It’s always a zoo when Michael Tilson Thomas comes back to the Symphony to conduct but this week has been extraordinary. Michael was diagnosed with an agressive form of brain cancer a couple of years ago and his cognitive abilities are slipping. He was last here in February and the difference is painfully obvious.
The usual entourage has been supplemented with a male nurse and an extra assistant conductor. He needs to be shepherded carefully on and off stage. Teddy, the extra assistant conductor, has a seat in the front row and we have special stairs installed so he can get up the the podium quickly if necessary. In my role as Stage Manager, I have been the one to send him out there many times so I know his quirks. He’s not the same person.
What’s really interesting, though, is what he can do. Despite his limitations, he was still an engaged presence on the podium.
In rehearsal is when his difficulties were more evident. He lost his train of thought sometimes. He got confused about what rehearsal or measure number he wanted. He had problems articulating his desires.
The orchestra has enormous respect and love for Michael and went out of their way to be attentive and helpful. It’s an enormous strain on them, though. I had several people comment to me that, as a player, you can’t just let the music flow when his cues and tempi cannot be depended on.
But Teddy said to me early in the week that audiences aren’t coming to see the definitive performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. They are coming to see Michael. They want to pay what might be their final respects to a giant of the classical music world who was also an outsized presence in San Francisco for 25 years. Joshua Kosman, who has written classical music reviews in San Francisco for many years, wrote a lovely review of opening night.
As I write this, we’ve done two performances with a third scheduled for this afternoon. The auditorium has been packed to the rafters and there are no tickets available for today.
One of the things I do as Stage Manager is keep timings of the shows. Opening night, the applause at the end of the show went on for 8 1/2 minutes. Most shows have 3 or 4 minutes of applause.
Last night, the rhythm of the bows were interrupted by the Mayor, who made an announcement that one block of the street in front of Davies Hall would be renamed MTT Way. Michael then got the microphone and, after thanking her, asked her if that meant he didn’t have to worry about getting parking tickets any more. Classic!
Early in the week, many people were saying that Michael would not make it to the Sunday performance. I believe he will answer the bell today. He has shown us that his performing instincts are extraordinarily strong.
MTT is scheduled to conduct here again in February but no one believes that will happen. Sadly, this week is likely to be Michael Tilson Thomas’ last bow.