Michael Tilson Thomas

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Michael Tilson Thomas is Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the New World Symphony and Conductor Laureate of the London Symphony Orchestra. Born in Los Angeles, he is the third generation of his family to pursue an artistic career. His grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, were founding members of the Yiddish Theater in America; his father, Ted Thomas, was a producer at the Mercury Theater Company in New York before moving to Los Angeles where he worked in film and television; and his mother, Roberta Thomas, was the head of research for Columbia Pictures. 

Michael Tilson Thomas. Photo by Art Streiber

Michael Tilson Thomas. Photo by Art Streiber

Mr. 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 age nineteen he was named Music Director of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra. During this same period, he was the pianist and conductor in master classes of Gregor Piatigorsky and Jascha Heifetz and worked with Stravinsky, Boulez, Stockhausen and Copland on premieres of their compositions at Los Angeles’ Monday Evening Concerts.

In 1969, after winning the Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood, Mr. Tilson Thomas was appointed Assistant Conductor and pianist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. That year he also made his New York debut with the Boston Symphony and gained international recognition after replacing Music Director William Steinberg mid-concert. He was later appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a position he held until 1974. He was Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic from 1971 to 1979 and a Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1981 to 1985. In 1988, he co-founded and became Artistic Director of the New World Symphony, a position he still holds. That same year, he was appointed Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra and served in that role until 1995, when he became Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony. He is Conductor Laureate of the LSO and becomes Music Director Laureate of the SFS in 2020, when he concludes his 25-year directorship of the orchestra. As a guest conductor, he has appeared with orchestras worldwide, including the major orchestras of Europe and the United States.

Mr. Tilson Thomas is a two-time Carnegie Hall Perspectives artist, curating and conducting series at the hall from 2003 to 2005 and from 2018 to 2019. In the current series, he leads Carnegie Hall’s National Youth Orchestra of the United States of America both at the hall and on tour in Asia, opens the Carnegie Hall season over two evenings with the San Francisco Symphony, conducts two programs with the Vienna Philharmonic and finishes with a pair of concerts leading the New World Symphony.

A winner of eleven Grammy Awards, Mr. Tilson Thomas appears on more than 120 recordings. His discography includes The Mahler Project, a collection of the composer’s complete symphonies and works for voice and orchestra performed with the San Francisco Symphony; pioneering recordings of music by Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, Steve Reich, John Cage, Ingolf Dahl, Morton Feldman, George Gershwin, John McLaughlin and Elvis Costello; and many additional releases spanning the orchestral repertoire, from Bach and Beethoven to Debussy and Stravinsky.

His television work includes a series with the London Symphony Orchestra for BBC Television, broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts from 1971 to 1977 and numerous productions on PBS’s Great Performances. With the San Francisco Symphony, he created a multi-tiered media project, Keeping Score, which includes a television series, web sites, and radio programs. He received a Peabody Award for his SFS Media radio series The MTT Files.

Mr. Tilson Thomas has been an active composer throughout his career and is represented by G. Schirmer. In 1991, he and the New World Symphony were presented in a series of benefit concerts for UNICEF in the United States, featuring Audrey Hepburn as narrator of his work From the Diary of Anne Frank, which was commissioned by UNICEF. This piece has since been translated and performed in many languages worldwide. In August 1995, he led the Pacific Music Festival Orchestra in the premiere of his composition Showa/Shoah, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. His vocal music includes settings of poetry by Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson, which were premiered by Thomas Hampson and Renee Fleming, respectively.

His song cycle Four Preludes on Playthings of the Wind, a setting of Carl Sandburg’s poem, was premiered in 2016 by the New World Symphony, which also gives the New York premiere as part of Mr. Tilson Thomas’s second Carnegie Hall Perspectives series. His first Carnegie Hall Perspectives series also included performances of his own compositions, including featuring Island Music for four marimbas and percussion, Notturno for solo flute and strings and new settings of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. Additional compositions include Street Song for brass instruments; Agnegram, an overture for orchestra; and Urban Legend, a concerto for contrabassoon that was premiered by the San Francisco Symphony.

Tilson Thomas co-founded the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, as an orchestral academy dedicated to preparing gifted graduates of distinguished music programs for leadership roles in classical music. As Artistic Director, he works with NWS Fellows to further their artistic development in performance and their professional development. Of the more than 1,100 alumni of the New World Symphony, 90% maintain careers in music, often as musicians or administrators in major orchestras. The New World Symphony has long been at the forefront of developments in the arts and education. Since 2011, the campus of the New World Symphony has been the technologically advanced, Frank Gehry-designed New World Center.

Mr. Tilson Thomas’s tenure as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony has been a period of significant growth and heightened international recognition for the orchestra. In addition to his continued exploration of the standard repertoire with the SFS, he has led the orchestra in championing and cultivating relationships with today’s leading composers, generating awareness and appreciation of American Maverick composers of the 20th century, and enriching the concert experience through semi-staged performances. He has also led the orchestra in numerous summer festivals and tours of Europe, United States and the Far East. As SFS Music Director Laureate starting in 2020, he will continue to lead the orchestra in four weeks of concerts each season, as well as in special projects.

As Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, Mr. Tilson Thomas led the orchestra on regular tours in Europe, the United States and Japan, as well as to the Salzburg Festival. In London he and the orchestra have mounted major festivals focusing on the music of Steve Reich, George Gershwin, Johannes Brahms, Toru Takemitsu, Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov and the School of St. Petersburg, Claude Debussy and Gustav Mahler. As Conductor Laureate of the LSO, he continues to lead the orchestra in concerts in London and on tour. His 70th birthday was celebrated by the orchestra with a concert he conducted at Buckingham Palace before the Queen of England.

Mr. Tilson Thomas is a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France, is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, was Musical America’s Musician of the Year and Conductor of the Year, Gramophone magazine’s Artist of the Year and has been profiled on CBS’s 60 Minutes and ABC’s Nightline. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts and was recently inducted into the California Hall of Fame and the American Academy of Arts and Letters.

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