Before stepping down 10 months ago at age 75, the San Francisco Symphony’s (SFS) Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) owned the longest active tenure of any music director of a major American orchestra; he’d held the position since 1995. Though he’s played piano, composed, and conducted at an elite level since his teenage years, Tilson Thomas has always been more than the classical music wunderkind who grew up to become the great maestro. There was a piece of himself he’d inherited, a piece that hadn’t necessarily been ignored but hadn’t been foregrounded in his work either. It took a cherished friend to help him reclaim that other part of himself.
Two of the final works performed during his tenure as music director of SFS—Tilson Thomas’ own From the Diary of Anne Frank and Meditations on Rilke—were recorded live and released on CD in June 2020, and went on to earn a 2021 GRAMMY Award for Best Classical Compendium. In speaking about the range of emotions he’d hoped to summon in order to optimally conduct these two performances of his original music, he said: “I wanted to re-establish a connection with the person I was before my performing career took off. That would be the foundation of the music that I most essentially needed to write, and I needed to reconnect with the person I was back then.”
Tilson Thomas is Jewish. Religiously speaking, he’s secular, non-observant. Culturally speaking, he’s quite Jewish. His paternal grandparents, Bessie and Boris Thomashefsky, like scores of other Jews in the 1880s, emigrated from small shtetls in Tsarist Russia’s Pale of Settlement and settled in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. There, they’d become a pair of the most prominent and beloved pioneers of the American Yiddish theater, so beloved that when Boris Thomashefsky died in 1939, The New York Times reported that thousands filled the Lower East Side’s streets to listen to his three-hour funeral service over loudspeaker.
He identifies as a “Yiddishist,” as someone whose upbringing and family dynamic was steeped in Yiddishkeit, the essence of Jewishness.
Between 1941 and 1945, European Jewry was annihilated on a genocidal scale so unprecedented that contextualizing it becomes difficult. Six million becomes an abstract figure, just one of the many figures you learn to regurgitate as part of your education—just as you learn that there are seven continents and four oceans and 16 ounces in a pound and seven times seven makes 49.
That’s why works like Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl and Elie Wiesel’s Night are required reading for schoolkids; they make Nazism and the Holocaust real. Where Night evokes visceral grotesquery, outrage at gratuity of Nazi indignities, and sheer terror with its vivid rendering of concentration camps and teeming, fetid train cars, Anne Frank's diary in many ways hits even harder; it breathes context into the abstraction of six million.
Anne Frank was a teenager who yearned to love and be loved, to be heard and understood, to put her natural potential to its highest use—universal desires. After two years in hiding, she died a prisoner at Bergen-Belsen at 15, two months before the British liberated the camp. Anne Frank’s dreams never saw the light of day, but her story did. Millions similarly situated didn’t get that lucky. Think of the tragedy of such vivacity being prematurely extinguished; then think of some variation on that theme occurring six million times.
The Maestro’s Indispensable Muse
Particularly affected by Frank’s story was a girl of the exact same age who, during the war, had also lived in Nazi-occupied Holland, first in Arnhem then in nearby Velp, no farther from Frank’s Amsterdam than Atlantic City is from Philadelphia. That girl, an aspiring ballet dancer, would become an iconic leading lady of Golden Age Hollywood and an archetype of timeless feminine elegance and style. She was Audrey Hepburn.
“People had been asking [Hepburn] her entire life if she would do something connected with the Diary of Anne Frank,” said Tilson Thomas, whose connection to Hepburn will be revealed in due course. “Which she had always refused to do; she didn’t want to actually play Anne Frank out of her respect for what Anne Frank had lived through, something which Audrey very much understood….”
Though Hepburn had had Jewish friends who’d disappeared, she wasn’t Jewish herself, so she’d always been concerned, Tilson Thomas said, that any treatment of Frank’s story be handled with maximum sensitivity and sympathy.
“Sympathy is a good word,” said Tilson Thomas. “She said she wanted to be able to read [Frank’s diary] simply and sympathetically. And she had this idea of there being some kind of music around it.”
By the late ’80s, Hepburn had fully retired from her film career to become more active in service work, becoming an ambassador for UNICEF, at least in part because of the international aid that had helped sustain her and her family immediately after the war.
