Fall Preview: San Francisco Symphony

  • by Philip Campbell
  • Friday August 30, 2019
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Michael Tilson Thomas will lead the San Francisco Symphony in his 25th and final season as Music Director. Photo: Stefan Cohen
Michael Tilson Thomas will lead the San Francisco Symphony in his 25th and final season as Music Director. Photo: Stefan Cohen

The San Francisco Symphony knows how to throw a classy party. Opening night 2019-20 approaches, and expectations, not to mention ticket sales, are running high for the celebration of Michael Tilson Thomas' 25th and final season as Music Director.

He is convalesced from "a cardiac procedure" this summer "in continuation of treatment for a heart condition," which husband Joshua Robison has called a "complete success." The treasured legend-in-our-own-time is back where he belongs at Davies Symphony Hall, leading colleagues and fans through the coming festivities.

Single tickets for all concerts have been available since late July, so timing is important. We are previewing concerts through the winter holidays, but there will be many exciting events to follow. International stars, guest soloists and conductors are visiting during MTT's final season.

The Opening Black Tie Gala on Sept. 4, which benefits the Symphony's many artistic, community, and education programs, is sure to sell out. Equally pricey tickets for "S&M2: Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony at Chase Center," a joint concert by rock band Metallica and the SFS with conductors MTT and Edwin Outwater, at San Francisco's new Chase Center on Fri., Sept. 6, are available online. The venue holds 18,064, and I'm thinkin' the dress code is probably looser.

Sept. 12-15 finds MTT back in DSH conducting four performances of his signature composer Mahler's Symphony No. 6. The Orchestra's 2001 recording followed the Sept 11 terrorist attacks, launching the SFS Media label. The release earned the first of seven Grammy Awards for the renowned Mahler Project. The cathartic effect of those concerts remains vivid after almost two decades.

Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov will play the Rachmaninoff Piano Concerto No. 4. Photo: Dario Acosta  

September continues with the world premiere of a new work by John Adams, co-commissioned by SFS and Carnegie Hall, on a bill that also features Russian pianist Daniil Trifonov playing the gorgeous Rachmaninoff Concerto No. 4. The program closes with Schumann's melodic Symphony No. 3, "Rhenish."

The month comes to an exciting conclusion with MTT conducting another favorite composer, one he could actually count as a friend! Stravinsky's "Symphony of Psalms" and the lush Symphony in Three Movements frame a performance of Haydn's delightful Cello Concerto No.1 by Oliver Herbert. Tenor Nicholas Phan solos with Ragnar Bohlin's SFS Chorus in Stravinsky's "Canticum sacrum."

MTT goes on hiatus in October. Conductor Marek Janowski makes a welcome return to DSH to collaborate with violinist Maria Duenas (SFS debut) in the ever-popular Mendelssohn Concerto. Janowski takes the spotlight for Hindemith's stirring Concert Music for String Orchestra and Brass, and Mozart's Symphony No. 41, "Jupiter."

SFS Principal Percussion Jacob Nissly will solo in the World Premiere of composer Adam Schoenberg's  

SFS Principal Percussion Jacob Nissly solos the following week in the World Premiere of composer Adam Schoenberg's SFS Commission, "Losing Earth." I marveled at a duet performance in the SFS 2018-19 Chamber Music Series between Nissly and SFS Principal Viola Jonathan Vinocour. The youthful virtuosos' expressiveness was amazing. Guest conductor Cristian Macelaru leads the orchestra in Mussorgsky's evocative "Pictures at an Exhibition."

Chief Conductor of the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra Karina Canellakis makes her SFS debut next in an enticing concert of music by modern Russian masters. Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No. 1 played by Ukrainian Alexander Gavrylyuk (SFS debut) and Shostakovich's boldly hypnotic Symphony No. 7, "Leningrad," pack powerful punches that command attention and deserve wider currency.

Conductors Ton Koopman and Simone Young have November covered with two wildly contrasted concerts. Early music specialist Koopman gets SFS Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik off first chair to essay J.S. Bach's Violin Concerto No. 1. More Bach and wonderful Haydn are also on the program.

Young conducts Wagner's perfect Act I from "Die Walkure." Soprano Emily Magee, tenor Stuart Skelton, and bass Ain Anger sing. If ever there was a stand-alone operatic excerpt, it is the stunning first act of the second opera in Wagner's mighty "Ring" Cycle. R. Strauss' "Metamorphosen" serves as curtain-raiser.

Thanksgiving closely follows late November performances conducted by Manfred Honeck of Bruckner's Symphony No. 4, "Romantic," and returning favorite pianist Leif Ove Andsnes plays Mozart's Concerto No. 22.

We will look again at MTT's Season of Celebration in December, but word to the wise: hit the website now if you want to assure a place at the party.