- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Classical gas

Michael Tilson Thomas has been educating Californians about classical music for more than a decade. Now the music director of the San Francisco Symphony is offering his expertise to the entire country. Tonight, three documentaries in his “Keeping Score” series — “Beethoven’s Eroica,” “Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring” and “Copland and the American Sound” — will have their local premiere at 8 on WETA-Channel 26.

“Each one offers detailed looks, not only surrounding performances, but the time, place and political situations which give rise to the piece,” Mr. Tilson Thomas, 66, explains during a phone interview.

The conductor — and the musicians and experts who contribute — walks a fine line in the documentaries between paying proper homage to complicated works and dumbing them down or turning them into program music. The comment “it was the first time someone wrote about their experiences of the world” may not entirely apply to Beethoven’s Third, but many of Mr. Tilson Thomas’ insights about the piece are right on the money. “It’s a contest between emotion and reason, a search for what it means to be human. And that’s a search we all understand,” he says.

Besides the three documentaries airing tonight, the “Keeping Score” initiative also features an interactive Web site (www.keepingscore.org), a radio series slated for early next year and programs offered in schools and communities nationwide. Tonight’s programs also are available on DVD; six more are in the planning stages.

Mr. Tilson Thomas, a music educator for four decades, is just the man to spearhead such an ambitious project. In tonight’s programs, viewers will see a very personal side of the conductor as he discusses music that means much to him.

He argues forcefully that anyone can appreciate art music — and that it’s important for us to do so.

“If you are alive, you already know all you need to know about classical music. Because it speaks so directly and honestly to the way life really is,” he says.

“Music particularly, but all the arts, really, is an interesting process in which instinct and intelligence take the measure of one another. So that in learning something about the arts, you’re trying to figure out the ways — people’s conscious vs. the unconscious, faith versus reason — different forces inside of ourselves are trying to come to some sort of balance. That’s a really important lesson in life.”

Kelly Jane Torrance

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