How We Met: Dudley Moore and Michael Tilson Thomas

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The Independent Culture
Michael Tilson Thomas, 49, grew up in Hollywood. In 1988 he became Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and in September 1995 he will take over as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Dudley Moore, 58, was born in Essex and studied music at Oxford. After graduating, he joined a jazz band and toured with the John Dankworth orchestra. In 1960 he teamed up with Peter Cook, Jonathan Miller, and Alan Bennett in 'Beyond The Fringe'. He settled in Los Angeles in 1975. He presents 'Concerto]' on Channel 4 with Michael Tilson Thomas.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS: The first time I met Dudley doesn't really count. It was maybe 10 or 15 years ago. We were doing a concert together at the Hollywood Bowl. I was conducting and Dudley was playing Rhapsody in Blue. We arranged that I would go over to his house for a piano rehearsal. I arrived at his house on the beach in Malibu, rang the bell and the door opened by itself. I walked in and there was Dudley, seated at the piano in a room full of cameras, lights and technicians. I was totally unprepared and quite startled. No one had told me that our meeting was going to be recorded. It felt like being on Candid Camera. Realising that it was all part of the TV documentary performance programme, I just went along with the pretence. We made polite cheerful noises to each other, discussed a few musical points and generally made those self-deprecating remarks which audiences love to hear, but in no way was this a real meeting.

During the course of next day we did actually rehearse and get to know each other a little. In the short time that we spent working together, I realised that underneath all the jokes and the quick one-liners, here was a very serious musician. In those days - it was more or less around the time of Dudley's film 10 - he was much more famous for being an actor rather than a musician, although I'd heard he played jazz piano.

Two years ago we were introduced properly by Initial Films who were planning Concerto], a follow-up to the Orchestra] series Dudley did with Sir Georg Solti. Dudley and I planned to talk over some ideas next time I was in Los Angeles, visiting my parents. Eventually, when we spoke to each other on the phone, I was in the middle of a family crisis at home in the San Fernando Valley. By the sound of it, Dudley was also having familial problems at his home on the other side of town. He said: 'Shall I come over to you?' and I told him I didn't think it was a very good idea. 'How about if I come over to you?' He didn't think that was a good idea either so we decided to meet exactly half way from both houses at the Hamburger Hamlet in Westwood.

This time there were no cameras anywhere so there wasn't any need for Dudley to perform or make jokes the whole time. We were able to have a proper conversation. I think that, like most clowns, he uses all that improvisation in company to disguise the depth of what he really feels. On Concerto] he was wonderful to work with - a team player. Even when he disagreed with some of the things I suggested, he always found calming words of encouragement.

Dudley seems to want music to be comforting, and, at the same time, an amusing force which somehow makes it possible for the audience to stand further away from the sadness and confusion of life. For me, the most important part of music is the breadth and depth of emotion. Despite the fact that we were coming at the music from two different places, there was a great deal of trust between us. When I was talking about something with great seriousness, Dudley would frequently add some surreal comment prefaced with 'Come off it, Michael.' He has this extraordinary ability for brilliantly clever repartee - a never-ending comic stream of consciousness.

During the recording there was a lot of waiting around for things to be set up and we both used to go for walks or mess around on the piano. We discovered that we both shared a passion for old music theatre songs and lyrics. But it wasn't all serendipity and fun. We had our disagreements. Dudley absolutely hated the Bartok Violin Concerto, which he felt was painful and raging. He wasn't all that keen on the Copland Clarinet Concerto, either. But he's fairly open- minded. If he's not thrilled with something the first time he'll go back and give it a second chance. When Concerto] finished, if you were to ask him about the Copland, he would tell you he adores it, and he just might admit to liking the first two movements of the Bartok as well.

DUDLEY MOORE: Our first meeting was 10 years ago when I took part in a Gershwin evening at the Hollywood Bowl. I even think Ira Gershwin was there. Michael says he wasn't prepared for all the cameras when he turned up for a rehearsal at my house, but I'm sure he knew all about it before he arrived. I think his amnesia is just one of the vagaries of musicians.

For the concert, I was playing with a jazz trio, but I can't even remember the names of the other two musicians. What sticks in my mind are mildly strange memories of complaining about certain passages when I was rehearsing Rhapsody in Blue with Michael and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. There was a part of it which I kept finding incredibly difficult. Michael just sat down and rattled it off. I felt sure he must be thinking, what's this young upstart doing playing at the Hollywood Bowl? It must have been a bit galling for him, especially as he could play the piece so well himself. By then, he was making quite a name for himself as a conductor. I knew all about his brilliant career when he'd been pianist and conductor for some of the great names such as Gregor Piatigorsky and Jascha Heifetz.

After the Hollywood Bowl, our paths didn't cross until a couple of years ago when it was suggested that we team up for the Concerto] series. Both our lives are fairly nuts, but we decided that it would be possible to do most of the recording in London and the rest of it in the States. Michael is always flying off around the world, but we eventually arranged to have our first proper programme discussion in Los Angeles. Michael had just come back from Japan and was suffering from jet lag and there were problems about meeting at either of our homes, so we arranged to talk over a hamburger.

Initially, we had a lot of very lively arguments about the series - especially about the Bartok Second Violin Concerto. I couldn't understand why Michael wanted it in the programme. I felt we should be doing a 'lollipop' piece, something like the Max Bruch Concerto which everyone knows, but Michael insisted. I just couldn't work out why he was so mesmerised by the piece. I'm still not totally convinced about his decision.

Michael had a real bee in his bonnet about Bartok. I didn't agree - I found it acerbic and stiff. Michael explained about Bartok and Hungary at the time the piece was written. That may give you a political understanding of the influences but I'm not sure that it brings the audience any nearer to the music. Michael and I felt quite differently about a lot of things.

When he's working, Michael has this benign smile all over his face which I think must be very calming for the orchestra. I don't think he changes in front of an orchestra, except that he quite often seems to be in a state of mild ecstasy. It's something I rather admire and envy.

There are times when you are with Michael but his mind seems to be somewhere else. He has a low boredom threshold. You know instantly when you've lost him. I would never describe Michael as humourful - which isn't to say he is humourless. Not at all. He can be incredibly funny. But, equally, he can can be slightly daunting and not exactly full of bonhomie. He's definitely a workaholic and I've seen that glint in his eye as he looks forward to what ever he is going to do next. He is definitely someone who is always thinking about what he's going to do when the current music project is finished.

Michael is absolutely concentrated on work. I remember when I worked with Solti on Orchestra] he said to me that as far as music is concerned he was a maniac. I wouldn't say that of Michael, but I have no doubt that music is his life and that sometimes he is daunted by a feeling of lack of approval. We've spent a lot of time working together but I don't know anything at all about his private life - if indeed he has one.

It was quite terrible for him to lose both of his parents in the space of a few weeks, at the end of last year. I can't imagine the trauma he went through. They were very close. Shortly before his father died, Michael brought in a poem which his father had written. He often talked about his mother and father and I thought how extraordinary it must have been to have parents that were so expressive, so passionate. I think that Michael is incredibly passionate but I've always had the impression that he manages, extremely carefully, to control that side of his nature. It's as if he daren't let all that emotion out.

To an extent, musicians are quite isolated and I couldn't imagine Michael with a massive group of friends. I wouldn't say Michael is a friend in the sense of wanting to make sure that he was OK, but he's certainly much more than just an acquaintance. If he were to walk into my kitchen now, I would be absolutely delighted. -