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By Joel Kasow

NEW YORK, 26 APRIL 2012 — Michael Tilson Thomas has astonished audiences since his early years — I’m thinking of his first appearances with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the late 1960s and early espousal of a wide range of music, evidence of which can be found on several record labels. PBS’s telecast, currently airing across the United States  (check PBS local listings), of a gala concert given to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the San Francisco Orchestra demonstrates the conductor’s enthusiasm that has not waned over the years. Tribute is paid not only to Aaron Copland (Suite from Billy the Kid) and Benjamin Britten (Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra) but also to exceptional soloists playing pillars of the concerto repertoire: Itzhak Perlman in Mendelssohn and Lang Lang in Liszt. The filming allows us to see the conductor’s total confidence in his musicians as he allows them interpretative latitude, while the violinist and pianist ensure audience respect and pleasure. An encore shows once again Thomas’s loyalty to a local musician as he leads John Adams’s exhilarating Short Ride in a Fast Machine. Amy Tan is on hand to provide background narration of the orchestra and its accomplishments. I only wish that the cameraman had not spent so much time on a gum-chewing man when he panned the audience.

Another side of the conductor’s life and heritage can be viewed in The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater. Thomas’s grandparents were pioneers in the domain, bringing excitement and color to an immigrant population that with assimilation would eventually patronize more traditional theatrical forms. Thomas speaks of his grandmother with warmth and admiration (his grandfather died before Thomas was born) and the performance by Judy Blazer tries to capture the charisma of the inimitable Bessie with reasonable success. Schuler Henley’s Boris conveys the animal charm that rendered him so irresistible. Ronit Widmann-Levy and Eugene Brancoveanu give us a wide range of characters, but it is Brancoveanu’s mellow baritone that sticks in the memory. The conductor even allows himself a song, while Thomas’s other orchestra, the New World Symphony, has fun with many musical voices that make up the program. But it is the descriptions of that distant world that interest us and here Thomas has put together a fascinating glimpse into the past.

Joel Kasow is the Operanet editor at Culturekiosque.

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