Michael Tilson Thomas stands in the open kitchen of his Miami Beach home, engaged in his daily ritual of toasting the buckwheat groats known as kasha in a sizzling skillet. Though the spoon briskly stirring the grains never stills, MTT — as he is universally known — is focused on the notes and pauses on the written score lying on the counter, played by an orchestra only he can hear.
The page turns, and the skillet comes off the heat. Water is poured into the crisped grains; the mixture — now laced with fennel seeds — crescendos in a Vesuvius-like cone before being whisked to a smooth consistency a few pages later in the movement. MTT looks up from both music and culinary composition. “My father was terrific in the kitchen,” he explains, folding together his homemade applesauce of calvados, lime juice, lemon zest and fresh grated ginger.
Like the orchestras under his direction — regularly in Miami, San Francisco and London, and frequently, elsewhere around the globe — the ingredients coalesce into a complex harmony that serves as the routine breakfast for MTT and his longtime partner, Joshua Robison. “I call it adult Grape Nuts.”
Like the meal itself, their bayfront home — within walking distance of the academy and performance hall Frank Gehry designed for the New World Symphony that MTT has led since its 1987 inception — is unpretentious, a reliable and restorative balm for a musical master who travels widely and conducts dozens of public performances per year.
Buying the house was something of a whim. They saw it, put in an offer and immediately left town. The choice still suits them.
The house is a 1930s Miami Beach classic, nested in high hedges and palms. Wide windows look out on twin blues of pool and bay, always visible through wide windows in the living room and kitchen/family space where the poodles, Maydela and Banda, curl up when they’re not accompanying the maestro to work. The living room is comfortably decorated with a sculptural section of Gehry’s model for the Miami Beach hall, an antique advertising poster from the Ringling Brothers Circus and a tree of life sculpture by Frederico Uribe. Book shelves are a trove of MTT’s endless quest for cultural memorabilia, like graphic artist Ken Friedman’s 1938 whimsical Cartoon Guide of Florida, unearthed in an antique shop. Now, he’s most likely to hunt online. “Have you been to ‘First Dibs?’ ” he says.
But the music is always central, whether its a classical signature like a Brahms piano concerto or a pop hit from his iPod playlist. Art Garfunkel once sang a song written by MTT, who has performed with artists ranging from Jessye Norman to a Balinese Gamelan group.
At home, the black baby grand sits in a back room, topped by a box of the double-ended pencils — one end red, the other end blue — he uses to mark the color and anomalies of the written music. “I’m developing the overall concept plus ideas specific for characterization of streams in the music,” he explains.
“You have to make sure you can really hear the difference between the notes. Some are taking a role that is contrary to what the orchestra is doing,” while others, he explains, remain congruent with the music’s original standard palette. “Blue is for the general, red is for the anomalies.”
The pencils are part of his exploration, essential whether the work is one he’s rarely conducted — like Benjamin Britton’s Peter Grimes, performed last summer by the San Francisco Symphony and operatic cast with digital scenes — or the long-familiar, like Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man. Another box of them sits in his New World Center office.
“I taught myself to the very beginning to try to see everything with very fresh eyes. That always leads me to new and inspiring places,” he says.
“The initial study process can take two weeks to just absorb the basics, the what of it all,” he says. “The ‘why’ it is happening is a much longer process. Then to decide what you’re going to do about it, those things change all the time.”
The pencils are now made by a single company, located in Poland. He occasionally quips that when the pencils run out, he’ll retire. Friends and admirers determined to forestall that day keep sending the pencils.
His well-honed process has earned MTT extraordinary global recognition. “Michael is a bigger-than-life figure,” says Shelly Berg, dean of the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music and a noted pianist in his own right. “He’s a renaissance person. He has a deep knowledge of human history and context. All that knowledge gets infused with the music,” earning MTT a slot in the top five of nearly every list of the world’s best conductors, Berg says.
From the creation of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra to his use of theatrical media integrated with symphonic performances, MTT is both innovator and teacher, the modern inheritor of the role once played by Leonard Bernstein, one of MTT’s mentors. Says Berg, “His commitment to education is profound. He wants to pass it on.”
That mission is reflected nearly every moment MTT spends in South Florida.
“My life here is so focused as a mentor and performer,” MTT says. “It makes a very big difference to me that when I go home there’s the wideness of water and the sky restores me, it charges me.” The New World Symphony, Joshua, the dogs, the house and the occasional meal at Alta Mare on Lincoln Road comprise his Miami life.
Not that he ever planned to come to Miami at all. When he first went to meet Ted Arison, he recalls, “I dressed entirely in black, with the intention to be remote and unavailable.”
