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MTT & SFS To Visit Symphony Hall Third Time


Michael Tilson Thomas
Michael Tilson Thomas

Coming to town next week are the San Francisco Symphony with Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas and violinist Gil Shaham, appearing in the Celebrity Series as part of a tour also including New York, Miami, Cleveland, Kansas City, Ann Arbor, and Princeton. The concerts showcase repertoire by Mahler, Ravel, Liszt, and Prokofiev along with Samuel Adams’s Drift and Providence, a work co-commissioned by the SFS; Adams performs on the tour. Thomas led the work’s premiere in 2012. For his 20th year with the band, Thomas has programmed other works by American composers nearly every single concert week of the upcoming season.

Since MTT assumed his post as the 11th SFS music director, in September 1995, their musical partnership has been hailed as one of the more inspiring and successful in the country. In addition, the Orchestra has been recognized internationally as a leader in both music education and recording. MTT is now the longest-tenured music director for a major American orchestra and the longest-serving music director in SFS history.

On November 16th at 5pm, Symphony Hall will resound with Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz No. 1, Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in G minor, Adams’s Drift and Providence, and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2. BMInt spoke with Oliver Theil, SFS communications director, and afterward with Samuel Adams.

BMInt: The orchestra is bringing Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, a BSO signature piece, to Symphony Hall. That’s brave! How difficult will it be for the orchestra to adapt to Symphony Hall, which has a livelier and louder acoustic than Davies Hall?

OT: Daphnis and Chloé is, of course, a gorgeous piece but also a very demanding one for the musicians, and they play it beautifully. Performing a work like this at the highest level in many different halls on a lengthy tour is a huge task, as each venue presents its own unique acoustical challenges. And many times, the orchestra performs without the benefit of an acoustic rehearsal to adjust to the nuances. This is where the shared experiences of MTT and the Orchestra’s 32 tours in 20 years together really show: the level of trust and flexibility and understanding of how to produce the best sound has only grown over the years. I know for certain that Michael and the musicians are very much looking forward to making music in beautiful Symphony Hall. The Boston Symphony Orchestra performed Daphnis in San Francisco during our Centennial Season, three years ago, where we hosted all major orchestras in one season. It was a special experience for our audiences to hear the different characteristics of all of these amazing ensembles in one year. We hope the Boston audiences will enjoy the unique brand of musicmaking that Michael and our musicians bring on this trip.

The Prokofiev Violin Concerto No. 2 is much more of a crowd pleaser than his First, and Shaham really nailed it in the YouTube version here. A BMInt reviewer remarked on a performance a years ago thus: Prokofiev’s delightful and inventive second violin concerto is played quite often, certainly much more than the first, with its diabolically difficult middle movement. Less irreverent and daring than earlier works by Prokofiev, it had its premiere in Madrid in 1935. The Spanish flavor of the third movement is reflected by use of its castanets, added to its dissonances, agogic rhythms (3/4, 4/4, 5/4 and 7/4), and jagged accents. Has the SFS performed it with Shaham during its subscription season before taking it on the road? 

Yes, Gil Shaham performed it on November 8, here in Davies Symphony Hall. On tour, he is also performing Mozart’s Violin Concerto No. 5 (Turkish), so we performed that here at Davies on Nov. 6, 7, and 9. All four of these concerts were in preparation for the tour. Shaham also performed the Prokofiev with us this past June, so we have had many opportunities to practice it together. And you are absolutely correct about Shaham’s incredible musicianship. He is a consummate musician with an incredible sense of lyricism, and it is always a joy to hear him play. We are very much looking forward to performing with him in all of these different halls across the country.

Michael Tilson Thomas (file photo)
Michael Tilson Thomas (file photo)

I’ve heard that SFS audiences are among the youngest in the country for staid orchestra concerts. Is this attributable to MTT’s lively approach?

Yes, I think MTT’s energy and creativity definitely contribute to the number of young and culturally curious audience members we have. Michael loves to present works by living composers, as well as rarely heard works by American composers, both of which attract a diverse audience base. He also enjoys thinking about how to put classical music in context with other art forms. His creative work designing semi-staged productions or performances with visual components is attracting a great deal of excitement. It provides another way in, another element of connectivity. This is especially appealing to a young audience drawn to a multi-sensory experience.

