Michael Tilson Thomas: Where Now Is - Michael Tilson Thomas Biography

Michael Tilson Thomas conducting. Photo: Heinz Weissenstein/Whitestone

Born in Los Angeles, Michael Tilson Thomas 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.

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, 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 then appointed music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic from 1971 to 1979 and a principal

Michael Tilson Thomas studying a score in Buffalo in the 1970s. Photo: Betty Walsh

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.

A winner of 11 Grammy Awards, 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.”

Michael Tilson Thomas and Audrey Hepburn. Photo: Todd Levy

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, “Shówa/Shoáh,” 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 Renée Fleming, respectively.

In 2009, Tilson Thomas received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama and in 2019 received the Kennedy Center Honors.