Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, San Francisco Symphony artist-in-residence, sings with the orchestra next week. (Courtesy Stephanie Girard)

SF Symphony premieres MTT’s ‘Meditations on Rilke’

German poet’s evocative writing at center of ‘Love and Lyricism’ concerts

A “first” in Michael Tilson Thomas’ last season as music director of the San Francisco Symphony includes the world premiere of his composition “Meditations on Rilke” on a program next week called “MTT & Mahler: Love and Lyricism.”

“I first read Rilke’s poems in English translation 30-40 years ago, loved them, and started reading and even memorizing them in German,” says the conductor, 75. “When you recite poetry, you can hear its music, and now that I am fully reconnecting with my ‘composer self,’ the music of these poems have turned into the compositions we will present.”

MTT joins Alban Berg, Paul Hindemith, Anton Webern, Arnold Schoenberg and Peter Lieberson among composers who have set works by Rilke (1875-1926) — a Bohemian-Austrian poet and novelist described as “one of the most lyrically intense German-language authors” — to music.

“Meditations on Rilke features artist-in-residence mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny singing a six-part cycle set to the poems “Herbsttag” (“Autumn day”); “Das Lied des Trinkers” (“The drinkers’ song”); “Immer wieder” (“Again and again”); “Imaginärer Lebenslauf” (“Imaginary life journey”); “Herbst” (“Autumn”): and “Ich lebe mein Leben in wachsenden Ringen” (“I live my life in ever-widening circles”), which, translated in English, goes:

I live my life in ever-widening circles

that stretch themselves out over all the things.

I won’t, perhaps, complete the last one,

but I intend on trying.

I circle around God, around the ancient tower,

and I circle for thousands of years;

and I don’t know, yet: am I a falcon, a storm,

or a mighty song.

Rilke’s poetry also is in Taika Waititi’s 2019 movie “Jojo Rabbit,” with a German-language rendition of David Bowie’s “Heroes” played over the Rilke quote: “Let everything happen to you/Beauty and terror/Just keep going/No feeling is final.”

MTT has been composing throughout his long conducting career, including setting poetry by Walt Whitman, sung at its premiere by Thomas Hampson; and Emily Dickinson, premiered by Renée Fleming.

In 1991, he and the New World Symphony presented benefit concerts for UNICEF featuring Audrey Hepburn as narrator of MTT’s “From the Diary of Anne Frank.” In 1995, he led the Pacific Music Festival Orchestra in the premiere of his composition “Shówa/Shoáh,” commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

Both in Carnegie Hall and with the San Francisco Symphony, MTT led performances of his “Island Music” for four marimbas and percussion.

In June, as MTT concludes his 25-year tenure heading the orchestra before former Los Angeles Philharmonic music director Esa-Pekka Salonen takes over, SFS Media will release a recording of his music performed by the S.F. Symphony in recent seasons, including “Meditations on Rilke,” “From the Diary of Anne Frank” narrated by mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, and “Street Song.”

Next week’s concerts also include Cooke and McKinny singing songs from Mahler’s “Des Knaben Wunderhorn” (“The Boy’s Magic Horn”) as well as the overture to Berlioz’s “Benvenuto Cellini” and Ravel’s “La Valse.”

IF YOU GO

MTT & Mahler: Love & Lyricism

Presented by San Francisco Symphony

Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., S.F.

When: 8 p.m. Jan. 9-11, 2 p.m. Jan. 12

Tickets: $20 to $185

Contact: (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org

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Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny performs new music by Michael Tilson Thomas in “MTT & Mahler: Love and Lyricism.” (Courtesy Simon Pauly)

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