Beloved conductor Michael Tilson Thomas marking final performances with SF Symphony

Beloved conductor Michael Tilson Thomas marking final performances with SF Symphony

On Thursday night, I joined several thousand of my fellow music lovers in Davies Symphony Hall to hear the San Francisco Symphony conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas.

It was a full house, and we all knew it would be a special night. The program was Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, and this was the first of three performances, through Saturday. The Symphony had announced that these would be Thomas’s last appearances on a subscription program, marking a late chapter in a legendary career as conductor, composer and leader of one of the world’s top orchestras.

It was a fitting choice of music — Thomas, now the Symphony’s conductor laureate, made his multi-year Mahler Project a cornerstone of his years with the Symphony, producing a complete cycle of the composer’s symphonies, with performances, recordings, and multi-media events included.

Those Mahler projects will endure, and Thursday’s remarkable performance was just the latest triumph in the conductor’s career: a brilliant fusion of musical drama and lyricism. MTT, as he is affectionately called, accomplished so much in San Francisco.

A passionate advocate for an enormous range of works and their composers, his contributions to Bay Area life are immeasurable. He brought a brilliant depth of knowledge – and an uncommon sense of youthful enthusiasm – to the stage in each new Symphony program. A consummate showman — he’s a descendent of the Thomashevskys, founders of the American Yiddish Theatre — his keen understanding of each work he programmed and conducted was always on display, and he communicated that understanding to the audience in myriad ways.

His programs spanned centuries. But his advocacy for 20th century and contemporary composers – a long list featuring Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Charles Ives, John Adams and others – yielded his greatest projects. His American Mavericks Festival, which featured music by Lou Harrison, Meredith Monk, Steve Reich and more, offered a deep dive into the new. His programs featured a long list of top soloists, including cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter, pianists Emanuel Ax, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Yuja Wang, among many others.

There was a great sense of music as drama in his choices. Under his baton, the Symphony presented a number of semi-staged productions: an unforgettably haunting, deeply affecting 2014 production of Benjamin Britten’s “Peter Grimes”; a vibrant 2016 revival of Bernstein’s “On the Town.”

Maintaining a global presence, his reach included recordings, tours, and special events with the San Francisco Symphony, winning 11 Grammy Awards and launching the PBS series “Keeping Score.” He served as artistic director of the Miami-based New World Symphony. At the same time, he was composing: works for orchestra, small ensembles, song cycles and more. His “From the Diary of Anne Frank,” which he wrote for narrator and orchestra, premiered in 1990, performed by actress Audrey Hepburn and the New World Symphony.

In 2021, Thomas was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a pernicious brain cancer; he announced his status in 2022. Late last year, he withdrew from two weeks worth of Symphony events scheduled for 2024 to focus on his health. In December, he was honored with the newly designated MTT Way, a block of Grove Street by Davies Hall renamed in his honor.

Longtime orchestra followers may remember MTT’s 1974 SF Symphony debut, conducting Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Throughout his 25 years as music director, Mahler remained a central focus.

Even for those of us familiar with his earlier Mahler performances, Thursday’s event was astonishing. MTT entered the stage looking a little slower, a little more fragile. But once it started, this was a performance of utter mastery. Composed in five movements, Mahler’s score is a massive undertaking, but with the orchestra responding to his every cue, the work unfolded with tremendous power and precision, beauty and refulgent expression.

At the end, the applause was thunderous. I’m guessing that each person in the hall wanted to thank him personally.  I know I did. Speaking for all of us, Maestro, the feeling was one of deepest gratitude.

Contact Georgia Rowe at [email protected]