Maestro Michael Tilson Thomas, Music Director and Conductor of San Francisco Symphony
My new year started on a very happy note when I attended Michael Tilson Thomas’ 70th birthday celebration with a gala concert at the iconic Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco. This year, the San Francisco Symphony celebrates twenty seasons with Michael Tilson Thomas at the podium, creating and showcasing a remarkable collaboration and artistic partnership between the orchestra’s brilliant musicians and the masterful baton of its inspiring and innovative music director and conductor.
Michael Tilson Thomas, often referred to as MTT, was spectacular in the evening’s musical repertoire presentation, while resplendently attired in his custom-designed blue sports jacket, with his initials sparkling in sequins on the back and the bars of Mahler’s First Symphony embroidered down the sleeves. Basking in the greatly-deserved accolades and the raves of the adoring audience’s appreciation, MTT said, ‘’I can really express the incredible love I have for all of you best in my own small way… with music.’’
And that he did, and definitely not in a small way. The joyous and extraordinary birthday celebration party featuring the San Francisco Symphony and some of the world’s finest guest pianists such as Emanuel Ax, Jeremy Denk, Marc-Andre Hamelin, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and Yuja Wang was a gala event to enjoy, cherish, and remember. Have you ever seen an auditorium full of smiling people for the duration of three or four hours? Well, I was one of them.
The birthday man in blue orchestrated the grand music celebration, playing selections by Bizet, Shostakovich, Mozart, Shubert Litolff, Gershwin and Tchaikovsky, whose magnificent ‘’Swan Lake’’ solo by trumpeter Mark Inouye and concertmaster Alexander Barantschik made me want to pirouette down the aisle, but fortunately for the music and the ballet aficionados I was immediately stopped by my companion.
The intermission’s rush for the complimentary champagne lounges was shortly delayed by an impromptu appearance by the famous rock star quintet of Boz Scaggs, Phil Lesh, Lars Ulrich, Drew Zingg, and Karl Sevarei representing the Grateful Dead and Metallica, together with music legend Elvis Costello, who all serenaded a very pleasantly-surprised MTT with their rendition of the Beatles’ ‘’Birthday.’’ As it happened, Elvis Costello was in town narrating MTT’s conducting of Stravinsky’s ‘’The Soldier’s Tale,’’ also at Davies Hall. Their tribute to Thomas seems only natural since, as I recall, the musical pairing of Metallica and the Grateful Dead in the past two decades of MTT’s conducting the San Francisco Symphony included very surprising and extremely successful recordings and sold out concerts.
After the bubbly intermission it was time to be awed by the piece de resistance and the highlight of the concert’s festivities featuring Hexameron, a 20-minute series of the Grand Bravura Variations on the March from Bellini’s ‘’I Puritani,’’ compiled by composer Franz Liszt. Joined on stage by the returning virtuoso pianists with the maestro himself at the keyboard, all six shared the stage with the orchestra and played grand pianos magically positioned in a perfect configuration. I actually skipped the champagne hour in order to observe the stage crew in action as they miraculously found a spot for each of the grand pianos and the entire orchestra. It was truly fascinating!
From the familiar melody of Chopin, beautifully and delicately interpreted by Emanuel Ax, to the runaway speed of playing scherzo by the effervescent Yuja Wang, stunningly coiffed and attired in a gorgeous blue (I wonder why?) designer gown, the delighted, hypnotized, mesmerized, and ecstatic audience was on their feet for a prolonged standing ovation and emotional appreciation. A special appearance by the Beach Blanket Babylon’s star in her famous towering hat resulted in her leading the singing of ‘’Happy Birthday’’ to the fabulous, one and only Michael Tilson Thomas. A thousand blue balloons and endless miles of blue streamers (did I mention that blue is MTT’s favorite color?) cascaded over the sold out auditorium making it the most glamorous and unforgettable celebration party of the year.
Happy birthday, Michael, and many wonderful returns to the musical stages of San Francisco and the world. Your grandmother Bessie Thomashefsky, who, together with her husband Boris Thomashefsky, founded Yiddish theater in the United States, is very proud of you and so are we. Shehecheyanu! (The Jewish blessing of thanks for special occasions, as well as the prayer MTT recites each time before he goes on stage).