Thursday, Michael Tilson Thomas will bring the San Francisco Symphony to the Lied Center for Performing Arts for a concert on their 14th and final national tour together.
Thomas, 72, will be stepping down as the symphony’s music director in 2020, after his 25th season with the orchestra.
Among the most lauded American conductors, Tilson has won a Peabody Award for his radio series “The MTT Files,” 11 Grammys and nearly every award there is to win in classical music. He is hailed for helping to redefine the role and repertoire of America’s top orchestras, by championing composers like Gustav Mahler, Charles Ives and John Cage
His PBS series “Keeping Score” is considered the best music education on television in decades and, in 1987, Thomas founded the New World Symphony Orchestra in Miami, a training orchestra to better prepare young conservatory graduates.
An active composer throughout his career, Thomas is credited with elevating the San Francisco Symphony to one of the best in America.
"There are factual things, like how many Grammys they have won that give you some idea (of a conductor's greatness)," said Lied Center artistic director Ann Chang. "But when you have had a career as long as his has been, a lot of it is what they're able to do with the music through their conducting -- being able to engage the audience, show the genius of the music of the pieces and have the orchestra members, 50 or 60 of them on your side and communicate the way you want.
"You put that together with the number of years he's been active and the accolades, you have a great conductor."
Thursday’s concert, one of just eight on the tour, will mark the return of the San Francisco Symphony, and Thomas, to the Lied Center, where they last performed in 1996.
"They've been on our radio for a good three, four years," Chang said. "We were fortunate all the stars have aligned to bring them here during his final tour. We tried very hard to make sure that happened."
The Lied Center concert will include Le Tombeau de Couperin (1919) by Maurice Ravel, Violin Concerto in E minor, Opus 64 (1844) by Felix Mendelssohn, featuring violinist Alexander Kerr, and Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 43 (1902) by Jean Sibelius.
Last week, Thomas answered a half-dozen questions in an email interview with Ground Zero. Here are those questions and answers:
GZ: After a quarter of a century, do you have some favorite/most memorable performances or do they all kind of blur together?
MTT: (Gustav) Mahler’s music has always been a central part of my relationship with the San Francisco Symphony, and I think it always will be. Performing and recording all of Mahler’s works with the orchestra over the course of a decade has been central to the kind of trust we have discovered in one another. This music requires a very special community of performers. My very first encounter with the San Francisco Symphony was in 1974, conducting Mahler’s 9th Symphony. And at that moment I could immediately sense the spirit of this orchestra. Our 45-year journey with Mahler’s music has enabled me not only to deepen my relationship with the orchestra, but also to probe even more deeply my own feelings about this music.
A similar question, do you have favorite pieces or composers that you have brought to the symphony?
I would say that American composers — people like John Adams, Steve Reich, Lou Harrison, Henry Cowell, John Cage, and Henry Brant are composers I’ve enjoyed exploring in San Francisco. And some of them actually spent very important parts of their lives in California and San Francisco. Being an American musician means being adventurous, and these composers — the maverick composers — are people who worked resolutely and independently outside the mainstream. They embraced the excitement of exploration, much like I do. And that independent, left-of-center spirit has been the same spirit I’ve shared with this orchestra and with San Francisco.
What’s the most important thing that a conductor does? Can the audience notice that?
The most important quality in music-making is communication. It’s not really about the orchestra following the conductor. I think it’s more that together we understand the performance. There may be moments when a particular soloist or a section of the orchestra may be leading and then we come to a transitional moment where it is more up to me to craft the passage. But all these things become second nature after a while. After 24 years in San Francisco, the level of communication I feel with the musicians is as strong as it has ever been.
Is there anything that you’ve wanted to do with the symphony that you haven’t yet done?
At this time, I have actually found myself wanting to revisit some of the projects the orchestra and I have developed together. Over these decades together, we've grown and changed together, and developed a communication with each other. I'm happy that at this moment the relationship I share with the orchestra is at its height. It's the right time for us to revisit some big pieces together – Mahler's Eighth, Wagner's Flying Dutchman, Brahms’ German Requiem. Composing is also something I’d like to find more time for, in particular, music that conveys a meaningful message. For example, we will give the premiere next year of a new piece I’ve written based on text by Rainer Maria Rilke. Now is the time to make a list of the projects I want to complete, and to check those things off the list!
And, this one’s probably unfair, but, have you thought about your legacy, what you are leaving for both the symphony specifically and for music generally?
The orchestra has certainly changed in 24 years. We've shared so much together, explored new worlds and had many adventures. It's a much more virtuoso, polished, and fearless orchestra than it was, and the personality of the orchestra has become more open-minded, and more interested in asking big questions and answering them in unconventional ways.
You announced that you are leaving as SFS music director more than a year ago, do you feel the same way now -- that it’s time to step down -- or do you sometimes think you should keep doing this? What will you be doing after you step down next year? I’m sure you won’t simply retire and disappear.
One of the reasons I decided that this is the right time to move on from this role is the sheer number of things I still want to do. I have lists of projects I've been planning for decades, but never quite find the time to do. Writing, composing, working in music theater, working in video. And I'll still be working with the San Francisco Symphony every season, as well as continuing as artist director of the New World Symphony, which is now 31 years old and going from strength to strength. We how have over 1,200 alumni who are really making a difference in the world of music. I am very proud of them and of the institution. As conductor laureate of the London Symphony, I will continue to perform with them in London and on tour. And I very much enjoy appearing with other orchestras around the world. So, my plate is full. I just have to make sure it is not too full!