Michael Tilson Thomas

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Tilson Thomas in 2008 MTTKeepingScore.jpg
Tilson Thomas in 2008

Michael Tilson Thomas (born December 21, 1944) is an American conductor, pianist and composer. He is currently music director of the San Francisco Symphony and artistic director of the New World Symphony, an American orchestral academy based in Miami Beach, Florida.



Tilson Thomas was born in Los Angeles, California, to Ted and Roberta Thomas, a Broadway stage manager and a middle school history teacher respectively. He is the grandson of noted Yiddish theater stars Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, who performed in the Yiddish Theater District in Manhattan. The family talent goes back to Tilson Thomas's great-grandfather, Pincus, an actor and playwright, and before that to a long line of cantors; his father, Theodor Herzl Tomashefsky, was a poet and painter.

He was an only child and musical prodigy. [1] Tilson Thomas studied piano with John Crown and composition and conducting under Ingolf Dahl at the University of Southern California. As a student of Friedelind Wagner, Tilson Thomas was a Musical Assistant and Assistant Conductor at the Bayreuth Festival.

Tilson Thomas lives in San Francisco with his partner of over 40 years, Joshua Robison. [2] [3] [4] The couple married on November 2, 2014. [5]


Tilson Thomas has conducted a wide variety of music and is a particular champion of modern American works. He is also renowned for his interpretation of the works of Gustav Mahler; he has recorded all nine Mahler symphonies and other major orchestral works with the San Francisco Symphony. These recordings have been released on the high-resolution audio format Super Audio CD on the San Francisco Symphony's own recording label. Tilson Thomas is also known as a premier interpreter of the works of Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, and Steve Reich.

A sampling of Tilson Thomas's own compositions include From the Diary of Anne Frank (1990), [6] Shówa/Shoáh (1995, memorializing the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima), [7] Poems of Emily Dickinson (2002) [8] and Urban Legend (2002). [9]

Tilson Thomas has also been devoted to music education. He leads a series of education programs titled Keeping Score which offers insight into the lives and works of great composers, and led a series of Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic. Tilson Thomas founded the New World Symphony in Miami in 1987. Most recently, Tilson Thomas has led two incarnations of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, which brings young musicians from around the world together for a week of music making and learning.

Tilson Thomas currently serves as president of the Tomashefsky Project, a $2 million undertaking formed in 2017 that will record and preserve his grandparents' theatrical achievements.

Boston, Buffalo, New York, and Los Angeles

From 1968 to 1994, Tilson Thomas was the Music Director of the Ojai Music Festival seven different times. After winning the Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood in 1969, Tilson Thomas was named Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. That same year, he made his conducting debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, replacing an unwell William Steinberg mid-concert and thereby coming into international recognition at the age of 24. He stayed with the Boston Symphony as an assistant conductor until 1974 and made several recordings with the orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon. He was music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra from 1971 to 1979, and recorded for Columbia Records with the orchestra. [10] Between 1971 and 1977, he also conducted the series of Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic. From 1981 to 1985, he was principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. During a performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony at the Hollywood Bowl, a helicopter flew over the venue, disrupting the concert. This is when Tilson Thomas famously stormed offstage in the middle of the performance. In 2007, he returned to the Hollywood Bowl leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic again in the Mahler Eighth, announcing jokingly, "Now where were we?". He returned in 2013 with Mahler's Second Symphony, when another helicopter flew over the venue. Tilson Thomas stopped the orchestra, but then resumed the performance.

New World and London

In 1987, Tilson Thomas founded the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, Florida, an orchestral academy for gifted young musicians whose stated mission is "to prepare highly-gifted graduates of distinguished music programs for leadership roles in orchestras and ensembles around the world." [11] He is currently the academy's artistic director. He played an instrumental role in the development of the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center in Miami Beach, which opened in 2011. [12] (The two had personal history, with Gehry sometimes having baby-sat for Tilson Thomas back when both were growing up in Los Angeles. [12] )

From 1988 to 1995, Tilson Thomas was principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), and recorded with them for such labels as Columbia (now Sony Classical), including the Symphony No 3 of Mahler. From 1995, he held the title of principal guest conductor with the LSO, and became conductor laureate in 2016.

San Francisco

Tilson Thomas became the San Francisco Symphony's 11th Music Director in 1995. He originally made his debut with the orchestra in January 1974 conducting Mahler's Symphony No. 9. During his first season with the San Francisco Symphony, Tilson Thomas included a work by an American composer on nearly every one of his programs, including the first performances ever by the orchestra of music by Lou Harrison, and culminated with "An American Festival," a two-week focus on American music. [13] In June 2000, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony presented a landmark 12-concert American Mavericks Festival, recognizing the innovative works of 20th century American composers. Additional season-ending festivals in Davies Symphony Hall have included explorations of the music of Wagner, Prokofiev, Mahler, Stravinsky, Beethoven and Weill, including semi-staged productions of Rimsky-Korsakov's opera-ballet Mlada, Beethoven's Fidelio, and Wagner's The Flying Dutchman. During his tenure, the orchestra began to issue recordings on its own SFS Media label. In October 2017, the orchestra announced that Tilson Thomas is to conclude his tenure as its music director at the close of the 2019-2020 season, and subsequently to take the title of music director laureate. [14] [13]

