Celebrating Michael Tilson Thomas

Past, Present, and Future with Michael Tilson Thomas

Today’s entry in the Concert Hall Online is an archived performance of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) featuring pianist Yuja Wang and conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas. The original concert, which includes the music of Colin Matthews, George Gershwin, and Dmitri Shostakovich, was given in celebration of Thomas’s 70th birthday.


It seems fitting that we revisit this performance now. The 2019-2020 concert season marks the conclusion of Michael Tilson Thomas’s 25-year-long tenure as music director of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS). Although the COVID-19 pandemic has put a damper on their planned festivities, the SFS will officially commemorate the end of an era with a live-streamed gala this weekend. In the days leading up to this event, the SFS is offering daily encores from across MTT’s storied career.

Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas

This, then, is a perfect moment to celebrate MTT’s past. But it is also an opportunity to look forward to the future. As the Music Academy’s Signature Festival Conductor, Tilson Thomas is integral to our partnership with the LSO, with whom he holds the title of Conductor Laureate. This Friday he will join conductor Edwin Outwater and tech executive Helen Meyer to speak with our fellows in a session entitled, “New Approaches to Presenting Classical Music: A Conversation on Technology & Innovation.” In a moment defined by change and uncertainty—a moment that calls for innovation—there is no one whose perspective is more relevant for our fellows than that of MTT, an artist whose career has been defined by innovative thinking. So, this week the Music Academy of the West is proud to celebrate Michael Tilson Thomas not just by looking back at his legendary career, but by continuing to look forward.


Extra Context – The Politics of Music in Stalinist Russia

In the London Symphony Orchestra’s program notes for today’s concert, you’ll read about the political pressure that made writing his Fifth Symphony a “nightmare scenario” for Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich. The story of Shostakovich’s Fifth is one of the most compelling in the history of symphonic music. It is a story grounded in the repression, intrigue, and fear of Soviet Russia during the height of Stalinism. It can be difficult, though, for the 21st century listener to grasp the profoundly distressing realities faced by composers like Shostakovich. We may at times naively think the only art that is political is that which is purposefully engaged in politics. In Stalin’s Russia that was certainly not the case. Even something so seemingly benign as the celebration of a long-dead composer was not free from political concerns.

Before Joseph Stalin consolidated his power in the late 1920s, musicians enjoyed relative freedom in the Soviet Union. This did not mean, however, that politics weren’t a major part of Soviet music. Of major interest to many musicians and thinkers was the question of the future of Soviet music. Two groups, each founded in 1923, typify the disagreements over this issue. Russian modernists were represented by an organization known as the Association of Contemporary Musicians (or the ASM after their Russian initials). The ASM sponsored Soviet premiers of works by Alban Berg, Darius Milhaud, Igor Stravinsky, and Sergey Prokofiev, and published a musical journal called Contemporary Music. The ASM’s rival was the Russian Association of Proletarian Musicians (RAPM). The RAPM’s members were revolutionary zealots whose beliefs might be more easily defined by what they opposed than what they supported. They aligned themselves against traditional western art music, popular styles, jazz, and even folk idioms. They believed the best kind of music was both revolutionary and utilitarian, essentially limiting them to propagandistic works.

Put simply, the ASM represented the traditional, elite musical establishment, the RAPM the dogmatic revolutionaries. These two diametrically opposed groups butted heads with some frequency, including during the 1927 centennial of Beethoven’s death. Although the contemporary-minded ASM viewed Beethoven as something of a relic, they nonetheless respected him as the foundation of a great tradition that culminated with modern art music. Beethoven was to them a musical trailblazer who pushed the boundaries of art in his time in much the same way they sought to in theirs. The RAPM, on the other hand, argued that Beethoven was the quintessential musical revolutionary, not in the boundary-pushing sense, but rather through his embodiment of the same social-revolutionary spirit that animated Russian communists. Beethoven’s contemporaneity with the French Revolution and personal affinity for its principles made him an easy figure for the RAPM to idealize and idolize. His music, they argued, represented a time when the bourgeoisie was upsetting Europe’s traditional feudal order, just as the RAPM represented the proletariat, or working class, upsetting the bourgeoisie.

The 1927 Beethoven centennial was a big deal in Russia, not least of which because the commemoration of the German composer’s death fortuitously coincided with the tenth anniversary of the Russian Revolution. The Soviet cultural ministry formed an official Beethoven centennial committee to oversee the celebrations. Members of both the ASM and the RAPM served on this group. Although the committee’s proclamations trended more toward the RAPM’s point of view—their slogan, “Through Beethoven to proletarian music,” was straight out of the RAPM’s playbook—a major row ensued when the Soviet delegation to the official Beethoven celebrations in Vienna was made up primarily of ASM members. A compromise was reached wherein an RAPM member was added to the delegation, but ironically the disagreement had taken so much time to resolve that the group missed the opening ceremonies.

If the legacy of a long-dead composer like Beethoven was so heavily politicized, you can imagine what it must have been like for a living, breathing composer like Shostakovich. And things would only get worse in the years following the 1927 Beethoven centennial. In 1932, Stalin liquidated music organizations like the RAPM and the ASM and replaced with the seemingly benign Union of Soviet Composers. Then in 1936, he ordered the establishment of the All-Union Committee on Arts Affairs, a government-controlled entity founded upon strictly dogmatic adherence to Stalinist policies. And in January of that same year, Pravda, the official Communist Party newspaper, gave artists a taste of the extreme politicization and oppression that was to come with an article entitled “Muddle Instead of Music,” an invective-laden screed that was rightly viewed as a government-supported attack on the Soviet Union’s most prominent composer: Dmitri Shostakovich.

For more on today’s program, including Shostakovich Symphony No. 5, click here. Like the concert itself, these notes come to us from our friends and partners at the London Symphony Orchestra; they have even specially updated them for the occasion to include a warm LSO greeting to the Music Academy family!

– Henry Michaels
Resonance editor, Audience Services and Community Access Manager, Music Academy of the West



Amy Nelson, Music for the Revolution: Musicians and Power in Early Soviet Russia (2010)

Richard Taruskin, Music in the Early Twentieth Century (2010)