San Francisco Symphony’s online celebration of departing music director Michael Tilson Thomas began with a focus on his first year leading the orchestra. (Courtesy San Francisco Symphony)

SF Symphony celebrates MTT’s 25 years with 25 days of online programs

Beloved music director to be honored in June 28 virtual tribute

Of the many regrets and losses in the performing arts from the coronavirus pandemic, the San Francisco Symphony’s greatest has been cancellation of the current season’s June finale, which was to celebrate Michael Tilson Thomas’ 25th and final year as music director.

“Celebrating the legacy of Michael’s tenure as music director in a way that is fitting of his decades of adventurous and generous music-making with our orchestra has been something we’ve all been preparing for and looking forward to,” said San Francisco Symphony CEO Mark C. Hanson.

As Davies Hall remains closed, the summing up and celebration have gone online. Twenty five days of offerings mark MTT’s quarter century presence — one day for each season.

Programming began June 4 with a focus on MTT’s first year with the orchestra.

“Sharing musical experiences in innovative and accessible ways has been a quintessential element of Michael’s 25-year partnership with SFS,” says Hanson. “As we re-envisioned how we would recognize the conclusion of his remarkable tenure as music director in the absence of live performances, we focused on two things that hold great personal importance to MTT — the lasting relationships that have grown between Michael, the orchestra and musical friends around the world; and the music itself.”

While the festivities may not include video of such memorable performances as Britten’s “Peter Grimes” or Wagner’s “Flying Dutchman” or even the musical about the conductor’s unique family history in “The Shomasefskys,” there is still a mother lode of music and memories.

Public relations director Robin Freeman says the programming will “include sometimes longer form video, like a 15-minute video about the 2000 American Maverick’s Festival; a video piece about the recording of Mahler’s Eighth Symphony for SFS Media, and a behind-the-scenes look at the semi-staged production of ‘West Side Story.’”

Symphony fans would dearly love to have those, especially the marvelous Mavericks, with the participation of the Grateful Dead in Davies Hall.

The celebration culminates with an MTT25 virtual finale event on June 28 at 5 p.m. hosted by Audra McDonald and Susan Graham, with tributes and performances by musicians of the San Francisco Symphony and Chorus and guest artists.

In partnership with the symphony, classical radio station KDFC is airing daily 3 p.m. daily broadcasts (through June 28) of previous MTT performances with the orchestra, hosted by Rik Malone and featuring new interviews with MTT from his home.

MTT will return to conduct this fall if live concerts resume. The symphony’s ongoing plan, announced two months ago, is to open the 2020-21 season with a gala on Sept. 30, led by incoming music director Esa-Pekka Salonen.

MTT’s next concerts in San Francisco, as music director laureate, are scheduled Oct. 30-Nov. 1, with the world premiere of Tim Higgins’ Concerto for Trombone and Mahler’s Symphony No. 1. On Nov. 5-8, he’s slated to conduct Beethoven’s “Missa solemnis.”

There are other ways to experience MTT’s work, too, including his website, where he highlights New World Symphony archives. His ongoing activities also involve the London Symphony Orchestra, where he is conductor laureate.

The symphony also offers free streaming of MTT’s excellent “Keeping Score” documentary-performance presentations, in which the conductor and musicians explore the stories behind the music, with, MTT says, “discoveries for all, insights for curious listeners, educators, students, and everyone in between.”

Classical Music

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