End of the Tilson Thomas era at San Francisco

End of the Tilson Thomas era at San Francisco


norman lebrecht

October 31, 2017

The music director has just told his players that he will be giving up the job in 2020, after 25 years, when he reaches the age of 75.

Press release follows.

COMMENTARY: Is MTT the last of the old-fashioned maestros?


SAN FRANCISCO, October 31, 2017 — Michael Tilson Thomas today announced plans to conclude his distinguished tenure as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) in June 2020. The 2019–2020 Season will mark both his 75th birthday and his 25th year leading the Symphony in what is widely considered one of the most productive musical partnerships in the orchestral world. Tilson Thomas’ legacy with the SF Symphony began in 1974 with his debut at age 29, conducting Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, and was solidified by his commencement as the Orchestra’s 11th Music Director in September 1995. Following the 2019–2020 Season, Michael Tilson Thomas will assume the title of Music Director Laureate of the San Francisco Symphony, and will continue to conduct the Orchestra for a minimum of four weeks each season in addition to other special projects. In anticipation of the celebratory 25th anniversary season of the MTT/SFS partnership, the next two years will feature signature recording projects, festivals, commissioning of new ­­works, staged productions, a two-week tour of the United States in 2018–2019, and a three-week European tour in 2019–2020.


“Looking back over these decades I am filled with gratitude for the extraordinary artistic partnership I have had with the members of the Orchestra and for the warm and generous style of music making we have shared with all of our audiences,” said Michael Tilson Thomas. “Having been a Music Director of an orchestra for most of my adult life and as I approach my 75th birthday, I feel this is an appropriate moment to set aside some of my administrative responsibilities and begin a new period of creative possibilities. Fortunately my new and unique relationship as Music Director Laureate of the San Francisco Symphony will allow me to continue to work with my esteemed colleagues for years to come on projects close to my heart.”


Throughout more than two decades, Michael Tilson Thomas’ leadership of the San Francisco Symphony has been recognized worldwide for building an orchestra that consistently displays artistry of the highest level in its home of Davies Symphony Hall, on over two dozen national and international tours, and through media and recording projects. He has championed the creation and performance of new music through relationships with today’s important musical voices, explored the adventurous and iconic American sound, and enhanced the orchestral concert experience through innovative staging and immersive settings. MTT has led the Symphony in growing new audiences by making orchestral music accessible to all through extensive, award-winning media projects including audio and video recordings, national radio and television broadcasts, and streaming and web content. Under his leadership, the Orchestra has built a leading commitment to music education and community activities, expanding its involvement with San Francisco’s public school children, fostering many of the finest young musicians, and embracing creative ways to engage with the Bay Area’s diverse population.


“Michael Tilson Thomas embodies the personality and the spirit of San Francisco,” said Sakurako Fisher, President of the San Francisco Symphony. “Striving for excellence in all that he does, creative and curious in nature, inclusive of all, and adventurous in his thinking. We look forward to continuing to support his vision, ideas, and innovation around what an orchestra can mean to its community.”

“When Michael made his debut with the Orchestra in 1974, it was clear that his passion for the music was matched by his ability to communicate it profoundly with our audiences,” said SFS cellist Margaret Tait. “His creative, personal approach to music making and the broadening of the repertoire have been embraced by the Orchestra and made these two decades exciting, rewarding, and inspiring.”


“Working with Michael has been one of the most joyful and meaningful collaborations of my life,” said Eugene Izotov, SFS Principal Oboe. “His inspiration, guidance, and spirit have raised the artistic level of this orchestra and shaped the San Francisco Symphony into the kind of ensemble it has never been before. Although he leaves his post as Music Director, I know that his passion, youthful energy, and endless musical curiosity are here to stay with us.”


