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Program Notes

MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS

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

COMPOSED:   2019

WORLD PREMIERE: At these concerts

INSTRUMENTATION: Mezzo-soprano and baritone soloists, 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes (2nd doubling English horn), 3 clarinets (B-flat, E-flat, and bass clarinet), 2 bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, percussion, timpani, piano, celeste, harp, and strings

THE BACKSTORY Over the past decades, audiences have increasingly begun to know Michael Tilson Thomas as a composer. Since 1999 audiences in Davies Symphony Hall have heard a variety of his compositions, including his Three Songs to Poems by Walt Whitman (premiered in 1999 with baritone Thomas Hampson), his Poems of Emily Dickinson (performed in 2002 with soprano Renée Fleming), his Urban Legend (a concerto for contrabassoon and orchestra, introduced with the San Francisco Symphony’s contrabassoonist, Steven Braunstein, as soloist), his percussion-rich Island Music (which the San Francisco Symphony presented in 2005), and Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind, which received its West Coast premiere with soprano Measha Brueggergosman and the SFS in June 2017. From the Diary of Anne Frank, his dramatic work for narrator and orchestra, was performed in fall 2018 with Isabel Leonard as narrator.

In the last years, he has brought several works to fruition: the symphonic Shówa/Shoáh (commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima), the virtuoso flute piece Notturno, and the short orchestral work Agnegram, among others. In June 2020, SFS Media will release an album of Michael Tilson Thomas’s compositions, recorded live in performances by the San Francisco Symphony.  —James M. Keller

Michael Tilson Thomas offers the following comments on Meditations on Rilke:

In 1917, in a bar just outside of Laramie, sat an old piano. Behind it there sat a seemingly older pianist. He’d been there since forever, playing for tips and drinks, and was happy to provide whatever music anyone wanted to hear. Everyone had gotten kind of used to his musical meanderings over the years and his music had led them to unexpected places….

This story is based on a story my father told me. In the early 1930s, as a young man he, and a few other WPA-lefty-artist friends, drove across the country in an old jalopy. They arrived in Oatman, AZ—a last chance, nearly abandoned, mining town. It’s still there. They had run out of money and needed to get cash to buy food, gas and, most of all, to get out of Oatman. In the café/bar was a sign saying “Dance, Saturday Night—Pianist Wanted.” My dad, who could play any Gershwin, Berlin, swing, rhumba, whatever number, asked for the job. “Just so long as you can play our music,” said the guy behind the counter. Teddy signed on with total confidence. Imagine how startled he was on Saturday when they asked him to play the “Bear Fat Fling”. Of course, he figured out how to play it. Amusingly, it was this same “Bear Fat Fling” that I later learned when I began performing Charles Ives’s music.

These Six Rilke Songs, or perhaps “Meditations on Rilke Texts” are reflections of the many moods the poems suggest. The motives and harmonies of these pieces have been with me for years, decades. This approach to music as a kind of lifelong journal, or confessional companion, was what my father, and as I now have learned, my grandfather, and even my great-grandfather, experienced. My fondest wish is that all people would have this kind of relationship to music—music spontaneously popping into their minds—perhaps in recollection, perhaps in anticipation of places within their spirits.

The Meditations on Rilke are all based on motives that recur, recombine, and morph differently in each song. The opening piano solo in “Herbsttag” (Autumn Day) musically describes the opening paragraph of these notes. “Herbsttag” was the first song to be written and has existed for solo voice, solo trombone, solo cello, and now this accompanied version. It introduces most of the motives that are heard in the rest of the cycle. The fourth  song, Immer wieder (Again, Again) is like a Schubert “cowboy song.” My father often pointed out the similarity between songs like “Red River Valley” to many of Schubert’s songs. The fifth  song “Imaginärer Lebenslauf” (Imaginary Biography) is a duet inspired by the wonderful opportunity of having Sasha Cooke and Ryan McKinny as the voices in these performances. The sixth song “Herbst” returns to the subject of Autumn. It opens with a flute solo that connects the motives from the earlier songs into one long melody.

The musical language in these songs is quite traditional. There are melodies, harmonies, bass lines, invertible counterpoint. My greatest concern has always been “What remains with the listener when the music ends?” It is my hope that some of these musical reflections of many years may stick with you.

—Michael Tilson Thomas