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S.F. MAESTRO STRIKES A RESPONSIVE CHORD

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When he wore a leather jacket for one of his first formal photo shoots at the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco got its first hint that there was something different about its symphony's new maestro.

Michael Tilson Thomas confirmed that feeling when he punctuated his inaugural season by high-fiving a throng of adoring Grateful Dead fans as he walked off the stage at the recent two-week American Music Festival."I don't know who he is, man," says Brian Skinner, a 24-year-old Dead Head from San Luis Obispo. "But what he's doing is a beautiful thing."

Reuniting members of the Grateful Dead for the first time since guitarist Jerry Garcia's death last year is one thing. Playing piano with them in an improvisational piece based on the music of avant-garde pioneer Henry Cowell - all in front of a crowd where suit and tie met tie-dye - is another.

It's classic Michael Tilson Thomas.

"The purpose of this music is not to be played in elevators or as background music for sitcoms," says Tilson Thomas, who has made his reputation by mixing music, musicians and audiences in unexpected ways. "It may outrage, disappoint, delight, infuriate. But this music is meant to be heard."

Tilson Thomas is as much at home with a romantic German symphony as the large repertoire of 20th-century American music that has become the 51-year-old maestro's trademark. In particular, he has made it his business to acquaint his new hometown and the rest of the world with the San Francisco Bay area's new musical contributors - from Cowell and John Cage, who composed here, to the quirky Kronos Quartet and Lou Harrison, the elder statesman of northern California composers.

"I'm not interested in the international fast track with the most famous operas, the most famous singers in the most famous places," says Tilson Thomas, who returned to his native California last year after six seasons with the London Symphony Orchestra.

"It's not in my nature to go through things I've already done and just sort of dust them off," he says. "I want to do new work."

The tactic seems to be working.

In a day when many orchestras are struggling financially, San Francisco Symphony subscriptions are up 10 percent since Tilson Thomas was chosen to succeed Herbert Blomstedt as music director last year. And 27 percent of those who bought single tickets his first three weeks had never been to the symphony before.

"I didn't bring Michael Tilson Thomas to San Francisco. I think God did," Peter Pastreich, the San Francisco Symphony's executive director, gushes.

Statements such as that cause some symphony regulars to roll their eyes. Even those who've never been to the symphony joke about the "hype" surrounding Tilson Thomas, whose face and "MTT" initials are plastered on billboards and kiosks all over town. But many residents think Tilson Thomas is a "man of vision" and is making San Francisco San Francisco again.

In fact, the maestro's only criticisms have come from those complaining when his path has veered from the maverick to the mundane of classical Top 40.

"Into the career of every adventurous music director a wholly conventional subscription program must eventually fall," complained San Francisco Examiner music critic Allan Ulrich after a May concert that featured pieces by Stravinksy and Tchaikovsky. "Soulfulness was much in evidence . . . but so was a sensation of swimming in taffy. . . ."

For the most part, however, reviewers have raved, so much so that many believe Tilson Thomas is putting California and the West Coast on the musical map.

"There's a great deal of snobbery, particularly in Europe, about California culture," says Berkeley composer John Adams, whose music was featured in Tilson Thomas' inaugural season. "They think it's all Disney and Beach Boys. But Michael understands how rich the culture is here."

So why has Tilson Thomas had more success in developing a taste for 20th-century American music where others have failed? What exactly is the appeal of this man who's been heard to say, "If it's too in tune, it doesn't sound right"?

Follow your heart and the rest will follow, says the enigmatic conductor, who, behind the scenes and out of his tux, wears things like wrinkled green shirts with blue pants, brown socks and shiny black penny loafers. The unsuspecting also discover that his boyish charm and playful humor can quickly turn impatient and sour.

"Don't mess with the maestro," Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart quipped during a rehearsal with Tilson Thomas. And don't, his handlers advise, ask him about Leonard Bernstein, his mentor and the famed New York Philharmonic maestro who once said of Tilson Thomas, "He reminds me of me."

Caught on a good day, however, Tilson Thomas willingly compares his stake in San Francisco with Bernstein's New York legacy.

"There was a chemistry between him and the city," Tilson Thomas says. "It was as if the city was discovering itself anew with him. He was adventurous in a way that changed musical history."

Of himself, Tilson Thomas says, "There are people who become symbols of the discovery of music. That's one of the things I do."

That also means remembering his roots.

"Some would say, `Oh, Michael, you're talking like a West Coast kid,' " says Tilson Thomas, who grew up in Los Angeles. "But I am a West Coast kid. I came home to take care of business."