Michael Tilson Thomas' milestones and Mahler

  • by Philip Campbell
  • Tuesday January 16, 2024
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Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas<br>(photo: Kristen Loken)
Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas
(photo: Kristen Loken)

50 years ago, an up-and-coming young maestro made his San Francisco Symphony debut. Conducting Gustav Mahler's powerful Symphony No. 9, Michael Tilson Thomas started a musical partnership that would make Bay Area history and win him international fame, known simply ever after as MTT.

To celebrate that event and the extraordinary 25-year collaboration that came later, MTT returns as Music Director Laureate Jan. 25-27 to lead his final subscription concerts at Davies Symphony Hall. The program is again devoted to Mahler. This time it is the composer's ecstatic Fifth Symphony.

Michael Tilson Thomas (photo: Chris Wahlberg)  

From 1995 to 2020, Music Director MTT and the SFS cultivated their reputation among the world's greatest Mahler interpreters, performing works by the composer every season. National and international tours and MTT and the Orchestra's self-produced Mahler recording cycle on SFS Media, secured their lofty place. With seven Grammy Awards, including three for the Symphony No. 8 and Adagio from Symphony No. 10, MTT also won Gramophone "Artist of the Year" in 2005 for his work on the massive project.

The impact of MTT's Northern California legacy is ongoing, inextricably woven in San Francisco's social and cultural life. Recently, the city unveiled commemorative street signs, naming the 200 Block of Grove Street between Van Ness Avenue and Franklin Street "MTT Way."

The honorary "MTT Way" in front of Davies Symphony Hall, brings to mind New York City Mayor David Dinkins renaming the corner of Broadway and 65th Street "Leonard Bernstein Place" in 1993.

The many parallels between the two famous conductors are fascinating. Bernstein was an early mentor of MTT and certainly helped propel their mutual championing of Gustav Mahler. They are also both gay, but Bernstein could never fully come out because of the times.

MTT came out to the world in 2014 when he married Joshua Robison. Already partners for decades and never really closeted, the ceremony was still a milestone for LGBT legal recognition. The New York City LGBT Historic Sites Project added Leonard Bernstein's famous old Manhattan apartment to its list in 2018. Michael and Joshua's Pacific Heights digs deserve such local designation.

MTT directed a "Symphony Pride" concert in 2017 at a time when the civil liberties of LGBTQ people were under special threat nationwide. The Bay Area Reporter covered the unprecedented event, and quoted the maestro's heartfelt thanks to San Francisco "for the generous welcome extended to me and my husband Joshua Robison since our arrival here over 20 years ago."

The mutual admiration society started in 1995 when the new Music Director and his advisors agreed to an interview with B.A.R. This was, amazingly, a daring move when established San Francisco institutions still would have preferred the ''the love that dare not speak its name' keep its voice down.

MTT has already withdrawn from conducting previously announced January 18-20 and February 23-25 SFS concerts to focus on his health. When diagnosed with an aggressive cancer in the brain in spring 2022, 'fearless leader,' as we have affectionately dubbed him, still carried on. We are relieved he is wisely heeding doctor's (and, probably his husband's) advice.

Marking so many milestones with challenging farewell concerts devoted to his beloved Mahler is very MTT, but even living legends need their rest.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts Mahler's Symphony No. 5 at Davies Symphony Hall Jan. 25-27, 7:30pm; Open Rehearsal Jan. 25 10am. $79-$350. www.SFSymphony.org www.michaeltilsonthomas.com

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