In April 2005, he conducted the Carnegie Hall premiere of The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater, partly as a tribute to his own grandparents. [15] Other American orchestras have since performed this production, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, New World Symphony and San Francisco Symphony. It has also been recorded for future broadcast on PBS. [16]

Tilson Thomas collaborated with YouTube in 2009 to help create the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra whose members were selected from 30 countries based on more than 3,000 video auditions on YouTube. The Orchestra, as well as such soloists as Mason Bates, Measha Brueggergosman, Joshua Roman, Gil Shaham, Yuja Wang, Jess Larsen, Charlie Liu, and Derek Wang, participated in a classical music summit in New York City at the Juilliard School over three days. The event culminated in a live concert at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, April 15. The concert was later made available on YouTube. [17] On March 20, 2011, Tilson Thomas also conducted the "YTSO2" (YouTube Symphony Orchestra 2) in Sydney. [18]

Film and television

His first television appearances were in the Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, airing from 1971–1977. [19] He has also made regular appearances on PBS, with broadcasts featuring Tilson Thomas airing from 1972 through 2008. Eight episodes of WNET's Great Performances series have featured Tilson Thomas. He has also been featured on Japan's NHK and the BBC many times in the last three decades.

In 1976, Tilson Thomas appeared alongside Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck in a prime-time special, Bugs and Daffy's Carnival of the Animals , a combined live action/animated broadcast of The Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns. [20]

In 2011 he hosted a concert stage show celebrating his grandparents and the music of American Yiddish theatre The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater, which aired in 2012 on the PBS series "Great Performances." [21]

Tilson Thomas hosts the Keeping Score television series, nine one-hour documentary-style episodes and eight live-concert programs, which began airing nationally on PBS stations in early November 2006. He and the San Francisco Symphony have examined the lives and music of Gustav Mahler, Dmitri Shostakovich, Charles Ives, Hector Berlioz, Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Ludwig van Beethoven.

Keeping Score discography

Partial discography

Tilson Thomas has made more than 120 recordings, including works by Bach, Mahler, Beethoven, Prokofiev and Stravinsky as well as his pioneering work with the music of Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, Steve Reich, John Cage, Ingolf Dahl, Morton Feldman, George Gershwin, John McLaughlin and Elvis Costello. He recently finished recording the complete orchestral works of Gustav Mahler with the San Francisco Symphony.