“Under Michael Tilson Thomas’ leadership, the worldwide artistic reputation of the Orchestra has experienced a trajectory of unprecedented growth,” said SFS Executive Director Mark C. Hanson. “His vision, energy, and ideas have excited and engaged both new and long-time audiences and have attracted 50 extraordinary musicians who have joined the Orchestra during his tenure. The MTT/SFS partnership is unparalleled and will only continue to strengthen over time.”





  • Sue says:

    He has always struck me as very mediocre.

  • brian says:

    His work has always impressed and often moved me. I also liked that he dared to go off the beaten track, as for example when he conducted for John McLaughlin and the Mahavishnu Orchestra (a well known jazz-rock fusion band of the 70’s, which created some fascinating music).

  • Derek says:

    He tenure at the San Francisco is to be respected as a significant achievement.

    I saw him with the San Francisco Orchestra on tour 3 years ago in a concert including Ives, Adams and Berlioz and it was excellent and enjoyable. I am happy that I heard them, I was impressed with MTT and obviously he has a special relationship with the players.

  • Petros Linardos says:

    By 2020 MTT will have beaten the length of Szell’s Cleveland tenure by one year. Very rare with major orchestras in our days.

  • Roberto says:

    I live in SF and go to his concerts every once in awhile. His Beethoven is impressive. This Missa Solemnis was unforgettable. One day later (it was a kind of Beethoven’s festival), the “Fidelio” was better than my CD with Bernstein and VPO. I also enjoy MTT’s Shostakovich quite a bit. SF Symphony is a powerhouse. Although the acoustics of Davis Symphony Hall can be a little bit tricky.

    He will be missed.

    • Olassus says:

      The Fidelio you need was made at the same time as Lenny’s, 1978, but in Munich with Karl Böhm conducting:


    • Olassus says:

      Vaguely I recall an exciting MTT Fidelio somewhere. In Houston? With Eva Marton? (Houston Grand Opera incredibly still has no archive.) Anyway, you are right. MTT’s Beethoven has always been strong. He once recorded some of the symphonies with a chamber orchestra and made a persuasive case. He was well trained. All the Mahler Mahler puff gets in the way, but MTT has had a distinguished career with Impressionist music, Stravinsky, Shostakovich, as well as with early 19th-century scores. He is hard to pigeon-hole. Only in opera, Fidelio excepted, has he really failed to register. But that has presumably been his choice, or else he has no feel for Italian music!

  • Steve P says:

    I was at Davies hall the night he gave his first concert after having been announced as new Music director. The place was electric: first half Scheherazade, second half Rite of Spring. Love his Copland recordings, too. He was exactly the right conductor for that ensemble. Wonder if they’ll go with another Bay Area Guy, Nagano?

  • Judie Janowski says:

    Do not forget his performances with the Grateful Dead! There will never be a Music Director of any orchestra with his vision! Bravo, MTT,

    • Steinway Fanatic says:

      It was nothing more than a cheap publicity stunt — from MTT’s insatiable desire to draw attention to himself, and it backfired. Grateful Dead fans didn’t suddenly flock to symphonic concerts, and the effort was soon forgotten. Please don’t confuse “visionary” with “narcissist”.

      • esfir ross says:

        Thanks for coming with right word-“narcissist”. Can’t wait billboard with MTT huge portrait over freeways ‘ll disappear soon.

  • Ricardo says:

    I’m not from SF but he must be liked to some degree. I’m in Boston and really after 20 years people were ready for Seiji to move on. In talking to SF people, I think they weee ready for him to move on by now. It’s nothing against him, it’s just that I don’t believe conductors should stay for more than 10-12 years.
    I only heard him conduct in real life a couple of times and it was fine. But it doesn’t sound like he’s really moving on. He will still be there. I don’t think that is an ideal situation for his successor. Move on…come back a few years later as a laureate. But let the next person make their own inprsssion.
    The SFS has definitely raised its profile under MTT. But I don’t think it’s as big as it should be. It’s still not at the level of the old granddaddies.