But that meeting with late Arison, who went on to found both the symphony and the YoungArts Foundation with wife Lin, struck a chord with their common interest in nurturing artists.
“I’ve always been concerned about the welfare of young musicians. I had been disturbed by how many had no real plans. They were doing part-time jobs to stay alive. … I realized how important it was to create some real institutional home that would give them a competitive edge, and I began mentioning it in interviews,” MTT says. One of those interviews caught the eye of Arison, who arranged a meeting.
“I had no real idea of who he was,” MTT says. “Then I saw his genuine love and enthusiasm for the arts in Miami. I was so touched by [his and wife Lin’s] sincerity and energy that I was blown away.” The result, refined over 26 years, is a finishing school of sorts for the most talented graduates of U.S. conservatories, who spend up to three years immersing their souls with the music in the company of Thomas, fellow academy members and global classical music masters. The fellowships include housing and living expenses.
The organization started quickly, in what MTT calls the “Judy Garland-Micky Rooney period.” The first concerts were in recreation centers, churches and on Lincoln Road when it was still boarded up, with the Miami City Ballet and some artist cooperatives as the sole cultural outposts.
Lin Arison, author and godmother to the New World Symphony and other Miami arts organizations, applauds MTT’s pluck and foresight. “MTT’s courage to move into Miami when it was a rubble, and have the vision and commitment to make something wonderful happen for Miami, was really brave,” she says.
Says MTT: “I am a dreamer. I try not to second- guess my dreams.
“From the beginning we wanted to build an international organization that would define excellence, research and development. As I look back, roughing it in the community was important to the spiritual growth of the organization.”
The idea of bringing music to the people has remained core to the symphony’s mission. “Everything we’re doing now is about fulfilling that purpose. We’ve stayed on message.”
The message may be consistent, but the delivery is ever-changing. When it opened in 2011, the New World Center was equipped — at MTT’s insistence — with video capabilities inside the performance hall and out. Its signature Wallcast projection wall and extraordinarily sound system allow performances to be enjoyed as fully from a lawn chair as from a seat inside. Indoors, the stage and seats are easily reconfigured into multiple performance arrangements.
Wallcasts — along with free concerts by fellows, lounge-like Pulse concerts mixing symphony and DJs, $2.50 mini concerts, explanatory videos posted on MTT’s website, and even the glass walls of the symphony building — are all part of MTT’s strategy for attracting new audiences.
“He’s always thinking as both an educator and a performer,” says New World Symphony President Howard Herring.
Those technical abilities also showcase videos commissioned for specific music — such as filmmaker Tal Rosner’s video that accompanied Thomas Adès’ Polaris, written for the New World Center’s opening — and a John Cage festival involving special-effects video, symphony, dance, lectures and films.
“We have a relationship creating new frontiers of what performance can be. The interaction with the technology is always evolving,” MTT says. “We’re considered more adventurous than other ensembles. Some other people have been stunned by what we’ve done. They ask, from what alternative universe did this come?”
In part, it comes from MTT’s own dramatic background. His grandparents, Ukranian immigrants Boris and Bessie Thomashevsky, were stars of New York’s Yiddish theater. His father, Ted Thomas, was a theater producer in New York before moving to Los Angeles, where he worked in films and television; his mother, Roberta Thomas, was the head of research for Columbia Pictures. Growing up in Los Angeles brought its own benefits; Gehry occasionally babysat for the young Thomas decades before the pair worked together as world-famous architect and world-famous conductor.
Because of that exposure, says Herring, “he’s understood electronic media from the beginning.”
And it comes, in part, from Miami’s own frontier-style openness. In the same way that his beloved red-and-blue pencils quickly become “squishy” here, tradition is less sacrosanct than in older, stauncher cities.
“Miami has allowed all kinds of artistic adventures that are not possible anywhere else,” says MTT. “That has found its way into my perception and finds it way to the stage. I’m very grateful to the audience and members of the board. Very often we’re playing works they’ve never heard of. For the traditional audience, I hope to play music they know and help them to think about it differently, and to use more avant-garde works to take them places they never knew existed.
“We’re pushing forward and at the same time casting an appraising glance at how it all adds up and becomes part of the vocabulary.”
Though he turns 70 in December, MTT still bounces with boyish enthusiasm. Whether he’s scavenging for antiques or perusing the black-and-white notes and bars on page, he’s clearly on a quest.
“He’s still very much about the future,” Herring says.
Says MTT, “The question classical music asks is in the composition of yourself. How much farther can you reach?”