SAN FRANCISCO – The San Francisco Symphony’s Jan. 27 performance of Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in Davies Symphony Hall was the last of what were billed as Michael Tilson Thomas’ “final subscription concerts” with the orchestra. That sounded ominous on the surface, for the music world at large has been following MTT’s gallant battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer, for more than two years now.
Yet overall, the news from MTT as of late has not been entirely bleak. Though there were distressing reports of his fragile health during the Beethoven Ninth concerts here in October 2023, they were followed by triumphant appearances with the Chicago Symphony in November and December. MTT had three programs scheduled with the San Francisco Symphony this winter, but in December he decided to cancel two of them and simply concentrate his energies on this one. In doing so, he struck Schoenberg’s Five Pieces for Orchestra (which would have been tied to the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth) from the program in order to commune solely with Mahler.
Which was not only a wise move for the sake of his health and stamina. It also added to the historical, numerical, and musical importance of the event. Mahler had been a central focal point during Tilson Thomas’ 25 years at the helm of the San Francisco Symphony, crowned by a massive recording project on SACDs and LPs of all the completed Mahler symphonies and almost all of the songs. Adding to the significance of the choice, MTT made his debut with the San Franciscans at 29 in January 1974 with a performance of Mahler’s Ninth — and 50 years to the month later, he would go out with a performance of Mahler’s Fifth, if it came down to that. As Harry Chapin’s song says, “All my life’s a circle.”
An event it was. Davies Hall was packed. New street signs could be seen outside the hall, for a whole block of Grove St. has been designated as MTT Way. The musicians in the orchestra wore bright blue ribbons on their lapels in honor of the conductor’s favorite color. Videographers roamed the lobby. Now four years into his role as SFS music director laureate, MTT received a thunderous, heartfelt ovation before the orchestra had played a single note.
Then Tilson Thomas got immediately down to business. The whole symphony unfolded at a much slower pace than the performances he recorded in 2005 — indeed, slower than any recorded version by anyone — with each movement approximately two minutes longer than before. The opening measures of the Fifth emerged slowly and with tremendous force, a Funeral March more defiant-sounding than somber. MTT seemed to be examining, savoring, expressing every detail he could find, yet providing plenty of thrust and sometimes vicious accents and attacks to keep it moving along.
Sometimes, things seemed to be creeping along so slowly and so softly that you held your breath in suspense. But the orchestra, now regaining the dark-colored timbres that marked MTT’s later years with the SFS, followed right along, playing superbly, especially the brasses. The famous Adagietto sounded rapturous, the strings really digging in with a deep bass response, conveying the emotion without schmaltz.
Tilson Thomas conserved his energy cannily, freeing himself now and then to indulge in a bit of the wild stick-waving of his younger years. Occasionally, he would flash a delighted grin to his left as he led the strings. Yet he seemed to tire a bit in the exultant fifth movement, holding onto the wooden podium railing with his left hand for long periods of time — gotta make it through that final lap of the marathon. But he held on and brought the symphony to its exuberant close as if to say, “I’m still here and full of life.”
At the end, the orchestra waved bright blue flowers in tribute, and out came Tilson Thomas’ husband and manager Joshua Robison and their ever-present pet poodle to share the ovation. And then, perhaps fired up by the moment, MTT addressed the audience. At first, he invoked the old show-business trope, “That’s all there is, and there isn’t any more.” But then, inspired by the extended ovation, he had another thought: “If you want to hear more,” he exclaimed, “we will be back to give it to you!”
After all, the billing said “final subscription concerts,” not final concerts, period, so one can’t rule out any further guest shots, health permitting. As of this writing, MTT’s scheduled appearances with the Los Angeles Philharmonic and San Diego Symphony in March are still listed on his website, as are two programs with the New World Symphony in Miami Beach that month and another in May. So hope springs eternal that we haven’t seen the last of this inspirational trouper.