Do the SFS audiences thrive on new music?

Absolutely. SF Symphony audiences very much embrace new music, as is evident by our strong relationships and frequent programming of composers like Mason Bates, Samuel Adams, and Thomas Adès. These are composers that SF audiences have had the pleasure of hearing many times over the course of the season. Through our New Voices composer program, we are also partnering with the New World Symphony and Boosey & Hawkes to identify, support, and help train young composers, in both chamber and full-orchestra work, in matters of composition as well as professional development. MTT and the SFS have worked with Cynthia Lee Wong and Zosha di Castri in this program and premiered their works in SF and Miami. MTT’s 20 years as music director have also made our audiences very interested in music by American ‘maverick’ composers. This is most apparent in our aptly named American Mavericks Festival, which was presented in 2000 and again in 2012, during our Centennial season. For two weeks in 2012, soldout houses heard works by Steve Reich, Edgard Varese, Mason Bates, Charles Ives, Lou Harrison, Terry Riley, John Adams, Lukas Foss, Morton Feldman, Meredith Monk, John Cage, and many others. It was inspiring to see the enthusiasm that our audiences had for this eclectic body of work.

What percentage of your seats are sold by subscription? Do you allow “mixing and matching”?

Last season, around 60% of our tickets for our core classical concerts were sold through subscription packages, or subscribers adding additional concerts to their packages. However, like all orchestras, we are certainly seeing a trend of increased single ticket purchases. The popularity of subscription offerings is based in that one can create a completely customized subscription and still get the same discounts and benefits that come with a traditional fixed subscription. We offer a ‘Compose Your Own’ series, in which the purchase of three concerts makes one a subscriber. It has been a great success, that has allowed our patrons to create the exact combination of concerts that they want, while still benefiting from all the perks of being a subscriber. Again, something very popular with younger audiences that require the flexibility that fits their schedule and lifestyle.

Where else is the band playing on this tour, and is there more than one program?

We are performing nine concerts in seven cities for this tour. Please see the attached press release here.

How often does the orchestra’s five-manual 147-stop Ruffatti organ get used in recitals and with the SFS? Symphony Hall in Boston has an important organ too; it will be heard in a new concerto this spring.

We are fortunate to hear the beautiful Ruffatti, one of the largest in North America, many times over the course of each season. We have a recital series that presents such esteemed organists as Paul Jacobs, Cameron Carpenter, Martin Haselböck, Olivier Latry, Todd Wilson, and Isabelle Demers. Additionally, the organ figures prominently in many orchestral concerts throughout the season. In September of this year, the SFS performed Henry Brant’s Ice Field with one of our frequent collaborators, Cameron Carpenter. Ice Field had its world premiere in Davies Symphony Hall 13 years ago, with Brant himself at the organ. The organ was also showcased a number of times during our American Mavericks Festival in Lou Harrison’s Concerto for Organ and Percussion Orchestra and the world premiere of Mason Bates’s Mass Transmission for organ, electronica, and chorus. We have a Halloween performance every year that features a silent movie with organ accompaniment. In 2013, Carpenter improvised with the 1925 silent film The Phantom of the Opera, and this year, Wilson accompanied Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from 1920.

When did SFS last come to Boston?

MTT and the SFS performed in Symphony Hall for the first time together in 2000, and then again in 2004.

Last words?

As we celebrate this 20th season of the SF Symphony and MTT’s partnership, we are particularly excited to be returning to Boston. MTT has a rich history with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, at a pivotal time in his early conducting career. After winning the Koussevitzky Price at Tanglewood, in 1969, he was named assistant conductor of the BSO, a title he held until 1974. That same year he made his debut with the San Francisco Symphony, in Mahler 9. During his first year as assistant conductor, he made his unexpected debut with the BSO, replacing William Steinberg midconcert. That performance brought him some of his first international recognition, at the age of 24. I know he has many fond memories with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and I know both he and the musicians are thrilled to be performing in beautiful Symphony Hall.

BMInt also spoke with composer Samuel Adams.

