orchestra for promising musicians. The two sets of concerts will showcase works by Mahler and Stravinsky, iconoclasts such as Lou Harrison and Edgard Varese and major contemporary voices such as John Adams and Luciano Berio. Tilson Thomas will also conduct his own recent composition, “Island Music” for percussion ensemble.

“I think a lot about what it meant in the old country to be a village musician, to be recognized as someone who had a unique talent for putting into music the concerns and emotions that everyone was feeling,” he said. “That kind of immediacy and directness of experience is something I try to recreate even with something as mighty as a 104-piece, hyper-virtuosic orchestra.”

For Tilson Thomas, the old country was the storied place where many of his ancestors served their villages as cantors. Some were quite accomplished; family lore has it that Tchaikovsky heard one of them and commented quite favorably. One of those singers, newly transplanted to America in his youth, persuaded a New York saloonkeeper to sponsor a visit by a London-based Yiddish theater troupe in 1881. A year later, that same young man, Boris Thomashefsky, produced and starred in what is considered to be the first American Yiddish play.

Bessie, who met Boris when she was 14, soon joined his theater company. Over the years, the Thomasefskys developed musicals, comedies and dramas aimed at helping immigrant audiences understand their new homeland and introducing them to important works by major musicians and authors. Boris Thomashefsky’s adaptation of “Hamlet,” which recast the Danish prince as a yeshiva boy visited by the ghost of his grandfather, was many immigrants’ first exposure to Shakespeare.

Tilson Thomas, born in Los Angeles five years after his grandfather died, discovered this Yiddish theatrical heritage through his grandmother, who regaled her grandson with stories of the golden age of Second Avenue and remained a revered figure to those touched by the Yiddish theater.

As he matures into one of American music’s most prominent figures, Tilson Thomas, now 59, seems eager to consolidate the disparate influences on his life, including his Yiddish theatrical heritage. This fall, he will mark his 10th season at the helm of the San Francisco Symphony, kicking off a season-long celebration dubbed “MTT/SFS/TEN” by the orchestra’s marketing mavens. At the beginning of March, fresh off a Best Classical Album Grammy for his recent SFS recording of Mahler’s monumental Third Symphony, he released a thoughtfully shaped, superbly played disc of the same composer’s Symphony No. 4.

And this spring, Tilson Thomas will take to the airwaves with a PBS TV special intended to harness his eagerness to reach new audiences. “Keeping Score: MTT on Music,” kicks off with a two-part exploration of Tchaikovsky’s stirring Fourth Symphony, envisioned as the first installment in a multimedia project designed to kindle interest in classical music in schools and homes across the country.

His goal sounds much like what his grandfather aimed to do, as Tilson Thomas explains: “to make music much more accessible and to help people to realize that classical music is not something remote, abstract and far away, but something totally immediate and that reflects more vividly than any other music the intensity and mutability of the emotions and experiences that we all feel in life.”

Michael S. Markowitz is a freelance writer specializing in the arts and business.

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