The Passion Of Michael Tilson Thomas

<b>Morley Safer</b> Profiles World-Famous Conductor

This segment was first broadcast on Oct. 1, 2000.

One of the qualities often found in stars is passion, and correspondent Morley Safer says he can't think of anyone he has ever met who is more passionate about his work — or life itself — than Michael Tilson Thomas.

The conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, now 61, has carried music with him since childhood, almost as an infectious disease. And he spreads his art wherever he goes.

Michael Tilson Thomas stares down from the podium like some benevolent bird of prey, eyes staring past that great beak. It's all wonderfully choreographed, every gangly movement, the eyes of 95 musicians watching the eyes of the maestro. He is the portrait of a boy wonder all grown up, finally fulfilling the expectations of a fickle music establishment.

"A lot of what a conductor does is to point out and define what now is, how long now is. Is now this: bup, bup, bup, bup, bup? Which one of those is it? Now, now, now, now? Or is it: now, now, now? Or is it now, now, now?" asks Thomas.

For this maverick musician, openly gay, showmanship is in his genes.

Thomas is a Thomashefsky, the grandson of Boris Thomashefsky, the great Russian immigrant singer and actor who, in the 1920s and '30s, was a superstar in the American Yiddish theater — and legendary for his philandering.

"He was like Elvis in some ways," Thomas explains. "Women would rush the stage and rip their clothes off. It's kind of scary because very often, when I used to go on tour around the United States, people would come up after the show and say, 'You know, we think, in some way, we're related to you.'"

Boris' wife, Bessie, was a siren of the Yiddish stage and a seductress off the stage. She lived long enough to become her grandson's theatrical muse.

"She said to me, 'No one ever said I gave anything less than an impassioned performance. And there's no such thing as an impassioned performance without a little raw material,'" says Thomas.

"I was once at a recording session. It was going really well," says Thomas. "And my father was there, and we were both kind of happy and teary, and I said, 'You know, Dad, what is this, you know, that when something is really beautiful, I just feel so happy and so sad at the same time? And I get this expression on my face, and I know that I get this from you, 'cause you have that same expression, but what does that expression mean?' And he said, 'That's the expression.'"