MTT and the Banquet Years at the SF Symphony

We now reach the present day and Michael Tilson Thomas's extensive recordings, the seventh article of a series of articles devoted to the San Francisco Symphony's long discography. The story so far:

When Michael Tilson Thomas, or MTT as he is commonly known, became the Symphony's music director in 1995, he was a well-seasoned, experienced conductor taking the helm of a beautifully trained ensemble. This potent combination has once and for all cemented the SFS as one of today's leading orchestras. Nowhere is that more obvious than in the MTT/SFS recordings, with their numerous Grammy awards and critical praise.

Despite the sheer number of recordings, MTT's San Francisco discography is actually the easiest to describe of any I've covered in the course of these essays. It divides neatly into two categories: Mahler, and not-Mahler. All of the Mahler recordings, save one, were produced by the symphony's own in-house label — and even the holdout has been remastered and re-released to match the others. The non-Mahler recordings, on the other hand, are products of the symphony's former contract with RCA Victor, which brought the orchestra back into association with the label that had started it all back in 1925, and which was also responsible for SFS recordings from Monteux, Stokowski, and Jorda.

MTT/SFS came out of the gate like the champions they are with a 1996 Prokofiev Romeo & Juliet which set an exceptionally high standard for performance and audio quality. It's still available and merits consideration as anybody's first choice for this wonderful score.

Throughout his career, Thomas has shown a special affinity for two American composers: Aaron Copland, and George Gershwin. He brought that authority to the SFS with his first set of Copland recordings, also in 1996 on RCA, concentrating on Copland's more modernistic works such as the Symphonic Ode, Short Symphony, Orchestral Variations, and the jazz-age Piano Concerto with Garrick Ohlsson as soloist. MTT was then to follow up in 2000 with a counterbalancing album of Copland's more populist works Billy the Kid, Rodeo, and Appalachian Spring. Both albums were offered together as a set called "The Essence of America - Copland" together with Fanfare for the Common Man (which also pops up on an album called "American Anthen - Songs and Hymns") in 2000.

MTT's 100th-birthday-bash Gershwin recording with the Symphony came out in 1998, with Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell singing selections from Porgy and Bess, the opera from which MTT extracted the suite Catfish Row, the tone poem An American in Paris, Garrick Ohlsson returning for the Concerto in F, and MTT himself soloing in the rarely-performed Second Rhapsody. That disc remains available, and to muddy the waters a bit, RCA put out a reissue which pairs the Concerto in F and American in Paris with MTT's marvelously personalized performance of Rhapsody in Blue with the New World Symphony, in the original jazz band version.

Thomas has also been a strong champion of the music of Charles Ives, with the 2002 Charles Ives: An American Journey making a strong case for this difficult, if fascinating, American original. One of San Francisco's most popular singers, Thomas Hampson, joins the SFS, the Symphony Chorus, the SF Girls Chorus, and MTT himself on piano for a grand romp.

And then there's Stravinsky, an American citizen to be sure with homes in Los Angeles and New York, but truly a citizen of the world as one of the major figures of 20th century music. MTT had already recorded some excellent Stravinsky discs with the London Symphony, but with the SFS he outdid himself and gave us a trio of The Rite of Spring, The Firebird, and Perséphone which, in my opinion, ranks among the finest achievements in the orchestra's entire 80-year discographic history. How many Sacres are there out there, anyway? But MTT and the SFS produce "one of its most blistering performances in recent years", as Victor Carr Jr. puts it on the review site ClassicsToday.

Rounding off the RCA Victor part of the discography comes the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique (together with a bit from the sequel Lélio.) Like Le Sacre, the Fantastic Symphony has been recorded by just about everybody and his dog, and there are some truly grand performances available in the catalog. David Hurwitz puts it: "Even in a crowded field, this 1997 recording easily withstands comparison to any of the great versions of the past (Munch, Markevitch, Bernstein), and it sounds better than any of them."

In 1997 MTT and the SFS recorded Mahler's early Das klagende Lied, with vocal soloists and the Symphony Chorus. This proved to be the start of a complete Mahler series, although this prefatory excursion was to be the only one recorded by RCA Victor. In 2002, the SFS launched the Mahler series proper, with Symphony No. 6 on its own in-house SFS Media label. The Mahler performances are taken from live recordings — typically more than one — and are offered on hybrid CDs which offer SACD sound when played on appropriate equipment.

As of 2008, the Mahler series is on the edge of completion. Das Lied von der Erde is due out in September, and November performances of the Eighth will be recorded for the series. So far, the Mahler series has racked up an impressive three Grammies as well as a German Record Critics award.

Among the various soloists to appear on the Mahler series are mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung (Kindertotenlieder), soprano Laura Claycomb (Symphony No. 4), mezzo-soprano Lorraine Hunt Leiberson (Symphony No. 2), and soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian (also Symphony No. 2). The forthcoming Das Lied von der Erde will feature tenor Stuart Skelton and baritone Thomas Hampson. (I have an article in the pipeline about the work and this new recording, by the way.)

Critical reaction to the various Mahler recordings has been varied, but generally ranges mostly from 'very good' to 'utterly stellar' ratings. David Hurwitz's review of Symphony No. 4 is indicative of the overall critical temperature: "The performance's sheer technical perfection, never mind the fact that it was edited from a series of live performances, attests to the exceptionally high standards prevailing in San Francisco at present, and the polish of the playing is complemented by abundant interpretive insight and an equally characterful response from the first chair players. There are too many "highlights" to list here..."

There are a few bits of miscellanea to cover about MTT and the SFS. For one thing, the set of "Keeping Score" DVDs are among the snazziest music-appreciation discs around, combining stellar performances of the works in question (Beethoven Eroica, Copland Appalachian Spring, Stravinsky Le Sacre, Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony) with imaginative presentations, often including insights from the Symphony's players as well as MTT. By providing a snapshot of MTT's San Francisco Symphony, these DVDs may well serve invaluable for future historians. (Just think how great it would have been to have film of some of the great SFS players of the past, discussing their art.) Finally, MTT and the SFS have recorded Gordon Getty's Young America, a fascinating and extremely expressive work written by a man who is not only one of the City's most generous musical patrons, but a fine composer in his own right.

Coming up: my final article on this particular topic (well, for now anyway), a valedictory discussing some of my own personal favorites from the SFS's long recorded history.