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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.

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TRANSCRIPT

♪♪ [ Indistinct conversation [ Orchestra tuning ] [ Applause ] [ Orchestra playing ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Thomas: What a conductor is doing is getting 100 or so people to agree where 'now' really is.

♪♪ The kind of pulse, the kind of underlying breath that animates the music.

♪♪ The conductor has had the luxury of seeing the whole design in the score.

So he is in a position to perceive the total design of what is happening in the performance.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Orchestra fades, vehicles honking ] [ Musicians rehearsing ] [ Musicians tuning ] ♪♪ Man: The funny thing is about conducting, there's not that much that you have to do in terms of what you have to do with your hands.

There have to learn to beat -- much, much more difficult is learning how to learn the music in the first place, learning how to sit down with a piece of music that's written out for orchestra, and learn it, learn the notes, and learn the way they're distributed amongst the instruments and the way it should sound.

Then the process begins, which, unfortunately, no way has been developed yet of avoiding, and that is sitting down at the piano and pounding out every note in the piece.

And you go through it again and again, and you begin to think, now, how does this piece really go?

What do I have to do to make it work, to make it clear?

[ Playing piano ] Ay!

I knew that the biggest treasure was the dream that the music contained.

To be able to see it and understand it and then be able to share it, to transmit it, to wrestle it down from the dream world into the real world, but still have it feel like a dream.

[ Playing notes ] And I think that's the answer now.

Okay, fortissimo, but light, right?

It has to sound really joyous, like laughter -- [ Imitates laughter ] [ Humming ] Stir it up.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Good, I'll tell you what, when the harmonies get the most complicated, let's everyone understand that together, maybe it's not possible tonecessarily play so much louder, but in the way you show it to the audience -- [ Humming ] Wow!

They should know that you feel that so they can feel it, too.

Then -- [ Humming ] Violas and cellos take the lead like crazy before E.

One, and... ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Good, good, good, good, good.

That's so charming, what you -- that line -- [ Humming ] That's the kind of stuff that we have to, like, make it a life mission to get out to the public.

You know, it's wonderful, right?

Akhmedyarova: All of us who go to New World Symphony meet Michael at our -- kind of a crucial period in our lives.

It's when you graduate from school and not yet having a real job.

The crossroads where, which path you take, and here comes in Michael, in your life.

Thomas: Just float up there.

[ Humming ] Good! Begging.

♪♪ Conferences, conferences, 43 new people -- so, I've learned all these names, that's why I have that poster over there.

So as I walk by, I can test my knowledge.

Kyla, that's right -- Kyla, Kyla, Kyla.

This guy is very talented -- Nicholas.

Aaron -- I just remember, there was somebody here last year called Aaron also.

This is Jiali -- she just got a job as principal in the Hong Kong Philharmonic.

A lot of new people.

The New World Symphony is a place for people to figure out what their purpose in life really is.

Of course, they know they want to be musicians, but in what kind of way do they want to be musicians?

Smith: The idea of creating the New World Symphony was to create a training academy to give great opportunities, artistic opportunities, to the most talented musicians graduating from the conservatories across the country.

But it was also a bigger goal to really kind of transform our musical culture.

Izotov: You know, you'll be hard pressed to find a lot of great orchestras these days that do not have graduates from New World Symphony.

And New World is such a place where you know you're starting to be good, you come from a lot of training, good schools and all that, but then you're absolutely -- not just green, I mean, you're neon green.

You have no idea what you're doing.

And you're terrified because, in spite of how good you are, you know that there's just so much talent in this business and you see all these talented people around you, your friends and colleagues.

Thomas: Because it's so important that they be with people who are colleagues that will inspire them, that will get them... level -- to continue to grow.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Okay.

Come on, pups.

At this time in my life, I'm making a transition from being so constantly on stage as a conductor, to being more of a composer, and somehow a way of doing that seemed to me to go back to these very early pieces and write them out and see what I would learn, and also to reconnect, if I could, with who I was way back then.

♪♪ An only child -- this kid in my parent's living room, in the darkness with the shimmering bands of light from the Venetian blinds streaming through.

But, of course, the piano -- improvising.

And I relished the time that I had sometimes to be on my own with the piano because that was the opportunity for me to sort of use improvisation as a way of finding myself.

And this piano piece came out of those improvisations.

♪♪ 'Sunset Soliloquy,' also called 'Whitsett Avenue' -- Whitsett Avenue was the address of my parents' house, the house where I was born and grew up.

♪♪ It was in the San Fernando Valley, and initially it was country.

There was our house, then there was a persimmon orchard.

And there were dirt roads.

It was the San Fernando Valley in its most paradise-like period.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Sounds beautiful, John! Beautiful, beautiful.

I have, like, three and a half thoughts for you.

At the very first one -- show me -- show me the first one.

-Wilson: Of the right hand? -Thomas: Of the right hand.

[ Playing ] Yeah, it's better to be a tiny bit slower and more -- [ Humming ] Wilson: I see -- intense.

