Michael Tilson Thomas
Michael Tilson Thomas with the SF Symphony (wearing blue glasses in honor of the conductor) | Credit: Stefan Cohen

Twenty-eight years after he conducted his first concert in Davies Symphony Hall as music director of the San Francisco Symphony, Michael Tilson Thomas received heartfelt ovations in Davies this past weekend among fearful whispers that this appearance might be his last here.

The reason for the reluctant speculation is that Tilson Thomas, who will turn 79 on Dec. 21, is in poor health, having spent the past four years first dealing with a heart operation and then with an aggressive, progressive form of brain cancer. The San Francisco performances follow a month of cancellations because the conductor’s doctor told him not to travel.

What mitigates against the fears about MTT’s future is his record of repeated comebacks and continued work through medical treatments. Even now, his schedule shows conducting engagements next month with the National Symphony at The Kennedy Center and with the Toronto Symphony in Roy Thomson Hall, along with return visits to the SF Symphony in January and February 2024.

In a poignant coincidence, the program for MTT’s 1995 music-director debut and these possibly last concerts Oct. 19–22 in Davies was the same: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. (His first SF Symphony appearance was in 1974, conducting Gustav Mahler’s Ninth Symphony.)

Audience view
The view from the audience at Sunday’s performance | Credit: Lisa Hirsch

Certainly, the occasion was marked. On Saturday night after the performance, to the conductor’s evident surprise, Mayor London Breed appeared in order to announce that she intends to introduce a resolution to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to rename Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street “MTT Way.”

With Beethoven then and now, the San Francisco Chronicle’s review of this past weekend’s program pointed to a sad parallel:

“Beethoven conducted the premiere of his Ninth Symphony in Vienna in 1824, despite being completely deaf by then. According to some versions of the story, he was unaware of the tumultuous applause that had greeted his unorthodox masterpiece until the mezzo-soprano soloist, tears streaming down her cheeks, turned the old man to face the audience.

“It was hard not to think of that incident as [mezzo-soprano Tamara] Mumford took [Tilson] Thomas by the arm and helped him down from the podium to face his audience.”

MTT’s debility was unmistakable. He was described by one audience member as “looking frail and a little disheveled, which is uncharacteristic.”

After a rare quarter-century tenure among music directors, who usually stay in their positions for only about a decade, the end of MTT’s grand closing season with the SF Symphony was canceled because of the pandemic. As the orchestra is making its comeback with his successor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, at the helm, MTT’s emeritus guest engagements have been popular events, and the hope is they will continue.