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The January 27 concert of the San Francisco Symphony was loaded with extra-musical import. Michael Tilson Thomas, music director of the orchestra for 25 years and now its music director laureate (and conductor laureate of the London Symphony Orchestra), led his final subscription concert. It came 50 years after his debut with the orchestra in 1974. Then, he conducted a Mahler symphony (No 9). This time, it was Mahler again, the Symphony No 5.
It was a beautiful performance, surely if deliberately shaped, led and superbly played, in the terrific acoustics of Davies Symphony Hall. But that was not the extra-musical import. In 2021 Tilson Thomas was diagnosed with an aggressive, incurable brain tumour, and it is very much in doubt, month to month, how long he can still perform. Two scheduled subscription series before this one had been cancelled. The orchestra leaves open the possibility that he can return for special occasions, but no more subscription series are planned.
So this seemed like a farewell. The audience gave Tilson Thomas standing ovations at the beginning and end. The orchestra wore blue lapel ribbons and waved blue poppies during the final applause, blue being Tilson Thomas’s favourite colour. His husband and partner of 40 years, Joshua Robison, emerged with a bouquet of red roses and their latest dog. Tilson Thomas singled out individual players before beckoning the entire orchestra to rise.
All this in honour of his innumerable contributions to this city (where he has long lived) and its orchestra. He upgraded the quality of performance, conducted the standard repertory with increasing mastery, broadened and revitalised the programming (with special attention to West Coast composers and to American mavericks), recorded, himself composed, and introduced all manner of programmatic experiments, including semi-staged operas. The block in front of Davies Hall was recently renamed MTT Way.
The performance proved fascinating. The score lay untouched on the podium. Tilson Thomas’s gestures were restrained, his left hand occasionally reaching behind him to a railing for support. Everything sounded unusually slow, 10 minutes longer than his 2016 recording with this same orchestra. The Adagietto — the music Leonard Bernstein took to his grave — lasted 13 minutes.
But the music seemed not enervated but savoured. The grand climaxes rang out, but it was the myriad delicate details, exquisitely articulated by the players, that caught the heart.
Was it really a farewell? No one knows, very much including Tilson Thomas. At the very end, after all the flowers and ovations, he quieted the crowd and spoke softly. He said he’d be back. One wants and hopes to believe him.