Michael Tilson Thomas is a conductor — he heads two orchestras (the San Francisco Symphony and the New World Symphony), has won 10 Grammys and led the YouTube Symphony at Carnegie Hall — but he comes from a family of actors. His grandparents were major stars of the Yiddish theater a century ago, creating Yiddish versions of everything from “Hamlet” to Wagner’s “Parsifal.” And he is keenly aware that acting is in his blood.
“As a conductor,” he says, sitting over breakfast at the Hay-Adams Hotel, “I’m not interested in telling people, ‘Play the first three notes loud, the next three of them slower, the next two of them shorter . . . ‘ No director would say to an actor, ‘Say the first three words slow, and then wait a beat, and then say the next five more trippingly on the tongue.’ You wouldn’t, because the actor has to become the person. The actor must be the role.”
Tilson Thomas, or MTT, as he is widely known, has become the role himself. A notably boyish 65, his lean, handsome face framed with gently grayed hair, he’s grown into his trademark air of aggressive precociousness; at his age, he’s allowed to be the person in the room who knows the most about everything and to visibly expand when the focus of the conversation is himself. On the day of his Washington visit last month, he’s scheduled to accept the National Medal of Arts from President Obama — one of the country’s highest artistic honors. (He’ll be back in town Wednesday with the San Francisco Symphony when it performs at the Kennedy Center, courtesy of the Washington Performing Arts Society.)
Tilson Thomas’s eyes are brighter, his skin more aglow than in some earlier incarnations (particularly an infamous bad-boy period in the 1970s). Now, he’s a passionate cook, and fresh off a stint at the Pritikin Center: For more than two months he’s been living without salt, fat, caffeine, alcohol and sugar. “I feel so much better,” he says. “I have more energy. I’m kind of eating the diet my ancestors ate in the Ukraine. Kasha and oat groats, whole grains. I sound like the most boring food faddist,” he says, ever self-aware. “We’ll see how long this lasts.”