Saturday, July 2, 2011

Becoming a Fan of Mahler

Michael Tilson Thomas at Mahler's house in Maiernnig, Austria.
In Tramps Like Us, I wrote about the "becoming-a-fan" stories shared among Bruce Springsteen fans. They were essentially conversion narratives, articulating an intense realization of Springsteen's music. Fans reported that their discovery of Springsteen felt like a lasting dividing line in their lives, creating a transformative "before-and-after" that didn't exist previous to their conversion experiences.

I was reminded of such becoming-a-fan stories last night while watching Michael Tilson Thomas on public television hosting a documentary on composer Gustav Mahler. Mahler is an interesting figure in his own right, but what was most engaging about the program (part of the San Francisco Symphony's "Keeping Score" series) was Thomas's palpable enthusiasm for the man and his music. He just seemed so delighted to be talking about Mahler with you, the viewer, it was almost impossible not to get swept up in the whole thing. And unlike many documentaries on composers, which over-emphasize the otherworldly talent of an individual, this one actually opened with a string of becoming-a-fan stories from listeners: Thomas, Susan Graham, Frank Gehry, Patrick Stewart, and Yo-Yo Ma. (Thomas also did an interview last year in which he told his Mahler becoming-a-fan story, noting at the :50 mark that "I divide my life between before I heard that recording...and after).

Springsteen fans share their stories of becoming-a-fan to both confirm their membership in a wider community and to help others, just discovering Springsteen, to frame their experiences in understandable ways. It seemed to me that Thomas was doing something similar, except for a television audience. Thomas used his passion for Mahler as a basis for organizing the program's content; it helped to make Mahler's greatness not simply an abstraction but real, relatable, felt. By earnestly offering his life-changing discovery of Mahler, he made himself a little vulnerable--not the distant scholar or elitist expert but someone who was unexpectedly blown away by a recording when he was thirteen years old. Personally, I've never really connected with Mahler's music, but encountering Thomas's obvious love for it made me want to go back and listen again.

PBS's typical soft-spoken erudition isn't going to bring new audiences to Mahler, but Thomas's fandom just might.

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