Sam Adams (file photo)
Sam Adams (file photo)

BMInt: MTT is famous as an elucidator, often speaking with audiences in the manner of Leonard Bernstein’s televised Young Persons’ Concerts. Is he planning to tell Boston audiences something about your new piece?

SA: Yes, MTT often introduces new works to his audiences. I imagine he will do the same for the concert in Boston.

According to your gorgeous and clean website, your music “draws from your experiences in a diverse array of fields, including noise and electronic music, jazz, and field recording.” Are you also influenced by traditional concert music?

Yes, I grew up performing a lot of traditional classical repertoire on the piano and the contrabass. This had a profound influence on me, and I return to repertoire works again and again.

It must be an honor to have your Drift and Providence get the spotlight on a prestigious tour. How did that come about?

Yes, it is an honor to work with such wonderful musicians. The project came about directly through New World Symphony. Each year, the organization curates an evening of new works. For the concert in 2012, I was asked to create a new piece to be presented alongside the works of other young composers, a poet, and a visual artist. After the premiere in Miami, MTT decided to program the work with the San Francisco Symphony for the fall of 2012 and, more recently, for this national tour.

Can you tell us about Drift and Providence? Describe the “live sound design” which supplements the regular orchestral vocabulary.

Drift and Providence is a 19-minute orchestral work that explores themes of water and noise. It is in five moments, which are played without pause. The music itself is dense and atmospheric and includes many non-orchestral sounds. The most salient of these is coaxed from the percussion. Throughout the work, the percussion section creates a consistent metallic texture. From this, the sound designer selects and amplifies specific frequencies in real time with a computer program called Max/MSP. These are then recombined into the orchestration in a subtle and nuanced way.

On your website [here] you have nine works listed, and I see that you have at least two commissions planned. Can you elaborate on what else you have composed and the projects you are currently working on? 

Two recent works include a violin concerto, which was premiered by the wonderful British violinist Anthony Marwood earlier this year, and a short work that the National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America programmed on their 2014 tour. Future projects include several piano works for Sarah Cahill, David Fung, and Emanuel Ax, and a chamber ensemble work for the energetic Australian Chamber Orchestra.

Do you imagine writing programmatic works with political themes such as your father has done in Nixon in China and The Death of Klinghoffer

It is difficult to say. Right now, my focus is on instrumental music, but I enjoy working in other disciplines—theater included.

See related review here.


15 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. In the early 70’s MTT was a popular favorite to replace William Steinberg at the BSO. Among the issues that reputedly militated against his appointment were his age, his “life style”, and his inclination to make impromptu remarks about the pieces he was about to conduct. I recall one concert in that period when he began speaking (it was about either Ives’s “Three Places in New England” or Ruggles’s “Men and Mountains”.) A Board member sitting in about Row 3 Center said loudly, “Michael, shut up and play!”

    Comment by Martin Cohn — November 14, 2014 at 9:07 am

  2. I was there too. It was the august Mr. Cabot who said, “Young man, shut up and play the music.”

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 14, 2014 at 9:59 am

  3. And now, forty or fifty years later, surely half the performing artists in Boston venues, whether orchestral, vocal, or chamber, make sometimes extensive remarks before performing or conducting. (And I don’t mean the pre-concert talks, either.) For chamber recitals, in particular, such remarks before each piece (even the best known pieces in the repertoire) seem excessive and unnecessary, especially given the relatively high musical sophistication of the chamber music audience in Boston. Often they are merely repetitions of the notes in the accompanying program booklet. Please, players and singers, limit your insights to the voluntarily attended pre-concert talks.

    How extraordinary that a Cabot spoke to MTT. I had thought the Cabots, as John Collins Bossidy once informed us, talk only to God.

    Comment by Alan Levitan — November 14, 2014 at 2:21 pm

  4. So was I

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — November 14, 2014 at 2:21 pm

  5. … there at that memorable concert, I mean.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — November 14, 2014 at 2:22 pm

  6. Alan, I agree that there is too much talking at chamber concerts, mainly because they often say things you really wish you hadn’t heard, as when Lang Lang likened a Mozart work to a Disney movie, with birds and bunnies.

