What was it like growing up in a family involved in Yiddish theatre?

At home, there was all this snappy patter going on. You basically had to return serve as brilliantly or else you were not a member of the family. Though they were all theatre people, often there was music in those plays, and very often they wrote the music and the lyrics. They were not trained musicians, but could they come up with a song on the spur of the moment that was appropriate and with a catchy tune? Absolutely. But I was the first person to have musical training.

Michael Tilson Thomas. Photo © Art Streiber 

Who decided that? You or your parents?

I was a gifted kid, but they didn’t want me to become a prodigy of any kind, so they held back on my musical training. At that time, USC [University of Southern California] had a remarkable preparatory school and I got involved and met wonderful teachers. A lot of them were émigrés who’d escaped from Hitler and Stalin and had come from this brilliant background in Vienna and St...