Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony will open their 20th season together on Sept. 3 at Davies Symphony Hall with a Gala event. Bonnie Raitt will sing songs associated with her late father, Broadway singer John Raitt. Pianist Yuja Wang will solo in Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue." And the orchestra will offer Stravinsky's "Circus Polka," a ballet for 50 elephants, whose digital images will dance across a giant video screen above the musicians.

"It's amazing for me, here in San Francisco," said Tilson Thomas, the orchestra's conductor and music director. "We've lived through so much together -- 20 years, and we're still in this good place. I love it. It's very much for me about having this experience with the musicians, and that we continue to bring this message to our audience."

Details of the orchestra's 103rd season were announced today.

The dozens of programs also include:

  • Performances of works by 17 American composers, one on nearly every program conducted by Tilson Thomas. The list ranges from Harold Arlen and Leonard Bernstein to the Bay Area-based triumvirate of John Adams, Samuel Adams and Mason Bates.

  • A three-week Beethoven festival, June 10-28, 2015 (including a semi-staged "Fidelio" and a re-creation of the 1808 marathon concert in Vienna that introduced Symphonies Nos. 5 and 6 and other famous works).

  • The unveiling of an experimental performance space inside Davies Symphony Hall, called SoundBox (ten programs, debuting Dec. 12-13, in a cabaret-style setting with flexible seating and bar service).


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  • The celebration of Tilson Thomas's 70th birthday (with pianists Wang, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Emanuel Ax, Jeremy Denk and Marc-André Hamelin together playing Liszt's "Hexameron" for Piano and Orchestra, Jan. 15, 2015).

    Tilson Thomas will lead the orchestra on a 20th anniversary tour in November 2014, including a stop at Carnegie Hall. And he will bring the London Symphony Orchestra -- he is its principal guest conductor -- to Davies as part of the Great Performances Series, March 22-23, 2015.

    That series also will include the Rotterdam Philharmonic conducted by Yannick Nézet-Séguin, with pianist Hélène Grimaud (Feb. 15-16, 2015); the Seoul Philharmonic Orchestra led by Myung Whun-Chung (April 19, 2015); and John Eliot Gardiner with his English Baroque Soloists performing Monteverdi's "L'Orfeo" (April 27, 2015).

    The season includes the return of guest conductors Herbert Blomstedt (the orchestra's conductor laureate), Semyon Bychkov, Charles Dutoit, Pablo Heras-Casado and Esa-Pekka Salonen, among others. There will be the usual slew of star soloists including these pianists: Leif Ove Andsnes, Jonathan Biss, Yefim Bronfman, Kirill Gerstein and Garrick Ohlsson, not to mention the five who will play at Tilson Thomas's birthday party.

    Eight members of the San Francisco Symphony will perform as soloists during the season.

    Also, Tilson Thomas's fascination with multi-media will continue to bear fruit. Composer Thomas Adès will conduct his own "In Seven Days," described as "a concerto for piano with moving image" by video artist Tal Rosner (March 5-7, 2015). Tilson Thomas will lead a performance of John Cage's "Renga" that includes video, choreography and narration (May 16, 2016). And the Beethoven Festival will include a multi-media, semi-staged production of the Missa solemnis, directed by Michael Levine and featuring video design by Finn Ross (June 10-13, 2015).

    The subscription series is loaded with tempting programs. One led by Tilson Thomas arrives early, Sept. 25-28, 2014, featuring the orchestra, chorus and these works: Lukas Foss's "Then the Rocks on the Mountain Began to Shout," Charles Ives's "Three Places in New England," Johann Strauss's "By the Beautiful Blue Danube Waltz," György Ligeti's "Lux aeterna" and Richard Strauss's "Also sprach Zarathustra." (You may know those last three works from film director Stanley Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey.")

    Here's another good one, also led by Tilson Thomas, Feb. 26-March 1, 2015: Brahms's Violin Concerto in D major (with soloist Anne-Sophie Mutter); Alaska-based maverick composer John Luther Adams' "The Light that Fills the World"; and Schumann's Symphony No. 1. The season also includes Nino Rota's score to "The Godfather" (Jan. 9-10, 2015), one of 15 works that the orchestra will perform for the first time. Also among the 15 will be three works -- San Francisco Symphony co-commissions -- by young composers Cynthia Lee Wong, Zosha di Castri and Samuel Adams.

