Mackey Gives MTT Joyous New Music For 75th Birthday

Michael Tilson Thomas led the San Francisco Symphony in a new work by Steven Mackey that honored the conductor’s upcoming 75th birthday and the countdown to his final season as music director. (Concert photos by Stefan Cohen)
By Janos Gereben

SAN FRANCISCO – The return of San Francisco Symphony music director Michael Tilson Thomas to Davies Hall on Feb. 7 after vacationing and touring elsewhere for several weeks was not “just another concert.”

He was greeted with warm applause, which sounded almost apologetic after the riotous standing ovation that welcomed the first appearance in January of his newly designated successor, Esa-Pekka Salonen, who led the orchestra in three acclaimed concerts.

“We value your 24 years of service,” the applause for MTT seemed to say, “but you surely understand our enthusiasm for this unexpected, wonderful novelty – getting a music director who turned down every other orchestra.”

For his new work, Steven Mackey says he had ‘license to let the horses run.’ (Kah Poon)

Welcoming MTT back had another notable aspect: the premiere of an SFS-commissioned work, composed in honor of his approaching 75th birthday (December 21, 2019), and his 25th and last season as music director in 2019-20, after which he becomes music director laureate.

The commission for Steven Mackey’s Portals, Scenes and Celebrations was inspired, the composer has said, by his correspondence with MTT. At the concert, MTT said he had asked for “an easy piece,” which became “five easy pieces, challenging, but fun to play.”

Collaborations of Thomas and Mackey go back more than 25 years.

Mackey, 62, chair of the Department of Music at Princeton University and a world-class electric guitarist, is one of MTT’s favorite composers. They have collaborated for over a quarter century, and Mackey has written five other commissioned works for MTT, including Lost and Found and Tuck and Roll (recorded on the same CD) and Pedal Tones (for organ and orchestra).

Mackey further wrote about MTT’s elaboration of the meaning of “easy” – “Michael recalled speaking with a Buddhist scholar who said that life offered four opportunities to make great spiritual leaps: waking up, falling asleep, orgasm, and death. He wrote: ‘All of them meant to be easy … and joyous.’ He asked me to consider writing him ‘an up-tempo, dazzling and joyous (in spite of everything) and/or inspiring piece, 17 minutes long.’”

Mackey describes how he went about interpreting these suggestions:

“The terms ‘up-tempo’ and ‘dazzling’ – along with the caveat about the term ‘easy’ – suggested that Michael wasn’t looking for a piece that was simple to execute, and gave me license to let the horses run, harnessing the virtuosity of the great San Francisco Symphony to bring off exuberant gestures, joyous play, and playful movement. My piece is made of five, short, contrasting but connected movements: ‘Fanfare/Portal,’ ‘Ayre,’ ‘Lift Off,’ ‘Ground/Sky,’ and ‘Fanfare/Finale.’ ”  The journey through the piece is characterized by portals, leaps of faith, and lucky discoveries, rather than heavy lifting.

After the 2019-20 season, Thomas will become the San Francisco Symphony’s music director laureate.

Played without breaks, the work’s five contrasting tableaus are heavily rhythmic, boisterous, with cut-ups in the brass that prompted audience laughter. The music even contains passages reminiscent of the newfangled ASMR, or “autonomous sensory meridian response,” with tapping-scratching-whispering sounds, advertised to promote meditation. And yet, the composer himself said that his music is an “energetic celebration of motion and color, occasionally pulling back to refresh and relaunch toward an ever brighter next quest, but never in search of serenity.”

Violinist Gil Shaham, a San Francisco favorite, dazzled with flawless Prokofiev.

Having given a warm reception of repeated curtain calls to Mackey and his novelty work, the audience was further rewarded by San Francisco favorite Gil Shaham as soloist in Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 1. He played the emotional opening phrases with flawless technique and unaffected warmth, and dazzled with legato singing throughout the work, MTT and the orchestra playing a gorgeous duet with the violinist.

Shaham’s virtuosic mastery of the music’s wild race in the second movement and later his ensemble playing in solo passages of concertmaster Alexander Barantschik’s violin, Robin McKee’s flute, and Douglas Rioth’s harp was brilliant. The performance created an enthusiastic audience response which, in turn, was rewarded by Shaham with an unusual encore.

He asked Barantschik to join him, and the two violinists performed a Gavotte by Jean-Marie Leclair, a piece in which the personable, self-effacing soloist yielded the lead to the concertmaster. The orchestra and MTT, standing in the back, beamed with pleasure.

Before the concert’s second half, a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, a significant and affecting ceremony took place. Heading a presentation from the stage, principal bassist Scott Pingel spoke of the city and the orchestra honoring fellow bassist Charles Burrell, 98, who 60 years ago joined SFS. Burrell was the first African-American musician to play with major American orchestras, first in Denver and from 1959 to 1965 with SFS, for which he is often referred to as “the Jackie Robinson of classical music.”

Speaking on a video recorded in his Denver home, Burrell recalled his first encountering symphonic music at age 12, “I heard on the family’s crystal radio set the San Francisco Symphony play the Tchaikovsky Fourth under Pierre Monteux, and at that moment I fell in love… I said I want to play with that band.”

And he did, playing under the direction of Monteux, “in 17th heaven,” notwithstanding racial discrimination and questions from family and friends, mainly, “What are you doing playing the white man’s music?” When Monteux led the first rehearsal with Burrell in the orchestra, the bassist recalled, “that was paradise, the greatest musical moment in my life.”

Burrell was hired in San Francisco, continuing to play both jazz and symphonic music, first here and later in Denver, and now at age 98, he is strong, vital, and with a simple message: “Music is a unifying force, a force for people to be better, for people to belong together, love people, don’t be prejudiced, and life will be divine.”

The Tchaikovsky Fourth, heard almost nine decades after Burrell’s epiphany, was a revelation in Davies Hall, too. MTT led a bold and masterful performance, full of variety, contrasts, imagination.

There was the “big Tchaikovsky sound” too, of course, the orchestra’s great brass section shaking the rafters, but MTT called for passages of Mozartean delicacy – all in the score, but often neglected – and for tempi that seemed almost too slow and enervated, but consistently resolved just right. The pianissimo ending of the Scherzo was breathtaking, and MTT kept the subsequent eruption of the Finale well in control, avoiding what in other performances comes perilously close to circus music.

SFS offered screenings in the hall before the concerts of Keeping Score: Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4, MTT’s illuminating historic-psychological-musical journey through the work.

A broadcast of these concerts will air Feb. 19 at 8 p.m. PST on Classical KDFC-FM 90.3 San Francisco, and where it will be available for on-demand streaming for 21 days following the broadcast.

Janos Gereben joined San Francisco Classical Voice ( when it was founded by Robert and Mary Commanday in 1998; he also writes about music and art for the San Francisco Examiner and other publications.