My Interview with Michael Tilson Thomas!
Still can't believe I had the chutzpah to play my oboe for MTT.
In 2021 the great conductor Michael Tilson Thomas was diagnosed with glioblastoma, the most aggressive form of brain cancer. So I feel a special poignancy as I watch this interview with MTT from a 2006 episode of KQED-TV’s The Josh Kornbluth Show.
It is emotional for me as well to watch the part of our conversation where we talk about the late William Bennett, the San Francisco Symphony’s former principal oboist. Bill Bennett (never to be confused with the neoconservative politician and commentator William J. Bennett, who has done plenty of bloviating but, to my knowledge, has never blown through an oboe, at least professionally) was my occasional oboe teacher, and just a lovely, funny guy. Tragically, in 2013, in the middle of performing Richard Strauss’s notoriously challenging Oboe Concerto with the Symphony at Davies Hall, he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and collapsed onstage. In a beautiful, heroic gesture, as he fell he handed his oboe to another musician, so that the instrument wouldn’t be damaged. Bill died a few days later, at the age of 56.
Bill and MTT were both involved in helping me and my brother Jacob get permission to use the Symphony’s glorious recording of Igor Stravinsky’s The Firebird when we were making our feature film Haiku Tunnel. (My own oboe-playing on The Firebird, when I was a member of the Youth Symphony of New York, did not go so well — a subject that forms kind of a running thread through this episode.) As I recall, Bill slipped a note to the maestro during a rehearsal break, pleading our case. Jake and I didn’t get the official okay until literally the day of our movie’s 2001 premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. (In the event that we didn’t get permission, we had brought an alternate final reel with a recording of The Firebird from, like, the Bulgarian Army Orchestra or something.) It was such a relief to sit there in the audience at Sundance and to hear, over the nearly wordless final sequence of our film, the Firebird’s climax, as conducted by MTT.
Towards the end of our interview, the maestro conducted me as I played a portion of the Firebird’s soaring oboe solo. I highly recommend that, after hearing this amateur attempt it, you listen to Bill Bennett’s dazzling rendition on the Symphony’s recording — a sonic palate-cleanser, if you will.