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Program Notes

Each week, thousands of San Francisco Symphony concert-goers open their programs to read about the drama, the passion, and the inspiration behind the music they’re hearing. You can read our critically acclaimed program notes online one week prior to select concerts.

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS

BORN: December 21, 1944. Los Angeles, CA. Michael Tilson Thomas lives in San Francisco and Miami Beach, FL

COMPOSED: 1998. Dedicated to longtime San Francisco Symphony patron and friend Agnes Albert, in honor of her 90th birthday. Michael Tilson Thomas revised the work in 2016 and 2019

WORLD PREMIERE: May 15, 1998. Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the San Francisco Symphony

INSTRUMENTATION: 2 flutes and piccolo, 2 oboes and English horn, 2 clarinets plus E-flat clarinet and bass clarinet, 2 bassoons and contrabassoon, 4 horns, 3 trumpets, 3 trombones, tuba, timpani, chimes, bass drum, glockenspiel, suspended cymbal, xylophone, crotales, snare drum, whip, wood blocks, triangle, crash cymbals, ratchet, vibraphone, police whistle, tambourine, finger cymbals, siren, guiro, medium gong, two tom-toms (high and low), cowbell, harp, piano, and strings

DURATION: About 6 mins

Agnegram was introduced here in 1998 and dedicated to longtime SFS Board member Agnes Albert on her 90th birthday. Albert (1908–2002) led an altogether remarkable life. Shortly after her passing, the Symphony’s then-Publications Editor Larry Rothe wrote in these pages:

For half a century Agnes Albert was the San Francisco Symphony’s friend, mentor, patroness, and muse. She grew up with music, listening, mingling with those who played it, playing it herself. As a young woman she joined the Budapest and Pro Arte quartets in chamber music. She was piano soloist in Franck’s Symphonic Variations with the SFS under Bernardino Molinari in 1932, and in 1952 Pierre Monteux invited her to play that same work in his last concerts as Music Director. The list of Agnes’s friends reads like a Who’s Who of twentieth-century artists, [including] Yo-Yo Ma, Ansel Adams, Yehudi Menuhin, and Michael Tilson Thomas.

She loved young people, and one of her enduring legacies is the SFS Youth Orchestra, fulfillment of a long-dreamt dream. Her generosity made possible the Symphony’s Agnes Albert Youth Music Education Fund, Adventures in Music, and the Concerts for Kids and Music for Families series.

The title of this birthday card from her friend and admirer Michael Tilson Thomas involves a bit of affectionate wordplay with her name; and, as the composer explains in his comments about the piece, the “word play” carries over as “musical play” in the composition itself.

Michael Tilson Thomas on Agnegram:

Agnegram was written to celebrate the 90th birthday of the San Francisco Symphony's extraordinary patron and friend Agnes Albert, and is a portrait of her sophisticated and indefatigably enthusiastic spirit. It is entirely composed of themes derived from the spelling of her name.

A—G—E are obviously the notes that they name. B is B-flat (as this note is called in German). S is E-flat, also a German musical term. T is used to represent one note, B-natural, the “ti” of the solfège scale. From these arcane but not unprecedented manipulations (Bach, Schumann, and Brahms among others often did this kind of thing), a basic “scale” of eight unusually arranged notes emerges, from which all the themes are drawn. The piece itself is a march for large orchestra. The first part of the march is in 6/8 and is almost a mini-concerto for orchestra, giving brief sound-bite opportunities for the different sections of settling into a jazzy and hyper-rangy tune.

The middle section of the march, or trio, is in 2/4 and settles into a kind of sly circus atmosphere. Different groups of instruments in different keys make their appearance in an aural procession. First, the winds in C play a new march tune saying “Agnes Albert.” Then, the instruments in F are heard playing the same tune. But as these instruments are transposing instruments, although the notes they play read A—G—N—E—S etc., the notes that are heard are completely different. They are followed by instruments in E-flat and B-flat until quite a jungle-like cacophony is built up—punctuated by alternately elegant and goofball percussion entrances. The jazzy 6/8 tune reappears now in canon and the piece progresses to a jubilant and noisy ending.

[MTT on his 2016 revision]:
Agnegram was originally written around the musical letters/notes that are a part of Agnes Albert's name. There are seven of them, which makes the piece septatonic. Perhaps the fact that a septatonic scale contains a pentatonic scale—the most commonly used scale in Asian music—prompted me to think about exploring more of those possibilities before we took the piece on our 2016 Asia Tour. 

This piece is still in the form of a march. But now the middle section, a kind of John Philip Sousa-like trio, explores a musical joke that I had planned, but not finished in time, for the premiere performance. The trio recalls many famous tunes that amused Agnes. There are surreal references to Irish lullabies, Schumann, Tchaikovsky, Verdi, and Jerry Lee Lewis, but they appear only to the degree that the notes that they have in common with her name will allow.

I think she would have enjoyed discovering them and chuckling over them.—Michael Tilson Thomas