    • Steinway Fanatic says:

      It’s the San Francisco Symphony members themselves that coined his nick-name “Empty-T”. They never drank MTT’s Kool-aid.

  • John Slapped Bort says:

    The hope amongst musicians of the orchestra was for a 70 year old / 20 anniversary retirement for the quote unquote Bernstein protege


    This panegyric post smacks of predictable Lebrechtian fetishism for the most elderly of musicians–a most particular and peculiar terminal circumstance for “professional” orchestras in America Hurrah! Another ancient dinosaur defies biological odds to detract from, if not outright destroy, what might otherwise have been perpetual growth, progress, and aesthetic improvement


    Having made reeds for 77 years, 103 year old, second oboe, Jane Smithson nobly retired from the Peoria Philharmonic today, circumscribing a professional ambition heretofore unknown within the ever-growing and storied ranks of geriatric American performers “Her Hoveround(R) Personal Mobility Vehicle endowed chair and trusty colostomy bag will remain eternally preserved,” says Executive Director Sammy Smithereens, “in esteemed recognition of her many decades of laudably slipshod execution of the opening of the Second Movement Adagio to Brahms’ Second Symphony” The local rag, in growing chorus, was glad to report, just like so many others again and again and again.

    Nothing to see here, folks Move along and about your business


    The recorded documents referenced are suspect at best At every turn, in each respective era, The Tilson Thomas was and will continue to be surpassed substantially by competitors both domestic and abroad His rank composition fails as heartily as that of Bernstein (Broadway aside, of course!)–anniversary be damned

    Irony aside, he leaves the Bay Area band in worse shape for the wear and with a poor perennial habit of losing oodles of money on an annual basis

    No hope in sight

    His late-life victory laps between the prime orchestras of the globe will continue as a sick musical joke, meanwhile in San Francisco they’ll torture themselves over the need to identify the best not-worst female conductor or human-of-color to assume the role of Music Director in exchange for the multi-million-dollar salary

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      Dear Bortslappad Janne,
      Unfortunately you’re quite right in the points you’re not damn wrong, especially when you see no hope in sight.

  • Amos Elkana says:

    His Rite of Spring is the best and most accurate interpretation I have ever heard. I can only wish he would one day conduct my own works!

  • herrera says:

    With so much money in the San Francisco Bay Area, and with so much competition among high level musicians for posts, I always wondered why the SFO isn’t better and more famous than what it is. Compared to LA. I think LA is overhyped, and SF is undersold.

    • herrera says:

      I know why talented musicians are not flocking to SF: because the cost of living in SF is sooooo expensive.

      If you make $150,000 in San Francisco, you’re at the bottom of the middle class economic scale, every lawyer in town starts out making that much, and you find you’re competing against 20 year old tech billionaires willing to pay $1 million for a one bedroom fixer upper apartment in the Tenderloin, so you have to ove out into the suburbs that require a 2 hour commute each way.

      To have the equivalent life style of a Chicago musician, SF would need to start their base pay at $300,000 just so their musicians can afford a decent one bedroom in Oakland, which they’ll have to give up once they start a family.

      • esfir ross says:

        Glad to see him go.So many shamful conducting event, especial Beethoven symphonies, terrible accompaniment of Tchaikovsky #1 concerto to Arcady Volodos and ugly manners. Coca-Cola diet festivals program. Agree with Sue-mediocracy rules. About affordability for $200 grant starting salaries for SFsymphony musician+ gigs. 2 bedroom appartement in Oakland-$2000 more or less. Trust me -I live in Oakland and in income property business. Low energy and food expences, best climate in the world. I’m lucky to live hear, only wish for real good conductor with class.

