Michael Tilson Thomas calls conducting the CSO ‘a revitalizing experience’

Michael Tilson Thomas leads the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in December 2018, his most recent appearance here.

Todd Rosenberg Photography

Some things never change. Ask Michael Tilson Thomas about music he’s conducting, and the conversation will bristle with thoughtful insights, vivid descriptions and a witty surprise or two. 

For two years, Tilson Thomas, music director laureate of the San Francisco Symphony, has been coping with a diagnosis of glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive brain cancer. After canceling performances in July 2021 for several months of surgery and treatment, he has returned to the podium, conducting in London, New York, Miami, San Francisco and elsewhere. He will be in Chicago for CSO concerts Nov. 30-Dec. 5 with works by Mozart and Arnold Schoenberg’s sumptuous orchestration of Brahms’ Piano Quartet No 1.

The disease is taking its toll, however. Tilson Thomas has stepped down as artistic director of the New World Symphony, the training ensemble he co-founded in Miami in 1987. Last month, he conducted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in San Francisco. But to rest up for his CSO concerts, he canceled November performances in Toronto and Washington, D.C.

In a phone interview earlier this month from his home in San Francisco, his voice was strong, and he sounded full of energy. He wasn’t much interested in talking about his health: “I’m hanging in there, thank you so much for asking. It’s very kind of you.”

Instead he wanted to talk about music, and especially his work with the CSO.

“I very much love making music with the Chicago Symphony,” he said. “I always have. I find it a revitalizing experience. I expect to be emerging stronger from this experience, and that makes me very happy.”

Tilson Thomas made his CSO debut at Ravinia in 1970 at the tender age of 25. During the 1980s, he was in Chicago every year for CSO concerts at Ravinia and downtown. In 1988, he traveled with the symphony on its first tour of Australia, splitting concert duties with Sir Georg Solti, then CSO music director. The visits dropped to every other year after 1995, when he became music director of the San Francisco Symphony, a post he held for 25 years. His most recent CSO visit was in December 2018, conducting pieces by Prokofiev, Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky.

The Chicago Symphony is renowned for its high energy and sonic brilliance, the precisely honed yet roof-rattling sound it can unleash in a Mahler symphony, the Verdi Requiem or Beethoven’s choral symphonies. But Tilson Thomas especially cherishes the orchestra’s finesse in quieter moments.

“I of course love the huge energy with which they approach everything,” he said. “But I’m also a big fan of their great subtlety. They can do things that are very complex and exact. If a conductor can just help them in a new piece to grasp what the new problem is — what exactly needs to be done in a piece they don’t necessarily play every day — they can do it. There’s no limit to how quickly and expertly and movingly they will take the music on; it’s incredible rapidity. I think that’s remarkable.”

“I very much love making music with the Chicago Symphony. I always have. I find it a revitalizing experience. I expect to be emerging stronger from this experience, and that makes me very happy.” — Michael Tilson Thomas

Tilson Thomas has championed early 20th-century American composer Charles Ives, and he recorded several Ives’ works with the CSO in 1986 and 1989. He especially remembers the gorgeous simplicity that Adolph (Bud) Herseth brought to the second movement, “Decoration Day,” of Ives’ New England Holiday Symphony. A legend in the orchestral world, Herseth was the CSO principal trumpet from 1948 to 2001 and principal trumpet emeritus from 2001 until his retirement in 2004.

“In ‘Decoration Day,’ Ives quotes the bugle tune ‘Taps’ in a scene taking place at a funeral service for a soldier,” said Tilson Thomas. “The first trumpet plays ‘Taps’ with one of Ives’ very subtle accompaniments.

“When people talk about Bud Herseth, it’s generally the super-virtuosic things that they remember. But one thing I remember most is the way he played ‘Taps.’ It couldn’t be a simpler thing, but it’s played with such sincerity and beauteousness. It’s inimitable. What he put into this simple moment is beyond what anyone could ask a performer to do.” 

If Ives has long been a focus for Tilson Thomas, he only recently acquired a taste for Mozart. His upcoming Chicago concerts open with the composer’s rarely performed Six German Dances, K. 509, and the Piano Concerto No. 23 with soloist Orion Weiss.

Tilson Thomas was a child prodigy, a gifted pianist and composer from early on. As a youngster, to put it bluntly, he didn’t much care for Mozart.

“You know,” he said, “if you grow up with Mozart as a young musician, you kind of feel like he’s somebody they’re always dragging out to beat you up with. ‘Mozart did this better. Mozart did this more elegantly. Why can’t you?’ He’s kind of a whipping boy often. So it took me a while to get past all of that and just be able to appreciate, on my own terms, just how beautiful and radiant, how original the music is. I’ve found a much greater comfort zone with Mozart in these last couple of years.”

In contrast, the Brahms-Schoenberg Piano Quartet No.1 in G Minor is an old favorite. Heightened by Schoenberg’s glittering orchestration, it contains some of Brahms’ most gentle, lyrical melodies. Yet the high-speed finale is wild and reckless, lavishly spiced with Hungarian-flavored folk tunes and rhythms. Tilson Thomas calls the quartet “a kaleidoscopic journey” and “technically dazzling.” He has conducted it twice before in Chicago, first in 1987 and again in 2011. He has especially fond memories of those 1987 concerts.

“I was just getting to know the members of the orchestra,” he said. “There was this wonderful crew of [native-born] Hungarians there at the time. Victor Aitay was one of them.” Born in Budapest, Aitay joined the CSO in 1954 as assistant concertmaster. He was concertmaster from 1967 to  1986 and retired in 2003 as concertmaster emeritus.

“I really appreciated his way of harkening back to the kind of sound and rubato that’s so much a part of this piece. These were very, very experienced musicians who had grown up with this whole Viennese-Austrian-Hungarian mix. It was in their blood since they were children.”

A year later, the CSO invited Tilson Thomas to co-conduct during its Australian tour in March 1988. He remembers it as “a delightful romp. I was still a relative youngster. They said, ‘Oh, come with us on this major tour. We’ll get better acquainted.’ ”

Less delightful were the bouquets he received during curtain calls. “There’s an Australian plant called protea, a kind of gardenia-looking plant,” he said.” “But it has some of the most nasty, vicious spikes of any plant you’ll ever see.” Every post-concert bouquet, it seemed, bristled with protea.

“I would be trying to open this beautifully wrapped bouquet and then pass it to members of the orchestra. That is not an easy thing to do. We trying to do it in a way that looked very grateful and hopefully, very graceful. I’d get to the end of a concert, and think, ‘Well, we’re done then.’ And then I’d realize, ‘Oh, my God! I’ve got these spikes running through my palms. How did that happen?’ ”

“It became a kind of joke,” he said bemusedly, “a unique challenge in performance art.”

Tilson Thomas’ website lists concerts early next year in San Francisco and Miami, engagements he will happily fulfill as his health allows. But for now, his focus is Chicago.

“I’m raring to get on that stage and get going,” he said. “I love the band and the quality of music we make together.”