A conductor’s tribute to a vanished world

Judy Blazer stars as grandmother Bessie in “The Thomashefskys.’’ Judy Blazer stars as grandmother Bessie in “The Thomashefskys.’’ (Hilary Scott)
By Jeremy Eichler
Globe Staff / August 22, 2009

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LENOX - The conductor Michael Tilson Thomas comes by his own theatricality honestly. His grandparents were the legendary actors Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky - both Ukrainian-Jewish immigrants who became central figures in the founding and flourishing of American Yiddish theater around the turn of the 20th century.

They were both larger-than-life celebrities and trailblazers of immigrant Jewish culture, and Thomas has been paying tribute to them in recent years with an enjoyable evening-length program that weaves together storytelling with archival materials and musical numbers from the shows that made them famous. “The Thomashefskys’’ came to Tanglewood this week for a pair of performances. I caught the second one on Thursday night.

It’s rare to see a conductor of Thomas’s stature so gleefully sharing of himself and his family history, narrating, singing, dancing, and playing off of four actors who re-create key moments from Boris’s and Bessie’s tumultuous lives on and off the stage. (Judy Blazer as Bessie is the clear standout among them.) Thomas’s deep affection for the world of Yiddish theater is clear from the lavish care with which this multimedia program has been assembled. It’s also fascinating to hear the rediscovered theater scores themselves, in this case performed by members of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

But having attended the piece’s premiere at Carnegie Hall in 2005, I was surprised by how much it has changed. The earlier version was tilted quite organically toward Bessie, with whom Thomas had a close relationship, and focused less on Boris, who died before he was born. The audience was brought further inside her poignant second act after she left the philandering Boris and struck out on her own as an actor, impresario, and feisty proto-feminist. She moved late in life to California and was recalled by Thomas with misty fondness as a kind of grande dame of his living room, full of salt and wisdom, and an appreciation for his own nascent inner life as an artist to be.

The current version is more balanced in the time afforded each of the grandparents, but the documentary thoroughness comes at the expense of the piece’s emotional through-line and its intergenerational resonances. There is more information now but a bit less heart. Thomas’s own father, the link between the generations, is also conspicuous for his almost total absence.

Still, this affectionate tribute is a welcome window into a short-lived but extremely vibrant cultural moment whose reverberations could be felt from Tin Pan Alley to Broadway to Hollywood. It also deepens your understanding of Thomas’s work as a conductor, in his own way carrying on the family business.

THE THOMASHEFSKYS Hosted by Michael Tilson Thomas, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Directed by Patricia Birch.

At: Tanglewood, Thursday night

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