A momentous year for MTT & San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony – © Bill Swerbenski

It’s customary at this time of year to look back and recall highlights of the past 12 months, but sometimes so much happens that it’s quite a challenge to decide which events to feature in a roll call of achievements. It’s been that sort of year for Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony – who say farewell to 2017 on a high note – so let’s start with some anniversary celebrations.

2017 marked the 15th year since the establishment of SFS Media, the Symphony’s eight-time Grammy Award-winning in-house recording label which produces the Orchestra’s CDs, DVDs, as well as radio and television documentaries. Not only was the Symphony the first orchestra in the United States to feature in regular radio broadcasts, but in yet another milestone, it was also the first American orchestra to create its own audio and video label.

During this 2017-18 season, the Symphony also celebrates the 30th anniversary of the SFS Adventures in Music program, which integrates into the school curriculum live music performances and music education experience.  Again, the San Francisco Symphony is unique, in that this is the most comprehensive music education program of its kind delivered by any American symphony orchestra.  It also features bespoke in-school presentations and a visit to Davies Symphony Hall for a private performance by the Symphony.

Conductor Christian Reif with the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra – © Stefan Cohen

Another celebration during this 2017-18 season marks the 35th anniversary of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra. Recognized as one of the finest youth ensembles in the world, it has toured internationally and performed in some of the world’s major concert halls. Under Music Director Christian Reif, the orchestra has an ongoing commitment to the nurturing of young musicians, providing pre-professional orchestral training, and coaching by SFS musicians, to young instrumentalists in the Greater Bay Area. The orchestra has also released ten recordings, and has the honor of being represented by many of its alumni in leading orchestras around the globe.

Two special concerts were included in the Symphony’s schedule this year. In April, recognizing the Bay Area LGBTQ community, MTT and the orchestra presented a Special Symphony Pride concert, following the cancellation of the North Carolina concerts due to discriminatory legislation by the state.

Then in November, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony staged Symphony Relief:  A Benefit Concert for the North Bay, in response to the devastating wildfires which had ravaged parts of Northern California in October. In a magnificent gesture, everyone involved in this performance – MTT, the musicians, the San Francisco Symphony Chorus (Director Ragnar Bohlin), the San Francisco Opera Chorus (Director Ian Robertson), guest soloists (soprano Nikki Einfeld, mezzo-soprano Renée Rapier, tenor Nicholas Phan and bass Soloman Howard), as well as the SFS stage crew, ushers, and staff – all donated their services for the benefit of the victims of these fires.

Leonard Bernstein – © Library of Congress

As is well known, Michael Tilson Thomas had a close professional relationship with Leonard Bernstein, and in 2017-18, he and the Symphony present a season-long celebration of the centennial of one of the most creative and charismatic musicians of the 20th century. Bernstein’s overture to his comic operetta Candide opened the Symphony’s 2017-18 season, an all-Bernstein program followed a week later – featuring his Prelude, Fugue, and Riffs, the Chichester Psalms, Arias and Barcarolles and the Symphonic Dances from West Side Story – and in November, MTT and the Symphony were joined by guest pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet for a performances of Bernstein’s Second Symphony, The Age of Anxiety. In January, MTT leads the Symphony in a concert version of Candide, in February, the Symphony will accompany a screening of West Side Story at Davies Symphony Hall, and later that month, guest conductor Andrey Boreyko leads the Symphony in a program which includes Bernstein’s Divertimento and his Serenade, with guest violinist Vadim Gluzman.

During this season, MTT and the Symphony will also be celebrating the centennial anniversaries of composers John Adams, Lou Harrison and Steve Reich.

2017 saw the release of another two recordings on the SFS Media label by Michael Tilson Thomas and the Symphony. The first of these was their first digital-only release – Alban Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, recorded during live performances at Davies Symphony Hall in January 2015. This was followed in November by the release of a 2-disc set of the complete symphonies by Robert Schumann, which MTT describes as “…. a preserve for endangered emotions: wistfulness, whimsy, ardency, longing…”. These performances were recorded live during the 2015-16 season, also at Davies Symphony Hall.

On the subject of releases, MTT and the Symphony have recently been nominated for a 2018 Grammy Award in the category Best Orchestral Performance – for their gorgeous October 2016 recording, Debussy: Images, Jeux, La plus que lente. We wish them success!

Earlier this month, Michael Tilson Thomas had the honor of being inducted into the California Hall of Fame, joining other inspirational Californians – including director Steven Spielberg and poet Gary Snyder – who were described by Governor Brown as representing “the dynamic spirit and imagination that is the hallmark of the Golden State”.

Also recently announced, Michael Tilson Thomas, together with architect Frank Gehry, will receive the Richard D Colburn award at the Colburn School’s Annual Gala, Celebrate Colburn, for “their exemplary achievements and contributions to the worlds of classical music and the performing arts in Los Angeles and throughout the world”. This prestigious event takes place in April 2018, at the Gehry-designed Walt Disney Concerto Hall in Los Angeles, where MTT will lead the Colburn Orchestra in a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 1.

Michael Tilson Thomas – courtesy San Francisco Symphony

On a less-than-celebratory note, we also heard this year of MTT’s intention to end his legendary 25-year tenure as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony at the end of the 2019-20 season. Bringing to an end one of the most creative and productive musical partnerships in the orchestral world, Tilson Thomas will leave the Symphony a unique and enduring legacy, but there’s good news too – as Music Director Laureate of the San Francisco Symphony, he will continue to conduct the Orchestra for a minimum of four weeks each season, in addition to what’s described as “other special projects”. He will, without a doubt, be warmly welcomed back by musicians and audiences alike.

For more information on Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, visit the SF Symphony website.


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