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Michael Tilson Thomas’s 25 Years With the SF Symphony Celebrated in 25 Quarantined Days

June 5, 2020

Now in progress through June 28, San Francisco Symphony is documenting and streaming highlights of Michael Tilson Thomas’s 25 years at the head of the orchestra, now that COVID-19 wiped out the special programs scheduled for June.

Will we see the glorious MTT/SFS Peter Grimes? Flying Dutchman? The rarity of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mlada, the unique family history of The Thomashefskys? All Mahler’s symphonies performed multiple times in Davies Hall?

That and much more remains mostly a hope, but meanwhile SFS is making great efforts on multiple platforms (see below) to present the best possible substitute for a grand season finale.

The general plan is online tribute highlights over the course of 25 days with the release of a variety of original and archival content that “illuminates different facets of Michael Tilson Thomas’s tenure as music director.”

Each day’s content focuses on one of the 25 seasons of his tenure, featuring combination of audio available for streaming, photos, videos, stories, insights from MTT, and personal tribute messages from San Francisco Symphony musicians and artists who have held an important place in MTT’s musical life in San Francisco.

In today’s presentation, for MTT’s first season, 1995–1996, under “Today’s Pick,” there is an audio recording of the SFS performance of a relative rarity, William Schuman's Symphony No. 8, recorded in December 1995.

On the orchestra’s YouTube website, the initial offering includes news footage of MTT’s arrival, messages from orchestra members, playlists of concerts, and many Music Connects entries.

The promise from Public Relations Director Robin Freeman: “Other days will include sometimes longer form video like a 15-minute video about the 2000 American Maverick’s Festival, a video piece about the recording of Mahler No. 8 for SFS Media, and a behind the scenes look at the semi-staged production of West Side Story.” All very welcome, especially the marvelous Mavericks … while awaiting Peter Grimes.

The celebration will culminate with an MTT25 virtual finale event on June 28, 2020, at 5 p.m. PDT, featuring performances and tributes by musicians of the SF Symphony and Chorus, and guest artists.

Hope and official stance on the resumption of music-in-person is still the Sept. 30 opening gala of the 2020–2021 season, led by incoming Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen.

Of the many regrets and losses in the performing arts from the coronavirus, the San Francisco Symphony’s greatest has been cancellation of the current season’s June finale, which was to celebrate Michael Tilson Thomas’s 25th and final year as music director.

“Celebrating the legacy of Michael’s tenure as music director in a way that is fitting of his decades of adventurous and generous music-making with our orchestra has been something we’ve all been preparing for and looking forward to for quite some time,” said SF Symphony CEO Mark C. Hanson.

While we are disappointed to not share in our long-planned celebrations with live audiences at this time, we are focusing our time and energy on developing and supporting new online content and experiences that will engage current and new audiences and that will celebrate the deep and lasting legacy of MTT’s vision and enthusiasm and extraordinary musical partnership with the orchestra and our community.

Sharing musical experiences in innovative and accessible ways has been a quintessential element of Michael’s 25-year partnership with SFS. As we reenvisioned how we would recognize the conclusion of his remarkable tenure as music director in the absence of live performances, we focused on two things that hold great personal importance to MTT — the lasting relationships that have grown between Michael, the orchestra, and musical friends around the world; and the music itself.

It is our intent that this 25-day online celebration will connect longtime patrons and new audiences alike through music, people, and stories that illustrate MTT’s legacy of generous and adventurous music-making in San Francisco.”

Besides the “25 days/25 years” project, there are many ways to experience MTT’s work, beginning with his own website, where he currently highlights New World Symphony archives. In addition to NWS and SFS, his ongoing activities also involve the London Symphony Orchestra, where he is conductor laureate.

Significantly and realistically, MTT lists as his next concerts in San Francisco as Oct. 30 – Nov. 1 (Timothy Higgins: Concerto for Trombone and Mahler: Symphony No. 1), and Nov. 5–8 (Beethoven: Missa solemnis).

Thanks to the SF Symphony’s release for free streaming, MTT’s best remains available online in the nine documentary-performance presentations of Keeping Score. They are described on MTT’s website as “Explorations into the stories behind the music, discoveries for all, insights for curious listeners, educators, students, and everyone in between.”

Links to all programs are available individually through YouTube or together via the SF Symphony’s YouTube channel.

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

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