Thomas: Yeah.

[ Playing ] ♪♪ A little bit like that. [ Humming ] Yeah, just let you enjoy,you know, it's kind of like a -- [ Playing ] You know, that -- [ Humming ] Yeah, a little bit stretchy.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ You play this in a way that I kind of dreamt that I might ever be able to play it.

It's just so wonderful.

[ Playing piano ] ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ My greatest teacher and inspiration was my father.

My father was a visionary person.

He was an amazing musician -- played by ear, improvised hours a day, the most original, extraordinary music.

♪♪ He was a bohemian kind of guy.

He was wandering around the desert and he was writing poetry and painting pictures and occasionally finishing a screenplay.

My mother was the, kind of, breadwinner, the teacher, the homemaker, and there they were, very much in love with each other and very much appreciating one another.

He had the sense of the wondrous-ness of things, of music and everything else, even though his life was filled with pain and conflict, but he is the one who really taught me to experience the wonder in the music, and to whatever else happened., hold onto it.

♪♪ ♪♪ From the time I was a teenager going to music camp, it was noticed by the counselors that I really liked dissonant music -- [ Playing discordant notes ] And -- and -- and... And I always tried to figure outwhere that might have come from.

I think it may have come from my dad and from Tootles, and Tootles, well, uh, let me introduce him to you.

He's right up here.

This is Tootles, and Tootles has a song, and his song goes... ♪ I love the Tootles song, I love a Tootles song ♪ ♪ I love my Tootles song, I sing it all day long ♪ That was the Tootles song.

I -- And my dad said, 'Well...' And Tootles himself can play the song for you.

And here he's going to play the song and here he goes.

♪♪ And so I'm convinced that from that came my great love of -- [ Playing dissonant chords ] All these chords that I later encountered in Schoenberg and Berg and Ives, and everywhere else, because what to those composers had represented psychological distress and torment to me represented gorgeous, peaceful times, you know, surrounded by my dad and playing music together.

That was a pretty good performance, don't you think?

But we haven't done this for years, guys.

Thank you, Tootles. We haven't done this for years and years.

From the time I was nine or 10 years old, anyway, there were a lot of teachers who wanted to take charge of me and put me on a very disciplined schedule of practice and developmentalong the kind of prodigy route.

My parents were absolutely against that.

They wanted me to have as, quote, normal, unquote, a childhood as possible -- much better, in their minds, had I been a scientist.

My grandmother's agenda was different.

She saw me as the last of the Thomashefskys.

[ Music and applause ] ♪♪ Ladies and gentlemen, welcome.

Tonight, we're here to tell you a story, it's the story of Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, two kids from little shtetls in the middle of a Ukrainian nowhere who came to America and became the founder pioneersof the American Yiddish theater.

They also happened to be my grandparents.

They were big stars who lived out the fantasies of their audience.

And they were stars like Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor kinds of stars.

♪♪ At the Yiddish theater was all about its audience, immigrant innocence, fresh off the boat, and the mission of the Yiddish theater was to entertain, educate and elevate this audience.

A hundred years ago, my grandmother knocked 'em dead season after season with that show, and 50 years later, she had installed herself at a fashionable Hollywood hotel.

And every Friday, she arrived at our house to spend the weekend looking after me.

Well, she was a special kind of grandma.

She was in her 80s. Her hair was flame red.

She had six or eight bracelets up each arm, a long cigarette holder, wraparound sunglasses.

She'd settle herself on the chaise lounge in the backyard and she'd say, 'I see you.

I see who you are.

You know, you're like me.

You're going to have to live your life as you have to live it, whatever it costs.

That's what I did, your grandma.

And you know what they said about me?

Some said I was a femme fatale, a bohemian, but no one ever said I gave anything lessthan an impassioned performance.

Robison: Michael and I met in school orchestra in 1958.

I was 11, he was 12.

So this is the same room, yeah, the same room.

I played the cello, he played the oboe and the piano.

Thomas: This is where I conducted for the first time I was getting ready to play the oboe in the rehearsal, and then they announced that our teacher couldn't make it.

And they sent this wonderful guy, Coach Caldwell, our football coach,suddenly appeared here and said, 'Well, I have no idea about this, so we could just have study hall, or anybody here know how to do this?'

I said, 'Uh, I can do it.'

And I walked right up here... And I, uh, grabbed the stick, and I said, 'Okay, here we go,' and we think Sammartini, 'Symphony in D Major.'

So, I would have been about 13, 14.

♪♪ [ Playing notes ] ♪♪ ♪♪ Robison: But that's when I really became aware of you, because I -- when you were playing the oboe, and I was cello, I wasn't really, but then at breaks, like, Michael would go over to the piano and start playing, crowd around and listen to him.

So it was like, oh, he's something different.

He can really play.

In addition to playing the cello and being involved in music, I was very athletic and outdoors and loved to dance to all the popular music, so, you know, my scene was slightly different than Michael's.

Thomas: I was playing in the band at some of those athletic events, so... I did have a secret crush on Josh, he didn't know that -- I was admiring him from afar.

