Michael Tilson Thomas
Michael Tilson Thomas | Credit: Brigitte Lacombe

Michael Tilson Thomas’s return to the New York Philharmonic on Nov. 4 after a decade’s absence, the pandemic, and a medical crisis earned accolades:

“The hearty ovation that greeted his appearance might have gone on longer had Thomas not quickly taken the podium to get to work — standing to conduct and looking alert and immersed, his cues a deft combination of precision and flexibility,” reported Anthony Tommasini in The New York Times.

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In early August, [he] announced that, following surgery to remove a brain tumor, he was withdrawing from his upcoming performances to receive treatment. ‘I look forward’ he said, ‘to seeing everyone again in November.’

Even coming from such an indefatigable musician, still dynamic at 76, that promise seemed optimistic.

But on Thursday at Alice Tully Hall, looking a little weather-beaten but still vigorous and bright-eyed, Thomas took the podium to lead the New York Philharmonic in inspiring performances of demanding works by Ruth Crawford Seeger, Berg, and Beethoven.”

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The only concession to his continued medical recovery was before the performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, as reported by David Wright in New York Classical Review:

Michael Tilson Thomas
MTT by the Golden Gate Bridge in 1993, when he was music director designate | Credit: Terrence McCarthy/San Francisco Symphony

“Although the Philharmonic has been performing lately without intermissions, Tilson Thomas was understandably granted one before tackling the ‘Eroica.’ It wasn’t long after the two opening chords rang out that one sensed that this performance was going to be about fierce energy channeled through precise rhythm, to exhilarating effect.”

Next for MTT, a homecoming event in Davies Hall on Friday, the first of two series of concerts with the San Francisco Symphony.

“I’m so happy to be returning to the stage of Davies Symphony Hall for the first time in almost two years,” MTT said in a message to the SF Symphony. “What a great joy it’s going to be being together again. I want to especially thank all of you who’ve sent such good wishes to me during this time I’ve been recovering.

“For two weeks in November, we’ll be rebooting our special collaboration with works by Schumann, Mozart, William Grant Still, Copland, a new trombone concerto by our own Tim Higgins, and a nostalgic piece for flute and orchestra by me. I can’t wait to share all of this with you.”

On Nov. 12–14, the program includes Mozart’s Three German Dances, K.509, composed all in one sitting in 1787; Schumann’s Symphony No. 1, “Spring,” most recently performed under MTT’s baton in 2015; and MTT’s own Notturno, featuring Seattle Symphony principal flautist Demarre McGill in his SF Symphony orchestral series debut.

Michael Tilson Thomas with Grammy Awards
MTT holding the two Grammy Awards for the SF Symphony's recording of Mahler's Symphony No. 7 in 2006 | Credit: Kristen Loken

MTT has said of his work: “Notturno is a virtuoso piece evoking the lyrical world of Italian music. Its shape recalls concert arias, ‘études de concert,’ and salon pieces — creations of a bygone world that I still hold in great esteem. The piece has a subtext. It’s about the role music plays in the life of a musician and the role we musicians play in life.”

In 2017, MTT and the SF Symphony released a complete recording of Schumann’s symphonies on the in-house SFS Media label, later nominated for a 2019 Grammy Award in the category of Best Orchestral Performance. MTT’s comments: “Like so much classical music, Schumann’s is a preserve for endangered emotions. He’s talking about wistfulness, whimsy, ardency, longing, setting off recklessly in conflicting directions, losing your way, or just mulling things over. Schumann moves between many sound worlds in these symphonies.”

Scott Foglesong will give an “Inside Music” talk from the stage one hour prior to the Nov. 12–14 performances. Free to all concert ticketholders; doors open 15 minutes before.

A broadcast of these performances will air Tuesday, Nov. 23 at 8 p.m. on Classical KDFC 90.3 San Francisco, 104.9 San Jose, 89.9 Napa, and kdfc.com, where it will be available for on-demand streaming for 21 days following the broadcast.

The Nov. 18–20 concerts include Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring and the SF Symphony premiere of William Grant Still’s Patterns — two pieces of quintessential American music. The program also features the world premiere of San Francisco Symphony principal trombone Timothy Higgins’s Trombone Concerto, commissioned by the SF Symphony and performed by Higgins.

Higgins comments, “It was exciting to write a trombone concerto, but also to be able to write for the San Francisco Symphony and know the players.” The piece makes broad use of the orchestra’s virtuosic resources, providing highlighted passages and solo turns for many instruments apart from the soloist. “Why wouldn’t you take advantage of all this incredible talent on the stage? I would have hated for the piece to be just a trombone with some accompaniment the whole time. I would much rather that the audience could focus on hearing the soloist play or on hearing the orchestra play. I want people to notice both.”

Higgins adds, “I want people in the audience to hear how versatile the trombone is. … Whether it’s something rhythmic or angular or broad and lyrical, I want them to hear how varied our expressive palette is. I think that really effective solo writing for trombone is able to use both sides of the coin, both angular playing and lyrical playing, and meld them together into something compelling. This piece incorporates a lot of technical challenges, but it’s all done with a lyrical line.”

Teddy Abrams and Michael Tilson Thomas
MTT with a young Teddy Abrams, recently named Musical America's 2022 Conductor of the Year

Peter Grunberg will do the “Inside Music” talk from the stage one hour prior to the Nov. 18–20 performances. And a post-concert audience Q&A session with Grunberg will be presented from the stage immediately following the concert on Nov. 20, also free to all ticketholders.

A broadcast of these performances will likewise air Nov. 30 at 8 p.m. on Classical KDFC.

Davies Symphony Hall is operating at full audience capacity again, and attendance requires proof of full vaccination against COVID-19 for everyone ages 12 and up, including patrons, performers, volunteers, and staff. All patrons are required to wear a face mask while attending performances.

MTT’s concert engagements in 2022 include the Los Angeles Philharmonic, National Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra, and Czech Philharmonic.

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