America's Best Leaders: Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco Symphony

A maverick maestro is winning big crowds of new classical music fans.

Michael Tilson Thomas

Michael Tilson Thomas

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SAN FRANCISCO—Michael Tilson Thomas will do whatever it takes to bring people into the music. The silver-maned music director of the San Francisco Symphony has invited the Grateful Dead and Metallica to perform with his orchestra. He has posed in leather garb by the Golden Gate Bridge. In a rehearsal this fall, with sweat trickling down his face, he stood up and pantomimed an ice skater gliding across the ice. "I'd like it to settle down into a sleigh-ride rhythm," he told his musicians later as they fine-tuned a Prokofiev piece. "Like ice skating over a sleigh ride—it needs to be smoother and lighter." He paused for a moment, letting the idea sink in. "Try it, try it," he said. "Maybe it's terrible. We'll find out."

There is more to conducting than just waving a baton. But many old-school maestros have famously struggled with the subtler requirements of the job, whether it is putting their musical vision into words, haggling with the board over the budget, or, well, making their music appeal to more than traditionalist snobs. Not Thomas, who is known in classical music circles for his charming, boyish willingness to use any metaphor—and try just about anything—in his efforts to exuberantly reinterpret classical music. "Most conductors have modeled themselves on traditional authority figures—the major general, the high priest, the chairman of the board," says Thomas, who is often referred to by his initials, MTT. "I think my persona is a little unusual."

No one doubts that. Heralded at age 24 as the next Leonard Bernstein, Thomas has embraced his reputation as a musical maverick. After struggling, at first, with the wunderkind label—as a young conductor, he sometimes squabbled with older musicians over his musical vision—he was passed over by symphonies in Boston and Los Angeles. He spent his formative conducting years in Buffalo and London. When he finally took over his first elite American orchestra in San Francisco in 1995, at age 50, he seemed to relish shaking it out of its conservative ways. He charmed audiences by filling programs not just with Mozart and Beethoven but with contemporary American composers like Bernstein and Aaron Copland, favorites of a younger, hipper crowd. "There is a little element of rock star in him," says Scott Pingel, the orchestra's principal bassist. Bill Bennett, the principal oboist, adds: "To blend this staid tradition we're in and this kind of 'over the footlights' mass entertainment is a tough thing to do. But somehow he always manages to do it."

Bucking a trend. Thomas's unflinchingly unconventional approach has won over not just his musicians but a widely expanding audience as well. "I knew he was a great conductor," says Nancy Bechtle, the symphony's former president. "I just had no idea how San Franciscans would just adore him." Ticket sales have climbed steadily since he arrived, while the average age of concert-goers, bucking a national trend, has dropped from 57 in 1992 to 55 today. "What's unique about what Michael is doing [is] it's done with ego checked at the door," says Yo-Yo Ma, a frequent soloist with the symphony. "The priorities are absolutely in the right order. It's about the music."

Thomas's mission, as he sees it, is simple. He wants to broaden his art form's appeal, and he is advancing on all fronts. After a series of successful recordings, the San Francisco Symphony now has its own record label. The Miami-based New World Symphony, a training orchestra for young musicians Thomas founded in the 1980s, has grown into an elite farm team, of sorts, for the classical world. Thomas has also led the innovative multimedia effort "Keeping Score," which has expanded his visibility through behind-the-music websites, TV, and radio programs featuring Thomas doing what he does best—cheerfully articulating his ideas about classical music.

Sitting in his office backstage after rehearsal, Thomas waves away the notion that making classical music more accessible necessarily requires leaving its traditions behind. "I'm trying to mix it up," he says. "If it were always the same, it wouldn't be interesting." If that means using sleigh-ride metaphors to draw out his musicians, so be it. If it means interviewing James Brown or comparing Brian Wilson to Stravinsky, as he has done in recent radio programs, more's the better. "If I had to say, 'Who am I going to impress from here onward? Am I going to be playing for the experts or the guys at the gym?' I'll pick the guys at the gym," Thomas says. "I want them to feel there is something in this music for them. You don't have to know anything special to love classical music. If you are alive and in tune with your own feelings and the way in which those feelings are changing all the time, then classical music is for you."