MTT leads San Francisco Symphony in World Premiere of his new work

Michael Tilson Thomas © Art Streiber courtesy San Francisco Symphon

In his final season as Music Director, Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony in two programs this month – the first of which takes place this week, and features the World Premiere of MTT’s own work, Meditations on Rilke, with Artist-in-Residence mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny. Also on the program are the Berlioz Overture to Benvenuto Cellini, selections from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, and Ravel’s fascinating La Valse.

The concert opens with Berlioz’s Overture to Benvenuto Cellini, an opera which (although largely fictional) drew its inspiration from the memoirs of the Florentine sculptor Benvenuto Cellini. The opera was not well received, and even today is not often performed, but the overture is heard as a standalone piece in the concert hall.

Tilson Thomas’ song cycle Meditations on Rilke, is a musical setting of poems by the Bohemian-Austrian novelist and poet, Rainer Maria Rilke (1875–1926), regarded as one of the most lyrical of German-language writers. MTT describes these six songs as “reflections of the many moods the poems suggest …. motives and harmonies [which] have been with me for years ….. that recur, recombine, and morph differently in each song”.

Sasha Cooke – winner of two Grammy Awards – has both a versatile repertoire and a commitment to new music. Referred to by the New York Times as a “luminous standout”, and in “equal parts poise, radiance and elegant directness” by Opera News, she regularly appears with the world’s leading orchestras, opera companies and chamber ensembles. A self-confessed devotee of San Francisco, Ms Cooke made her debut with the Symphony in 2009, and the following year became a Shenson Young Artist. Included among her performances with the Symphony are appearances in Mozart’s Requiem, Beethoven’s Missa Solemnis, Mahler’s Das Lied van der Erde and Die Klagende Lied.

Sasha Cooke is also well known to San Francisco Opera audiences, having appeared in a number of roles for the Company. During this current season, she has sung the role of Hansel in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, and will appear as Laurene Powell Jobs in Mason Bates and Mark Campbell’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs , a role she created at Santa Fe Opera in 2017.

Joining Sasha Cooke is American bass-baritone, Ryan McKinny – “one of the finest singers of his generation”, with “a voice that drips with gold”, says Opera News. Having appeared with many of the world’s finest opera companies, he has also appeared on the concert stage with numerous leading orchestras around the globe. No stranger to San Francisco audiences either, Mr McKinny made his debut with the Symphony in its celebration of the works of Leonard Bernstein in 2017, and more recently appeared in a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 at the Symphony’s season opening concert last September.

For San Francisco Opera, he has appeared in the Company’s World Premiere of John Adams’ and Peter Sellars’ production of Girls of the Golden West in 2017, in which he also appeared, with Dutch National Opera, for the European premiere. In 2018, Ryan McKinny was nominated as one of San Francisco Opera’s Emerging Stars.

MTT’s love for the music of Gustav Mahler is well known, and in this program, Mahler is represented by Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Boy’s Magic Horn) – a song cycle which he composed between 1892 and 1899. The poems were the work of Clemens Brentano and Achim von Arnim, who wrote an anthology of German folk songs between 1805 and 1808 – either original works, or rewrites of folk songs which had originally been written by 17th century poets. It’s interesting to note that apparently more than half of the songs which Mahler wrote during his career are settings to lyrics from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, works in which the composer covered a wide range of subjects and emotions.

In June this year, SFS Media – the Symphony’s own recording label – will release an album of works composed by Michael Tilson Thomas, and performed by the Symphony during the 2018-2020 seasons. The Rilke Songs sung by Sasha Cooke and Ryan McKinny – recorded during these performances – will be on this album, together with live recordings of From the Diary of Anne Frank – narrated by mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard – and Street Song.

The final work in this week’s programme is Ravel’s intriguing and somewhat enigmatic La Valse, which the composer described as “a dancing, whirling, almost hallucinatory ecstasy, an increasingly passionate and exhausting whirlwind of dancers, who are overcome and exhilarated by nothing but ‘the waltz’”. This gorgeous piece of music – so typical of Ravel – was originally sketched out in 1906 as Vienne, a symphonic poem, written in tribute to Johan Strauss II. When asked by Sergei Diaghilev to write a work entitled La Valse for his Ballets Russes, Ravel presented him with this piece. As it happened, Diaghilev was disappointed in the work, and although he was complimentary about it, he didn’t think it suitable for a ballet. Some years later, though, both George Balanchine and Sir Frederic Ashton saw its merits – Balanchine creating a work for New York City Ballet in 1951, and Ashton for The Royal Ballet in 1958.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony performing Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 on September 3, 2010 in Davies Symphony Hall.

Michael Tilson Thomas leads the San Francisco Symphony, and soloists Sasha Cooke and Ryan McKinny in the World Premiere of MTT’s Meditations on Rilke, and music by Berlioz, Mahler and Ravel, at Davies Symphony Hall from January 9th to 12th. For more information and tickets, visit the San Francisco Symphony website.

From January 16th to 18th, Michael Tilson Thomas leads the Symphony in the West Coast premiere of SFS-commissioned Fountain of Youth by Julia Wolfe, Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, Berg’s Three Pieces for Orchestra, and Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in which pianist Emanuel Ax will be the guest soloist.

More information, and details of ticketing, can be found on the San Francisco Symphony website.

Information sourced from:

San Francisco Symphony program notes

Rainer-Maria Rilke

Des Knaben Wunderhorn

La Valse

Sasha Cooke

Ryan McKinny

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