Reflecting On Life, MTT At 75 Offers ‘Rilke Meditations’

Michael Tilson Thomas is ramping up the composition projects as his transformative quarter-century of leadership at the San Francisco Symphony nears completion. His latest premiere is ‘Meditations on Rilke.’ (Photo by Art Streiber)
By Janos Gereben

SAN FRANCISCO – Michael Tilson Thomas said recently that “now I am fully reconnecting with my ‘composer self,'” and an impressive proof of that at the San Francisco Symphony’s Jan. 9 concert is now part of music history.

Numbers are piling up: This event came just three weeks after his 75th birthday, in MTT’s 25th and final year as the San Francisco Symphony’s music director. Next fall, he will pass the baton to Esa-Pekka Salonen.

At the concert played before a near-capacity audience in Davies Symphony Hall, MTT led a program featuring the world premiere of his Meditations on Rilke, a rich, imaginative, varied, and engaging work. It was clearly his best.

A recording of these performances of Meditations on Rilke will be part of SFS Media’s June release of an album of works composed by MTT and performed by the orchestra during its 2018-2020 season. Besides Rilke, the works are From the Diary of Anne Frank, narrated by mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, and Street Song.

Six months after undergoing heart surgery in the Cleveland Clinic and on a busy schedule ever since, MTT seemed in his element: hale and hearty, fully engaged as both conductor and composer. The boisterous, celebratory performance of the concert-opening Overture to Berlioz’s Benvenuto Cellini said all you needed to know about the conductor’s health and that of the orchestra.

The poetry of Rilke, seen here in 1904, has inspired Thomas for decades, prompting musical ideas.  (WikiCommons)

But of the main event, why Bohemian-Austrian lyrical poet and writer Rainer Maria Rilke?

Some 40 years ago, MTT first read Rilks’s poems in translation, then in the original German. He memorized and recited them.  “When you recite poetry,” he said, “you can hear its music, and…the music of these poems has turned into the compositions.”

In his thoughtful program commentary, MTT also made a larger point about hearing music within: “The motives and harmonies of these pieces have been with me for years, decades. This approach to music as a kind of lifelong journal, or confessional companion, was what my father, and as I now have learned, my grandfather, and even my great-grandfather, experienced.”

“My fondest wish is that all people would have this kind of relationship to music – music spontaneously popping into their minds  perhaps in recollection, perhaps in anticipation of places within their spirits.”


The San Franciso Symphony scene on Jan. 9, 2020, the occasion of the Thomas world premiere. His ‘Meditations on Rilke’ will be released by SFS Media in June, as the music director prepares to pass the baton. (Janos Gereben)

In what at first appeared to be one of his usual spoken introductions to music, MTT recited briefly from his program notes  “In 1917, in a bar just outside of Laramie… an old pianist played for tips and drinks”  but it turned out to be part of the piece, leading into a honky-tonk piano solo answered by a gorgeous orchestral murmur, which then became the first song.

“Herbsttag” (Autumn Day), delivered in an almost inaudible sotto voce by bass-baritone Ryan McKinny, introduces in the orchestra some of the motives of the cycle, while the singer alternates between humming and Sprechstimme.

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke to the rescue in the second song, her bright, soaring voice filling the hall with “Ich lebe mein Leben in wachsenden Ringen” (I live my life in ever-widening circles), with shades of both Debussy and Schubert:

“I have been circling for a thousand years,
and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm,
or a great song.”

The third song, “Das Lied des Trinkers” (The Drinker’s Song), is both meandering and boisterous, a tribute to Mahler, with a direct quote and a bridge to the concert’s second half when Cooke and McKinny sang four songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn (The Youth’s Magic Horn).

Singing songs from ‘Des Knaben Wunderhorn’ as well as the new ‘Meditations on Rilke’ by Michael Tilson Thomas: Baritone Ryan McKinny (photo by Jiyan Chen) and mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke (photo by Stephanie Girard).

Associate cello principal Peter Wyrick played the brief, fetching introduction to the fourth song, “Immer wieder” (Again, Again), sung by Cooke, and described by MTT as “like a Schubert cowboy song,” the composer reminiscing about his father “pointing out the similarity between songs like ‘Red River Valley’ and many of Schubert’s songs.”

The march-tempo duet “Imaginärer Lebenslauf” (Imaginary Biography) led to the concluding “Herbst” (Autumn), which began with a flute solo and returned to the seasonal theme, connecting to the other songs with a long melody.

Instead of offering the usual polite reception for a new work, the audience  which struggled with only partial success all concert long to suppress barking coughs from the Bay Area’s widespread respiratory malaise  exploded in enthusiastic, long-lasting applause.

The four Mahler songs and Ravel’s La valse made up the brief second half of the concert.

KDFC-FM, which usually broadcasts San Francisco Symphony concerts shortly after the events, will wait until March this time because of the work on the CD project.

Janos Gereben has been girding the globe from his native Budapest and his first newspaper job at age 15, to the New York Herald-Tribune, to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, back to Europe on an Alicia Patterson Fellowship, and then to San Francisco, lately settling down with SF Classical Voice and San Francisco Examiner.