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Picking Up the Baton

January 27, 2011 By:
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Michael Tilson Thomas

The nu world symphony Michael Tilson Thomas is about to conduct has nothing to do with Dvorak and everything to do with der varnishkes (bowtie pasta).

Indeed, it's more a piece of the old world opened wide through the eyes of late Yiddish theater legends Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky.

Or as Tilson Thomas calls them: Bubby and Zayda.

Their history is a calling for the conductor, notable in his own profession astride the podium of the San Francisco Symphony, where he waves his baton as a wand evoking musical magic and gleans global recognition as a composer and pianist.

But tickling the ivories is not what has him giddy today; Tilson Thomas has taken on the past with conduct becoming an heir to histrionics going way beyond the stage, immersing himself in the kind of Yiddishkeit that soars in the gentle winds of remembrance.

This 2009 recipient of the National Medal of the Arts received it from the hands of President Barack Obama. Next month, he puts himself in the hands of a handsome heritage that was a bissel historical, a bissel hysterical as he brings "The Thomashefskys" to the Kimmel Center, conducting the Philadelphia Orchestra, as well as serving as narrator nonpareil.

Two concerts are on tap: The Feb. 15 performance www.jewishphilly.org is being presented by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia in support of the Connie and Joe Smukler Heritage Fund, with the couple being feted that evening.

Appropriate since the feats of the Thomashefskys are center stage for the performances; the spotlight sparkles with the couple who once put the dish in Yiddish, illuminating the New York stage with their antics and theatrics in the late 19th century and early 20th.

But the arc of their schedule also included the local Arch Street Theatre, which makes "The Thomashefskys" a haimish homecoming of sorts. For Tilson Thomas, too; the 66-year-old has stepped before the orchestra before, but never with such an album of allegiances as this.

Though he was born five years after his grandfather Boris had died (1939), the conductor recalls a regular regal visitor to the Tilson Thomas home in the guise of a grandmother with a grandiloquent inventory of stories.

"I loved hearing her tell about all her experiences, her perspectives and what it took to be on stage at that time," says her grandson of the years she shared with Boris, whom she met in Baltimore in 1887, going backstage to congratulate the female lead of a play only to discover it was Boris en mufti, playing against type -- and gender.

Miffed at the mistake? Hardly. They married four years later. But the actress who would go on to make a name for herself as the Yiddish "Salome" unveiled for her grandson the great and gripping drama she lived on and off the stage.

"It was all about the fun -- and difficulties," Tilson Thomas says of a time of egos as fragile as eggs, and producers and theater owners having their own shell games when it came to finances.

Couldn't have been too difficult; the conductor is not alone taking a dip into the deep end of the family's theatrical gene pool: Tilson Thomas' father, Ted -- who shortened the surname to Thomas -- was reportedly a stellar stage manager, with Michael making it the third generation of his family to generate artistic headlines.

And the acclaimed conductor has acquired more than his share of fame, with positions spanning the world and the web devoted to detailing such star-making turns since subbing the last minute at the podium for William Steinberg at Carnegie Hall in 1969.

Nearly 40 years later, this multi-gifted music man -- composer of "From the Diary of Anne Frank"; creator of the New World Symphony -- premiered "The Thomashefskys" (2005) at the same Carnegie Hall, where he has made it his practice, practice, practice to gain kudos and accolades from press and public alike.

He likes to bring the story of his grandparents to a worldwide forum; for him, "The Thomashefskys" is akin to sharing his own folk with the outside world. A Jewish "American Idol"? In a way, "The Thomashefskys" "is a reality show," with grandmom and grandpop shown "who they were on and off the stage."

The production is off and running with great talents, such as Broadway's Shuler Hensley -- a Tony Award winner for "Oklahoma!" before taking on the part(s) of "Young Frankenstein" -- portraying the older Boris, with Judy Blazer as Bessie in her adult years.

It's not many who could pull off what the real Thomashefskys did, avers Tilson Thomas. "Given notice of a week, they could pull a whole show together."

And such shows! With riches reaped from such sensations as a Yiddish "Hamlet" (to be or not to be? Of course! Who else but a Jewish Prince of Denmark would answer a question with a question?); Goethe's "Faust"; and, talk about topsy-turvy takes on literature, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," B&B owned their own inn in Brooklyn, to go along with land in Hunter, N.Y., where fans hunted them down for productions at the Thomashefsky Paradise Gardens amphitheater.

In a way, "The Thomashefskys" amps up the voltage of known tales of their career, turning New York's Second Avenue into their personal walkway.

What worked well for the first couple of the American Yiddish stage was the singular focus of many of their projects, "centering on social activism, exploring the most controversial issues of the day," whether it be workers' rights or the plight of the suffragettes suffering male roadblocks to the voting booths.

Poster boy -- and girl -- for social change? They certainly made for stunning posters in theater lobbies. (Some of those posters, as well as archtype artifacts, sheet music, a lecture and screening of Boris' lone foray into Yiddish film, "Bar Mitzvah," are part of the Thomashefsky Yiddish Theater Festival, funded by the Federation and Chaim Schwartz Foundation at the Gershman Y, in anticipation of the concert.)

Has Tilson Thomas reversed an age-old problem? Is Yiddish theater -- always rumored to be dying, dying, dying -- revived with this project? "It is not my mission" to provide the oxygen to the oxymoronic state of a barely breathing vital form of Jewish heritage, says the show's producer.

Don't buttonhole him as a Yiddish theater Benjamin Button. "I'm not equipped to lead a revival. I'm just telling the story of these courageous" actors, says the sage storyteller. He is also employing some sound decisions, making use of "hit numbers from their times" -- tunes that did a number on other artists, such as the young Gershwins, familiar guests at the Thomas home, where George taught Ted Thomas how to play piano.

Just a tune up for son Michael to take the lead? Each in the family seemingly had their own artistic voice.

And Boris could make some outside the family hit the high notes. "He was a very passionate guy," Tilson Thomas concedes of his grandfather, a charming rogue who "was known for his romantic exploits."

Bessie knew best. "Eventually, they separated," although their ultimate farewell tour was saved for the real end: They're buried together in the Yiddish actors division of New York's Mount Hebron Cemetery.

Some 120 years after the Yiddish Lunt and Fontaine found life together on the not-so-wicked stage, they're reunited in fervor, forever in spirit, with kudos due their acclaimed grandson, picking up the baton.

Isn't it all so romantic? Well, it's only natural, says Tilson Thomas. After all, he notes of his zesty zayda, Boris' "most important relationship was with the audience."

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