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Why San Francisco Symphony Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas Loves the City

The renowned music director celebrates his 70th birthday and 20 years with the SF Symphony in 2015.

Often referred to as MTT, the renowned conductor Michael Tilson Thomas has led the San Francisco Symphony for 20 years and celebrated his 70th birthday this year. Under his direction, the symphony has won 11 Grammys, garnered an international reputation for dynamic, risk-taking programming and emphasized community engagement. In 2010, MTT was awarded the National Medal of Arts, one of the nation’s highest artistic honors by President Obama.

San Francisco Symphony
(©SF Symphony)

This is your 20th year with the San Francisco Symphony. What are you most looking forward to?
We're exploring expanding the visual element of the concert experience. Beethoven’s masterpiece “Missa Solemnis,” for example, is one of my favorite works, but I completely understand why it may be mysterious for many members of the audience. It is large in scale and scope; many different things are going on in the piece, all happening on top of one another. So I began to imagine how we could work with staging, lighting, video and projection to give the audience more context, more windows into the piece to understand and enjoy it more. We’ll present this new production next June, and it should make for an exciting experience. 

San Francisco Symphony
(©SF Symphony)

How is the SF Symphony unique?
From the very first concert I heard the musicians play in 1974, I was aware of the wonderful, daring spirit of the orchestra. It’s a spirit that very much mirrors and emanates from the spirit of San Francisco itself. We’re a very adventurous city, and our orchestra and audience are both interested in new repertoire and new approaches to familiar repertoire. 

What do you love about San Francisco?
One of my favorite things is our famous fog. I was fascinated by it as a child on my trips up the coast, watching the fog lurk out over the ocean and then swirl across through the Golden Gate. The way it shrouds the city in a mystery always captivated me. It still does.

San Francisco Ballet
(©Erik Tomasson/SF Ballet)

What is your favorite local arts venue besides Davies Symphony Hall?
This is a city with such a breadth of options in the arts and so much at the highest level of performance. Of course I’m partial to the symphony, but whether it’s taking in a performance by the San Francisco Ballet, Lines Ballet, ODC or San Francisco Opera or visiting SFMOMA, the Asian Art Museum or the de Young Museum, there is so much to enjoy. On occasion, I also check out the latest Beach Blanket Babylon production or enjoy a show at SFJazz.

What are your favorite restaurants?
I have long been an admirer of my friend Alice Waters’ approach and creativity. When I can’t make it over to Berkeley to enjoy her wonderful cuisine [at Chez Panisse], I might be found at Traci Des Jardins’ new restaurant Arguello or, after a rehearsal or concert, at Jardinière near the symphony. On a day off, I might walk down the hill from my home to Rose’s Café for a quick lunch or to Pane e Vino—perhaps my favorite neighborhood eatery—for dinner.

Are you excited about any upcoming projects?
At the symphony, we are launching our own new venue, SoundBox, an experimental performance space that will offer eclectic programs in a casual, nightclub like setting with projections and a state-of-the-art Meyer Constellation sound system. It will definitely be a space to watch.


My Perfect Day

Ferry Building Farmers Market
Ferry Building Farmers Market (©Scott Chemis/SF Travel)

On Saturdays, I love stopping by the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market to pick out some fresh produce and sample the delights of local culinary artisans. After a quick stop at Frog Hollow Farm for coffee, it’s time to sample some amazing cheeses, jams, and delicious produce from local organic farmers. A steaming cup of porridge from Out the Door also hits the spot on a cool, foggy morning.

Crissy Field
Crissy Field (©Parks Conservancy)

Then it might be off to Crissy Field, a great place to walk my two dogs, Banda and Maydela. With its dog-friendly beach and miles of paths along the restored bay shore, my dogs and guests can’t get enough of it. Its highlight is, of course, the spectacular view of the Golden Gate Bridge. And if we’re lucky, the bridge is enshrouded in that magnificent fog as it snakes over Alcatraz and into the rest of the bay.

I like to spend most evenings at home, sharing time with friends, cooking, reading and playing music. Or, I go out to one of the city’s many cultural and performing institutions. Nothing gives me greater pleasure than to invite an out-of-town friend to sit in the conductor’s box and let all 108 musicians of the San Francisco Symphony entertain them!

Watch MTT conduct the San Francisco Symphony at Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., 415.864.6000.