Around that time, Tilson Thomas, long a conductor on the come up, saw his ascent kicked into overdrive. He’d been appointed principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra in 1987 and co-founded the New World Symphony, becoming its artistic director, in the same year.
Meanwhile, UNICEF was looking to commission a work that would benefit its cause, and they sent their most visible celebrity ambassador on the recruiting trail. Hepburn and Tilson Thomas shared acquaintances; those acquaintances played MTT’s music for Hepburn, and she liked it. So the two got together, and she asked if he’d compose original music inspired by Anne Frank’s diary; for her part, Hepburn would narrate selected excerpts set to MTT’s original music.
“We agreed that we would both re-read the book and make a listing of our favorite passages and then compare them,” Tilson Thomas recalled. “And then from that, maybe the shape of some sort of piece would gradually emerge. And that’s what happened.”
And Yet: The Profound Duality of Anne Frank’s Diary
Tilson Thomas’ From the Diary of Anne Frank is an orchestral work in four distinct parts. Inevitably, because of the Franks’ circumstances, some of the passages chosen to receive musical treatment are ominous, even fatalistic.
Part Two, for example, opens by signaling increasing tumult. If the Bernstein and Copland-influenced symphonic dances of Part One are mostly romantic, a hopeful daydream about young Anne’s hopes for her future, then Part Two is hyper-focused on the exigencies of the present.
“We are all balancing on the edge of an abyss,” the narrator reads, as the orchestra opens with opposing major and minor harmonies, classic signifiers of foreboding. “No one knows what may happen to him from one day to another.” The orchestra then takes on a delirious, funhouse-mirror brand of horrifying playfulness, fueled by Frank’s incredulity at the litany of things newly verboten to Jews.
“Jews must wear a yellow star; Jews must give up their bicycles; Jews must be indoors by eight o’clock and can’t even sit in their own gardens! Jews are forbidden to visit cinemas, parks, libraries, swimming pools, sports grounds. Jews must not visit Christians. You’re scared to do anything because it may be forbidden!”
The tension builds musically, even momentarily mirroring the heart-stopping sirens of passing-by Gestapo, before building to a menacing crescendo, the entire orchestra raging.
“I only know we must disappear of our own accord,” the narrator reads, accompanied by the kind of downwardly cascading, chromatic run on clarinet suggestive of hasty preparations, “and not wait until they come to fetch us.”
Once in hiding, Frank grapples with feelings of survivor’s guilt on the track titled “I Feel Guilty Sleeping in a Warm Bed,” and while Frank is never hopeless, she laments that she can discern no hope yet in sight. Her thoughts turn to macabre resignation and powerlessness and are echoed with long, bowed notes from the very guts of the orchestra.
“I could write forever about all the suffering the war has brought,” the narrator reads, “but then I would only make myself more dejected. There is nothing we can do but wait as calmly as we can until the misery comes to an end. Jews wait. Christians wait. The whole Earth waits—and there are many who wait for death.”
And yet. Tilson Thomas and Hepburn did not conceive of this work to evoke doomsday, though there’s darkness. Nor is it meant as a requiem, though there are poignant elegiac moments.
Maybe it’s those two words that describe their conception of Frank’s diary better than any: “And yet.” There’s the bleakness of the macro storyline (the global events happening outside the Franks’ hiding place); there are the emotional vicissitudes of a teenage narrator, aggravated and amplified by that teenage narrator’s extraordinary lack of privacy; and yet, there’s that same teenage narrator’s incredible predisposition towards hope and curiosity.
“In spite of everything,” Frank writes at the diary’s conclusion, “I still believe that people are really good at heart. I simply can’t build up my hopes on a foundation consisting of confusion, misery, and death….”
Dual Inspirations for MTT’s Musical Themes
So it is no spoiler here to know of the dark fate that befell the entire Frank family— save the father, Otto, who lived to publish his daughter’s words—at Bergen-Belsen. Because Tilson Thomas and Hepburn render the author in the light that radiates from so much of her writing—in spite of everything.
To hear Tilson Thomas tell it, so much of that can be credited not just to the original source material but to Hepburn herself and what she contributed not just to the role of narrator but to the music, too.
