A few weeks ago I mourned the hard fate of an older fellow who found himself a ghost of a human. locked up in his house with nothing to do, and besides suggesting that one should try not to derive all of one's sense of self worth from that thing that you do for money, regardless of how hard society tries to get you to see it that way, it seemed to me that there must be millions of profitable and interesting ways to spend one's time during quarantine, even while fending off the inevitable anxiety of where the world seems to be headed. There is still joy to be had so long as we breathe. And as a wise teacher once said, "tomorrow has enough trouble of its own."
One of the really exciting things I've come across recently is a series of documentaries and concerts put out by Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. There are only nine installments, and they were done at pretty much yearly intervals through the early year of this century, stopping in 2011. The symphony has recently decided to release them all online for free. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
For me it was a chance to return to some familiar repertoire, since, as a musician, I've spent so many years acquiring new and varied music to learn and play (not to mention write). Each of the episodes concerns a well-known masterpiece from the orchestral literature, which means I know it well (despite not being a conductor I have sometimes felt that if they pulled people out of the audience to conduct say, one of the Beethoven symphonies I could practically do it). The pieces are mostly from the Romantic era or 20th century. Ives's Holidays Symphony is the odd one out since it is not nearly so popular as the others, and I haven't seen that episode yet. The rest include the Beethoven Eroica, the Tchaikovsky 4th, The Rite of Spring, the Shostakovich 5th, and pieces by Copland and Mahler.
The hour-long documentary potion of each episode features the maestro going on location to houses in which the composers grew up, or visiting the concert halls in which the works premiered. The first program, on the Tchaikovsky 4th, show how the orchestra prepares for a concert. I may have already known what it feels in the moments backstage before you come out to perform, or that bassoonists are obsessed by the making of reeds, but it was still fun to watch Thomas pacing around his apartment, score in hand, singing the phrases (so it's not just me!), then seeing how he marks up the score so that each player has all sorts of interpretive marks to aid with their own practice. You get to see the library at the symphony, and how the librarian takes the conductors penciled marks and transfers them to every part for every player. (This was 16 years ago. Any chance the process is digitized by now?)
That sort of procedural minutiae might not be interesting to everyone, though I'll bet it would satisfy a lot of curiosity. Most of the time the programs are a mix of composer biography and musical tours through the great moments in the work. Each movement is explored in some detail. There is footage from the Symphony's "Family Concerts" in which the conductor talks through the music to the audience, inviting different members of the orchestra to talk about their parts in the piece being played, how the piccolo solo in the Tchaikovsky Fourth gives piccolo players nightmares, or getting to peer backstage and watch the two harpists practice their part in the Berlioz Symphony Fantastique, or watch Thomas work one on one with his concert master.
One thing that is really interesting is that you get to know, or at least recognize, the members of the orchestra. During the documentary they will talk about certain parts of the piece, but in the accompanying performance, which occupies the second hour of the program, you really get to see them in action. Most concerts on television focus mainly on the conductor. You get to see plenty of the mastro here, too, but the use of multiple cameras and clever editing not only shows the typical shots you get of the players alternating solos and important licks, but tight close ups, wide shots, and traveling camera shots tell more than the story of the symphony. They visually illuminate the symphony, but also put us right in the middle of the action, as if we are part of the orchestra.
One of my favorite moments shows a close up of the horn player playing his solo, before the camera backs away from him until it is right over the shoulder of the maestro. Now we can appreciate just how far away the player actually sits from his conductor. Many similar shots show the relationship between the players and their music director. As the timpanist furiously rolls out the final chord, you can see Thomas facially communicating the intensity that he wants, and the expression in the timpanist's face matches it. It is almost as if the two of them are locked in a duel, except that here the timpanist is acting as an extension of the conductor, focused acutely on every move of the other man, who is some 40 feet away, but has banished every other thought from his mind. It is spellbinding.
The performance itself is so good that after watching the Tchaikovsky episode I thought that if I were ushered to a room in Hell and told I must take dictation of the entire Fourth Symphony from a recording (a punishment doubtless thought up as revenge by my students for taking too much enjoyment from watching their suffering when I announced a dictation in theory class)--faced with such an immense challenge, and having only one recording to listen to in order to write out the complete score, if I could have the performance from this series, I think I could nearly do it. Every note was important, every detail noticed. And there was passion to spare.
I enjoyed being on stage as part of the orchestra, spending time with the players, watching them in the heat of battle. I've spent a little time in an orchestra myself, but not a great deal (this is different than being a soloist in a concerto; there the social arrangement is different. You are out front, and spend your time mainly seeing the conductor from the back. Your only real visual friend is generally the principle cellist). When you are in the audience you rarely are able to familiarize yourself with the visage of the principle bassoonist, even if you are in the front row. Now, just after a few episodes, I think I could pick most of the woodwind players out of a lineup. I can also tell you how they play, how they move their muscles, what they look like at rest.
Michael Tilson Thomas was at Tanglewood at least one year, where an important award helped him at the beginning of his career. He made his debut a year sooner than Bernstein (I'll bet that ate at the older man). And occasionally, from the right angle, when he makes one of the gestures he seems to have inherited straight from Bernstein, (which isn't all that often; he certain has his own conducting language), you'd swear Lenny lives again. But Thomas was also the inheritor of the New York Philharmonic's "Young People's Concerts" after Bernstein left. The brilliant educational series and the philosophy of connection to an audience are clearly in evidence in Thomas's makeup. But now, over a half century after those concerts began, this video series is able to do things the earlier series couldn't. It is able to take full advantage of visual appeal, recent research, and creative ways to bring the audience along for the entire journey, not just the final product, viewed from a distance.
If you're looking for a productive and exciting way to spend quarantine, and you've gotten tired of watching dysfunctional people do terrible things to each other on Netflix, you should really try this series out. I'll see you in 18 hours.