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'The Inheritors of Everything Are Crows, Rats and Lizards'

Siggi Bachmann
Conductor and composer Michael Tilson Thomas and New World Symphony conducting fellow Christian Reif discuss Tilson Thomas' new piece during rehearsal earlier this week.

There was a time in the life of New World Symphony co-founder and artistic director Michael Tilson Thomas when he was at a crossroads. He was in his late twenties and early thirties and finding a lot of success as an emerging conductor. He had been assistant conductor with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, then principal guest conductor. He was conducting other orchestras all around the world. He was also writing music and thinking about whether he wanted to focus his career on the podium or writing show tunes mostly (his grandparents, the Thomashevskys, were stars of the Yiddish theater).  

He chose the conductor's path, but has continued to write music along the way. There's one piece he began in those early days that he says haunted him. It was based on a 1922 poem by Carl Sandburg. Over the last several years, he dug back into his old notebooks and composed the piece as it now exists. Many of the musicians at New World Symphony are close to the age Tilson Thomas was when he wrote the first version. They'll be joined by players from the University of Miami's Frost School of Music to perform the world premiere, Saturday, April 30, on a program with two other world premieres

You can also read the interview here:

AZ: The name of this piece is "Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind." It's based on a poem of that name by Carl Sandburg from 1922. And in a way, you started working on this piece 40 years ago. What was it about this poem that made you want to use it as the basis for a piece of music?

MTT: When I discovered the poem, it was a tremendous revelation. I had already known it since my early college days, and then in 1976, I thought: "Wouldn't this be a great poem to set on the occasion of the Bicentennial? Because it's a definite cautionary tale written as Chicago was the booming city of the universe. And in the midst of this, Sandburg says, "Yes, but -- great civilizations have risen and fallen." 

[Read the poem here. Tilson Thomas reads a few lines, and then there's a clip of the music with singers singing those lines, but you have to click listen above to hear that.]

MTT: It's a wry, ironic view of the end of civilization. Party on, meanwhile civilization is ending.

AZ: The rats and lizards at the end of the poem. And that's all there is.

MTT: The inheritors of everything are crows, rats and lizards.

AZ: What was happening in your life when this poem first really spoke to you?

"Maybe the three biggest influences are Gershwin, Stravinsky and James Brown." - Michael Tilson Thomas

  MTT:  Well, I was just about 29, 30 years old. You know, that's still in the late Sixties, early Seventies. Bob Dylan is writing songs, and Joan Baez is singing songs, and I was very much attracted by some of the major concept albums, like "Sgt. Pepper" and particularly the album which at that time was not completed, by the Beach Boys, called "Smile." I thought this poem could be something like that. A piece from a concept album that never happened, that kind of idea of a piece that moves from one style to another radically as if you were cutting between music recorded in different studios.

[There's another clip of the music from the piece here, but again, you gotta listen above to hear it.]

MTT: It lurches backward and forward between these different sound worlds. Between rockabilly and classical and funk and sort of post-punk.

AZ:  You first did an improvised version of this piece in 1976. Was it almost like going back and reading an old journal?

MTT: Yes. Music is like that. When I go back to my old songs I can re-experience exactly who I was when I wrote that piece. That's a lovely thing about music. 

[More music here in the audio version. Click listen above to hear soprano Measha Brueggergosman's gorgeous voice.]

MTT: Measha Brueggergosman, the soprano who's singing this, has an amazing number of voices. She has a kind of jazz-pop voice, and she has a real dramatic soprano voice, and this piece in many ways was written as a tribute to two very great singers I had the privilege of working with -- Sarah Vaughan and Leontyne Price.

AZ: For me, there were moments that almost evoked "Porgy and Bess."

MTT: Yes ... maybe the three biggest influences are Gershwin,Stravinsky and James Brown.

AZ: I just wanted to tell you about this moment that I saw in the rehearsal.  I think because it lurches, as  you say ...

MTT: (laughing) Careens, I like careens better than lurches, I think. 

AZ: It careens from so many different styles, and there are moments where it is very funky. And I saw a cellist just rocking out.  You conduct so much music. Is this a particularly fun piece for you to conduct?

MTT: It's very hard to conduct, as I found out. It is fun. But when I was able to leave the stage today and have Christian Reif, my assistant, conduct, I think I enjoyed that the most. It was the most pleasurable just to be able to listen to and think, "Wow, this sounds wonderful, and I don't have to be responsible for doing something in the next bar!"

AZ: That makes sense. I'm glad you got the chance to spend a few moments enjoying it from a little bit of a distance. 

Click here to find out how to get tickets to the world premiere of '"Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind" on a concert of new works performed by New World Symphony, Saturday, April 3o. 

Alicia Zuckerman is Editorial Director at WLRN, where she edits narrative and investigative audio journalism. In 2020, she was named Editor of the Year by the Society of Professional Journalists Florida chapter.
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