Michael Tilson Thomas is known internationally as a conductor, of course, and also for his impressive abilities as a pianist. But over the past decades audiences have increasingly begun to know him also as a composer. From the Diary of Anne Frank, his dramatic work for narrator and orchestra, has been heard around the world. Since 1999 audiences in Davies Symphony Hall have heard a variety of his compositions, including his Three Songs to Poems by Walt Whitman (premiered in 1999 with baritone Thomas Hampson), his Poems of Emily Dickinson (performed in 2002 with soprano Renée Fleming), his Urban Legend (a concerto for contrabassoon and orchestra, introduced with the San Francisco Symphony’s contrabassoonist, Steven Braunstein, as soloist), and his percussion-rich Island Music (which the San Francisco Symphony presented in 2005). A new work, Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind received its world premiere last season with the New World Symphony and will be given its West Coast premiere with soprano Measha Brueggergosman and the SFS in June 2017. In the 1994 book Viva Voce, a collection of his conversations with the critic Edward Seckerson, Michael Tilson Thomas described himself as “a fledgling composer.” Things have changed.
In fact, MTT got his first experience inventing music long ago. He told Seckerson that, as a child, he was drawn to improvising at the piano, and often he did so in public. Gradually he began to write down music, too, and while in college he composed a ballet score. Embarked on the path of a professional musician, he began working as a pianist in contemporary music circles, which proved fertile ground for unveiling his improvisations. He also began conducting in those circles, and his obvious talent on the podium led him to the career we are all familiar with. Composing took a back seat, although he continued to flirt with the idea of writing music on a more regular basis. Leonard Bernstein, another figure who struggled to find a balance between competing musical disciplines, once told him, “You have to develop the compulsion to share your music and then you’ll do something about it. When you’re ready, you’ll be ready.”
It was, in fact, a Bernstein birthday party at Tanglewood, in 1988, that marked one of the first public performances of a composition by Michael Tilson Thomas, a short song titled “Grace,” sung on that occasion by soprano Roberta Alexander. Other compositions followed: a 1988 piece called Street Song for the Empire Brass Quintet (which that ensemble recorded), then From the Diary of Anne Frank (1989-90), a large-scale work for narrator and orchestra premiered by Audrey Hepburn and the New World Symphony in Philadelphia, with the composer conducting, as a benefit for UNICEF. “What these three experiences [“Grace,” Street Song, and Anne Frank] did,” explains MTT, “was to cause me to take my writing seriously, to care about it, and to care about wanting to have people hear what was going on inside my head. . . . I now understand what Aaron [Copland] and Lenny [Bernstein] said about committing oneself to writing it down and to selecting more carefully what is really essential.”
When Viva Voce was published, MTT was hovering at the point of breakthrough as a composer. In the years since then his commitment has intensified, and he has taken pains to set aside significant blocks of time to developing what has turned out to be an expert and highly individualized creative voice. He has brought several impressive works to fruition in the past few decades: a set of five songs (incorporating “Grace”) completed in 1994, the symphonic Shówa/Shoáh (1995, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima), the short orchestral work Agnegram, and the Whitman Songs, the Poems of Emily Dickinson, Urban Legend, and Island Music.
Agnegram was introduced here in 1998 and dedicated to longtime SFS Board member Agnes Albert on her 90th birthday. Albert (1908-2002) led an altogether remarkable life. Shortly after her passing, the Symphony’s then-Publications Editor Larry Rothe wrote in these pages:
For half a century Agnes Albert was the San Francisco Symphony’s friend, mentor, patroness, and muse. She grew up with music, listening, mingling with those who played it, playing it herself. As a young woman she joined the Budapest and Pro Arte quartets in chamber music. She was piano soloist in Franck’s Symphonic Variations with the SFS under Bernardino Molinari in 1932, and in 1952 Pierre Monteux invited her to play that same work in his last concerts as Music Director. The list of Agnes’s friends reads like a Who’s Who of twentieth-century artists, [including] Yo-Yo Ma, Ansel Adams, Yehudi Menuhin, and Michael Tilson Thomas.
She loved young people, and one of her enduring legacies is the SFS Youth Orchestra, fulfillment of a long-dreamt dream. Her generosity made possible the Symphony’s Agnes Albert Youth Music Education Fund, Adventures in Music, and the Concerts for Kids and Music for Families series. In her later years she was bent on ensuring that Jascha Heifetz’s Guarnerius del Gesù violin, the ex-David, would be played in public after the great violinist willed it to the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. That vision became reality when, in 2002, the SFS and the Museums reached an agreement that put the Guarnerius in the hands of Concertmaster Alexander Barantschik.
The title of this birthday card from her friend and admirer Michael Tilson Thomas involves a bit of affectionate wordplay with her name; and, as the composer explains in his comments about the piece, the “word play” carries over as “musical play” in the composition itself. —James M. Keller
Category: For Orchestra
Year Composed: 1998
Duration: 4 minutes