Sounds and SoundBox: Shaking It Up at the San Francisco Symphony

It seems safe to say that Michael Tilson Thomas--or MTT, as he's been known since street banners announcing his appointment as music director of the San Francisco Symphony, 20 years ago, went up all over town--had a spectacular birthday weekend recently. On that Thursday, he celebrated his 70th with a gala performance at Davies Symphony Hall that featured not only five virtuoso pianists (Emanuel Ax, Jeremy Denk, Marc-André Hamelin, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Yuja Wang; when they performed Liszt's Hexameron for Six Pianos and Orchestra, MTT joined them) but three famed rock'n'rollers (Elvis Costello, Boz Scaggs, and Grateful Dead bass player Phil Lesh), who sang the Beatles great "Birthday" song to him.

The next night and through the weekend, MTT conducted Igor Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale, a wonderful hour-long piece for seven musicians (on clarinet, trumpet, trombone, bassoon, bass, piano, drums) and three actors, speaking the words of the narrator (Elvis Costello), the soldier (Nick Gabriel), and the devil, who causes the poor lad all sorts of trouble (Malcolm McDowell). Actually, there's a small part for a fourth actor, which Tilson Thomas performed himself. You could see how much he was enjoying himself, not least because the musicians he was leading are so damn good.

The program opened with Bay Area composer John Adams conducting his highly enjoyable Grand Pianola Music, which premiered in 1982; the next program includes Mozart's Paris Symphony and Bach's Orchestral Suite No. 3, with its ever-popular Air on a G String. This alone should illustrate the wide variety of programming MTT oversees. And I haven't even mentioned the symphony's cool new performance space, SoundBox. Though I haven't been there yet, I know it's a small comfy space with an amazing sound system that can showcase anything from a single instrument to a chamber orchestra. It's so hip, it even offers "craft cocktails and small bites" at intermission.The next program, Sticks & Stones, features the symphony's percussionists performing Steve Reich's Electric Counterpoint (marimba solo with dubbing and looping); John Cage's Third Construction (multi-instrumental percussion quartet); and special guest Steven Schick performing Mark Applebaum's Aphasia and more.

MTT also just celebrated his 20 years with the symphony, and his energy and enthusiasm don't seem to be dimming in the slightest. I can tell you why. Ten years ago, I interviewed him to ask a burning question, at least in the hearts of Bay Area music and culture lovers and anyone, you'd think, who appreciates someone so adept at shaking things up. We called that interview, which ran in San Francisco magazine, "Will He Stay or Will He Go?" Coming to the end of his ten-year contract, Tilson Thomas had already brought the orchestra to such a high level, and brought the symphony so much acclaim for its skill and innovative programming, many folks were worried he'd leave us to lead, say, the New York Philharmonic, as his great mentor Leonard Bernstein had for so many years.

Let's start with The Question. Maybe not today, maybe not next year, but--do you see yourself leaving to conduct a big East Coast orchestra? I don't know why all these rumors and suspicions persist.

Maybe because you've gained such respect and acclaim for the orchestra. I'm hoping more and more people catch on to what a culturally adventurous organization we have. I mean, we are really trying to define a new kind of music making. That sounds like a glossy-brochure kind of statement, but it's true. It's clear this orchestra has the possibility of being the leading 21st-century ensemble.
To show you the reasoning behind my enormous loyalty and commitment to this orchestra--I was recently on a concert tour of Europe, conducting some major continental orchestras. But when I came back to my first rehearsal here, it was like waking up again, thinking, "Oh, my gosh. There are all these possible colors and expressions with these musicians, and the idea of music making is so much more diverse here."...

You do seem to take care to find pieces that you think go beyond interesting and innovative and communicate something to the audience. People have a good relationship to culture in San Francisco. I personally find that in a city like New York, there's a kind of cultural feeding frenzy, which results because perhaps nobody wants to think about the fact that one is living in an environment of concrete parallel lines. Therefore, you say, "I must go see this, I must go see that, I must go see every new place and be able to talk about it with all my friends at the next dinner party I'm attending!" And very often the conversation isn't so much about the qualities of the work. It's almost like counting coups: "Did you see it? Yes, I saw it. Check that off." Or just: "Liked it/hated it. Finished."

Kind of a perverse situation, isn't it? Yes, it's hard for any individual artist or company to have the feeling that you're really reaching people in their lives. Certainly when I was with the London Symphony all those years, that was very much the case. Sometimes you wondered, "Just what is our contribution to all this?" And since for me, the most important thing is the feeling that an audience is left with some sense of what has been communicated, this is a perfect place for me to be.

So you're not going anywhere? I'm here.

Jan. 29-31, Mozart and Bach; Feb. 13-14, Mozart for Valentine's Day and, in the SoundBox, Sticks & Stones, San Francisco Symphony, Davies Symphony Hall, Grove St. between Van Ness and Franklin, S.F., 415.864.6000,