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The Complete Package
Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony re-imagine the concert experience  

May 30, 2018

Missa solemnis, 2015Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony in Mahler’s Das klagende Lied, 2017. (Photo: Cory Weaver)

To Michael Tilson Thomas, a conductor’s job is to communicate, to join with the orchestra and become the conduit between composer and audience. It’s about the music. But the theater is also in MTT’s genes, and that led him to explore how concert hall and theater can merge, how extra-musical means can illuminate musical meaning. Since the 1996 performances of Leonard Bernstein’s On the Town, productions created with scenic design, lighting, and stage action have highlighted San Francisco Symphony seasons.


Frederica von Strade in Debussy’s Le martyre de Saint Sébastien, 2012. (Photo: Kristen Loken)
Frederica von Stade in Debussy’s
Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien, 2012.
(Photo: Kristen Loken)

These productions are described as “semi-staged,” but that downplays their pageantry. True, the staging is different than that of opera house or theater, meaning it is tailored to the concert hall: complete in itself. With funding from the Barbro and Bernard Osher Staged Production Fund that began in 2003 with Wagner’s opera The Flying Dutchman, these productions have become almost annual events. While MTT and the SFS have given the theatrical treatment to works conceived for the stage, such as Bernstein’s On the Town, Beethoven’s Fidelio, and Britten’s Peter Grimes, staging has also revealed new dimensions in concert music. Take, for example, Beethoven’s Missa solemnis. Its four soloists acted their roles in a performance focusing on the human story in this monumental score, which often feels unapproachable: Witness the soprano’s gently consoling hand on the bass’s shoulder as he pleads for mercy (“Miserere nobis”). Enter the mystical world of Debussy’s Le Martyre de San Sébastien, which sprang to life as Davies Symphony Hall bloomed with dazzling holographic figures, some abstract, others uncannily real. Visit a Paris nightclub of the 1920s, dancers and film creating a backdrop for George Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony. Since 2013, productions have been led by the creative team of MTT; director James Darrah, whose six SFS credits include Grieg’s Peer Gynt and Mahler’s Das klagende Lied; and Adam Larsen, a documentary filmmaker who has designed productions such as the Debussy and Grieg, as well as installments of SoundBox, the Symphony’s program of music enhanced with lighting, projections, and video. The latest SFS theatrical production comes this month, from June 14 to 17: Mussorgsky’s epic opera Boris Godunov. Theater-plus-music: The blend is a whole greater than the parts. Says MTT: “What I'm imagining—the purpose of using these other forms: lighting, projection, online resources—is to make the music clearer, more vivid, to clarify what might otherwise be overlooked.”

Here we look at memorable SFS semi-staged productions over the years.

Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing and Let ’Em Eat Cake
Marin Mazzie, flanked by (L to R) Lisa Vroman, Stephen Bogardus, and Mo Rocca in Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing and Let ’Em Eat Cake, 2005

American Musical Theater

Works of classic American music theater—in particular, those by Leonard Bernstein—have been well represented in San Francisco Symphony staged productions over the years. Bernstein’s timeless New York tale On the Town was first mounted in 1996 concert performances and revived twenty years later in a new staged production directed by James Darrah with young Broadway and opera stars; Bernstein’s operetta Candide was offered in staged performances in 2002 (and revived in concert this past January as part of the Symphony’s Bernstein birth centennial performances); the complete score to West Side Story was performed in concert and recorded for SFS Media in 2013. MTT also dug into his own rich theatrical lineage in the poignant exploration of Yiddish theater and family, The Thomashefskys, first presented as part of the 2005 festival, Of Thee I Sing: Yiddish Theater, Broadway, and the American Voice. The festival also included a double-bill of Gershwin’s Of Thee I Sing and Let 'Em Eat Cake, conducted by MTT. In 2001, the SFS memorably produced Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, conducted by Rob Fisher with Broadway luminaries including George Hearn, Victoria Clark, Patti LuPone, and Neil Patrick Harris. The production won an Emmy Award for Outstanding Classical Music-Dance Program.