YearOrchestraComposerWork (and soloists, if any)Label
1991 London Symphony Orchestra AdamMusic from "Giselle"Sony
1990 London Symphony Orchestra, Ambrosian Singers BeethovenLate Choral MusicCBS Masterworks
1986 Orchestra of St. Luke's BeethovenSymphony No. 3
Contredanses for Orchestra, WoO 14
CBS Masterworks
2010 San Francisco Symphony BeethovenSymphony No. 5
Piano Concerto No. 4 (Ax)
SFS Media
1999 English Chamber Orchestra BeethovenSymphony No. 6, "Pastorale"Sony Classical
1996 London Symphony Orchestra BernsteinArias and Barcarolles (von Stade, Hampson), Suite from A Quiet Place and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. For details, see Arias and Barcarolles (Michael Tilson Thomas recording) Deutsche Grammophon
1993 London Symphony Orchestra, London Voices BernsteinOn the Town (Daly, von Stade, Lear, Laine, McLaughlin, Hampson, Garrison, Ollmann, Ramey) For details, see On the Town (Michael Tilson Thomas recording) Deutsche Grammophon
1991 London Symphony Orchestra BrahmsSerenade No. 1
Tragic Overture
Academic Festival Overture
Sony Classical
1992 London Symphony Orchestra BrahmsSerenade No. 2 / Haydn
Variations / Hungarian
Dances – selections
Sony Classical
The Rite of Spring
Three Dances
Four Organs
Angel Records
1996 San Francisco Symphony CoplandConcerto for Piano and Orchestra
Orchestra Variations
Short Symphony
Symphonic Ode (with Garrick Ohlsson)
RCA Victor Red Seal
1972 Boston Symphony Orchestra DebussyImages
Prélude À L'Après-Midi D'Un Faune
Deutsche Grammophon
1993 London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus DebussyLe martyre de St. Sebastien (with McNair, Murray, Stutzman, Caron)Sony Classical
2007 Boston Symphony Orchestra Chamber PlayersDebussySonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano (Eskin, Tilson Thomas)
Sonata No. 2 for Flute, Viola and Harp (Dwyer, Fine, Hobson)
Violin Sonata (Silverstein, Tilson Thomas)
Deutsche Grammophon
1999 New World Symphony FeldmanCoptic Light (Cohen, Feinberg)Argo
1976Columbia Jazz Band,
New York Philharmonic
GershwinRhapsody in Blue (composer, piano roll)
An American in Paris
1990 Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra GershwinGershwin Live! (Vaughan, Tilson Thomas)Sony Classical
1984 Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra GershwinRhapsody in Blue (Tilson Thomas)
Second Rhapsody for Orchestra with Piano
Preludes for Piano Promenade
Unpublished Piano Works
1970 Boston Symphony Orchestra Ives
Three Places in New England
Deutsche Grammophon
1991 Chicago Symphony Orchestra IvesSymphonies Nos. 1 & 4Sony Classical
2002 San Francisco Symphony IvesAn American JourneyRCA Victor Red Seal
1990 Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus IvesHoliday Symphony
Unanswered Question (Herseth)
Central Park in the Dark
Sony Classical
1992 London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus JanáčekGlagolitic Mass (Benackova, Palmer, Lakes, Kotscherga)
Sony Classical
1974 London Symphony Orchestra MahavishnuApocalypse (Mahavishnu Orchestra)Sony Classical
2004 San Francisco Symphony MahlerSymphony No. 1SFS Media
2004 San Francisco Symphony and Chorus MahlerSymphony No. 2SFS Media
2004 San Francisco Symphony and Chorus,
Pacific Boychoir,
San Francisco Symphony Girls Chorus
MahlerSymphony No. 3
Kindertotenlieder (DeYoung)
SFS Media
2004 San Francisco Symphony MahlerSymphony No. 4 (Claycomb)SFS Media
2004 San Francisco Symphony MahlerSymphony No. 5SFS Media
2004 San Francisco Symphony MahlerSymphony No. 6SFS Media
2005 San Francisco Symphony MahlerSymphony No. 7SFS Media
2009 San Francisco Symphony and Chorus,
Pacific Boychoir,
San Francisco Girls Chorus
MahlerSymphony No. 8SFS Media
2005 San Francisco Symphony MahlerSymphony No. 9SFS Media
2008 San Francisco Symphony MahlerDas Klagende Lied (Shaguch, DeYoung, Moser, Lieferkus)
Das Lied von der Erde (Skelton, Hampson)
RCA Red Seal
1990 London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus,
South End Boys
MahlerSymphony No. 3
Rückert Lieder (Baker)
Sony Classical
1999 London Symphony Orchestra MahlerSymphony No. 7RCA Victor Red Seal
2010 San Francisco Symphony MahlerSongs with Orchestra (Graham, Hampson)SFS Media
1998 New World Symphony New World JazzNew World JazzRCA Victor Red Seal
1997 London Symphony Orchestra ProkofievSymphonies Nos. 1 & 5Sony Classical
2004 San Francisco Symphony ProkofievRomeo & JulietRCA Red Seal
1991Hungarian State OrchestraPucciniTosca (Marton, Carreras, Pons, Tajo)Sony Classical
1989 London Symphony Orchestra RavelMa mère l'oye
Pavane pour une infante défunte
Pièce en forme de Habañera
L'éventail de Jeanne
Sony Classical
1990Colorado Quartet,
Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra
ReichThe Desert MusicNonesuch
1994 London Symphony Orchestra ReichThe Three movementsNonesuch
1980 Buffalo Philharmonic RugglesComplete Music of Carl RugglesColumbia
1971 Boston Symphony Orchestra Schuman
Violin Concerto (Paul Zukofsky)
Symphony No. 2
Deutsche Grammophon
1986 London Symphony Orchestra Strauss, R.Ein Heldenleben
Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche
1972 Boston Symphony Orchestra StravinskyLe sacre du printemps
Le roi des etoiles
Deutsche Grammophon
1997 London Symphony Orchestra StravinskyStravinsky in AmericaSony Classical
1999 San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Symphony Chorus,
San Francisco Girls Chorus,
Ragazzi, the Peninsula Boys Chorus
StravinskyLe sacre du printemps
L'oiseau de feu
RCA Victor Red Seal
1993 New World Symphony TangazoTangazoArgo
1970 Boston Symphony Orchestra TchaikovskySymphony No. 1Deutsche Grammophon
1990 Philharmonia Orchestra TchaikovskySuite No. 2
Suite No. 4
Sony Classical
2005 Berliner Philharmoniker TchaikovskyViolin Concerto (Bell)
Méditation No. 1: Souvenir d'un lieucher
Swan Lake: Danse russe
RCA Red Seal
1997 New World Symphony, BBC Singers Villa LobosBachianas Brasileiras Nos. 4 & 5 (Fleming)
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9
Coros Nos. 5 & 10
RCA Victor Red Seal
1990 London Symphony Orchestra WeillThe Seven Deadly Sins (Migenes)
The Little Three Penny Music
Sony Classical


Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance

Grammy Award for Best Classical Album

Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance

Peabody Award

National Medal of Arts

Kennedy Center Honor

See also

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