Since becoming Music Director in 1995, Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) has been part of the transformation of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) into one of the world’s leading ensembles. He has enhanced the Symphony’s international reputation and expanded the audience for classical music. Under MTT’s leadership, the Symphony has showcased the music of American composers, won eleven Grammy® awards –seven for its Mahler cycle – and created Keeping Score, a groundbreaking, multi-year PBS series and multimedia project that has made the music of Beethoven, Ives, Mahler and other masters more accessible to people of all ages and musical backgrounds.
MTT began his creative relationship with the SFS in 1974, when he made the first of many appearances as a guest conductor with the orchestra. Always a San Francisco favorite, he was named to succeed Herbert Blomstedt as SFS Music Director. During his inaugural 1995-96 season, MTT included an American work on almost every program and ended the season with An American Festival, a two-week celebration of American music. In 2000, he and the Symphony presented a landmark 12-concert American Mavericks Festival that celebrated America’s pioneering 20th century musical heritage and they reprised the concept with new composers and commissions for the Symphony’s Centennial Season in San Francisco and across the United States. Other lauded festivals, among others, have explored the music of Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Wagner, and the Jewish American theater. During his tenure, MTT has balanced contemporary music and the classic repertoire, collaborating with musicians as diverse as Yo-Yo Ma and members of the Grateful Dead.
In addition to leading the SFS, MTT is founding Artistic Director of the Miami-based New World Symphony, America’s Orchestral Academy for the most gifted graduates of conservatories. In 2011, MTT and the New World Symphony celebrated the opening of Miami’s acclaimed New World Center, a technologically advanced arts academy and concert hall designed by Frank Gehry.
He was also Artistic Advisor of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra in 2009 and 2011, ensembles made up of musicians from 33 countries selected entirely on-line. MTT conducted the orchestra’s debut concert at Carnegie Hall in 2009, and its 2011 concert in Sydney, which was viewed on-line by thirty-three million people, the most of any live musical event in internet history.
From 1987 to 1995, before assuming his role in San Francisco, he was the Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. He maintains a close relationship with the orchestra as its Principal Guest Conductor.
A Los Angeles native, MTT studied piano with John Crown and composition and conducting with Ingolf Dahl at the University of Southern California. There, he became Music Director of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra at nineteen, working with Stravinsky, Boulez, Stockhausen, and Copland on premieres of their compositions at the famed Monday Evening Concerts. MTT played piano and conducted for master classes given by Gregor Piatigorsky and Jascha Heifetz and, as a student of Friedelind Wagner, was an assistant conductor at the famed Bayreuth Festival in Germany.
In 1969, at the age of twenty-four, MTT won the coveted Koussevitzky Prize and was appointed Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony (BSO). Ten days later, his name became known internationally after he took the podium mid-concert at Lincoln Center to replace BSO Music Director William Steinberg, who had fallen ill. MTT went on to become the BSO’s Associate Conductor, then Principal Guest Conductor. He has also served as Chief Conductor and Director of the Ojai Festival, Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic and Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.
MTT and the SFS regularly tour the United States, Europe and Asia. In 2011, they performed Mahler symphonies in Europe’s leading music capitals for the anniversaries of the composer’s birth and death, including a four-concert engagement at the famed Vienna Konzerthaus. In 2006, they made their debut in mainland China, performing in Shanghai, as well as three acclaimed concerts to open the Hong Kong Arts Festival. MTT has also toured the world with the London Symphony Orchestra. Until 2000, he was co-Artistic Director of the Pacific Music Festival, which he and Leonard Bernstein inaugurated in Sapporo, Japan in 1990.
MTT’s wide-ranging recordings, which reflect the breadth of his interests as a conductor, composer and pianist, have won many international awards, in addition to his Grammy®-winning Mahler, Prokofiev and Stravinsky discs. His 2003 Ives recording with the SFS, An American Journey, won Germany’s ECHO Klassic Award for Symphonic Recording of the Year. He has recorded music by Bach and Beethoven, as well as his pioneering work with the music of Ruggles, Reich, Cage and Gershwin. He has appeared often on television. He developed and hosted the Keeping Score television series, which has been seen by over six million Americans. He has been featured with the Symphony on PBS’s Great Performances, in PBS documentaries with the New World Symphony, and on a BBC series with the London Symphony Orchestra. He led the New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts on CBS-TV from 1971 to 1977.
MTT has composed many well-received works, including From the Diary of Anne Frank; Shówa/Shoáh, which commemorated the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima; the contrabassoon concerto Urban Legend; Island Music, a percussive celebration dedicated to the memory of composer Lou Harrison; and Notturno. In 1999, MTT conducted the SFS in the first orchestral version of his Three Songs to Poems by Walt Whitman, sung by baritone Thomas Hampson, and in 2001, Renée Fleming and the SFS premiered MTT’s song cycle Poems of Emily Dickinson.
MTT’s many honors include the President’s Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences and Musical America's Conductor and Musician of the Year. He is a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres of France, was selected as Gramophone 2005 Artist of the Year, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was named one of America’s Best Leaders by U.S. News & World Report. In 2010, President Obama awarded him the National Medal of Arts.