S.F. Symphony Season Marks MTT Anniversary

February 24, 2014

MTT and Yuja Wang  Photo by Oliver TheilThe San Francisco Symphony's next season, announced on Monday, will highlight the 20th anniversary of Michael Tilson Thomas as music director, and celebrate his 70th birthday (Dec. 21) at special events.

One of those concerts, on Jan. 15, will have five prominent pianists — Emanuel Ax, Jeremy Denk, Marc-André Hamelin, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Yuja Wang — join MTT for a rare performance of Liszt's 1837 Hexameron for Six Pianos and Orchestra (Variations on the March from I Puritani).

Twenty years is twice the usual tenure of music directors of major orchestras, and in case of MTT, it's likely to stretch further into the future because the relationship between music director and orchestra here seems like a mutual admiration society.

Since the first time leading the orchestra 40 years ago as a guest conductor, MTT says, "it has been an honor and a joy to develop our relationship, and I’m constantly struck by the musicians' virtuosic and impassioned spirit. Our personal approach to music-making has grown over this time, and my affection and respect for their character and skill has never been stronger."

SFS President Sakurako Fisher said:

Michael has connected so many people with classical music in new ways. With this orchestra, and in this community, he has always been able to think outside the box. Be it through interesting programs, conceiving staging elements, and using technology, or his passion for teaching and engaging young people in music, he has brought a sense of adventure and excitement to everything he does."

Composers Sam and John Adams with MTT, Deborah O'Grady (mother of Sam, wife of John, renowned photographer) <br> Photo by Kristen LokenFew times since the exciting days of his arrival as music director has MTT put together a season such as the next one. The 10-month-long season, September through June, will offer an impressive collection of 23 American works by 17 composers, including John and Sam Adams, John Luther Adams, Mason Bates, Steven Stucky, and Cynthia Lee Wong.

Not exceptional by themselves, as measured against innovative programming of some other orchestras, these numbers still represent a higher quota of new music than usual. For a large organization, with an operating budget of more than $72 million, and the need to fill about a quarter million seats each season, it's a constant challenge to present new and unfamiliar works, which rarely fill the house the way classics do.

Still, in addition to what the announcement calls "masterworks of the core repertory," including continued explorations of works by Beethoven (25 works next season, more than all American works combined), SFS plans "to cultivate new audiences through media, technology and community-based programs."

Lisa Hirsch, publisher of Iron Tongue of Midnight, sees a problem with a three-week Beethoven festival: "We just had a two-week-plus Beethoven and Bates festival. What has happened to the old spirit of adventure if you have to do 25 works by the most popular composer in the universe during your season?"

New audiences may well be attracted by an experimental program called SoundBox, an alternative music performance space in Davies Symphony Hall, and a series of 10 eclectic late night events in casual, interactive settings, and in dialogue with the audience.

Composer Cynthia Lee Wong  Photo by George J. KunzeThe popular film series continues, including The Wizard of Oz, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the first U.S. concert presentation of The Godfather, and a selection of Tan Dun’s compositions from his Oscar- and Grammy-winning scores to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Zhang Yimou’s Hero, and Feng Xiaogang’s The Banquet.

Among the many special events: concert stagings of Missa solemnis and Fidelio (with Nina Stemme and Brandon Jovanovich); Brant's Ice Field: Spatial Narratives for Large and Small Orchestral Groups; Bartók's The Miraculous Mandarin and Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 3, conducted by Juraj Valcuha, with Garrick Ohlsson as soloist; two concerts by the London Philharmonic, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, Jean-Efflam Bavouzet as soloist; two concerts by the debuting Budapest Festival Orchestra, conducted by Iván Fischer, and performing Brahms and Mendelssohn, uncharacteristally eschewing anything Hungarian or contemporary.

Seymon Bychkov will conduct Bruckner's Symphony No. 8; MTT, London Symphony Orchestra principal conductor from 1988 to 1995, and principal guest conductor since, will lead LSO in two concerts, first the Four Sea Interludes from Britten's Peter Grimes, with Yuja Wang as soloist in the Shostakovich Piano Concerto No. 1, and Sibelius' Symphony No. 2; next, Colin Matthews' Hidden Variables, Shostakovich's Symphony No. 5, and the Gershwin Piano Concerto in F, again with Wang.

Critics such as Jeff Dunn (who writes for SFCV) demand more new music:

I am disappointed with the season. I would have preferred a little less Stravinsky and more of other mainstream American composers not programmed, e.g., Jennifer Higdon, George Tsontakis, John Corigliano, Aaron Jay Kernis, Christopher Rouse, Edgar Meyer, Walter Piston, Alan Hovhaness, William Schuman, etc.

Nina Stemme, the sensational Brünnhilde in San Francisco Opera's  will sing the title role in SFS's <em>Fidelio</em>  Photo by Cory WeaverAnd here’s my two-bits of advice: At least once every other season, put together a program with a sense of humor. One of the best concert starters ever written is John Biggs’ Pastiche, which interfuses snippets of 31 warhorses which will leave patrons laughing and dying to "name that tune."

There will be more notable examples of contemporary music, such as the conducting debut of Thomas Adès, leading his own In Seven Days, plus works by Ives, Milhaud, and Sibelius; Esa-Pekka Salonen conducting the SFS premiere of his Nyx, Ravel's Mother Goose Suite, and Stravinsky's complete The Firebird.

Among the many guest artists: pianists Leif Ove Andsnes, Emanuel Ax, Jonathan Biss, Yefim Bronfman, Jeremy Denk, Kirill Gerstein, Igor Levit; singers Measha Brueggergosman, Sasha Cooke, Joélle Harvey, Karita Mattila, Tamara Mumford, Nicholas Phan, Bonnie Raitt, Shenyang, Peabody Southwell, Lydia Teuscher, Dawn Upshaw, Yulia van Doren, David Wilson-Johnson, Leah Wool, and Ruth Ziesak.

SFS also features its own by solo assignments to concertmaster Alexander Barantschik, associate principal second violin Dan Carlson, principal trumpet Mark Inouye, principal bassoon Stephen Paulson, keyboardist Robin Sutherland, associate concertmaster Nadya Tichman, principal viola Jonathan Vinocour, and assistant principal cello Amos Yang.