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Commentary: Coronavirus closed S.F. Symphony, but new recordings carry MTT spirit loud and clear

San Francisco Symphony
Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall in September as percussionist Jacob Nissly is about to whack the giant hammer in the last movement of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6.
(Kim Huynh / San Francisco Symphony)

Seeing their spring seasons startlingly wither away, symphony orchestras are admirably scrambling to make available online recent concert recordings along with the occasional video. But given the unexpectedness of the pandemic’s scope, nearly every institution has been caught off guard.

The offerings are pretty much catch as catch can. (You can check Matthew Cooper’s daily online listings of recommendations.) But there has been no opportunity for curation, and typically the sound quality leaves something to be desired.

The Berlin Philharmonic does have an outstanding digital concert hall that is temporarily free, and the San Francisco Symphony has been a leader in media outreach for the last quarter century, the quarter century that Michael Tilson Thomas has been music director. Its efforts have included a television series for PBS, “Keeping Score,” of nine individual composers and works. The orchestra has begun this week making them newly available on YouTube.

There was “The MTT Files” in 2007, a fabulously entertaining series of eight programs that Tilson Thomas did for American Public Radio that recounted everything from highly amusing encounters with Jascha Heifetz, James Brown, Igor Stravinsky and Pierre Boulez, to how Freud influenced ballet. Please, please, please APR, bring these back. And while you are at it, unlock access to Tilson Thomas’ incomparable series “American Mavericks” with the S.F. Symphony, hosted by Suzanne Vega.

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The National Theatre lineup kicks off with James Corden’s performance in “One Man, Two Guvnors,” streamed every Thursday and available afterward on demand.

But mainly, it has been the SFS Media, the orchestra’s pioneering series of self-produced recordings, which boast impeccable hi-res sound on CD, downloads and even vinyl. Tilson Thomas’ Mahler cycle is now a classic. The latest, a live recording of Copland’s Third Symphony from 2018 that is one of the most glorious-sounding orchestral recordings I’ve heard, was released this month. Copland’s World War II victory symphony is soberly affirmative rather than celebratory.

Copland embraces tragedy and calls for national unity with a magnificent finale that amplifies the composer’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” into an inspirational commemoration of what it means to be alive and the necessity of moving forward with a sense of the common good. Have we ever needed Copland more than now? This is the recording to get (not that Leonard Bernstein’s two aren’t either). The first of the “Keeping Score” programs, moreover, is on Copland, and it is revelatory.

Beyond all that, the S.F. Symphony began this year releasing digital recordings, made to its high standards, of selected individual works performed by Tilson Thomas in this, his 25th and last, season. With the latest just made available, there are now 10. They can be found on most of the major streaming and download sites.

They are the closest thing to actually being at a recent concert. That is primarily thanks to the sound quality. I, moreover, like the fact that these are audio, putting your imagination (and not a video) in the driver’s seat. Best of all, they document one of the greatest American conductors we’ve had so far, at his most profound.

They capture, indeed, a 74-year-old Tilson Thomas having just returned to the podium after a summer spent recovering from heart surgery. His performance of Mahler’s Sixth Symphony, known as the “Tragic,” might lack a little of the vitality of his earlier S.F. Symphony recording, but that is replaced with immensity. There are some who object to what they consider Tilson- Thomas funny business, micro-managing expression. As for me, the only times I’ve been disappointed in Tilson Thomas Mahler is when there isn’t more.

Organizers of the 74th Ojai Music Festival, scheduled for June, pull the plug. They cite travel uncertainty and the safety of artists and audiences.

There isn’t a lot here, but nor is it now needed. The performance comes across like a heart-to-heart conversation with the listener, an attempt to share an understanding of what it means to be alive. You may think you don’t want to hear a “Tragic” Symphony on an epic scale right now. But Mahler’s greatness is his ability to take you to heights you can’t imagine, to show you a beauty you have never before heard but that you can only experience if you are aware of what the loss of it would be like. That is this Mahler Six, one that neither neglects terrible intensity nor overplays it for effect. It gives the pastoral passages and lyric melodiousness idyllic glow.

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Another highlight from the set is Wagner’s “Siegfried Idyll” full of morning light. This you probably do think you need, and you’re right. Wagner’s love-letter to his wife, Cosima, is one of the lovelier, warmer 21-minute escapes of the world’s horrors.

Elsewhere there is an eloquent account of Haydn’s Second Cello Concerto with an up-and-coming soloist, Oliver Herbert, and Beethoven’s Second Piano Concerto with the exquisite Emanuel Ax that was on the same program as the “Siegfried Idyll,” barely over two months ago, yet so long ago.

Berlioz’s “Benvenuto Cellini” Overture is colorfully upbeat. Ravel’s “La Valse” drips with divine sensuality as long as you don’t think too much about its musical description of the end of Vienna’s blithely waltzing days. Three big Stravinsky works — “Canticum Sacrum,” “Symphony of Psalms” and the Symphony in Three movements — all from the same September program, are on the effusive side. Beware, the five selections from Mahler’s song cycle “Des Knaben Wunderhorn,” avidly sung by Sasha Cooke, are five of the grimmest.

El Sistema uses a video of its hugely inspiring performance of Mahler’s Second to debut a new sala virtual as the Maduro regime faces the coronavirus crisis.

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Spirits, however, will magically lift if you turn to the streaming site Idagio, which has exclusive recordings from January of Tilson Thomas conducting his New World Symphony. Forget about the awful photos of coronavirus-clueless young people carousing on Miami beaches and think instead about the exceptional young musicians in this Miami Beach training orchestra that Tilson Thomas founded.

In these concerts you can hear Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony made liltingly fresh and a livelier account of Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements than was heard in San Francisco. In this and in a knock-out “Petrushka, " bright as our spring days we no longer can properly enjoy, Tilson Thomas, himself, sheds years.

The fate of the rest of Tilson Thomas’ final season, slated to end in June with a staged performance of Wagner’s “The Flying Dutchman” (sets designed by Frank Gehry) and Mahler’s “Symphony of a Thousand” remain in doubt. Thus far the orchestra is out of its Davies Symphony Hall through April and hasn’t yet worked out the next set of digital releases. In September, media-savvy Esa-Pekka Salonen begins as music director, all but assuring that SFS Media will remain uniquely imaginative.


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