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Michael Tilson Thomas Arrives at SFCM for First Coaching Session

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MTT worked directly with students and spoke on topics like his lineage of teachers, compositions, and advice for SFCM students.

April 22, 2024 by Alex Heigl

Michael Tilson Thomas wasted no time in jumping into his position as SFCM's Distinguished Professor of Music, coaching a chamber music trio and answering questions for students just two days after the Conservatory announced his new role.

MTT listened to a trio of chamber music students perform Beethoven's Piano Trio Op. 97 ("the Archduke trio") and offered them advice both practical—how to shape a melodic line over a large number of bars—and somewhat more whimsical (having the pianist play the opening of Beethoven's fourth piano concerto by himself before playing the trio piece). The coaching session was followed by a Q&A with SFCM President David Stull.

"MTT is a legend, and it was a real privilege to perform for him," pianist Jon Lee said. "His insights reminded me to avoid overthinking what I wanted to communicate, and just play."

Michael Tilson Thomas coaches a chamber trio.

Asked by Stull afterward where he suggests students focus their energies, MTT quipped, "It won't be a very popular answer, but I would say theory, form and analysis." He added of his own process at the students' age, "I was also asking a lot of questions, especially with great performers I was hearing. 'This sounds wonderful. Why does it sound wonderful? What actually is being done? Is something being done? Or maybe nothing being done?'"

Yip-Wai Chow (left) and Alexandra Kim perform for Michael Tilson Thomas.

Yip-Wai Chow (left) and Alexandra Kim perform for Michael Tilson Thomas.

Despite prioritizing study, MTT also urged students to not be too rigorous in adhering to the page. "For a while it was, 'Oh, I only do exactly what it says in the score.' Nonsense. There's much more to the music, the score is a kind of template."

Michael Tilson Thomas coaches at SFCM.

Michael Tilson Thomas coaches at SFCM.

"The truth is," he continued, "there is so much more time in the pieces than is in their scores. What I generally experience in hearing young people play is that they're going on to the next thing too quickly. They're not allowing the audience to just say, 'What just happened? That was extraordinary.' That doesn't happen if everything's pushing on too quickly to the next event."

Thomas also touched on the influence of his colleagues and friends, including Leonard Bernstein, explaining that most of them had left Europe due to World War II and "who in California all found the sort of lotus land where they could just work with young people and have time to revel in the music." He continued, "Being able to give people that quality of joy and revelry within the music, in spite of the condition of the world, is testimony that reminds us that human beings have the possibility of being human."

Michael Tilson Thomas (right) with SFCM President David Stull.

Michael Tilson Thomas (right) with SFCM President David Stull.

Other topics included his composition starring San Francisco Symphony (and SFCM bassoon professor ) Steven Braunstein, Urban Legend, apparently inspired by rumors of discarded tourist alligators thriving in the tunnels below Manhattan, and visiting iconoclastic (and controversial) American composer Carl Ruggles in a nursing home to play the elder man an arrangement of Ruggles' Sun-treader Tilson Thomas had done.

Thomas will continue to work individually with students, participate in readings with the SFCM orchestra, and conduct masterclasses as part of his new post, sponsored by the John and Marcia Goldman Foundation. When his hiring was announced, Stull said of MTT, "He is unmatched in craft, imagination, and sheer genius as a creator and performer, but his work and leadership on behalf of education may well transcend his legacy of exceptional achievement as an artist. We are honored and inspired to have him with us."