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Michael Tilson Thomas: Worth every penny

December 14, 2008 |  7:00 am

Bessie Thomashefsky Oy vey, now what are they trying to do to Bessie Thomashefsky's grandson? 

The San Francisco Weekly lately got word that Michael Tilson Thomas' salary is what the news-hounds figured was a whopping $1.6 million.  After reading the article, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, in a fit of pique, now promises to cut off the city's $1.8-million subsidy to the symphony, according to a follow-up in the Weekly.

Here's some news for a supervisor: MTT's salary is hardly peanuts but is average, around the level of Esa-Pekka Salonen's at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Certain East Coast maestros reportedly pick up $2 million-plus. Lorin Maazel was reputed to have taken home more than $4 million a year in Munich before he moved to the New York Philharmonic.

And here's what $1.6 million buys besides a lot of great performances.  The San Francisco Symphony has, under MTT, gone from second rank to first, from unimportant to important.  Support for the orchestra has grown enormously, meaning that the $1.6 million draws in many millions more for the orchestra each year.  He brings goodwill to the town, and even in orchestra-heaven Los Angeles, Tilson Thomas' appearances are highly anticipated, as is his presentation this week with the Los Angeles Philharmonic of a program about his grandparents, Bessie and Boris Thomashefsky, who were stars of the New York Yiddish Theater. (You can read about it in my Arts & Books story.)

MTT attracts tourist dollars, especially for his festivals. He is the education conductor, who has used his SF Symphony resources to make important television and fabulous radio programs about classical music. 

The question, though, is not how much MTT is worth but how many millions might it cost San Francisco to once more promote itself as a sophisticate city if a Philistine supervisor actually has his way?

And how about those Yankees?  Left-hander C.C. Sabathia just signed a seven-year contract for 100 times MTT's $1.6 million.  Now, that's real money.  It even includes a million bucks in pocket change.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Bessie Thomashefsky appeared in "Sh'ma Yisroel" (Hear, O Israel) in 1907. Credit: The Thomashefsky Project / San Francisco Symphony

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