Operas and Theatrical Works

Opera has long figured into the artistic life of the San Francisco Symphony (in the early days, musicians split time between SFS concert obligations and performances as the house band for San Francisco Opera). While the SFS left behind its operatic roots with the opening of Davies Symphony Hall in 1980, theatrical works have remained in the repertory. Throughout Michael Tilson Thomas’s tenure, the Symphony has showcased newly-conceived staged productions of operatic rarities, such as Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mlada, given as part of a 2002 Russian Festival; repertory standards, including Bluebeard’s Castle (2012), Peter Grimes (2014), The Flying Dutchman (2003), and Fidelio (2004 and 2015); and genre-stretching musical-theatrical works, including Debussy’s Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien (2012), Stravinsky’s Le Rossignol and Oedipus Rex (2005), and a 2013 production of Peer Gynt, which knit together music by Grieg, Schnittke, and Robin Holloway to tell a classic tale. Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov, presented this month, offers the latest chapter in this kaleidoscopic survey of the dramatic repertory.

 Michael Tilson Thomas(L to R) Alan Opie, Eugene Brancoveanu, and Stuart Skelton in Britten’s Peter Grimes, conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas, 2014. (Photo: Stefan Cohen)

Symphonic Reinventions

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony’s staged endeavors have not been limited to strictly dramatic works. Recent seasons have brought MTT’s inventive staged conceptions of concert works: Missa solemnis (2015) illumined the unifying humanity of Beethoven’s masterwork through striking projections and lighting, creative staging, and an innovative musical approach; while Das klagende Lied (2017) explored the fascinating psychology that weaves through Mahler’s early cantata, with dancers, singers, and spellbinding visual design. MTT also integrated theatrical elements into presentations of Cage’s Song Books (2012, part of the American Mavericks Festival) and Renga (2015), and, more recently, a pairing of MTT’s own composition Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind and Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony (2017).

Works of John Adams

The thirty-five year creative partnership between the San Francisco Symphony and John Adams has been extraordinarily productive. In addition to presenting world premieres of a number of Adams compositions, the Symphony has performed several of his theatrical works in staged performances. An SFS co-commission, El Niño—Adams’s “Nativity Oratorio” was given its North American premiere performances by Kent Nagano and the San Francisco Symphony in 2001. A second SFS co-commission, the opera A Flowering Tree, made its first North American appearance in 2007, in performances led by Adams. In 2017, the SFS celebrated Adams’s 70th birthday with semi-staged performances of his Passion oratorio, The Gospel According to the Other Mary, led by Grant Gershon.

From Bernstein to Bluebeard, and Beethoven to Boris Godunov, SFS semi-staged productions offer the complete concert experience.

Missa solemnis, 2015Missa solemnis, 2015. (Stefan Cohen)






American Musical Theater
Bernstein: On The Town (1996 and 2016)
Sondheim: Sweeney Todd (2001)
Bernstein: Candide (2002) 

Gershwin: Of Thee I Sing & Let 'Em Eat Cake (2005)
The Thomashefskys (2005 and 2008)

Operas and Theatrical Works
Rimsky-Korsakov: Mlada (2002)
Wagner: The Flying Dutchman (2003)
Beethoven: Fidelio (2004)
Stravinsky: Le Rossignol (The Nightingale) and Oedipus Rex (2005)
Gilbert & Sullivan: Iolanthe (2009)
Debussy: Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien (2012)
Bartók: Duke Bluebeard’s Castle (2012)
Britten: Peter Grimes (2014)
Grieg/Schnittke/Holloway: Peer Gynt (2013)

Symphonic Reinventions
Cage: Song Books (2012)
Beethoven: Missa solemnis (2015)
Mahler: Das klagende Lied (2017)
Tilson Thomas: Four Preludes on Playthings on the Wind (2017)

Antheil: A Jazz Symphony (2017)

Works of John Adams
Adams: El Niño (2001+film and 2010)
Adams: A Flowering Tree (2007)