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. It was January of 1974 when he made his San Francisco Symphony conducting debut at the age of 29, leading the Orchestra in Mahler’s Symphony No. 9.
Tilson Thomas’s fifteen seasons as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony have been praised by critics for innovative programming and for bringing the works of American composers to the fore, and have brought new audiences into Davies Symphony Hall. During his inaugural 1995-96 season, Tilson Thomas included an American work on nearly every one of his San Francisco Symphony programs, and ended the season with An American Festival, a groundbreaking two-week celebration of American music. In June 2000, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony presented a landmark 12-concert American Mavericks Festival, a celebration of America’s maverick musical heritage of the 20th century. Additional season-ending festivals in Davies Symphony Hall have included internationally acclaimed explorations of the music of Mahler, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Beethoven, Wagner, and Weill, including semi-staged productions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera-ballet Mlada, Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, and Beethoven’s Fidelio. In June 2005, MTT and the San Francisco Symphony again broke new musical ground with “Of Thee I Sing: Yiddish Theater, Broadway and the American Voice,” a two-week exploration of 20th century Jewish American music and its impact on the American theater. The festival included an evening 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 eight Grammys for SFS recordings of Mahler’s symphonies 3, 6 and 7, scenes from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, and a collection of three Stravinsky ballet scores – Le Sacres du printemps, The Firebird, and Perséphone. His many recordings include works by Bach, Beethoven, Mahler and Prokofiev, as well as his pioneering work with the music of Ives, Ruggles, Reich, Cage and Gershwin. His and the SFS’s recording of Charles Ives, An American Journey, won Germany’s ECHO Klassik 2003 award for “Symphonic Recording of the Year.” For the San Francisco Symphony’s own SFS Media label, launched in 2001, Tilson Thomas and the Orchestra are in the midst of a project to record all of Gustav Mahler’s nine symphonies and the Adagio from the unfinished Tenth Symphony, as well as Mahler’s song cycles.
In March 1996, Tilson Thomas led the Orchestra on the first of their thirteen national tours together; they continue to tour every year and perform regularly in Europe, Asia and throughout the United States. Past touring highlights include the Orchestra’s 1998 national tour commemorating the 100th anniversary of George Gershwin’s birth and including Carnegie Hall’s season-opening concert, broadcast on PBS’s Great Performances; the Orchestra’s East Coast tour in February 2001, when MTT and the SFS were joined in Carnegie Hall by the SFS Chorus for two sold-out performances of Mahler and Stravinsky; a highly successful European tour in May 2003 which included the European premieres of Tilson Thomas’s Songs of Emily Dickinson and John Adams’s My Father Knew Charles Ives, a San Francisco Symphony commission; and a March 2004 national tour featuring a special three-concert mini-residency in Cleveland’s Severance Hall, part of a unique orchestra exchange with the Cleveland Orchestra. In February 2006, MTT and the Orchestra made their debut in mainland China, performing in Shanghai as well as in three acclaimed concerts to open the Hong Kong Arts Festival. In September 2007, the SFS traveled to Europe with MTT for a tour of summer festivals including the London Proms and festivals of Edinburgh, Rheingau, Berlin and Lucerne. In September 2008, 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.
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 age 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. 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 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, and he continues as Artistic Director of the New World Symphony, an orchestral academy based in Miami, which he founded in 1987. His guest conducting engagements include frequent appearances with the major orchestras of Europe and the United States.
Noted for his commitment to music education, Tilson Thomas regularly leads the Orchestra in education concerts, which the San Francisco Symphony has been providing for its community since 1919. He led the television broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic’s famed Young People’s Concerts from 1971 to 1977, and in February of 1987 he founded the New World Symphony, a national training orchestra for the most gifted graduates of America’s conservatories, and continues to serve as its Artistic Director.
In fall 2006, Tilson Thomas and the SFS launched the national Keeping Score PBS television series and multimedia project. Keeping Score is the San Francisco Symphony’s multi-year program designed to make classical music more accessible to people of all ages and musical backgrounds through television, the web, radio, DVDs, and in the classroom. Keeping Score is anchored by national PBS television programs, the first series of which was viewed by 5 million Americans, an interactive web site to explore and learn about music, a national radio series, The MTT Files, hosted by MTT, documentary and live performance DVDs, and an education program for K-12 schools to further teaching through the arts by integrating classical music into core subjects. In 2008, The MTT Files, co-produced with American Public Media™, and written by Michael Tilson Thomas won a Peabody Award for Radio Programming. Keeping Score Season II premieres nationally on PBS in October 2009 (check local listings.)
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, sung by baritone Thomas Hampson, and in 2001, Renée Fleming and the SFS premiered his song cycle Poems of Emily Dickinson. In October 2002, Tilson Thomas led the SFS in the world premiere of his contrabassoon concerto Urban Legend, with SFS contrabassoonist Steven Braunstein as soloist. In January 2005, MTT and the SFS performed Tilson Thomas’s Island Music, a celebration of percussion dedicated to the memory of Lou Harrison. In 1991, Tilson Thomas and the New World Symphony were presented in a series of benefit concerts for UNICEF in the U.S. that featured Audrey Hepburn as narrator of From the Diary of Anne Frank, composed by Tilson Thomas and 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 world premiere of his composition Shówa/Shoáh, written in commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.
Tilson Thomas’s many honors include Columbia University’s Ditson Award for services to American Music, The American Music Center’s Letter of Distinction, 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, and in 2005 was inducted into the Classical Music Hall of Fame. Tilson Thomas was a Carnegie Hall Perspectives Artist from 2003-2005, and in 2006 he was recognized with Gramophone’s Artist of the Year award, was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and received an Honorary Doctorate from the University of San Francisco. Tilson Thomas is a Chevalier des Arts et des Lettres of France. Viva Voce, MTT’s volume of conversations with British critic Edward Seckerson, is published by Faber & Faber and was released in the U.S. in September 1995.