Is MTT the last of the old-fashioned maestros?

Is MTT the last of the old-fashioned maestros?


norman lebrecht

November 01, 2017

Michael Tilson Thomas, who announced his retirement from the San Francisco Symphony last night, has his champions and detractors like every other conductor of his generation.

But looking over the half-century span of his career one has to be struck by the old-fashioned virtues that inform it.

1 MTT has only ever been music director of three orchestras: Buffalo (1971-1979), London Symphony Orchestra (1988-1995 and San Francisco (1995-2020).

2 He never flitted between two jobs, never squeezed other dates into long tours. He committed to the job.

3 Aside from his three successive posts, he founded and continues to lead the New World Symphony, probably America’s most important training orchestra.

4 He never bothered with opera.

5 While he made plenty of recordings, these were not a career motivation. He loves giving concerts.

Some of these old-fashioned virtues may have been imbued from his mentor (below), but it has been a while since a leading conductor had so well defined a career.



  • RW2013 says:

    Is “not bothering with opera” (the conducting of which really separating the men from the boys/girls) really a virtue to aspire to?

    • Tom Moore says:

      Boston (where Bernstein hailed from) never considered opera to be “serious music”. Serious music is what the BSO plays.

      • Petros Linardos says:

        Why are you stating that “Boston … never considered opera to be “serious music” ? While it doesn’t have a full time opera company, over the years several small scale companies have operated. No year goes without several opera performances. Even the BSO performs some opera in concert.
        The reasons for an absence of a major opera house in Boston of all cities, has more to do with the economics of performing arts than with local people’s attitudes.

  • Jonathan Groves says:

    Sir Mark Elder – 14 years at ENO and 17 years (and still counting) at the Hallé, as well as guest opera engagements in many of the world’s leading houses (Covent Garden, the Met, Paris, Glyndebourne etc.).

  • Jon H says:

    The New World Symphony also – although I know it’s not a full-time thing.
    MTT wasn’t an immediate sell for me as a listener (most aren’t actually) – it took some time to see where he was coming from, and realize how musically sympathetic and understanding he is.

    And he still looks like 40 to me – aging gracefully.

    • Jon H says:

      And I look at Solti’s death as the end of an era – because that was the end of the “Hungarian occupation” (Ormandy, Szell, Reiner, Dorati, etc.).
      MTT is of the newer generation who per the statement above didn’t think opera experience to be necessary and perhaps focused instead on new music. There’s a lot more conductors doing that these days.

  • Halldor says:

    Only ever had three music directorships (two of them lasting for nearly 2 decades each); doesn’t flit between jobs, sees recordings as secondary to the main business of giving concerts, champions music education and new music…

    Hmm, sounds very like a certain British conductor with curly hair – but we couldn’t admit that, could we? Doesn’t fit the narrative. But then, he has “bothered with opera”, which apparently disqualifies you from being an “old-fashioned maestro” (tough luck, Karajan, Haitink, Furtwangler, Solti, Reiner, Abbado, Kleiber, Toscanini, Beecham, Richter and, er, Mahler…)

  • La Verita says:

    The reason MTT has had only 3 Music Director posts ( plus a training orchestra in Miami) had nothing to do with altruism or lofty values. The truth is that no other posts were offered to him. Over the long course of his career, all major American orchestras changed music directors several times, but MTT never made the short-list for any of them, and in fact from 1977 (after his sudden resignation from Buffalo following his drug-bust at Kennedy airport), MTT was unemployed until 1989, when his brief appointment to the LSO was conditioned on Bernstein & a CBS recording contract coming along with him. (That deal expired with Bernstein’s death). The San Francisco Symphony saved MTT’s life, and he poured his heart into it, wisely realizing that it was the last hope for him. His career never measured up to those of Slatkin, Levine, or Conlon — all of whom are of the same generation, and all who have done far more to deserve the title “last of the old fashioned maestros”.

  • Perer says:

    MTT was principal guest conductor at the LAPO in the 1980s; it’s not true he was unemployed between his stints in Buffalo and London.

