One of Michael Tilson Thomas’ greatest attributes as a conductor and music director is that he is first and foremost an enthusiastic ambassador for classical music. Anyone who has attended one of the San Francisco Symphony’s performances in recent years knows that the effusive Thomas loves to discuss the history and background of a particular piece — with the flair and whimsy that have made him a national brand name.
Nowhere are those skills better displayed than in the upcoming nationwide television series and multimedia project "Keeping Score,’’ which airs on PBS for three weeks beginning at 10 p.m. next Thursday. The five-year, $23 million project finds Thomas in his element — as the dramatic and sometimes comic storyteller trying to bring classical music to the masses.
It’s a brilliant stage for Thomas, who engages his viewers with the delightful and detailed stories of three famous classical works — Beethoven’s "Eroica,’’ Igor Stravinsky’s "The Rite of Spring’’ and "Aaron Copeland and the American Sound,’’ while touring the venues in which they were written. It’s a nod to music appreciation at the highest level, providing a great showcase for the symphony and several of its principal musicians who perform key sections of the works.
But it’s an MTT vehicle, and he brings his familiar flair to discuss the evolutions and revolutions in classical music over centuries, a harmonic companion piece to Ken Burns’ breathtaking series on jazz.
"My whole approach to music is that it’s this wonderful process of communication,’’ Thomas told me during a recent interview. "I’ve always been fascinated with the backstory of the creation of the pieces themselves. One of my goals in music has been to bring people more awareness of where the music came from. I’m not doing this to impress professors — this is more like for the folks at the gym.
"A symphony is an amazing abstract show and it becomes more meaningful when you ask people to think about why the music is going this way, why is the composer taking us on this journey. Is he saying something about himself, about the world around him, about human frailty? Ultimately we leave it to the viewer to decide.’’
And they’ll have plenty of opportunities. The first part of the "Keeping Score’’ program aired two years ago with Thomas’ eloquent dissertation on Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. But the project also involves an interactive Web site, keepingscore.org, live performance DVDs, an education program designed to reach 75,000 students in K-12 schools and a radio program scheduled to air early next year in which Thomas interviews a number of legendary artists.
At its core, the project is a folksy introduction to the fundamental place of art in society, and how music reflected trends and turns in time. The Stravinsky and Copeland pieces are greatly accented by archival film footage, with Copeland himself featured in a revealing and relaxed television interview that aired in the late ‘70s.
When asked how he came up with the inspiration for "Appalachian Spring’’ — the music that became the thematic score for virtually every American western movie — Copeland, a Jew from Brooklyn, jokingly talks about how he imagined the open prairie.
"Every American kid grows up with a sense of cowboys and what the West must have been like,’’ he says.
But it doesn’t explain how he could create the "everyman quality’’ that is at the core of his music or how he came up with the innovations that resulted in his uniquely American sound. For that, Thomas delves into Copeland’s life growing up in New York at the turn of the century, his struggles during the Depression and his search for more social meaning in his work. Thomas shows himself to be a passionate historian and, as always, an ebullient showman, using music as a melodic teaching device.
"Ultimately I’d like viewers to feel closer to the composers,’’Thomas said. "I end up asking a lot of questions and I try not to take anything for granted. Why a flat here, why second clarinet here, why in this octave? What classical music does more than any other music is that is has a way of expressing many thoughts at a time and these various thoughts have to wrestle with each other over time and come to some kind of conclusion.’’
If you watch the series you’ll likely conclude that television is a great medium for artistic education. It’s a rich, notable step in the march to spread music’s harmonic gospel.Ken Garcia’s column appears Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends in The Examiner. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him at (415) 359-2663.