    I had a subscription the year MTT took over for the ailing Steinberg. I very much liked his brief talks, but my recollection is that he wasn’t kept on because the audiences didn’t like him all that much and they didn’t renew their subscriptions. Unfortunate for us …

    Comment by Leon Golub — November 14, 2014 at 6:41 pm

  7. I agree that talking by performers is often not done that effectively, but the notion that it’s not worthwhile because it doesn’t speak to you (“you” referring to the experienced concertgoers represented in this thread) is not an argument that it’s not worthwhile – my own guess is that at most classical events, no matter how many familiar faces you might see, there are many people (probably well more than half in most cases) who really could benefit from efficient and engaging remarks. (Jeremy Denk is particularly expert at this – he never seems to talk for long, but he always manages to say something inviting, without being pedantic.) Listeners can benefit both by getting ideas about what to listen for and by simply getting a sense of the human behind the performer.

    If performers are only focused on the “relatively high musical sophistication of the chamber music audience,” they’re likely not taking into account many in attendance.

    Comment by Michael Monroe — November 14, 2014 at 7:14 pm

  8. Perhaps Mr. Cabot mistook Michael Tilson Tomas for God. It’s an easy mistake.

    I’m with Alan Levitan on mini-lectures before concerts, with certain privileged exceptions, like Denk. A few weeks ago the Julliard String Quartet prefaced Webern’s Five Movements with an explanatory introduction that was almost as long as the performance – and this for a piece by the most laconic of all composers, who painstakingly removed all that was inessential, all mere commentary, from his work. I found it not only unnecessary, but offensive – they had no right to add those words.

    Comment by SamW — November 14, 2014 at 9:27 pm

  9. Attendance at the “shut up and play” concert is approaching the capacity of Symphony Hall; Bob Light (eminent master-prints-and-drawings dealer) just told us he had been there too. Please enroll me in the opposition to remarks during the performance. As AL says, the information is often there for you to read, and as LG says, the remarks are often fatuous.

    Comment by Martin Cohn — November 15, 2014 at 9:30 am

  10. It all and only has to do with the content, in my view. Much of what musicians have to say is of low value. But when it is not, and is short enough, I welcome hearing it. There is a ginormous difference b/w hearing Charlie Albright ponder aloud whether he is old enough to Schubert zzzz and listening to, say, Charles Rosen point out some landmarks to study briefly before and then on the upcoming trip.

    Comment by David Moran — November 15, 2014 at 1:45 pm

  11. For an orchestra that, under MTT, likes to perform lesser-known American works, it’s a bit surprising that they don’t play anything by Henry Hadley, who was SFO’s founding music director, and a well-respected composer in his day. It would have been a natural for a Boston visit, since Hadley was born in Somerville and studied with Paine.

    Just sayin’.

    Comment by Vance Koven — November 15, 2014 at 3:31 pm

  12. Mr. Koven brings up a name that deserves to be better known. Henry Hadley was the first person to conduct an orchestra on sound film (in 1926 for Warner Bros., leading the New York Philharmonic
    in Wagner’s Tannhauser Overture). He also was the first conductor of the Berkshire Music Festival
    (in 1934 & 1935) before his failing health presented an opportunity to Serge Koussevitzky.

    Comment by Brian Bell — November 16, 2014 at 1:38 pm

  13. Of course WB’s early sound releases did not have the sound on film. Their Vitaphone process synchronized disks with the projection. And Hadley also conducted the music synchronized to the main feature, “Don Juan” with Barrymore the same year. The Tannhauser Overture was an accompanying short.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — November 16, 2014 at 2:48 pm

  14. The pre-concert talks by Mandel, Kirzinger et al. were always interesting, and I wish management would bring them back.

    I’ll save my MTT story (no, I wasn’t in the hall) for a comment on the review of the Boston Baroque’s Monteverdi Vespers.

    Comment by Joe Whipple — November 16, 2014 at 6:35 pm

  15. Back in junior high school, my youth orchestra’s conductor opted to program Hadley’s “San Francisco” symphony or suite. Not amazingly memorable, but my immature ears didn’t pick up anything to dislike about it. And it would be an interesting postcard from times gone by.

    Comment by Camilli — November 17, 2014 at 11:19 am

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