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Michael Tilson Thomas: Nearing 20 Years on S.F. Symphony Podium

| February 25, 2014
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San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas conducts. (Courtesy San Francisco Symphony)

San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas conducts. (Courtesy San Francisco Symphony)

Next year will mark Michael Tilson Thomas’ 20th season as music director for the San Francisco Symphony. That kind of longevity is increasingly rare — few music directors these days last more than a decade with one orchestra.

At a news conference Monday, Tilson Thomas talked about the programs he’s planning for next year, including some newer work by American composers. Adventurous programming has been a hallmark of Tilson Thomas’ tenure.

‘These big symphonies for me are like national parks. … My sense of wonder in approaching them is absolutely as profound as it ever was. And now a certain savvy as a trail guide I have, perhaps becomes more useful to work things out with my colleagues on stage.’— Michael Tilson Thomas

“I think it’s really important for everyone — composers, performers, everyone — to really be free to consider all kinds of ideas, and even trying all kinds of ideas, some of which may not entirely work,” he said.

There will be at least one work by an American composer on nearly every subscription program. The symphony is also planning to convert a rehearsal space at the back of Davies Hall into a kind of laboratory for musical experiments, dubbed Soundbox. The new space will feature a tunable sound system from Berkeley’s Meyer Sound.

I sat down with Tilson Thomas after the news conference, and he talked about how he and orchestra musicians are still finding fresh things to say about even the most-often-played classical music warhorses.

MTT: I think the way we play is in far greater detail all of the time. I mean the kinds of subtle things we can talk about now, because of the shared history we have. And so that’s fun, to be always able to go always another dimension deeper into the piece. Letting the piece become more personal, more of an opportunity for the extraordinary soloists in different sections of the orchestra to show uniquely what they can do.

Cy Musiker: How do you keep performances of the standards fresh, pieces like the Mahler “Third” you’re doing later this week, and which you recorded a few years ago for an album that won a Grammy Award?

MTT: These big symphonies for me are like national parks. And coming back to them again, I’m certainly long familiar with them. But my sense of wonder in approaching them is absolutely as profound as it ever was. And now a certain savvy as a trail guide I have, perhaps becomes more useful to work things out with my colleagues on stage. And then ultimately we take the audience by the hand and take them with us through the park.

I also asked Tilson Thomas how he manages his relationship with orchestra members, especially after musicians went on strike last year for more pay, forcing the cancellation of an East Coast tour, including an appearance at Carnegie Hall. The strike was settled, but many musicians were still bitter with management over how negotiations were handled.

At the news conference, cellist Margaret Tait, celebrating 40 years with the symphony this year, talked warmly about Tilson Thomas, who remains on excellent terms with musicians.

“It’s been very, very refreshing for the orchestra that he would take us to new and bold places,” Tait said. “There’s a sense of it which is very American, which is very adventuresome, and there’s a deep appreciation of that in the orchestra.”

So maybe it’s understandable that Tilson Thomas bristled a bit when I asked him if the strike has changed his relationship with the musicians.

“We go back a very long way, and there is a kind of sense of trust that evolves from being trail-mates together in these national parks,” he said. “In the moment of the performance, a huge amount is at stake, a huge amount is at risk, and the sense of longtime respect and affection that you have for those who have traveled those trails together with you, the feeling we have together about one another is a very powerful and profound thing.”

The man everyone calls “MTT” turns 70 this December. There’s a celebration for that event, too, next Jan. 15, with plans for five pianists — Yuja Wang, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Emanuel Ax, Jeremy Denk, and Marc-André Hamelin — in concert together in Liszt’s rarely performed “Hexameron.”

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About the Author ()

CY MUSIKER REPORTER Cyrus Musiker likes to tell stories. He co-hosts The Do List and covers arts and politics for KQED News and The California Report. Since he joined KQED in 1995, Cyrus has filled many jobs in the Newsroom, from anchor to  senior editor. His work has been recognized by the Society for Professional Journalists with their Sigma Delta Chi Award for Public Service in Journalism. Cyrus came to California from the East Coast for the mountains and the wine, and he still runs the East Bay Hills, hikes the Sierra and covers the wine business when he can. Email Cy: cmusiker@kqed.org Reach Cyrus Musiker at cmusiker@kqed.org.

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