SAN FRANCISCO — After a 20-month COVID absence, which turned the finale of his 25-year leadership of the San Francisco Symphony into a virtual substitute, and just 12 weeks after his brain-tumor operation, music director laureate Michael Tilson Thomas returned to Davies Hall Nov. 12 to a warm homecoming reception.
His characteristic erect posture undiminished by recent physical and emotional challenges, MTT, who turns 77 on Dec. 21, inevitably shows some signs of aging that were not in evidence a couple of years ago. He is moving more slowly and carefully than before, conducting Mozart (Six German Dances, K. 509) with Fritz Reiner’s virtually invisible — and yet as effective as ever — motions, still bringing out the music’s lively, playful nature, sharing fun with the musicians.
After a brief, colorful introduction to the audience well used to his mini-lectures, he then appeared fully engaged in leading his own 2004 Notturno. By the time Schumann’s First Symphony activated the full orchestra for the first time in the evening, it was the MTT of sweeping motions audiences have watched for decades.
Of his work, MTT has said: “Notturno is a virtuoso piece evoking the lyrical world of Italian music. Its shape recalls concert arias, ‘études de concert,’ and salon pieces — creations of a bygone world that I still hold in great esteem. The piece has a subtext. It’s about the role music plays in the life of a musician and the role we musicians play in life.”
The work is dedicated to the memory of Paul Renzi, the San Francisco Symphony’s principal flute for more than a half a century, who died in 2014 at age 88. Although MTT spoke of the piece’s search for meaning and the solo instrument “going crazy,” the music of Notturno is less complicated, a concerto between orchestral lyricism and the soloist’s vigorous outbursts.
One of MTT’s finest compositions, Notturno was graced by flutist Demarre McGill, fully equal to his brother, Anthony McGill, principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic. The extended, virtuoso solo earned a standing ovation and heartfelt appreciation from MTT and the orchestra.
Four years ago, MTT and the San Francisco Symphony released a complete recording of Schumann’s symphonies on the in-house SFS Media label, later nominated for a 2019 Grammy Award in the category of Best Orchestral Performance. MTT’s comment: “Like so much classical music, Schumann’s is a preserve for endangered emotions. He’s talking about wistfulness, whimsy, ardency, longing, setting off recklessly in conflicting directions, losing your way, or just mulling things over. Schumann moves between many sound worlds in these symphonies.”
The San Francisco Symphony has long made Schumann one of its specialties, playing his music “from the heart” under other conductors as well, especially when directed by Esa-Pekka Salonen, MTT’s successor.
At this concert, even with less robust motions than usual from him, MTT had the orchestra sound the “summons to awakening,” as described by the composer, strings preparing the entrance of the brass that herald the arrival of Spring, the Schumann-specified subject of the “Frühlings Symphonie.”
An MTT-SFS characteristic in performing Schumann is refraining from the “Beethovenesque” exaggeration of this more lyrical composer. Rather than giving the Andante a heroic sound, the performance stayed true to the marking of “un poco maestoso” — majestic, but not excessively.
For the second movement Larghetto, with the description “Evening,” MTT initially put down the baton, motioning the orchestra to express the tenderness of the music. The last two movements, performed without a break, brought the celebration of the end of winter to a joyful conclusion.
A broadcast of these performances will air Nov. 30 at 8 p.m. PT on Classical KDFC 90.3 FM in San Francisco and at kdfc.com, remaining available for on-demand streaming for 21 days following the broadcast.
The only indication so far of a possible setback in MTT’s recovery from surgery was the announcement early on the day of the concert about reducing his participation in the next series of SFS concerts:
“I’m happy to be in San Francisco, making music with my Symphony colleagues once again,” the conductor said. “I am feeling well, having returned to the stage in New York last week for the first time since my surgery. I now see that I have to conserve my energy as I continue to recover and have made the decision to focus next week on conducting Copland’s Appalachian Spring.”
The rest of the Nov. 18-20 concerts will be led by Ludovic Morlot, including the premiere of San Francisco Symphony principal trombone Timothy Higgins’ Trombone Concerto (with himself as soloist), and Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye (Mother Goose) Suite, to be substituted for William Grant Still’s Patterns, which MTT said he will conduct with the orchestra “at a later date.” Giving up the Higgins concerto must have been especially difficult because the San Francisco Symphony commission for it came about at MTT’s initiative.
MTT’s last appearance in Davies Hall was in March 2020, conducting Mahler’s Sixth Symphony days before the orchestra’s scheduled departure for a farewell tour of Europe together. Davies Hall was closed and the city quarantined the same week, the tour canceled soon thereafter.
MTT’s first appearance after the operation at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center was with the New York Philharmonic on Nov. 4, his first there in a decade. His concert engagements next year include the Los Angeles Philharmonic, National Symphony Orchestra, Cleveland Orchestra, Bavarian Radio Orchestra, and Czech Philharmonic.