From May ’08 Spotlight: Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas’s name is typically associated with Grammy Award-winning recordings of Mahler symphonies and other high brow releases from the San Francisco Symphony. But Tilson Thomas is on his way to Chicago this month to offer us something entirely different: a tribute to his grandparents, Yiddish Theatre stars Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky. I contacted him by phone to ask why he was dedicating a considerable part of his own life to telling their story.
“I grew up surrounded by the veterans of Yiddish theater,” Tilson Thomas told me. “Bessie Thomashefsky, my grandmother, had been a major star. She had amazing memories and astonishing abilities as a performer. People she had known from the old days, people like Paul Muni and Edward G. Robinson, she had known them when they were really young kids, given them a start on their very first plays, so they still would check in with her sometimes. I heard so many different stories: lots of laughs and lots of tears.”
“So it became a mission of mine to honor them and their contributions to American cultural life. How much could I rescue from the realm of anecdote and actually put it into a timeline? I worked for five years researching this. This is a real story about two kids who came to the US when he was 12 and she was about 5. They went from a little shtetl in Ukraine to being mega stars in New York, and all this they did just by imagining that it was possible. My grandparents discovered the theater could be used as a means of social transformation in which a lesson and a song and a laugh were all simultaneous.”
The Chicago Symphony Orchestra will offer two programs on Sunday afternoon, June 1 and Tuesday evening, June 3. Both will be multimedia productions with full orchestration. For tickets, visit www.cso.org or call the CSO’s ticket hotline at 800-223-7114.
Spertus Institute has also scheduled a related program on Tuesday May 27: a casual conversation between Tilson Thomas and Andrew Patner of WFMT radio, with time built in for audience participation. Think of it as “the appetizer course.” For tickets, visit www.spertus.edu or call 312-322-1773.