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Program Notes


THE BACKSTORY Over the past decades, Michael Tilson Thomas has become increasingly known 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 (per­ formed 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 percussion­rich 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 Symphony in 2017. From the Diary of Anne Frank, his dramatic work for narrator and orchestra, was performed in fall 2018 with Isabel Leonard as narrator. A major new song cycle, Meditations on Rilke, received its world premiere in January 2020 with the composer leading the San Francisco Symphony, mezzo­soprano Sasha Cooke, and bass­baritone Ryan McKinny.

In the last years, Tilson Thomas has brought several works to fruition: the symphonic Shówa/Shoáh (commemo­ rating 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.

Street Song, in its original form for brass quintet, dates from 1988. In 1996, MTT made a symphonic version Street Song for members of the London Symphony Orchestra. In the note that follows, he tells how he came to write the original version and he points out how he has transformed the composition into a work for a larger ensemble.—JAMES M. KELLER

Michael Tilson Thomas on Street Song:
The founding members of the Empire Brass Quintet were some of my oldest musical friends. Our meeting dates back to student days at Tanglewood when we discovered that we had knowledge and reverence for good notes, good tunes, and good licks, whether from organum, serialism, or bop­shoo­wop. They commissioned Street Song and made the first recording.

The quintet version of the piece appears regularly on brass chamber programs. The most challenging thing about it in this form is how few opportunities there are for the players to breathe. It was with this in mind, and on the occasion of a concert with the London Symphony brass, that the larger version was created. The group is expanded to twelve players and introduces one new instrument: the flugelhorn. It’s interesting how the sound of the larger group brings a certain English mellowness to the otherwise American acerbic sound.
Street Song is in three continuous parts—an interweaving of three “songs.” The first song opens with a jagged downward scale suspending in the air a sweetly dissonant harmony that very slowly resolves. This moment of resolution is followed by responses of various kinds. The harmonies move between the world of the middle ages and the present, between East and West, and always, of course, from the perspective of twentieth­century America. Overall the movement is about starting and stopping, the moments of suspension always leading somewhere else.

The second “song” is introduced by a singsong horn solo. It is followed by a simple trumpet duet, which was first written around 1972. It is folk­like in character and also cadences with suspended moments of slowly resolving dissonance.

The third song is really more of a dance. It begins when the trombone slides a step higher, bringing the work into the key of F­sharp and into a jazzier swing. The harmonies here are the stacked­up moments of suspension from the first two parts of the piece. By now I hope these “dissonant” sounds actually begin to sound “consonant.” There is a resolution, but it is the world of a musician who after many after­hour gigs greets the dawn. Finally, the three songs are brought together and the work moves toward a quiet close.
Street Song is dedicated to my father Ted, who was and still is the central musical influence on my life.—MICHAEL TILSON THOMAS