Marketing MTT — What It’s All About

[Marketing MTT appears in its home publication, San Francisco Classical Voice, We post it in La Folia — with permission — in the belief that gripes of this kind need maximum exposure. Ed.]

Robert P. Commanday

[March 2005.]

Michael Tilson Thomas and Company have done it yet again — produced a symphony season as ordinary and unchallenging as the programming for the commercial classical radio station. The only difference is that the Symphony, at least, hasn’t stooped to playing single movements of multi-movement works. The worst of it is that this one-size-fits-all season comes as no surprise. The MTT Symphony’s 2005-2006 season announced last week wasn’t appreciably different from its recent predecessors. Nothing about it suggests that this institution represents San Francisco — it might as believably be the season of the Indianapolis or Kansas City Symphonies.

Many readers at this point are thinking, “There he goes again. Wants a season loaded with difficult, off-putting contemporary music.” That’s not it at all. A proper symphony schedule should be balanced and offer a significant variety of the great and representative works of the symphonic heritage, interspersed judiciously with works of our era, some of them produced by composers of our own region. I believe that works of our era are best presented when they play off of music of the tradition from which they stemmed. Balance and fair representation are all that’s expected. Else how can the San Francisco Symphony represent, express, and stimulate the culture, the creativity, the personality of this era and this region?

I am not alone in this view. Appended to this editorial are statements about the Symphony’s forthcoming season by 11 prominent composers who reside, compose and teach in the Bay Area. Last week, we sent out an e-mail to composers of the region, inviting them to send us their responses to the new season.

An Affront to American Music

None failed to notice that out of all the pieces on 40 programs played in this ill-conceived season, just one (1) composition by a living American composer is offered, and that will be the only contemporary work to be conducted by Tilson Thomas: Peter Lieberson’s Drala. He will also conduct I Met Heine on the Rue Fürstenburg by the late Morton Feldman, one of only four 20th-century American composers on the season (the others are Copland’s Dance Symphony, William Schuman’s Violin Concerto, and Ives’ Decoration Day and New England Holidays). Basically the season is an affront to American music, its composers and tradition. Tilson Thomas is as much as saying that there is not much worth playing in the American repertory, and certainly nothing that has been created in the Bay Area in the past or at present.

Compare the attention to be paid the foreign composers. The British guest conductor Mark Wigglesworth will lead the orchestra in the British composer John Pickard’s The Flight of Icarus. Another British guest, Oliver Knussen, will conduct his own The Way to Castle Yonder on a surprisingly lightweight program. Guest conductor Alan Gilbert will perform Henri Dutilleux’s Mystère de l’instant. Kurt Masur will conduct Sofia Gubaidulina’s Offertorium. Guest Ingo Metzmacher will conduct Wolfgang Rihm’s Verwandlung. The orchestra’s associate conductor Edwin Outwater will perform the British Thomas Adès’ Living Toys and the Viennese H.K. Gruber’s well-known cabaret-styled Frankenstein!. And as for the one guest conductor noted for contemporary music — there is not another American conductor of a major symphony who does more of it — David Robertson, what is he asked to do but Orff’s Carmina Burana, an easy, almost automatic work that can be done to equal effect by any of 500 conductors.

This season, March 24-26, Robertson is leading the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) and its English horn player Julie Ann Giacobassi in the world premiere of John Thow’s SF Symphony commission Bellini Sky. That constitutes the Symphony’s only recognition of a Bay Area composer other than John Adams, Lou Harrison and Tilson Thomas himself, during Tilson Thomas’ entire tenure as music director. Next season there will be no premiere by any composer.

Russian Music Dominates

On the other side of the balance beam, a lot of Russian music, an amount to be performed by the MTT Symphony and two visiting orchestras that may be as much as is likely to be played by major Russian orchestras next year: two works by Rimsky-Korsakov, eight by Shostakovich, single works by Mussorgsky and Khachaturian, five by Tchaikovsky (including a revisiting of the Fourth Symphony that was the subject of the MTT/SF Symphony DVD last year, Keeping Score). Also, there will be a pile of Stravinsky. In addition, the visiting Moscow Philharmonic will perform Russian Opera Scenes and War Songs, while the Russian National Orchestra will take up the slack with Rachmaninoff’s Vocalise and Third Piano Concerto, and Tchaikovsky’s Third Suite. Only a couple of years ago, the MTT Symphony devoted its June Festival to Russian music.

