It isn’t every day that you get to see a highly accomplished performer in their field present their craft for one of the last times.
But on Thursday night, the Lied Center for Performing Arts hosted such an artist when conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony took the stage as part of Tilson Thomas’ 14th and final national tour with the group.
Tilson Thomas announced in 2017 that he would retire after the 2019-2020 season. He first conducted the SFS in 1974 when he led Gustav Mahler’s 9th Symphony and became the 11th music director of the group in 1995. Awarded multiple Grammys, the 2007 Peabody Award and the 2009 National Medal of Arts during his time with the SFS, Tilson Thomas has established himself in the music industry as a champion of American classical works.
After the symphony warmed up, the stage-right door opened and Tilson Thomas stepped out to hearty applause. Wearing a concert black suit and a blue kerchief in his coat pocket, he mounted the conductor’s stand and waited for the audience to quiet down. Tilson Thomas exuded a comfortable poise, standing tall and looking quite relaxed in front of his symphony. After each piece, he brushed his combed-back hair out of his face, took a sip of water and pushed on to the next.
The first piece, Maurice Ravel’s “Le Tombeau de Couperin,” consisted of four movements, with a brief pause between each. The symphony was rather small and string-heavy for this piece, later growing in size for subsequent works. The strings took the melody for the majority of the four movements, with the woodwinds reversing that role in the third, dramatic movement titled “Menuet.”
Immediately when Tilson Thomas started the piece, it was noticeable that he is a subtle conductor. Ravel’s piece has many peaks and valleys in its composition, and when the music swelled, Tilson Thomas demonstrated more passionate movements. But overall, he kept his conducting at a steady, smooth level.
After the first song, there was a short break for the symphony to shuffle around, changing seating arrangements and adding personnel for the next piece, Felix Mendelssohn’s “Violin Concerto in E minor, Opus 64.” Renowned guest violinist Alexander Kerr joined the symphony for the featured solo of the three-movement piece.
While Ravel’s piece was light, playful and fast-paced, Mendelssohn’s sounded straight out of an epic movie score. It’s a grand and powerful piece, and Kerr was standing and playing with the symphony for the entire 30-minute duration. He is an incredible violinist, mixing skill and passion that made for a captivating visual and auditory treat. Although clearly exerting himself, he somehow made his playing seem effortless.
The symphony added more percussion and brass for the final piece, which followed an extended intermission. The full power of the orchestra was felt in “Symphony No. 2 in D major, Opus 43” by Jean Sibelius, sending beautiful sounds over the Lied Center’s audience for 45 minutes. There was much more physical movement during this piece, as it was easy to see the dedication in each musician on the stage with their focused expressions and rhythmic swaying. Building to a sonically powerful finale, Tilson Thomas conducted the symphony in perfect harmony and proved his musical success over his 50-year career.
When the music finally concluded, the SFS received an emphatic standing ovation. After taking multiple bows and quieting the audience, Tilson Thomas announced they would be playing an encore: “Marche Minature,” a movement from Tchaikovsky’s “Orchestral Suite No. 1.” This piece was light and brief, scored primarily for the upper woodwinds and strings, which gave it a joyful, sweet feel.
Tilson Thomas pantomimed going to sleep after the applause died down from the final song, eliciting some laughs and signaling to the audience they were now permitted to leave. Although he will soon conduct the San Francisco Symphony for the last time, Tilson Thomas’ legacy in the group will live on long after he becomes absent in the minds of those he has worked with and performed for.