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Michael Tilson Thomas Takes Medical Leave

June 4, 2019

In a poignant coincidence, Michael Tilson Thomas will conduct Mahler’s Ninth Symphony before “withdrawing from all engagements beginning June 17 until Sept. 3 in order to undergo a cardiac procedure.”

The Mahler opens and ends with a hesitant, syncopated rhythmic motif, which Leonard Bernstein had suggested is a depiction of the composer’s irregular heartbeat. MTT disclosed today that doctors advised him to undergo the (unspecified) procedure “at this time in continuation of treatment for a heart condition I have managed for many years.”

The announcement doesn’t specify the venue, beyond mentioning Cleveland, but it’s likely to be the Cleveland Clinic, whose cardiovascular surgery department has one of the largest, most experienced cardiac surgery teams in the world. In recent years, more than 30,000 patients have had their heart surgery performed there, ranging from mitral valve surgery to cardiac bypasses to transplants.

The San Francisco Symphony music director is scheduled to retire at the end of his next, 25th, season, to be succeeded by Esa-Pekka Salonen. Today’s announcement includes the statement that MTT is “expecting to make a full recovery” in time to open the season on Sept. 3. “I deeply regret missing concerts and projects that I have been greatly anticipating,” MTT wrote.

MTT, 74, has maintained a dizzying schedule all his life, including recently. Between San Francisco, his New World Symphony in Miami, and guest conducting around the world, MTT has been in constant motion, without any hint of the heart condition he has just disclosed.

In fact, his only local cancellation was announced just a month ago, when he withdrew from the May 9-11 Davies Hall concerts because he “became ill following his performances with the New World Symphony at Carnegie Hall.” James Gaffigan stepped in for him.

MTT’s absence in the rest of the SFS subscription season means the following replacements on the podium:

  • June 20–22, Joshua Gersen will lead the orchestra in a program that includes the SFS premiere and co-commission of Steve Reich’s Music for Ensemble and Orchestra and Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 2 with Yefim Bronfman. Replacing MTT’s Street Song for Symphonic Brass will be Arvo Pärt’s Fratres for Strings and Percussion and Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances.

  • June 27, 29, and 30, British conductor Martyn Brabbins will conduct the SFS in a semi-staged production of Ravel’s L’Enfant et les sortilèges, featuring mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard as the Child.

  • July 10, New Zealand-born conductor Gemma New will make her debut with SFS at Stanford University’s Frost Amphitheater in the inaugural concert of the orchestra’s new summer series at the  outdoor venue, presented by Stanford Live. The all-Tchaikovsky program features Gil Shaham performing the composer’s Violin Concerto. Symphony No. 5 replaces the previously announced Symphony No. 4.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].

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