Tuning in to MTT, for most exciting music

San Franciscans love their maverick conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas

Classical Music

March 21, 2004|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

SAN FRANCISCO -- In one city after another, orchestras are facing the music and it's not a pretty sound. Creeping, if not vaulting, deficits; dwindling, aging audiences; ever-increasing personnel expenses -- all part of the same, minor-key tune.

Last week, the exalted Chicago Symphony Orchestra received one of the cruelest blows yet in this gloomy era: Moody's Investors Service downgraded the orchestra's bond rating due to flat ticket sales and a declining base of subscribers. Talk about adding insult to injury.

It's all enough to make grown classical music lovers cry -- or consider moving to San Francisco, where the outlook, even on foggy days, remains unusually bright.

The San Francisco Symphony is thriving in ways that make it a source of widespread envy. It's ahead of the pack in innovative Internet activities, including a terrific educational Web site for kids. While most American orchestras have lost their recording contracts, the San Franciscans are in the midst of a self-produced Mahler cycle on CD; the Symphony No. 6 release won last year's Grammy for best orchestral performance, and the Symphony No. 3 release won this year's Grammy for best classical album.

In a few months, a PBS broadcast will kick off the orchestra's bold multimedia project aimed at nothing less than changing the way people in this country think about classical music.

When even Rolling Stone magazine takes notice -- declaring that this once "conservative and slightly fusty orchestra" has turned "into the most adventurous, inspiring musical organization in this country" -- you know something is up.

What's behind all this? The answer can be most succinctly summed up in three letters: MTT.

They stand, of course, for Michael Tilson Thomas, the most prodigiously gifted American conductor since Leonard Bernstein. It's hard to imagine the San Francisco Symphony would be so thriving if MTT had not become music director in 1995. It's one of the best matchups of conductor, orchestra and locale this country has seen yet.

"I loved San Francisco as a kid," says Tilson Thomas, who was born down the coast in Los Angeles in 1944. "Coming up here as a boy was a great adventure. This always seemed to me more of a real city. San Francisco is so much more in focus. And there is an excitement here; it seems like it emerges naturally."

The orchestra certainly had some exciting times before Tilson Thomas got there, but things have been sparking most impressively on his watch. This sturdy marriage of conductor and ensemble has been very good for business.

It's not that all of the problems in the industry somehow bypassed this organization. The same economic malaise that has affected the rest of the country has been felt in San Francisco, too, and a dot.com bust was particularly draining on the Bay Area. But the orchestra has avoided a crippling debt cycle. A deficit last season, the first in several years, was an almost negligible $136,000 on a budget of $51 million.

The administration and board of directors "looked at the numbers during the 1999-2000 season, when the economy was booming, and realized this can't continue," says San Francisco Symphony executive director Brent Assink. "We asked ourselves what we would look like if the market dropped 20 percent and stayed down for five years."

The orchestra started adjusting expenses back then, while others (such as the red-ink-spilling San Francisco Opera across the street) apparently assumed that the good times would just keep rolling. There is still a decline in the rate of contributions to fight, and assorted other financial pressures. "But ticket sales are holding up," Assink says. "And that speaks volumes about Michael Tilson Thomas and the relationship he has built with this community. People are looking harder at where they spend their income. One thing they don't want to miss is the symphony."

Who can blame them?

From the start of his tenure, Tilson Thomas has been shaking up expectations and stretching ears in the orchestra's home, the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall. "There's a tradition of maverick thinking in this town," the conductor says. "I find myself much in sympathy with that."

Festivals of music

The maverick in Tilson Thomas put on a concert with the still-gratefully-alive members of the Grateful Dead in 1996, an event people still talk about. Year after year, he has turned the spotlight on absurdly neglected American composers, such as Lou Harrison, Carl Ruggles and Henry Cowell. In 2000, he produced the ultimate demonstration of his faith in the music of his countrymen -- the 12-concert "American Mavericks" festival.

"The festival made no financial sense whatsoever," Assink says. "It was very scary for the board. But this board believes there has to be an innovative spark, a little bit of an edge to what we do."

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