“She had a very identifiable way of speaking,” Tilson Thomas told me recently, suggesting that the natural rhythm of her voice can actually be perceived in the orchestra’s phrasing. “There were definite cadences in her voice which were so very endearing and lovely. The bright side of the piece—the brightness, the light, the youthfulness, the love of nature, all these kinds of things—these very much came out of cadences and qualities in the way Audrey spoke and the way she was herself. She was one of the most genuine, lovely people I’ve ever known.”
The other major aspect of Tilson Thomas’ musical conception of From the Diary is how much he derived thematically from traditional Jewish music, especially the Kaddish, that Swiss Army knife of Judaism’s musical liturgy that serves, depending on the circumstance, to sanctify God, exalt life and peace, separate parts of a prayer service, and mourn the dead.
“Basically, it’s a set of symphonic variations on the Kaddish melody,” Tilson Thomas said of his composition’s thematic origins. “Specifically, the transcription of the Levi Yitzchok of Berditchev Kaddish, which is the same one that Ravel transcribed in his two Jewish songs [‘Deux mélodies hébraïques’]. ”
“They’re not exact quotes,” Tilson Thomas added. “But they’re things that, motivically, use elements that are part of Berditchev’s Kaddish.” As Jewish musical texts go, you’d be hard-pressed to find one that jibes more compatibly with the emotional duality of Frank’s diary.
“Of course, many things in the text of the Kaddish are full of praise for the beauty and the glory of life, as well as lamentation,” said Tilson Thomas, presenting a theologically sound exegesis. But it’s not as though the maestro had to pore over the Talmudic commentaries to find a musical way into Frank’s work.
“When you’re interpreting material like [Frank’s diary],” he said, “all the material kind of finds its own world somehow.”
A Philadelphia Story
On March 19, 1990, Tilson Thomas and Hepburn found that the center of their world, for an evening, was Philadelphia’s Academy of Music. From the Diary of Anne Frank made its world premiere at the Grand Old Lady of Locust Street before playing Chicago and Houston and culminating its inaugural tour with a performance before the United Nations’ General Assembly.
“I felt very at home in Philadelphia,” said Tilson Thomas, who’d appeared with The Philadelphia Orchestra at the Mann Center for Performing Arts and the Saratoga Performing Arts Center 20 times in the 1970s and ’80s. “And I was very close to Freddy and Silvia [Mann, for whom the outdoor music venue in Fairmount Park is named]. They were tremendously supportive, very loyal people, and were involved in the launching of a lot of young musicians’ careers. And I worked with the most extraordinary people [at the Mann], legendary people. I was such a young kid when I was starting out, and there was [Arthur] Grumiaux and [Pierre] Fournier and Jan Peerce and Robert Merrill and Leontyne Price. They were in their primes.”
Tilson Thomas even credits famed Philadelphia Orchestra Music Director Leopold Stokowski with meaningfully buoying his confidence as a young conductor.
“One of my proudest possessions is a fan letter that Leopold Stokowski wrote me when I was a very young man,” he said. “He’d heard a radio performance of Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra that I did, and he wrote me a letter to say that he was so pleased with it because it was so full of fantasy and color, which, from his knowledge of the composer, was exactly what Schoenberg really wanted. And so I have very special feelings about Philadelphia traditions.”
MTT’s Yiddishkeit Revival, Hep’s Enduring Legacy
The next year, in May 1991, Hepburn and Tilson Thomas would reprise their roles in Europe, with MTT conducting the London Symphony Orchestra, where at the time he was serving as principal conductor. Hepburn died less than two years later, at 63, of stomach cancer.
In 1995, Tilson Thomas was appointed music director of the San Francisco Symphony. He’d planned to put From the Diary on SFS’s program right away; he even hired actress Debra Winger to do the narration, but an orchestra strike meant that Winger never shared the stage with the San Franciscans. Tilson Thomas went on to lead the SFS for the better part of the next quarter century, and only at the very end of his tenure did he get to reprise his earliest original orchestral composition.
“If God exists, he must have a hell of a sense of humor,” joked Tilson Thomas about finally getting From the Diary back on stage towards the end of his tenure. “It’s just one of those cosmic things.” Far from outdated, From the Diary’s subject matter—for both its horrors and its hopefulness—is as germane as ever.