Ironically, MTT enjoys an unearned, wholly unjustified reputation around the country for advocacy of American and contemporary music — a fraud that is a tribute to marketing, nothing else. His real specialties have been Russian music and Mahler. Marketing Tilson Thomas describes the Symphony’s policy, dedication and programming point of view, and the man with his insistent focus on his trademark repertory, including his ever-winning Mahler that will be embraced in the season ahead with the Fifth and Eighth Symphonies, the Adagio from the Tenth, and the Rückert-Lieder.

Next week, MTT and his orchestra make a tour to the east coast performing works by Mahler, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, Copland, and Tilson Thomas, his Poems of Emily Dickinson. What does that say?

To conduct the June postlude to the season called in the press release the “June Festival: Romantic Visions of Paradise and the Abbyss” (sic!), James Conlon has been engaged for three programs of a challenging and interesting character that reflect well on the taste of the music director-designate of the Los Angeles Opera. Just as long as the third program doesn’t bog down on yet one more crack at Tchaikovsky, his cumbersome Francesca da Rimini.

No Advisors on Staff

Reportedly, the reason a guest has been engaged to conduct the June season is to release time for MTT to compose. No one would begrudge him that, at least not if he devoted an amount of time to the study of new scores, which would be appropriate and expected of a music director. There is no evidence that he does. During Edo de Waart’s tenure, the Symphony had on its staff a New Music Advisor, John Adams, and an Artistic Advisor, Michael Steinberg, and both served excellently, poring over the repertory, screening new scores, planning the Symphony’s programming, a big job. Today, on Executive Director Brent Assink’s massive administration of 75, there is no one of comparable knowledge and musical skill to perform that service.

Recently MTT said, comparing the SF Symphony with European music organizations, “We are more visionary than anyone else.” What is he talking about? I think he’s beginning to believe his own publicity. Is this the San Francisco Symphony? Is the tradition cherished, its past honored, past conductors, musicians, achievements, premieres? When was the last time you heard the name Pierre Monteux mentioned? Are any CDs of performances from the Symphony’s past issued under its label and sold at its shop in the lobby? It’s all about MTT. Nothing else seems to matter.

Bay Area Composers Respond to the New Season

I was disheartened to read (in the S.F. Chronicle’s Datebook for Wednesday, March 2) of the 2005-2006 season of the San Francisco Symphony. In particular, for this most American of institutions to have programmed only two recent works by American composers, Morton Feldman and Peter Lieberson, is unconscionable. I doubt whether comparable orchestras in the homeland of John Pickard, Thomas Adès, and Oliver Knussen, or that of Wolfgang Rihm and H.K. Gruber would focus to such an extent on non-indigenous music at the expense of that of their home-grown artists. Lest I be misunderstood I hasten to add that I have the utmost respect for all of the above composers. I’m particularly interested in the music of Lieberson (I own a score and recording of Drala, the work of his which has been programmed), Knussen, and Adès and look forward to hearing their works in concert. It’s not a question of quality but of inclusivity.

The music director and staff of the San Francisco Symphony evidently feel no responsibility to seek out and evaluate the work of American composers, much less any of those right here in their own Bay Area. That pieces which have been commissioned had to “make way for the completion of other projects, including ‘the Mahler cycle,’” speaks volumes about the priorities of the Music Director. I hope and trust that other concerned composers, musicians, and audience members will speak out in order to let Michael Tilson Thomas know that his avowed intention of “deepening relationships that already exist … (and) … trying to develop all sides of this tradition,” will remain empty rhetoric unless a sustained attempt is made to redress these glaring omissions in programming.

— Ross Bauer, Composer, Professor of Music, University of California, Davis

I learned long ago that both the SFS and OEBS conductors not only ignore my submissions and numerous inquiries, but they don’t even have the courtesy to respond to any of them; in one case the conductor even bragged that he never answers composer’s letters! I call it the symphony “black hole” protocol, aspects of a bunker mentality. Our orchestras serve the “cultured” upperclass with the favorites they want and require. Somebody has to do it. Insisting on newer and fresher orchestra adventures is futile, at least from my “trench” perspective.

— Herb Bielawa, Kensington

My response to the SFS season announcement is hardly one of surprise. Rather, it’s one of déjà vu, what else is new, business as usual. MTT has consistently ignored the wonderful and diverse composers of the greater Bay Area since he took over. His narrow taste in 21st-century music clearly lies elsewhere, and includes only a small band of composers, himself included, who write unchallenging, uninteresting music. Do we really need another Mahler cycle? It seems we do, and at the expense of so much excellent local talent.