    • Steinway Fanatic says:

      Yes, and that ended badly: Everyone assumed that MTT was being groomed for the Music Director position after Giulini — but Previn was hired, and when he suddenly bailed, the LA Phil gave the job to Esa-Pekka Salonen. So, MTT was blatantly overlooked.

  • boringfileclerk says:

    That’s not a picture of MTT, that’s Jeff Goldblum!

  • harold braun says:

    He is one of my favourite conductors ever.Wonderful stick,daring,versatile,fantastic communicator,erudite,great lecturer,rehearser,consummate musician.educator.

  • Anh Le says:

    My son Minh Jeffrey and I have been attending San Francisco Symphony Orchestra concerts for almost 20 years.

    I find MTT’s occasional introductions of pieces before conducting them eloquent and educational. It reminds me a bit of Bernstein. I love Michael Tilson Thomas’ recent conducting and interpretation of Berlioz’ “Symphonie Fantastique.”

    My family and I love concerts featuring guest conductors Herbert Blomstedt, Charles Dutoit, David Robertson, Gustavo Dudamel. We especially love the way Maestros Blomdstedt and Dutoit conduct without referring to scores, dancing and expressing themselves freely. The musicians play much differently with guest conductors, exquisitely, brilliantly, and passionately. The Orchestra and guest conductors always receive resounding standing ovations.

    The concert conducted by Kryzysztof Urbanski was out-of-this world, violinist Augustin Hadelich’s playing of Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto” magnificent and mesmerizing, the Orchestra’s performance of Shostakovich’s “Tenth Symphony” awesome.

    We love watching and listening to Principal Cellist Michael Grebanier. Mr. Grebanier may be walking a little bit more slowly with a cane these days, but Mr. Grebanier’s limber fingers and hands make his playing effortless. Mr. Grebanier’s warm, rich, deep, soulful solo renditions are truly exceptional and to be savored forever.

    Concertgoers darting out of Davies Symphony Hall prematurely, or texting and scrolling their smartphones, are uncouth, disrespectful. And why does the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra organization now allow individuals to bring their alcohol beverages and drinks into the concert hall during the performances, slurp on them, and spill them on other patrons? Folks at concert halls in Ann Arbor, Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, and Philadelphia have real class, and respect musicians and other patrons.

    The young musicians at the Community Music Center of San Francisco (CMC), the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Interlochen Arts Academy, and Oberlin College would serve as excellent role models on respectful behavior.

    Regarding Norman Lebrecht’s reference to the “old fashioned maestros,” I’ve had the good fortune and honor to meet and hear some of them, including Maestros Leonard Bernstein, Eugene Ormandy, Herbert Blomstedt, Charles Dutoit, Riccardo Muti, Antal Dorati, and George Szell.

    Minh Jeffrey has met Maestro Dutoit at the Kimmel Center in Philadelphia and at Davies.

    Anh Lê

  • Duncan McLennan says:

    I heard him conduct just once – before his career actually started. He was one of a few aspirants at a public conducting master-class run by Bernstein at Tanglewood, and it was clear even then that he would go places. The BSO listened to him, respected him, and responded appropriately. Bernstein also took more notice of him than of the other participants, although I wonder whether his trenchant (or rude) criticisms of MMT were valid or were by-play for the audience. I picked the right one to file away in my memory.

    As to opera in Boston I once heard an unforgettable Andra Chenier there with Renata Tebaldi and Franco Corelli. A few nights later I listened to Tebaldi again in Boheme, singing with an unknown Spanish/Mexican tenor making his North American debut. I have absolutely no memory of him or even of his name. A few decades later, after reading Tebaldi’s autobiography, I found out he was someone called Placido Domingo. I wonder what happened to him?

    • Roberto says:

      Nice comment, Duncan. But Domingo’s debut in the US was in Dallas. He started the career in Mexico.So we cannot say that his North America debut was in the US.

  • Francis Asissy says:

    He is a mensch.