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

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.”


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,

Classical Music

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at


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

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

Just Posted

Police seized ghost guns and other firearm manufacturing items while executing a warrant in February (Courtesy SFPD)
Ghost guns linked to rise in SF shootings as numbers jump

San Francisco police are seizing an increasingly alarming number of untraceable firearms,… Continue reading

San Francisco Giants pitcher Gregory Santos (78) makes his major league debut against the Marlins in the 6th inning at Oracle Park on April 22, 2021 in San Francisco, California. (Photography by Chris Victorio | Special to the S.F. Examiner).
Giants post fifth shutout of 2021, all caught by Casali

After going the entirety of 2020 without shutting out an opponent, the… Continue reading

Shock G of Digital Underground performs during the BET Hip Hop Awards '10 at Boisfeuillet Jones Atlanta Civic Center on October 2, 2010, in Atlanta. (Taylor Hill/Getty Images/TNS)
Rapper Shock G of Digital Underground found dead in Tampa

Rapper Shock G, who was famous for the hit single “The Humpty… Continue reading

Students walk around campus near the Cesar Chavez Student Center at San Francisco State University. (Steven Ho/Special to S.F. Examiner)
California’s massive UC and Cal State systems plan to require COVID-19 vaccinations this fall

Nina Agrawal, Teresa Watanabe, Colleen Shalby Los Angeles Times The University of… Continue reading

From left, Esther Gulick, Sylvia McLaughlin and Kay Kerr started launched one of the country’s first environmental movements. (Courtesy Save The Bay)
Sixty years of Saving San Francisco Bay

Pioneering environmental group was started by three ladies on a mission

Most Read