Most SFCV readers need no introduction to Michael Tilson Thomas or reminders about his myriad contributions to the musical world — locally and globally. But given the COVID-muted, online-only festivities last June to celebrate his retirement after 25 years at the helm of the SF Symphony, there’s good reason for fans, neophytes, and the merely curious to catch a new documentary about our local hero.
American Masters — Michael Tilson Thomas: Where Now Is premiered Oct. 23 on PBS, but is available for streaming at the American Masters website through Nov. 20.
Where Now Is follows the 11-time Grammy-winning artist, National Medal of Arts recipient and Kennedy Center Honoree along his route to fame, from his childhood in California through his tenures with increasingly significant orchestras and encounters with musical heroes to his leadership roles with the SF Symphony and New World Symphony. It also explores the conductor’s career-long championing of new and underperformed or underappreciated composers, and how he managed to stir up expectations and programming wherever he worked.
The 124-minute documentary incorporates archival images, audio, and video, plus interviews with the composer himself and music luminaries such as composer Steve Reich, Los Angeles Philharmonic CEO Chad Smith, pianist Ralph Grierson, Boston Symphony Orchestra CEO Mark Volpe, San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joshua Kosman, and many others.
Famed architect Frank Gehry (Walt Disney Concert Hall), who babysat Tilson Thomas when he was a boy, makes an appearance, as does Joshua Robison, Tilson Thomas’s husband and manager. One particularly charming segment is dedicated to Tilson Thomas’s relationship with the music — particularly the rhythmic ideas — of the “King of Soul,” James Brown. Tune in to learn how he worked “Cold Sweat” in symphony rehearsals.