— Andrew Frank, Orinda, Professor of Music, University of California, Davis

So what’s new? Once again, the collective entity that is the SFS is the Emperor Without Clothes, a combination repertory company and vanity vehicle for you-know-who, a marketing machine that would have us believe that our Lenny reincarnate is out there, “creating and deepening relationships.” Relationships with whom? Aaron J. Kernis?

“San Francisco” Symphony? There’s nothing “San Francisco” about it. Given its repertoire and attitude towards the local musical community, it might just as well be called the “New New World Symphony” or the “We’re as Hip and as Cool as Those Guys in New York Symphony,” or perhaps the “Let’s Do Whatever We Need To Do To Get Nominated For Another Grammy Symphony.” My attitude betrays my provinciality and foolish idealism.

— Robert Greenberg, Oakland

I am astonished to learn how few new pieces are to be performed by the San Francisco Symphony this coming season. Only one of these is to be conducted by Thomas himself. Compare this situation to what went on several decades ago when the conductors took pride in presenting many new works, especially by Bay Area resident composers. They took pride in demonstrating the vitality of the creativity in the Bay Area.

— Andrew Imbrie, Professor of Music (retired), University of California, Berkeley

Apart from questions about programming choices in the 05-06 season, the fact that no mechanism has ever been put in place for composers to submit work for consideration is more disturbing. This has led composers to feel isolated from SFS and to view it as an institution not supportive of (much less even interested in) the dozens of fine composers who live and work here. This is very regrettable.

— Frank La Rocca, Professor of Music, California State University, East Bay

Under the baton of Michael Tilson Thomas the San Francisco Symphony has clearly become one of the top orchestras in the U.S. and the world. It is very disappointing, however, that the rich and varied music of our Bay Area composers has largely been absent from its programs. All of us fervently hope that the immediate future will manifest a change in this situation.

— Wayne Peterson, Professor of Music (retired), San Francisco State University, San Francisco

My reaction was no reaction, which caught me by surprise. It appears that at this point, I have grown so accustomed to the direction the season programming for the SF Symphony has taken over the past several years that the most recent unveiling of their new season simply seemed like more of the same. As Bette Midler once said, “Why bother?” I have no doubt that our fine orchestra and their wonderful conductor will continue to perform splendidly the season’s program.

— Kurt Rohde, San Francisco

One of the most stimulating dimensions of the arts in the Bay Area has been the visibility of recently created works of playwrights, choreographers, painters and composers. Beyond the enrichment each individual piece provides, organizations that program new works convey an important message about the “aliveness” of art. But no arts organization is more visible or prominent than the San Francisco Symphony, and it is disappointing that so few new works are included on their 2005-06 season. I hope this is a fluke and not a trend.

— Martin Rokeach, Professor of Music, St. Mary’s College

There are three programs I might attend: Feldman with the Mahler 5; the Ravel-Gershwin-Vaughan Williams concert; Stravinsky’s Rossignol with Oedipus Rex. There are some pieces I’m glad to see: Revueltas Noche de los Mayas (but together with Carmina Burana?); Rihm; Webern; Jeux. But they’re only mildly enterprising. There are some weird combinations: JeuxLulu-Mahler 10-Rhine Journey; Webern 6 Pieces-Rückert SongsHolidays Symphony; Equatorial-Schuman-Schumann.

Otherwise I’m disappointed but not surprised at the preponderance of Russians and standard rep and of course the paucity of living composers, especially American, especially Californian, especially, for God’s sake, from the Bay Area. I read last week that the Andalucia Symphony has commissioned EIGHT Andalusian composers to write memorials for the regular season this fall. Why is San Francisco so damnably contemptuous of its own composers?

And why must we continue to have Tchaikovsky and Rimsky and Shosty crammed down our earways?

— Charles Shere, Healdsburg

While I look forward to the next symphony season with interest, and, as always, see programs that will compel me to visit Davies, I find the lack of premieres disappointing in the extreme. If the composers originally scheduled for new works in 2005-06 are taking longer to finish their pieces, that only indicates to me that too few were scheduled in the first place. The “you can’t get this anywhere else” factor is considerably lessened.

— Mark Winges, San Francisco

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[Robert P. Commanday, senior editor of San Francisco Classical Voice, was the music critic of The San Francisco Chronicle, 1965-93, and before that a conductor and lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley.]

©2005 Robert P. Commanday, all rights reserved.