George Thomson, an otherwise sensitive, highly intelligent artist, collects tapes of Perry Mason episodes. (Not that there is anything wrong with that.) Does he see a pinnacle of thespian excellence in Raymond Burr’s work? No, his interest has to do with the similarity between the structure of the TV show and Haydn symphonies:
“There is a familiar framework of what is expected; there will always be a woman who screams, ‘He was dead when I got there!’ but both the show and Haydn play beautifully with what happens in between.”
The Berkeley Symphony associate music director’s unusual hobby and his straight-faced, semi-serious explanation for it both fit him well. He is invariably described as “funny,” “impressive,” “quirky” and “brilliant”... if and when he is discussed at all.
Thomson has been a vital presence in the Bay Area’s musical life, but, until recently, something of an éminence grise. Like Père Joseph, Cardinal Richelieu’s powerful secretary and the first éminence grise, Thomson has been working behind the scenes, supporting the peripatetic, globetrotting conductor Kent Nagano.
Thomson has been holding the fort while Nagano headed orchestras in Lyon, Manchester, Berlin, acting as the music director of the Los Angeles Opera, and filling guest-conducting assignments around the world.
There will be a lot for Thomson to do backstage in the future as well. As announced earlier this week, Nagano becomes music director of the Montreal Symphony in 2006, at the same time when he is to take his most prestigious position yet: music director of Munich’s 300-year-old Bavarian State Opera.
Ask Nagano about Thomson and he will spare no adjectives: “Maestro Thomson is an amazing person, an extraordinary musician, wonderful conductor, friend and colleague.”
Not a bad reference from the boss for somebody just turning 41, the conductor equivalent of reaching post-puberty. Thomson’s youthful nature is also expressed in the vibrancy of his increasingly frequent music criticism in the web publication San Francisco Classical Voice (www.sfcv.org). Thomson’s blithe spirit lurks even in such a learned dissertation as his review of the San Francisco Opera’s St. François d’Assise, which included this memorable sentence: “Doubtless this is the first such event in history for which the entire audience could know going in just how much the score weighs.”
Hoisting enough scores to equal the 25 pounds Messiaen’s opera requires, Thomson is about to appear as a conductor up front, leading performances in four venues in the coming weeks, three in Berkeley.
• Thomson conducts his own Marin Symphony Youth Orchestra at 3 p.m., on Sunday, March 7, in the Veterans Auditorium.
• On the same day, at 8 p.m., after a Nagano-like mad dash from one location to another, Thomson will lead the Berkeley Symphony’s “Under Construction” new music reading concert in St. John’s Presbyterian Church. (Nagano himself conducts “Madama Butterfly” at a Los Angeles Opera matinee the same day, flying in to participate in the concert as “host.”)
• On Tuesday, March 16, Thomson will make his Berkeley Symphony subscription-concert conducting debut (after a decade “below the deck”), leading Elliott Carter’s Cello Concerto (Judiyaba is the soloist).
• May 8-16 Thomson makes his Berkeley Opera conducting debut as music director for Handel’s “Acis and Galate.”
Besides conducting and collecting “Perry Mason” tapes, Thomson has two other busy, important careers, as educator and instrumentalist. At Berkeley Symphony, he has been director of the manifold music education program and producer/director of “Under Construction.” He is also music director of the Marin Symphony Youth Orchestra, and program director/conductor of the San Domenico School’s famed Virtuoso Program.
Says Nagano of Thomson: “As a music educator, he has a remarkable gift of communication. He has been impressively effective in having a powerful and important impact on our future generation of musicians and music lovers.” It is a testimonial Thomson appreciates, but from his Til Eulenspiegel side, he wonders who this legendary figures may be, sharing his name.
As a violist, Thomson is one of those hyperactive musicians, somebody you might have heard in the Bay Area for almost two decades, since graduating from UC Berkeley, playing with the Carmel Bach Festival, the American Bach Soloists, Philharmonia Baroque, Earplay... and more. All the while, conducting has been the goal, beginning in Cupertino Junior High, where young Thomson led the school orchestra in Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, albeit “only” the first movement. At Cal, he conducted the Summer Orchestra in Hertz Hall, in works by Haydn, Stravinsky, Ravel.
In the small-world department, he auditioned for a program at Yale which Alasdair Neale attended (Neale is now music director in Marin), and at the Prometheus Symphony, he took the job over from Jonathan Khuner (now director of Berkeley Opera).
All that playing, education and interest enabled this “emerging maestro” to take on assignments: There are some 50 more or less standard works in his repertory, from Adams to Wreede (both happen to be Berkeley-based), and his background in contemporary music is about as broad as anybody’s.
Almost certainly, Thomson has mastered Fred Steiner’s scores as well. That would the composer/arranger responsible for the Perry Mason theme.