  • harold braun says:

    One of my favourite conductors:Elegant,great stick,consummate musician,passionate educator,daring programmer,fantastic rehearser,charismatic communicator.Wish him all the best.His recorded and filmed legacy at SFS speaks for itself

  • Statler and Waldorf says:

    Superficial and mediocre musician. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k27Gf-CGxqM
    It doesn’t get much more shallow than that ( the dreadful cliched speech, that awful waving gesture at the beginning, the overall limp playing…) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k27Gf-CGxqM ( Thankfully the video stops after 3.49 minutes. )

  • Greg says:

    I have never been a huge fan of MTT, though admittedly I have only seen him live a few times and not lived through one of his lengthy tenures with one orchestra. That said, I enjoy his Mahler recordings with SFSO, as well as those he did with London SO (3 and 7). Perhaps I am being swayed by the strength of the playing, but I appreciate that his readings are more neutral and clear than some of the emotionally excessive and self-indulgent ones available. This is also the reason I appreciate the Mahler recordings of Haitink and Abbado. I find MTT’s recordings with SFSO more engaging than those done with Blomstedt and the orchestra plays at a higher level. There is no question he will be leaving the orchestra in fine shape (at least based on the recordings I hear).

    MTT has done impressive and important work with New World Symphony and players from that orchestra can be found in major orchestras across the country. This may stand as MTT’s enduring achievement.

    I’m still not a huge fan, but I can give credit where it is due.

  • Saxon Broken says:

    Heard him conduct a couple of times. One programme he clearly didn’t care about the concerto, but the Beethoven symphony caught fire and was really excellent. Then heard him next time and he was so-so; reasonable enough but not special.

  • barry guerrero says:

    For me, the worst offense on MTT’s part was his total monopoly on Mahler at Davies Symphony Hall. It was quite blatant and obvious that visiting conductors and/or orchestras were not to perform Mahler at Davies during his tenure. Only this year has this ‘blockade’ been broken. As a result, an entire generation of concert goers believes that Mahler needs the excessive ‘taffy pulling’ and agogic distorions that MTT has regularly brought to the table. Too bad, because he gave an incredible, straight forward performance of the 8th symphony in 1991 – long before they embarked on their recorded Mahler cycle. Between that time, he began ‘interpreting’ Mahler more and more. I viewed it as an attempt to out Bernstein, Bernstein. I know a number of anecdotes about MTT’s anti-social behavior in public, but I won’t go there. For the most part, he served the community well, but it’s time for a change. He’s repeating himself waaay too much (program wise).

    • Roberto says:

      I remember 3 Mahler’s at Davis from visiting orchestra,

      Mahler #5 with the Concertgebouw/Jansen about 7 or 8 years ago.
      Mahler #2 with Ozawa and a Japanese Orchestra (I don’t remember which) about 10 years ago.
      Mahler # 7 with Rattle and Berlin Philharmonic just last year.

      I think that Zubin Mehta and IPO played Mahler #1 at Davis recently as well.

      Your comments are not based on facts.

  • barry guerrero says:

    Extremely little outside Mahler until the Rattle/BPO M7. It is a fact that guest conductors didn’t get to conduct Mahler with the SFSO. Perhaps that’s not unusual, but most visiting conductors/orchestras performed their Mahler at Zellerbach in Berkeley. Bychkov/Vienna Phil. gave an outstanding Mahler 6 at Zellerbach as part of the Cal Arts program. Personally, I look forward to the change.

  • Roberto says:

    There are many more visiting orchestras to Zellerbach than to Davies Symphony Hall. There are not really a lot of visiting orchestras that come to SF.

    I gave you real and concrete examples of visiting orchestras playing Mahler in SF. Your statement that MTT didn’t or doesn’t allow that is completely ludicrous.

    • barry guerrero says:

      “Ludicrous” is your subjective opinion. Prior to Rattle/Berlin coming, the track record speaks for itself. Can you name one single conductor who was permitted to conduct Mahler with the SFSO during MTT’s time? . . . but I would like to reply to a couple of other postings.

