Sasha Cooke has been a reliably radiant artistic presence at San Francisco Symphony concerts over the last decade. She takes on a new role this season as she embarks on an artist residency with the SFS showcasing her as soloist with orchestra in works of Mahler and Michael Tilson Thomas (January 9–12), in a special chamber recital celebrating her relationship with the SFS (May 31), and as a mentor to music students in the San Francisco Unified School District. We caught up with Cooke as she completed a run as Hänsel in San Francisco Opera’s Hänsel und Gretel last month.
Sasha Cooke will never forget meeting Michael Tilson Thomas. As the Grammy award-winning mezzo-soprano recalls, “I was backstage at Carnegie Hall, where my husband [bass-baritone Kelly Markgraf] was appearing in a production of West Side Story that Michael was conducting. Michael had heard me on a CD, and when we were introduced, right away he said ‘Oh, we’re going to do a lot together. We’re going to do Debussy, we’re going to do Mahler.’ And I thought: ‘What?! How do you even know me!’ But he was so gracious and generous. And soon we were working together.”
In the ensuing 10 years, they’ve collaborated on close to 15 projects, performing and recording everything from Mahler symphonies and songs, to Debussy, Beethoven, and Berlioz.
“Then, about four or five years ago, we were on tour in Europe with Mahler’s Third Symphony, and Michael said to me, ‘You should be an artist-in-residence.’ At the time, that hadn’t really happened with the San Francisco Symphony. But that’s how this started. He’s just that kind of person.”
The first performances of Cooke’s residency come on January 9–12, when she’ll appear as soloist in the world premiere of MTT’s Rilke Songs, a song cycle based on the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke. “There is a bit of Mahler in Michael’s writing, which is fitting, because of the relationship between Mahler and Rilke. Michael has a sort of wink in his music, a flirtatious quality and swing. These Rilke Songs in particular have a lot of lyricism, sweetness, and whimsy.”
Although Cooke is no stranger to launching new works—Nico Muhly’s Marnie and Mason Bates’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs were on her calendar in recent seasons—she admits, world premieres are challenging. “I think there’s a little bit more responsibility. But there’s also a certain freedom. And my relationship with Michael makes for a very special life experience. It’s not just another concert (not that any concert is ‘just another concert!’) But a premiere like this does leave an imprint on the mind and on the person and on the career really.”
Also on the program with the Rilke Songs are several songs from Mahler’s Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a setting of German folk poems. With the 2019–20 season marking the end of MTT’s tenure as SFS Music Director, Cooke notes, “this season is one of celebrations, and it’s only fitting for Michael to do as much Mahler as possible. Plus, the relationship that Mahler has to poetry and to song is very similar to that which Michael has; it’s very personal. Most people don’t realize that Mahler’s songs are some of his most amazing work. Certainly the symphonies are incredible, but so many of the symphonies come from song ideas, or folk song ideas. And he’s an intimate composer, ‘heart-on-your-sleeve,’ very feeling, contemplative, and philosophical, and that lends itself so well to song.”
Needless to say, this connection makes it a joy to sing Mahler with MTT on the podium. “I remember once hearing a singer say, ‘I sing better when I’m singing with Michael.’ I felt this the very first time we worked together. And once after a concert, he said, ‘Whatever you do, I’ll be with you; don’t come to us, we’ll come to you.’ It was very supportive and heartfelt. What I love about Mahler is that we’re going on this journey of the human experience together. We’re all having different human experiences, but we’re having them together. Maybe what Michael recognizes in me is that we both feel that about music, and about the spiritual aspect of music.”
Throughout her residency this season, Cooke will also be involved in a unique educational project exploring the relationship between composers and singers and the creation of new vocal works. Students from the Ruth Asawa San Francisco School of the Arts have already attended a San Francisco Opera rehearsal (Cooke starred in Hänsel und Gretel last month), and a masterclass with Cooke featuring plenty of Q&A. This month, they’ll see Cooke in rehearsal and performance with the Symphony. To cap off the experience, vocal students are being paired with student composers, working together to compose and perform new works. “I’m so passionate about this,” Cooke says. “I feel I can connect with the students, because it wasn’t so long ago that I was a student myself. I’m trying to figure out a way to do it more often.”
That’s not easy, given the globetrotting life of an internationally renowned artist. “I feel like every four years I am confronted with my human limitations, you know, and I have to sort of take another look at the schedule. One key factor is taking care of your personal relationships. My husband understands this lifestyle because he’s a singer himself. And an amazing dad!”
Cooke’s residency concludes on May 31 with a solo and chamber music recital in Davies Symphony Hall, designed to encapsulate her musical journey, over more than a decade, with MTT and the Symphony. “I’ll be singing some of the composers that I’ve sung in San Francisco, and I’m also having some of the players from the orchestra join me, to honor them and include them. I’m kind of considering it a love song to San Francisco, and to the Symphony . . . and to Michael.”
Steve Holt is a contributing writer to the San Francisco Symphony program book. This article first appeared in the program books of the San Francisco Symphony, and is used with permission.