OK, so here is something unambiguously fine. Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony are inaugurating a long-range multimedia project called Keeping Score with an hour-long show on PBS tomorrow (Wednesday, 6/16). The show itself isn’t the most striking aspect of the project, but it’s first-rate—as decent a piece of music television as there's been since Lenny went away. The subject at hand is Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, and the San Franciscans not only give a strong account of that raging, glittering masterpiece but also let us know the labor and passion that go into a so-called “routine” subscription performance. You see MTT humming along to the score in his study, the librarian marking up parts in the archive, oboists making reeds, a bass-player balancing practice with his children’s playtime, the conductor rehearsing a solo with a picture of Little Richard on his piano, and so on — the orchestra integrated into modern life, American life, San Francisco life. Working his cool-professor mode, MTT dispenses basic facts about Tchaikovsky’s life, basic facts about how the score works. I like how he starts this series with a composer who was long dismissed as, ahem, “over the top”; the emphasis in this precinct is on music as an emotional rather than intellectual art, and no one pretends to be embarrassed by Tchaikovsky's muscular pathos.
It’s all good, and God knows there should be more of it on public TV. But what most excited me was the shockingly well-designed Keeping Score website. Here you can listen to the entire symphony while following along in the score, the pages turned for you. You can click on a mysterious Italianate term to read a quick, unfussy explanation, or stop the performance to hear MTT’s interpretive ideas. Even people who know the music will enjoy the high-tech tour, but the true audience is that vast population of otherwise well-informed people for whom the rituals and codes of classical music are a closed book. This site, more than anything I've seen, opens it all up.