“There’s no shortage in the world of splintered conceptions of identities hostilely confronting one another, sadly,” said Tilson Thomas. “The things that we wish the sacrifice of so many people in the past had alleviated…we’re still dealing with so many aspects of that.”
In the production that played from Nov. 12 to Nov. 15, 2018, multi-Grammy-winning opera star Isabel Leonard played the narrator’s role that Hepburn originated. At early rehearsals, Leonard played Hepburn almost too well.
“Isabel is a fantastic actress, in addition to being a great singer, and at one rehearsal she actually read absolutely in Audrey’s voice,” Tilson Thomas recalled with gleeful laughter. “She did a perfect imitation of Audrey, but we realized that we just couldn’t do that—she had to find her own authentic way of doing it.”
She did, and the performances at SFS’s Davies Symphony Hall were lauded both locally and nationally.
“The evocative score glistens and surges with emotion and convincing insight,” wrote Phil Campbell of the Bay Area Reporter, the prominent LGBT weekly. “One would have to be made of wood not to respond.”
The recorded performance, combined with SFS’s Jan. 2020 live recording of Tilson Thomas’ Meditations on Rilke onto one CD released this past June, earned the Maestro—now, officially, the SFS’s music director laureate—his 12th GRAMMY award.
“I was so used to, in my life, always being the youngest person on stage; I blinked and suddenly became the oldest person on stage,” Tilson said, self-effacingly, of his recent recognition. “But as the older guy I suddenly seem to have become, it’s nice to know that what I do is still being appreciated.”
Though stylistically different, it bears mentioning that the two works comprising this latest record are not an incongruous pairing; they are bound by Yiddishkeit, which, to listen to Tilson Thomas tell it, can exist in any alien setting in which a Jewish person of a certain musical predilection might find him or herself.
“In many ways, the Rilke piece is based on an observation of my father’s that there was such a remarkable similarity often between Schubert’s songs and cowboy songs,” Tilson Thomas said of the six-song cycle that sets the poetry of German modernist Rainer Maria Rilke to original orchestral music.
“It’s also a kind of representation of a story my father told me about his own migration from New York to California in the 1930s. He and his jalopy ran out of gas in some tiny town in Arizona. And to make some money, he played at a cowboy dance, in a barn. He was very confident because he knew every Gershwin and Irving Berlin and Cole Porter tune that there was. Of course, the people in that bar wanted to hear something called, like, ‘The Bear Fat Fling,’ or something like that. So, he had to learn these pieces. But, of course, whatever he played had this tinge of Yiddish Tin Pan Alley about it.
“So that element is also part of what happens in the Rilke cycle, which is very stream-of-consciousness and moves between some very Schubertian, cowboy-like things and also some quite chromatic things.”
One Way to Think about What MTT Has Done for Us Lately
Though fluent in the 20th-century cultural touchstones that birthed modern Jewish American culture, Tilson Thomas is more likely to be thought of as a top-tier American conductor and master interpreter of modern American composers, with some Mahler thrown in for good measure. That’s a good thing in that it evaluates Tilson Thomas as a musician without respect to where he comes from, and a bad thing in that it evaluates Tilson Thomas as a musician without respect to where he comes from.
As with his compositions, there is a duality here worth grappling with. But it’s telling that both pieces included on his last recording as SFS’s music director—respectively, his first and last original compositions written for orchestra— speak so strongly to his Jewish identity.
There’s a part of his soul that is connected to Yiddishkeit and would be even if he were to break down in the middle of America and be forced to play a local honky-tonk for gas money. But perhaps most worth noting for the history books—at least as it pertains to the From the Diary project—is that it took Audrey Hepburn to help him recapture that piece of his soul.
“At this distance from it, it’s slightly awesome for me to think that, somehow or another, thanks to Audrey, I was able to put myself in that place,” Tilson Thomas said. “And to write this music, which people have found moving and having a sense of authenticity. Without her, I wouldn’t have thought of writing this piece at all. She brought me back to see it in a much deeper way than I had before.”
Listen to the entire work here.