Articles & Interviews
Sep 3, 2019
by Zach Schimpf
Twenty-five years ago, then-US President Bill Clinton gave his first State of the Union address. That same year, TV sitcom Friends aired its first episode, internet giant Amazon was founded and changed the way we shop forever, and the line, “My momma always said that life was like a box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get,” filled movie theaters around the world.
Looking back, twenty-five years might feel like a flash. But in the world of music directors, twenty-five years with a major American orchestra is very rare feat. In fact, only one maestro is at that milestone: the San Francisco Symphony’s Michael Tilson Thomas.
In 1995, MTT officially joined the SFS family as its eleventh music director, having debuted with the group two decades prior. At the end of this season, MTT will conclude his tenure, becoming the Orchestra’s first Music Director Laureate and leaving behind an astonishing twenty-five-year legacy of unparalleled performances, commissions, and recordings; championing new and unfamiliar works; and shaping an adventurous and vibrant orchestra.
MTT and Mahler
MTT’s connection to composer Gustav Mahler runs deep, and SF Symphony audiences are no stranger to that. In 2002, MTT and the Orchestra released their first album—featuring Mahler’s profound Sixth Symphony—on their newly launched in-house record label, SFS Media. Recorded over the next decade, the complete Mahler cycle recordings would go on to win numerous Grammy awards, solidifying MTT’s interpretations of the composer as a pillar of his quarter-century with the Orchestra.
In 2017, San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joshua Kosman hailed the Symphony as “magnificent” in a glowing review of the group’s performance of Mahler’s First Symphony and the Adagio from his unfinished Symphony No. 10. “And the evening’s profound, full-bodied performances served as yet another reminder of the miracles that these musicians can pull off, time and again, with Mahler’s music.”
The Symphony’s 2019-20 season highlights the Orchestra’s relationship with Mahler, featuring the composer’s Sixth Symphony and selections from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. In what will certainly be the musical event of the year, MTT closes his final season with four performances of Mahler’s monumental Symphony No. 8, Symphony of a Thousand.
The American Sound
Equally a part of MTT’s imprint on the SFS has been his championing of modern and maverick American composers—programming, commissioning, recording, and touring with works by pioneering voices such as John Adams, Steve Reich, Meredith Monk, and Mason Bates, among others.
This season explores the rich history and vibrant future of American music through a wide variety of commissions and SFS, West Coast, US, and world premieres; an exploration of MTT’s work as a composer; immersive SoundBox programs curated by three distinct American artists; and SFS Media releases of compositions by titans of American music.
Shaping an Orchestra
Magical music-making with a large ensemble requires an environment of deep trust, “and that is what has happened these last twenty-five years,” said MTT. “This season is very much about celebrating the relationships we have built together.”
As Music Director, MTT has played a large part in the shaping of the SFS sound. It’s no surprise then that by his twenty-fifth year, MTT has overseen the appointment of more than half of the current members of the Symphony. The musicians’ virtuosity can be heard in works throughout the season in performances of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, R. Strauss’s Metamorphosen, Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, Leningrad, and many more.
For Principal Oboe Eugene Izotov, collaborating with MTT over the years has been an absolute joy. “Although he leaves his post as Music Director, I know that his passion, youthful energy, and endless musical curiosity are here to stay with us.”