These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you’ll hear in the concert hall.

Jan 2, 2024

Bay Area Beacon
Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony
by Scott Foglesong
“Being an American musician means being adventurous,” says San Francisco Symphony Music Director Laureate Michael Tilson Thomas. Bay Area audiences have been part of that adventure for 50 years—MTT made his Symphony debut in Mahler’s Ninth Symphony in January 1974 and conducts his final subscription concerts this month—not just as observers but as active participants. MTT has innovated and inspired. He has set pathfinding initiatives into motion, composed in a variety of genres, nurtured developing musicians, championed young composers, collaborated with a wide range of artists, and tirelessly shared his knowledge and enthusiasm with the world. And, of course, he has conducted the SF Symphony in concerts, broadcasts, and in recordings—not just at here at home, but across the world.
We’ve all heard the joke about the New York tourist asking a passerby for directions: “Excuse me, how do you get to Carnegie Hall?” The answer/punch line (“Practice, practice, practice!”) is all the better for being right on the nose. It takes practice to become a musician. And it takes training—lots of it, personalized and attentive, and for a long time. Musicians have retained the age-old traditions of master and apprentice. First they study. Then they teach. And they mentor. MTT has taken those customs to heart: consider his co-founding of Miami’s orchestral-academy New World Symphony, his Keeping Score videos, and the wealth of SF Symphony education initiatives that flourished under his watch—all dedicated to bringing music to an ever-widening audience.
While the creation of art can sometimes be a lonely enterprise, musicians are herd animals with an instinct for gathering. MTT has collaborated richly, widely, and productively with composers, performers, directors, actors, dancers, stage designers, and institutions. (The many semi-staged performances presented by MTT and the Symphony—ranging from Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town, through Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, to Beethoven’s Missa solemnis—chart a remarkable legacy.) While his long partnership with the San Francisco Symphony is no doubt his most visible collaboration, his many alliances have enriched us all in ways obvious and subtle. Particularly notable has been his championship of 20th-century and contemporary composers, from legendary American voices such as Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, and George Gershwin, through European greats such as Igor Stravinsky, and newer native creators such as John Adams, Steve Reich, and Mason Bates, via programs, acclaimed recordings, and festivals such as American Mavericks that celebrated innovative pathfinders.
Nor has MTT limited his encouragement of American music from the podium; he has also added to the literature via his own genre-crossing compositions such as From the Diary of Anne Frank and Meditations on Rilke, both captured on an SFS Media recording that won a Grammy in 2021. In his capacity as the San Francisco Symphony music director, he led the orchestra in first performances of his Poems of Emily Dickinson, Three Songs to poems by Walt Whitman, Agnegram, and Urban Legend, all which revealed different sides of MTT’s compositional voice.  
As musicians thrive in collaborative environments, they are also vibrant members of their communities. It was his “life dream to come to San Francisco,” and as a tireless enthusiast of the City’s manifold features, he has become a beacon of Bay Area cultural life. “Michael Tilson Thomas has brought pride to all San Franciscans,” wrote Nancy Pelosi, Speaker Emerita of the US House of Representatives. That praise has been reflected by a wide spectrum of local and national notables, including California Governor Gavin Newsom, San Francisco Mayor London Breed, and former President Barack Obama, who presented MTT with the National Medal of Arts in 2009. But it doesn’t all happen at such politically elevated levels: MTT was recently honored with his own commemorative street, “MTT Way,” outside of Davies Symphony Hall, where he has conducted countless memorable concerts over the years.
Michael Tilson Thomas is a musician, a term that implies far more than the practice of music alone. To be a musician is to embrace the whole, to practice the art at the highest level at all times and in all roles. But there’s an even more descriptive word: visionary, defined as “one having unusual foresight and imagination.” MTT has re-imagined the old-time role of the capellmeister, who created and oversaw the music of a court, church, or municipality, via his broad commitment to carrying music into the future and bringing music of all eras to new audiences.
It wasn’t all that long ago that an orchestra was led by the first-chair violinist tapping his bow or a rolled-up score on his music stand, perhaps backed up by a keyboard player. When some inspired nineteenth-century pathfinders mounted a podium and employed a baton to enhance visibility, conducting was born. Some were precise technicians; others ventured audacious interpretations. Some were tyrannical; others were benevolent. But all enhanced, expanded, and broadened the profession. Michael Tilson Thomas’s time at the San Francisco Symphony has brought the illimitable value of a conductor into sharp focus. For the past 50 years, each time he graces the stage, he exemplifies how it can be done—with style, grace, and vigor.

Scott Foglesong is a contributing writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book.

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