courtesy photoPianist Yuja Wang and San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas and four other pianists will celebrate the conductor's birthday with a concert featuring a six-piano work by Liszt.

courtesy photoPianist Yuja Wang and San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas and four other pianists will celebrate the conductor's birthday with a concert featuring a six-piano work by Liszt.

SF Symphony season marks Michael Tilson Thomas’ 20th anniversary

San Francisco Symphony's 103rd season, announced on Monday, highlights the 20th anniversary of Michael Tilson Thomas as music director, as well as celebrates his 70th birthday on Dec. 21.

Among the special events marking his birthday and anniversary is a Jan. 15 program in which five prominent pianists – Emanuel Ax, Jeremy Denk, Marc-André Hamelin, Jean-Yves Thibaudet and Yuja Wang – will join MTT for a rare performance of Liszt's 1837 “Hexameron” for Six Pianos and Orchestra. (The logistics of getting the instruments on the Davies Symphony Hall stage with the orchestra may be as wondrous to behold as the concert.)

At two decades, MTT’s tenure with the San Francisco Symphony is about twice the average of directors of most major orchestras, and it's likely to stretch into the future due to fond regards between the musicians and conductor.

At Monday’s annoucement, MTT – first guest appearance with the symphony was 40 years ago – said, “It has been an honor and a joy to develop our relationship, and I’m constantly struck by the musicians' virtuosic and impassioned spirit. Our personal approach to music-making has grown over this time, and my affection and respect for their character and skill has never been stronger.”

Margaret Tait, a veteran cellist, said working with MTT “has been full of creative innovation, loaded with repertoire which is genuinely American, and driven by the need to communicate profoundly with our audiences.”

The 2014-15 season does reflect an emphasis on American and contemporary music, although not as much as the first exciting years of MTT's arrival. The 10-month season, running September through June, offers 23 works by 17 American composers.

Yet classical works from Europe remain in the vast majority. For a large organization which needs to fill a quarter million seats each season, it's a constant challenge to present new and unfamiliar works, which don't typically fill the house the way classics do.

Still, in addition to what the announcement calls “masterworks of the core repertory,” including continued explorations of Beethoven (25 works next season, more than all American composers combined), SFS plans “to cultivate new audiences through media, technology and community-based programs.”

New audiences may well be attracted by an experimental program called SoundBox, an alternative music performance space in the Zellerbach Rehearsal Hall, at Hayes and Franklin streets. The plan is for a series of 10 eclectic late night events in casual, interactive settings, and in dialogue with the audience.

The popular film series continues, including “The Wizard of Oz” and the first U.S. concert presentation of “The Godfather.”

Also, to honor his 70th birthday, MTT leads concerts with the visiting London Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble he led as principal conductor from 1988 to 1995; he continues to serve as its principal guest conductor.

Among other visiting orchestras: Budapest Festival Orchestra, Seoul Philharmonic, London Philharmonic, Rotterdam Philharmonic, St Martin in the Fields, and the English Baroque Soloists.

IF YOU GO

San Francisco Symphony 2014-15 season

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

When: September through June 2015

Tickets: Subscription ticket packages start at $186, on sale now; single tickets go on sale July 21

Contact: (415) 864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org/subscribe20th anniversaryartsClassical Music & OperaMichael Tilson ThomasSan Francisco Symphony

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