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Published: Wednesday, 11/1/2006

PBS series reveals the stories behind classical compositions

Michael Tilson Thomas created Keeping Score, a series on classical music, for PBS.
Michael Tilson Thomas created Keeping Score, a series on classical music, for PBS.

The year was 1799, the place a swanky recital hall in Vienna.

Contenders were keyboard champion Daniel Steinbelt and his challenger, the upstart phenom Ludwig Beethoven.

And so began a Baroque-era keyboard showdown that American jazz musicians would appropriate much later and call a cutting contest - may the best improviser win.

Steinbelt, a reigning star, performed one of his own works first, finishing with a flourish to enthusiastic applause.

Then up stepped Beethoven, who borrowed the very composition Steinbelt had just finished performing, flipped it upside down on the piano music stand, and played the opening notes. On that new musical theme he proceeded to improvise brilliantly for the next 45 minutes.

The winner? Beethoven, by a score.

Host Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the San Francisco Symphony, tells the delicious anecdote, complete with musical accompaniment, in the very hall where Beethoven triumphed.

It's part of the opening program of a must-see PBS series due to premiere at 10 p.m. tomorrow on Toledo's WGTE-TV, Channel 30, and 2 p.m. Sunday on Bowling Green's WBGU-TV, Channel 27.

Keeping Score, delves into benchmark compositions and the stories behind them, exploring the lives and work of major composers Beethoven, Igor Stravinsky, and Aaron Copland.

Drawing from original documents, photographs and clips, and interviews, the series includes location shots in Austria, Russia, France, Czech Republic, and the United States, as well as excellent concert moments in Davies Hall in San Francisco.

Tilson Thomas weaves his narratives with seemingly impromptu keyboard illustrations of musical details, adding a warm and personal touch.

Created by Tilson Thomas and the SFS, the three hour-long programs are part of a much larger five-year project that also includes live concerts, a radio series, a teacher training program, a Web site (www.keepingscore.org), and DVDs for purchase. A well-received pilot program in 2004 introduced Peter Tchaikovsky and his Symphony No. 4.

Tilson Thomas, in his 11th year with the San Francisco Symphony, is gracious, relaxed, informed, and good-humored - the best face in music education since Leonard Bernstein.

"Music is for everyone," Tilson Thomas has said. "The power and emotion of classical music speaks to all of us and is part of our human heritage."

The next broadcast, Nov. 10, will feature Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," followed by an exploration of Copland's music, from chamber works to symphony and ballet, on Nov. 17.

Contact Sally Vallongo at:


or 419-724-6101.

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