Michael Tilson Thomas

Michael Tilson Thomas

Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) assumed his post as the San Francisco Symphony’s (SFS) 11th Music Director in September 1995, consolidating a strong relationship with the Orchestra that began some two decades earlier.  He made his San Francisco Symphony conducting debut in 1974 at 29, leading the Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 9. 

Tilson Thomas celebrates his 18th season as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony during the Orchestra’s 2012-13 season.  He and the Orchestra have been praised for innovative programming, enhancing the orchestral concert experience with multimedia and creative staging, for showcasing the works of American composers, and attracting new audiences for orchestral music, both at Davies Symphony Hall and through the Orchestra’s extensive media projects.   In 2012, Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony presented a landmark two-week American Mavericks Festival, a celebration of America’s maverick musical heritage of the 20th century, and toured nationally with all American Mavericks repertoire, including four concerts at Carnegie Hall.  The initial American Mavericks Festival, which MTT and the Orchestra mounted in 2000, was a landmark 12-concert festival that established the orchestra’s reputation as a standard bearer for American music. MTT has led the Orchestra in internationally acclaimed explorations of the music of Mahler, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Beethoven, Wagner, and Weill. Semi-staged productions have included Bartók’s Duke Bluebeard’s Castle, Debussy’s Le martyre de Saint Sebastian, Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera-ballet Mlada, and The Thomashefskys, celebrating MTT’s grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, pioneers of the American Yiddish theater.

Michael Tilson Thomas’s acclaimed recordings have won numerous international awards, including 11 Grammys for SF Symphony recordings of Mahler’s symphonies 3, 6, 7, 8, and the Adagio from Symphony No. 10, scenes from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and a collection of three Stravinsky ballet scores – Le Sacres du printemps, The Firebird, and Perséphone. For the San Francisco Symphony’s own SFS Media label, Tilson Thomas and the Orchestra recorded all of Mahler’s symphonies and his works for voices, chorus and orchestra. Most recently, he and he Orchestra recorded and released John Adams’ Harmonielehre and Short Ride in a Fast Machine; Ives’ A Concord Symphony, arranged by Henry Brant; Copland’s Organ Symphony with Paul Jacobs; and Beethoven’s Symphonies Nos. 5 and 7 and his Piano Concerto No. 4 with Emanuel Ax. Tilson Thomas’s recordings also include pioneering work with the music of American composers Carl Ruggles, Steve Reich, John Cage and George and Ira Gershwin. 

Since1996, Tilson Thomas and the Orchestra have made more than two dozen national and international tours together. They continue to tour every year and perform regularly in Europe and throughout the United States.  They return to Asia in November 2012, performing 10 concerts in Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Taipei, Macau, and Tokyo. Acclaimed interpreters of Mahler’s music, Tilson Thomas and the SFS performed his symphonies in 2011 in some of Europe’s leading music capitals for the anniversaries of the composer’s birth and death, including the centerpiece: a rare four-concert engagement at the famed Vienna Konzerthaus. MTT and the Orchestra opened Carnegie Hall’s 2008-09 season with a gala tribute to Leonard Bernstein that was filmed for national broadcast on PBS’s Great Performances and released by SFS Media on DVD.  Other recent touring highlights, in addition to the two-week American Mavericks tour of the U.S. in 2012, include the Orchestra’s 2006 inaugural visit to mainland China, where they performed in Shanghai and opened the Hong Kong Arts Festival, and a 2007 tour of summer festivals including the London Proms and festivals of Edinburgh, Rheingau, Berlin and Lucerne. 

A Los Angeles native, Tilson Thomas began his formal studies at the University of Southern California, where he studied piano with John Crown and conducting and composition with Ingolf Dahl.  At 19, he was named Music Director of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra.  He worked with Stravinsky, Boulez, Stockhausen, and Copland on premieres of their works at Los Angeles’s famed Monday Evening Concerts.  During this period he was also pianist and conductor for Gregor Piatigorsky and Jascha Heifetz.

In 1969, at age 24, after winning the Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood, Tilson Thomas was appointed Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO).  Ten days later he made his New York debut with the Boston Symphony, gaining international recognition when he replaced Music Director William Steinberg mid-concert at Lincoln Center. He was later appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the BSO, where he remained until 1974. He led the television broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic’s famed Young People’s Concerts from 1971 to 1977. He has also served as Chief Conductor and Director of the Ojai Festival, Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, and a Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  He has toured the world with the London Symphony Orchestra, of which he became Principal Conductor in 1988 and now serves as Principal Guest Conductor.  Until 2000 he was co-Artistic Director of the Pacific Music Festival, which he and Leonard Bernstein inaugurated in Sapporo, Japan, in 1990. His guest conducting engagements include frequent appearances with the major orchestras of Europe and the United States.

Tilson Thomas is noted for his commitment to music education and young people. He founded the New World Symphony in Miami, a national training orchestra for the most gifted graduates of America’s conservatories, and continues as Artistic Director.  A newly-built Frank Gehry venue, the New World Center, conceived as a laboratory for the way music is taught, performed and experienced, opened in Miami Beach in 2011. As Artistic Director of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, MTT led the globally-sourced ensemble in both its first concert in 2009 at Carnegie Hall and the new group of musicians who performed at the Sydney Opera House in 2011. That event was the most popular live YouTube concert, with 33 million viewers.

MTT and the SFS created the acclaimed national Keeping Score PBS television series and multimedia project, unprecedented among American orchestras.  Designed to make classical music more accessible to people of all ages and musical backgrounds, Keeping Score is anchored by eight composer documentaries and eight live concert films, viewed by more than nine million Americans on national PBS television and DVD; an interactive web site to explore and learn about music, www.keepingscore.org; and a Peabody Award-winning national radio series with episodes hosted by MTT. Its education program for K-12 schools furthers teaching through the arts by integrating classical music into core subjects. Keeping Score composers include Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, Stravinsky, Copland, Ives, Berlioz, Shostakovich, and Mahler.

Acclaimed for his work as a composer, MTT has given world premieres of many of his works with the San Francisco Symphony.   In 1999, MTT conducted the SFS in the first orchestral version of Three Songs to Poems by Walt Whitman, and in 2001, Renée Fleming and the SFS premiered his song cycle Poems of Emily Dickinson.  In 2002, Tilson Thomas led the SFS in the world premiere of his contrabassoon concerto Urban Legend, with SFS contrabassoonist Steven Braunstein as soloist.  In 2005, MTT and the SFS performed Tilson Thomas’s Island Music, dedicated to the memory of Lou Harrison.  In 1991, Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony performed From the Diary of Anne Frank, composed by Tilson Thomas and commissioned by UNICEF.  His composition Shówa/Shoáh was written in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. 

Tilson Thomas’s many honors include the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists by the U.S. government, presented by President Barack Obama in February 2010. He has also been recognized with Columbia University’s Ditson Award for services to American Music and the President’s Award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.   He was named 1995 Conductor of the Year by Musical America.  Tilson Thomas was a Carnegie Hall Perspectives Artist from 2003-2005. In 2006 he was recognized with Gramophone’s Artist of the Year award, and was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  Tilson Thomas is a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres of France.  

(July 2012)