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After 25 Years, Michael Tilson Thomas Will Leave San Francisco Symphony

Why did you decide it was time?

It will be my 75th year when this happens, and will also be my 25th year as music director of the San Francisco Symphony. Almost my entire adult life I’ve been the music director of some organization or another. I have volumes and volumes of almost-completed compositions and stories and poems and collections and all sorts of things. For years I’ve been thinking that if I’m going to be able to devote time to making sure that these things are in good shape before I’m outta here, this would be a kind of good moment to think about doing that.


Mr. Thomas with the San Francisco Symphony and the pianist Inon Barnatan at Carnegie Hall in 2016.

Hiroyuki Ito for The New York Times

How is this orchestra different from the one you inherited?

I’m not a control-freak maestro. From night to night we’re not trying to make the performances congruent to one another, but different from one another. And when we come back to a piece, it will be different, as we’ve all changed. And I think that keeps it a very living kind of experience.

I have encouraged people to color outside the lines, for lack of a better analogy. We’re not trying to reproduce the notation here. We’re trying to get back to the inspiration that caused the notations to exist.

So you’re not an originalist?

“I only do exactly what’s in the score, the score has everything in it”: I do not believe that at all. I think the score is only the suggestion of what the piece actually has in it. The composers assume that the musicians who are going to play that music have imaginations and identities, and are going to bring something special to it.

Looking back, are there favorite performances that stand out, or composers you are especially proud of having brought back into the repertory?

We have found our way with Mahler, which is recognized. Also composers that I knew when I was a kid: Stravinsky and Copland and Bernstein and Feldman. And the orchestra has had an extraordinary relationship with John Adams over the years. The Maverick festivals in their various incarnations generally opened up the idea that American music could be many, many different things — from very intricate and very technical to very simple and acoustic. And that of course allowed composers like Lou Harrison to really become culture heroes.

I should also mention that it really meant so much to Joshua [Robison, his husband] and to me to be able to be such an accepted, loved couple in this city — in its artistic life, in its social life. This was a really wonderful kind of acceptance, which somehow symbolized so many changes that have happened for the good in our society in this time.

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