    I spoke last week to Tilson Thomas, who commented on many aspects of the season. Here's part of our interview:

    Q Michael, this is your 20th season and you're turning 70; those are landmark numbers. Congratulations.

    A Thanks, you're the first person to say that! It's really taken me totally by surprise. I don't feel tremendously different. I still feel the love and curiosity for the music I get to make. It's really the same.

    Q Tell me about you and Bonnie Raitt. You're friends?

    A Yes, for a long time, and I have such an appreciation of what she does. Oh my God, she's just such an artist. And there's the tradition she comes from, what her dad did -- I'm an omnivore when it comes to songs and American songs, especially. She comes to our (San Francisco Symphony) concerts, and then we also have fun hanging out and singing through bits and pieces of golden oldies, the wonders of yesterday.

    Q Like what?

    A How about "New York's a Lonely Town (When You're the Only Surfer Boy Around)"? (The Trade Winds had a Top 40 hit with that one in 1965.)

    Q There's such a terrific focus on American composers next season. How come? It harks back to your first years with the orchestra and the original American Mavericks Festival.

    A I guess there's a certain renewed doffing of the hat to that time. This music is still very important to me, and this new process of introducing new composers is important, too. And I like that it's connected with the opening of SoundBox, which is a sort of laboratory in which a lot of new music can be done. It's going to be a wonderful place for the musicians of the orchestra, for young composers working with multi-media. The collaborations that come out of that will have a resonance and a bearing on what goes on in Davies in the future, as well."

    Q It's neat to watch the emergence of Samuel Adams, who's only 28 and already quite a composer. The fact that he and his dad, John Adams, both live in the East Bay and are composing for the San Francisco Symphony -- has this sort of thing ever happened before with a major orchestra?

    A Not in my musical lifetime. I think you'd have to go pretty far back. I don't know if there were any occasions when Wolfgang Mozart and Leopold Mozart wrote something for the same orchestra, or if the Gabrielli brothers or the Bach family did it. I don't know!

    Q Tell me about John Cage's "Renga."

    A It's a new version which I've had in my mind for some time. John wrote it in 1976 to commemorate the (U.S.) Bicentennial. Basically, it's a very interesting kit from which it is possible for many different performances to emerge.

    I was at the premiere, sitting with John, and the score says it was written for the Bicentennial, but that it could (also) be used to commemorate the memory of a great artist. So I joked to him that one of these days I might do the piece as a memorial to him, and that's kind of what's happening.

    Q You've been doing a lot of Beethoven, and that continues with next season's festival.

    A I've been focusing on Beethoven all over again, but this time we're presenting different perspectives on the music. The last time we did Missa solemnis, I'd wanted to do something around some kind of (video and lighting) installation, but there wasn't time.

    Q How will it work next season?

    A It has a lot of moving parts, but basically the piece will be deployed in the hall ... with light and other elements to create atmosphere which will allow people to separate out the different things happening in the piece. It's so dense; everything is on top of everything else. And yet there are very specific references to the way time passes, referring to the many different speeds at which the text is being set, or it veers off into an allusion to music of the 15th or 16th century. It's moving around, and I have an idea about how to make it clearer to the audience.

    Q Re-creating the 1808 marathon concert is a great idea: Symphonies 5 and 6, the fourth piano concerto, they were all part of it, and others pieces, too. How long will it take?

    A Three or four hours. There will be two different orchestras, both the size of an orchestra that Beethoven would have had.

    A lot of people have spoken to me about this over the years: "I've read about this event, but I've never actually experienced it." It's an unbelievable experience, hearing these enormous pieces, some of the most famous pieces that exist. They were written for this one concert, which is hard to imagine.

    Q You're also doing "Fidelio," with the amazing Swedish soprano Nina Stemme. You're a fan?

    A Oh, yeah. I was totally knocked out by the "Ring" she did here (at San Francisco Opera in 2011).

    Contact Richard Scheinin at 408-920-5069, read his stories and reviews at www.mercurynews.com/richard-scheinin and follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/richardscheinin.

    San Francisco Symphony's 2014-15 season
    Michael Tilson Thomas, conductor/music director
    When: Sept. 3, 2014-June 28, 2015
    Where: Davies Symphony Hall, 201 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
    Tickest: Subscriptions on sale 10 a.m. Feb. 25, $186-$3,504; single tickets on sale July 21; 415-864-6000, www.sfsymphony.org