These Symphony-commissioned feature articles offer insights into the music you’ll hear in the concert hall.

Sep 1, 2019

A Daring Spirit: 25 Years of Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony’s remarkable and meaningful creative partnership has blossomed from an artistic vision that has sparked radical transformation—for the Orchestra, for San Francisco, and for the American and global soundscape. “From my very first encounter with the San Francisco Symphony in 1974, I was aware of the daring spirit of this Orchestra and this city,” MTT says. “That spirit has been very much at the center of our long and meaningful relationship.” Here we explore some of the major landmarks of the MTT era.

The American Sound

“The challenge of performing the maverick repertoire is that you have to throw yourself into it sometimes doing things that can seem totally off the wall. You have to have quite a courageous spirit to do that. That’s an ability that the San Francisco Symphony definitely has.”—Michael Tilson Thomas

With his dedication to the music of pioneering American mavericks such as Charles Ives, Ruth Crawford Seeger, Carl Ruggles, John Cage, Henry Cowell, Aaron Copland, Lou Harrison, Henry Brant, Morton Feldman, Edgard Varèse, and Lukas Foss, and his commitment to this era’s most important American musical voices such as John Adams, Meredith Monk, Steve Reich, Charles Wuorinen, and Mason Bates, Michael Tilson Thomas has shaped the American sound through myriad San Francisco Symphony festivals, tours, and media projects. 

Key Moment: The 1996 American Festival, which paid homage to US composers past and present, from Charles Ives to John Adams, also featured members of the iconic Bay Area rock group The Grateful Dead performing the music of John Cage. Further innovative American Maverick festivals, tours, and recordings followed in 2000 and 2012.

Reimagining the Concert Experience

“What I'm imagining—the purpose of using these other forms: lighting, projection, online resources—is to make the music clearer, more vivid, to clarify what might otherwise be overlooked.”—MTT

Throughout his tenure Michael Tilson Thomas has brought cutting-edge original staging to works of American musical theater (MTT’s own deeply personal exploration of the Yiddish theaterThe Thomashefskysand Bernstein), operas and theatrical works (Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, returning in a new production this season) and reinventions of symphonic repertory (Antheil’s A Jazz Symphony and Beethoven’s Missa solemnis). Further pushing the boundaries of traditional orchestral performances, MTT and the San Francisco Symphony opened SoundBox in 2014, presenting eclectic and adventurous programs backstage at Davies Symphony Hall in a club-like environment. 

Key Moment: Das klagende Lied (2017) explored the fascinating psychology that weaves through Mahler’s early cantata, with dancers, singers, and spellbinding visual design. 


“In San Francisco we find live recordings a much more satisfying experience, because we really are making music for people, there’s that sense of urgency of communicating with the audience. The audience inspires us to give everything.”—MTT

From Grammy-winning recordings of Prokofiev and Stravinsky on RCA Red Seal to the all-encompassing Mahler cycle for the Symphony’s in-house record label SFS Media, the recorded legacy of Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony is impressive by any standard. SFS Media has devoted major recording projects to works by Beethoven, Schumann, Ives, John Adams, and American maverick composers, as well as Bernstein’s complete West Side Story. MTT’s unique ability to communicate the joys and stories behind symphonic music led to the creation in 2004 of Keeping Score, a multifaceted, multimedia education series. <p>Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony have released 47 recordings on SFS Media—the first record label owned by a major US orchestra—since its founding in 2001. The recording of Mahler's Sixth Symphony inaugurated the Mahler cycle and won a Grammy for Best Orchestral Performance in 2002.


“The biggest responsibility we performing arts organizations have for the future––a responsibility that we have had no option but to accept and undertake—is to guide and encourage children and young people in their understanding of how music really works and what it means.”—MTT

Guided by Michael Tilson Thomas’s lifelong commitment to music education, the San Francisco Symphony has significantly expanded its education and community programs over the past twenty-five years. These programs enrich our community and nurture the next generation of musicians and citizens, from amateurs to scholars of the highest pre-professional level. MTT has also mentored a new generation of artists, including conductor Teddy Abrams, composer Mason Bates, pianist Yuja Wang, mezzo-soprano (and 2019–20 SFS artist-in-residence) Sasha Cooke, as well as the more than fifteen graduates of the pre-professional New World Symphony (led by MTT) who have gone on to permanent positions with the SFS.

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