      One person said that the L.A. Phil. was over-hyped while the SFS was under-represented in the press. Prior to Disney Hall’s completion, I would say that the exact opposite was true. At this professional level, ALL orchestras are stocked with very, very good musicians. That said, I do think that L.A. has a somewhat better string section – perhaps greatly due to the extra work really good players can get in the studios (which barely exists at all in the bay area).

      Disney Hall is smaller than Davies Hall and the musicians can hear each other better than they can at Davies. I’ve gone to both halls numerous times. On the whole, I prefer Disney Hall, but Davies is good for really large works that require a large choir (Mahler being a prime example). To my ears, the string section in S.F. is good, but nothing to write home about compared to Berlin, Vienna, Philadelphia and – at times – L.A. Winds and percussion are pretty much equal, although I do think the woodwinds in L.A. are particularly good. Again, the difference in acoustics may help them.

      Another person mentioned that they preferred MTT’s Mahler to Blomstedt’s. Blomstedt did very little Mahler in S.F. To best of my memory, he only did M2 and M5 (was there also an M9?). Purely as a matter of taste, I greatly prefer the Decca recording of Blomstedt’s Mahler 2 to MTT’s, with the singular exception of contralto Lorraine Hunt Lieberson (she’s outstanding). Both Ozawa and Edo De Waart did very good Mahler in S.F., but that’s going back quite a ways. In terms of temperament and personal interactions with the public, there’s no comparison between Blomstedt and Tilson-Thomas.

      Whether my opinions are ludicrous or not, here’s a fact: I look forward to a change in regime.

      • Roberto says:


        My comment was based on: “It was quite blatant and obvious that visiting conductors and/or orchestras were not to perform Mahler at Davies during his tenure”

        You may have a point that visit conductors to SFSO don’t conduct Mahler. The reason is purely speculation. But visiting orchestras perform Mahler at Davies.

        That’s pretty much.

  • barry guerrero says:

    One last fyi. The Decca recordings with Blomstedt are not only good on a musical level (and so are most of MTT’s, to be fair), they also sound really good. Decca had the stage extended out farther into the audience when they made their recordings in Davies. The Decca engineers casually referred to Davies Hall as, “the Concertgebouw of the west”, but I think that’s a real stretch. Live recordings from the Concertgebouw sound better than those from Davies (I’m just talking of sound quality). Still, the Decca engineers made it work.

    • Roberto says:

      My favorite Mahler recordings:

      #2 – Mehta and VPO
      #3 – Bernstein and NYP (newest DG recording)
      #4 – Bernstein and VPO with Edith Mathis (I extracted the audio from the video and created a recording)
      #5 – Sinopoli and Philharmonia
      #6 – Bernstein and VPO
      #9 – Ancerl and Czech Philarmonic

      • barry guerrero says:

        It would be near impossible for me to choose just one of any of the Mahler symphonies, as I have lots of CD’s and a number of DVD’s too. I think DVD adds a whole ‘nother element that’s quite engaging (visual, obviously). I can tell you that the new Mahler 8 on Reference Recordings, recorded from a live performance in the Mormon Tabernacle just this last year, is a sensational knockout with a surprisingly solid cast of soloists.

        People like to say that the “Mahler boom” is over with, but I don’t see much evidence to support that. New recordings have slowed down a bit, but they’re generally very good. MTT/SFS is performing three Mahler symphonies this year – one too many in my book (I think it should be for very special occasions). The L.A. Phil. usually gets in one or two Mahler symphonies per year. What’s heartening to me is that many non-professional groups are willing to take the challenge. I actually saw a very good Mahler “Resurrection” symphony with the student orchestra at Stanford a few years back! Further more, I actually prefer the Mahler 1 I own with the S.F. Youth Symphony over the MTT/SFS one (both recorded live in Davies Hall).

        I think if I had to choose just one comprehensive Mahler box that contains pretty much everything, it would be the Michael Gielen box that Haenssler just issued last month. That has a solid consistency that’s tough to beat.