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Keeping Score: Revolutions in Music

The San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director.
Copland and the American Sound. UPC 8 21936-0015
Stravinsky's Rite of Spring. UPC 8 21936-0015
Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. UPC 8 21936-0005
Beethoven's Eroica. UPC 8 21936-0013
Subtitles in German, French, Spanish, Japanese (Italian on the Tchaikovsky disc)

Keeping Score heralds Michael Tilson Thomas as the Leonard Bernstein of our age. Accomplished as a lecturer, conductor and pianist, with an unassailable television presence Thomas, aided by the articulate members of the San Francisco Symphony, presents a scintillating series of four DVDs. An associated education programme shows teachers how music can become part of their core-subject lessons, an interactive web site is offered online, and an American radio series is imminent. That's not all: six more DVDs are planned!

Given access to funds totalling a staggering $23 million, this five-year project uses High Definition Television (HDTV), and travels to several appropriate international locations. Back at Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco flawless orchestral performances take place. For sure, this is an outstanding series.

Of Copland, Leonard Bernstein once said: 'Aaron is Moses'. Clearly, Michael Tilson Thomas agrees. 'Aaron Copland led the way to changing the sound of American music and the way that Americans think about themselves,' he says. 'Today the sound of America is everywhere, inescapable.' The conductor takes us to Peekskill, just north of New York, where Copland lived during the last thirty years of his life, during which time Tilson Thomas would visit. Elsewhere, we see the vividly decorated room which was the refectory of the New School in New York, where Copland taught. We also visit the artists' retreat at Yaddo in upstate NY. Enjoying leafy isolation, Copland wrote his Piano Variations here in 1930.

In a 1978 interview Copland describes his student years: 'Stravinsky was living in Paris. That's where the action was.' Copland enrolled at the American Conservatory in Fontainbleu where, from 1920, Nadia Boulanger taught. She invited Copland to tea, took him on as a student, then encouraged him to utilise the music he knew from the synagogues and streets of Brooklyn. 'Get tough,' she said. 'Get serious. Write down lots of notes, but keep only those that really matter. Be yourself!'

Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man is played by the orchestral brass, the film skilfully intercut between the ensemble and Michael Tilson Thomas playing his piano at home. We see excerpts from the 1944 film of Appalachian Spring with the Martha Graham dancers, and then go to Davis Symphony Hall for a complete performance in the original version for 13 instruments.

The first of the four discs is devoted to Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. 'One of those big pieces,' says Tilson Thomas, 'Like the Book of Job, like King Lear, or the Bhagavad-Gita, that say, 'How can we humans be thwarted by the all-powerful and incomprehensible force of Fate?' ' Here are great shots of Golden Gate Bridge, of Fisherman's Wharf, and of Tilson Thomas's splendid house, where hundreds of scores fill his library.

Using what he calls 'my Tchaikovsky voice' the conductor sings and plays the piano by way of preparation. We see the music archive in the catacombs of Symphony Hall, with more than 3,600 scores, virtually the entire classical repertoire. The conductor's jottings are transferred by copyists to the 100-plus instrumental parts. Many colleagues share the limelight. First the assistant librarian speaks about score preparation, then we watch orchestral players rehearse individually with Thomas. Mutual respect is palpable. The ensuing concert repays such care, being an edge-of-the-seat joy.

'These are some of the most revolutionary notes in the history of music,' says Thomas when introducing the climax of the Sacrificial Dance from Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. 'It redefined what music is about, much as Eroica had done a century before.' We visit St Petersburg to view the city's domes and cupolas, and see the apartment of Rimsky Korsakoff, Stravinsky's teacher. At the Theatre Arts Museum we look at historical costumes, including one once worn by Stravinsky's father, who sang in Rimsky's Mlada. We travel to the dacha where Stravinsky summered at Ustilug, his family's country home. Then off to the Théâtre des Champs-élysées in Paris, to seat 20, row M, from where Stravinsky watched the Rite of Spring première.

Though each disc is congruent with the others, all differ slightly in approach. The Beethoven programme explores the beauties of Vienna and Heiligenstadt, allows us - briefly - to hear a quartet from the Vienna Philharmonic, and gives generous interview space for the musicians to share their insights.

'At a time when America's major orchestras are struggling to define their missions and maintain audiences, the San Francisco Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas is an exception,' observed the New York Times recently. One sees why.

www.keepingscore.org

First published in Music Teacher, June 2007. Reproduced by kind permission. www.rhinegold.co.uk
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