MTT Valedictory, Cut Short, Lives Still On The Web

Michael Tilson Thomas’ aborted 25th season with the San Francisco Symphony is being celebrated with a stream of 10 concert recordings. (Grittani-Creative)

DIGITAL REVIEW – As almost every organization in America large and small canceled what remained of their 2019-20 concert seasons, the San Francisco Symphony hung in there, hoping to salvage the June grand finale of Michael Tilson Thomas’ 25th and final season as music director. The “really big shews” (as Ed Sullivan would have said) would have been reprises of a semi-staged production of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman and, as a concluding über-grand sendoff, Mahler’s Symphony of a Thousand (if you can imagine cramming 300-400 singers and players into a packed Davies Symphony Hall in the middle of a pandemic).

They tried to hold off the inevitable for as long as they could. But finally, on April 29, they blinked, scrapping the rest of the season.

MTT leading Mahler’s Symphony No. 9.

So Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 on March 6 ended up being the last piece that Tilson Thomas would conduct in Davies Hall as SFS music director, the withering hammer blows of the finale symbolically striking down the season in retrospect. There would be one more concert March 7 at the Mondavi Center in Davis, CA; that one consisted of Mahler’s Ninth. Both were intended to be previews of a spring European tour that was not to be.

Yet MTT’s shortest season would also be the one that would leave the most for posterity. Starting in January, the SFS began releasing recordings of most of MTT’s 2019-20 live performances as a Digital Concert Series of downloads and streams as well as a “Join the Season” playlist for Apple Music. So far, they’ve come out with one full-length digital album and nine digital EPs for a total of about four-and-a-half hours of music – or roughly the length of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.

Since so much of MTT’s final season consisted of trips down memory lane, the Digital Concert Series amounts to a retrospective of his achievement in San Francisco and the condition in which he leaves the orchestra for his successor, Esa-Pekka Salonen. I listened to the whole series the way a lot of folks, maybe most these days, will be hearing it – on the stream from an iPhone, but one equipped with excellent over-the-ear headphones.

We’ll lead with the Mahler Sixth – the performances that led off the 25th season last September, not the one that prematurely closed it. MTT also started his massive SFS Mahler Project on CDs exactly 18 years before with the Sixth, a recording that took place the day after 9/11 – and streaming makes it possible to easily go back and forth to hear the differences.

From the evidence of these Sixths, Tilson Thomas’ San Francisco Symphony seems to have evolved from an already-excellent group in 2001 into an even more refined ensemble, second to none in America, in 2019, when the sound was marked especially with darker, highly polished tonal coloring in the strings. The Sixth feels heavier in its tread overall in 2019 than in 2001, though the total timings come out the same (about 87 minutes for both). The 2019 Sixth also seems cooler than the 2001 performance, less rhythmically emphatic in the first two movements, less emotional in the yearning climax of the Andante (again placed third in the sequence of four movements as I prefer it) and the berserk outbursts of desperation of the finale. If the earlier performance charges forth, the later one seems to look back as if with sublime self-assurance at what the conductor and his orchestra have achieved together.

Adding to the tally of the Mahler Project, four songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn provide a welcome opportunity to get a sample of MTT’s live Mahler collaborations with the splendid mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke on the record. She sings with fulsome weight in the lower range, rising to golden heights in the upper range, and MTT provides perfectly timed, hand-in-velvet-glove backing. The songs are “Rheinlegendchen,” “Das irdische Leben,” “Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen,” and a thoroughly rapt “Urlicht” (also from the Symphony No. 2).

Sasha Cooke’s Mahler finally preserved in digital form.
(Stephanie Gerard)

A concert last September found Tilson Thomas re-entering the world of Stravinsky, whom he knew and worked with at Los Angeles’ Monday Evening Concerts while barely out of his teens. His approach seems to have mellowed a bit in Symphony of Psalms, yet there is still plenty of rhythmic vitality and the final chorale is paced perfectly, with the help of gorgeous wind playing and the heartfelt singing of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. The Symphony in Three Movements, long an MTT specialty of the house, jumps less than what memory recalls from previous live performances long ago, but is more animated than his London Symphony outing in the 1990s, and the big-band coda still has plenty of pizzazz. New to the MTT discography is the rarely-played choral work Canticum Sacrum, an ascetic, partly serial, partly neo-Renaissance product of the mid-1950s that doesn’t sound forbidding at all with the SFS brand of refined, smooth playing and the chorus’ bright American vocal blend.

The Stravinsky concert also featured the Haydn Cello Concerto No. 2, aced with a seamless legato control of the line by then-22-year-old San Franciscan Oliver Herbert in tandem with the dark SFS string sound. At a January concert, MTT and the tasteful, technically impeccable pianist Emanuel Ax continued their slowly-emerging Beethoven cycle with the Concerto No. 2; it’s all right, more than just another day at the concerto factory, though not one for the all-time list.

Berlioz’ Benvenuto Cellini Overture comes from the January concert that featured the Mahler songs – splendidly played with a good, vigorous opening, the potentially noisy outbursts sounding quite musical, a good example of the splendid shape in which MTT is leaving the orchestra. Also from that concert is Ravel’s La Valse – a detailed yet still mysterious opening, sensual velvety playing later on, a supremely polished orchestra showing what it can do.

The last item is the most recent recording (also from January) – a loving, smooth, silky, occasionally willful performance of Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll, lingering magically and peacefully in a closing passage that settles in the mind’s ear and doesn’t let go for hours afterwards.

An SACD of MTT compositions will be out in July. (Art Streiber)

What we don’t hear in this batch of valedictory streams is the strong commitment to American music in the Tilson Thomas years – nor his own music, which is increasingly on his mind. But there wasn’t much American music on the 2019-20 schedule up until the lockdown anyway. And MTT’s new Meditations on Rilke (given its world premiere in January) will be coming out digitally on June 26 and on an SFS Media SACD July 17, coupled with his From the Diary of Anne Frank.

In addition, the SFS is planning a 25-day-long program that is designed to celebrate MTT’s 25 years at the helm, details of which are still being worked out (expect an end-of-May announcement). They have also made MTT’s gripping, innovative nine-part documentary/performance video series focusing on eight composers, Keeping Score, available for free on YouTube.

So at least we will have these streams to reflect upon as the long months of hibernation slowly pass and MTT’s aborted 25th season recedes into history.

Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.