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Articles & Interviews

These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you'll hear in the concert hall. We hope you'll find them provocative and entertaining.

Jun 16, 2017

Michael Tilson Thomas Reinvents the Concert Experience with Music for a Modern Age

The New World Symphony performs MTT’s Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind at the New World Center // Photo courtesy of The New World Symphony


San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) describes Music for a Modern Age as “the concert event of my season.” Here the conductor, composer, and trailblazing musical innovator explains what makes this show a not-to-miss multi-sensory concert experience.

MTT: Many San Francisco Symphony concertgoers are aware that a few years ago we started an amazing project in San Francisco called SoundBox. SoundBox is a space where we program new and unusual music, and also where we experiment with enhanced lighting, projections, and video, mixing in unusual contributions by actors, dancers, and other artists. This concert is the first time that we are bringing that sensibility to Davies Symphony Hall. If you’ve ever wondered what a SoundBox concert is like or if you’ve attended a SoundBox concert and thought “how much further could this all go,” this is your opportunity to find out!

Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas // Photo credit:  Spencer Lowell

There are a number of pieces on this program which involve the use of space in a unique way. There are two pieces by Charles Ives—one of which is one of the loudest pieces ever written—scored for the sort of bells found in giant church steeples and a brass choir. The other one is written for very distant strings with a few other instruments scattered around the entire hall. This piece, The Unanswered Question, is certainly one of the most profound, evocative works of the 20th century, and it requires a big concert hall because so much of it concerns the dimension of music in space.

Mezzo-soprano Measha Brueggergosman and backup vocalists perform Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind at the New World Symphony. // Photo credit: Gregory Reed

The concert also includes a piece of mine that I’ve actually been working on for decades. It’s called Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind and is written for soprano—specifically a soprano who is somewhere between a club singer, an opera singer, and a blues singer. It is being performed by the remarkable Measha Brueggergosman, along with two backup singers, a chamber orchestra, and a bar band. It’s based on a poem by Carl Sandburg, written very early in the 20th century as a kind of exploration of what might happen at a party the night before civilization ends. It looks at that sort of phenomenon throughout time, so there’s a sense that the musicians who are playing this party are perhaps the same ones who were hired for a party given by Nebuchadnezzar, or Napoleon, or other figures in history. They’re still playing! Somehow or another, the party is still going on even as the major nations and civilizations that were sponsoring them have since completely disappeared. It’s a real theater piece, with lighting, projection, and staging. It’s definitely provocative—and bit outrageous.

Later in the program there’s a beautiful piece by Lou Harrisonone of our most treasured Bay Area composersthat we played in SoundBox earlier this year. Lou wrote it for violin and American gamelan—an extraordinary set of instruments that he and his partner Bill Colvig invented and built. It is a melodic, haunting piece of music and one of my all-time favorites. I personally use the piece to inspire me when I’m on a hike and I’ve got one more ridge to accomplish and I’m not sure how I’m going to make it. When this tune comes into my mind, I always make it up the hill!

Performance of George Antheil’s Jazz Symphony at the New World Symphony.  // Photo credit: Rui Dias-Aidos

And finally, there’s a piece by George Antheil, a composer who was sometimes called “the bad boy of music.” He was a provocative and confrontational composer—an American living in Paris at the same time as Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Picasso, and all of their creative circle. He was obsessed with jazz and primitive music, and also with the way in which technology was transforming musical possibilities. Visually we have imagined it as the accompaniment to a film that takes place in a nightclub in Paris during that time period. We’ve staged a kind of competition going on between two club dancers—one who’s very much modeled on Josephine Baker and the other very much on Zelda Fitzgerald. Along the way they use their dances and their flirtations to capture the hearts of the piano soloists, the trumpet soloists, and the members of the orchestra.

This is going be a very different and fun evening in Davies Hall. There’s going to be lots to think about and talk about. Trust me, you’ll be glad you were there!

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony in Music for a Modern Age, featuring music by Ives, Harrison, Antheil and MTT 7:30 p.m. June 23, 8 p.m. June 24, and 2 p.m. June 25. Davies Symphony Hall, (415) 864-6000,

Click here for tickets!