Love is Blue: Impressions from MTT's Grand Finale

The author of this blog, Julia Copeland, is a former ACSO Board member, the former Executive Director of Youth Orchestras of Fresno, and a professional violinist. Julia shares her thoughts and impressions from attending the San Francisco Symphony's performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 5 guest conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) on Thursday, January 25, 2024. The concert was part of the last subscription series MTT will conduct for SFS, where he was music director from 1995-2020, and marked the 50th anniversary of his debut with the orchestra.

You knew the minute he came onstage what kind of night it would be. He was himself…and yet not exactly. We could feel the pressure of tears building already before he reached the podium. It was that kind of night. Anyone who tells you otherwise is just trying to seem tough.

All the musicians were sporting these shiny lapel decorations, the twisted ribbon shape familiar to us from breast cancer awareness, but shinier and very, very blue, because blue is Michael’s favorite color. Learning that, many in the audience may have remembered that as we approached Davies Hall, the building had been awash in blue and white light (though we could have been forgiven for at first thinking it was blue and yellow…maybe for Ukraine?...before deciding the yellow was meant as white, and was simply a by-product of incandescent bulbs).

We had hurried toward that light and toward that beautiful, emotional evening.

The Michael some of us were remembering…ok, not many of us. You have to be very old to remember a young, funny, impulsive Michael on the podium, conducting faster and faster as a piece raced toward an ending. We remember Petrushkas that felt faster than the speed of light, and a memorable Tchaik Six where, when the audience burst into applause after the third movement (as audiences can reliably be expected to do—even seasoned audiences), he thought for a moment, turned to the clapping crowd and, doing a pretty convincing Porky Pig, said, "That’s all, folks," and left the podium.

Thursday’s Michael was not that young, irreverent Michael.

Thursday’s Michael was an elder statesman, himself revered. He was in a house filled with adoring fans, standing before an orchestra that loved him. This was clear with every move they made, every note they played. Michael stood before them, making familiar Tilson Thomas gestures, and they responded with…

A lovefest.

That’s what I saw, anyway. I saw an orchestra making a Mahler Five performance like chamber music—but a special chamber music. Chamber music that was possible because of the years they had spent with this man, and because of the Mahler sensibility they had absorbed from him. This is not to imply that they would worship a conductor, or that they don’t have autonomy and minds of their own. It’s just that orchestras do absorb approaches and habits from their permanent conductors…this is all I mean here…and also it was a beautiful thing they were doing.  They were creating a Mahler Five that felt, to impressionable audience members, like an apotheosis of collaborative energy, a true communion. This was a joint effort created from memory and love in response to Tilson Thomas’s expansive movements—still recognizably his movements—on the podium.

There was not a dry eye in the house during the adagietto, I guarantee you.

And of course, in the end, there was a standing ovation that went on and on, and a lovely though maybe tired, maybe confused reaction from Tilson Thomas, basking or exhausted—it didn’t matter. The lovefest could not be stopped.

Everyone loved everyone. Vibes radiated to and from the stage, and onstage among and between…

All those sad but triumphant faces, all those blue shiny ribbons, all that applause

You would have cried too.

All photos courtesy of San Francisco Symphony and Michael Tilson Thomas via Instagram

About the Author: 
After a career that included stints as a violinist in the Louisville Orchestra, the Mexico City Philharmonic, the Pacific Symphony, and the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Julia Copeland spent several years as a writer, columnist, editor, and English teacher before returning to music as an arts administrator. She is a co-founder, with conductor Thomas Loewenheim, of the iMAYO international festival in Bloomington, Indiana, and of the FOOSA Festival/Fresno Summer Orchestra Academy in California. The FOOSA Festival was part of her work as Executive Director of the Youth Orchestras of Fresno, where she spent fourteen years, and where she also founded and directed the El Sistema-inspired Access Violin Program. Copeland is a past board member of ACSO and continues to volunteer in various capacities for that organization. She currently serves on the boards of Fresno ASTA and the Fresno Arts Council.

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