By Megan Westberg
When Michael Tilson Thomas joked that he would not be running for president at the San Francisco Symphony’s opening gala on Wednesday, September 4, the audience laughed—but sounded just a touch disappointed. There was a great deal of love, you see, for MTT in the air that evening, as this season marks his 25th and final outing as music director of the ensemble. His disinclination to enter the national political race came up just after a video montage wherein many artists—including Yo-Yo Ma and longtime SFS cellist Margaret Tait—intoned their profound admiration for the conductor. Page 30B of the program was devoted to “Celebrating MTT” with quotes from famous artists (violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter among them) and former US President Barack Obama singing MTT’s praises. Even on their way in, guests could stroll down the electric pink carpet to pose next to a billboard-size photo of his face. Signage, also in electric pink and, often, actually electric, read SFS/MTT/XXV and SFS [heart] MTT. The décor itself, that sizzling pink and cerulean blue, was a tribute to MTT’s legacy—had I not felt the chill of a cool San Francisco evening, I would have sworn I was in Miami Beach, home to MTT’s New World Symphony.
So whatever else you thought the evening might have been about, there was no denying it was predominantly about MTT.
The result was a festive, celebratory evening, with MTT in fine form, relaxed and elated onstage as he cracked jokes about Stravinsky and Glinka and assured the audience that, though he had personally known four of the composers on the program, Beethoven wasn’t one of them. Given the atmosphere, it was no wonder that it took some time to get the audience settled, but finally a disciplined brass section called everyone to order with Mouret’s Fanfare-Rondeau. After some opening remarks, the season, as always, opened with the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner.” This year the San Francisco Symphony Chorus was in attendance and it made for a robust rendition indeed; sound poured into the hall from the chorus’ position above the orchestra and washed away any lingering hesitation to participate.
The program then began with the Overture to Glinka’s Ruslan and Ludmila from 1842. It is a piece that highlights fleet fingerwork in the strings—all of whom seemed to relish the unison challenges. The cello shone through at several key moments, and the brass, which so easily could overpower the strings, was careful to maintain an elegant balance.
The orchestra then took a secondary role to vocal performers, including bass-baritone Ryan McKinny who approached Copland’s arrangements of “The Golden Willow Tree” from Old American Songs, Set II, and “The Dodger” from Old American Songs, Set I, with energy and admirable diction. Copland was the first of the four composers MTT had mentioned knowing personally. The second was Gordon Getty, who arranged “Shenandoah”—this performance by the San Francisco Symphony Chorus marking its world premiere.
The focus then shifted back to the orchestra for Britten’s Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Purcell, Op. 34. (MTT knew Britten, too.) The piece famously moves throughout the orchestra, highlighting each section, transitioning from its initial stately drama to turns of spritely good humor, melancholy, joy, peace, longing. As a way to celebrate the orchestra with which he’s collaborated for 25 years, this piece, starring everyone, seemed an appropriate choice. The strings shone through: upper strings in their sweetness, cellos and basses in depth and sensitivity. The strings’ lush underpinning for the harp made for a particularly satisfying, contemplative moment.
Then came the closing number: the Finale to Beethoven’s Ode, “To Joy” from Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125. It was taken out of the context of the larger piece, but nonetheless its triumphant spirit seemed a fitting close to this particular concert. It was certainly joyful.
As the final notes decayed, the audience jumped to its feet to applaud as a parade of people walked onstage to present MTT with flowers (including San Francisco Mayor London Breed, Governor Gavin Newsom, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi) and the hats and game jerseys of the Warriors, Giants, A’s, and 49ers. Jennifer Morrison of Beach Blanket Babylon, in shimmering red sequins and the city of San Francisco perched upon her hat, then led the room in “San Francisco” by the fourth and final of MTT’s acquaintances on the program. This finale ended in a rush of exhilaration and a deluge of confetti.
The crowd meandered out of Davies Hall, from San Francisco back to Miami, now complete with stages, bars, and a classic Chevy Bel Air, to dance and mingle the night away.