Robison: I was just stunned, and I remember just sitting there watching this guy who I kind of thought was kind of an intellectual science kid, but to see him at that kind of amazing command already at that age was really striking.

♪♪ Thomas: Along the way, I studied at USC with an extraordinary woman named Alice Ehlers, and she was a wonderfully brilliant, eccentric lady who, [ German accent ] She was talking with an accent like this -- I'm not going to do the whole shtick for you.

[ Normal voice ] And she, at a lesson one day, as we were struggling, struggling through a piece of Bach, me 13, she 80 something.

She pulled my hand off of the keyboard and she said, 'Dear, dear, why do you always do such stupid things?'

Like... 'But -- but, madame, last week you told me to do this right at this place!'

She said, 'I tell you to do something?

Nonsense -- I would never tell you to do anything.

It doesn't interest me in any way what you do or you do not do.

I only point out to you that in the music there are designs and structures and concerning these things you must make decisions, and there are consequences for your decisions.'

That was a major moment in my life, just as it was a few years later when Ingolf Dahl, who was becoming my composition and musicianship and conducting teacher, took me to a chamber music concert.

And we listened to the first movement of the piece and he said, 'Did you enjoy that?'

I said, 'Oh, yes, very much.'

He said, 'What form was it in?'

And I said, 'Well, I wasn't listening to analyze it, I was listening to enjoy it.'

And he said, 'In classical music, analysis is inseparable from enjoyment.'

♪♪ He was a composer, conductor, pianist, musician's musician, he was phenomenal in the way he studied music, the way he sat with me in lessons.

[ Dahl vocalizing ] Dahl: He comes in dissonance... [ Playing ] Thomas: And that was another big turning point in my mind, that the great thing about classical music was that, like the human mind, it was emotion and it was intelligence.

It was instinct and intelligence, it was all of the feeling, all of the gushing reactions to things.

But it was also the larger understanding of the order and the priorities of things, these two gorgeous things that our minds do.

And how could the music be understood in that way, and how could a listener come to understand that better through hearing a performance -- that became my goal, what effect will the music have on the listener?

♪♪ Los Angeles was a city of emigres in those years and everybody had come from somewhere else and been a pretty big deal somewhere else, whether that was in St. Petersburg or Vienna or Berlin or Paris.

They were always hoping for the really big movie deal.

This restaurant was kind of like a magical clubhouse in my eyes from the time I was a very young kid, because when I first came here, I came here with my father, who was working at Universal and MGM.

And then later I would come here when I was driving around L.A. in my own car, which, typical Angeleno, I was by age 17 or so.

There I am driving around town. I'm listening to XERB Radio and suddenly I hear this music and it's so powerful that I have to pull to the side of the road and listen to it.

And it's 'Cold Sweat' -- James Brown.

It's the way he got things together.

His concept of time, his understanding of the situation of music -- his words, 'the situation of music,' and just before he died, I was able to do a long interview with him.

It was so together, it was so exact, so -- [ Brown laughing ] Brown: Everything has to be right on the money with me.

Thomas: Well, you know, I say this to my young conductors I work with.

I say, you know, being a conductor means you're trying to get a lot of people to agree where 'now' is.

Brown: Now is right!

I know, because I always say if you -- if I say 'now,' I just missed it, because when I said now, it was now.

Yeah, yeah.

Thomas: And I use that, you know, if I'm rehearsing a piece by Stravinsky, I'll say to the winds and brass, how together do I want this?

♪ I break out, bop, bop, bop ♪ ♪ In a cold sweat, bop, bop, bop, bop, bop, bop, bang! ♪ That's how together I want it.

♪♪ ♪♪ Grierson: USC in the '60s, they were magical years for both of us in that Heifetz and Piatigorsky and Ingolf Dahl and John Crown and all these people were teaching there.

Thomas: My major at USC was initially piano.

It then shifted to include conducting.

And into dealing with music that was then called avant garde music.

Grierson: Here we were, college kids who suddenly found ourselves, you know, not only involved in a lot of university music making, but out in the community with Monday evening concerts and playing a lot of contemporary music.

It was kind of a renaissance golden age for new music, at least for us.

Thomas: Monday Evening Concerts was perhaps the most adventurous concert series in the United States.

It was a reflection of the omnivorous curiosity of both Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

It presented medieval music, renaissance music, contemporary music of every possible description, so-called avant garde music.

♪♪ ♪♪ And very often I became kind of, 'Oh, yeah, that kid in Los Angeles who knows how to do that piece.'

♪♪ So it was quite an amazing environment in which to grow up.

Meeting Aaron Copland and playing for Stravinsky and getting a real sense from his own singing how he wanted his music to be played.

It's like a steam bath in here, shall I turn off this -- I knew I wanted to be a musician, a performer, since I was 13, but I still had that bargain with my parents -- keep studying the science stuff; when you're 20 years old, you'll make a decision.

On my 20th birthday, I got a phone call from Gregor Piatigorsky, who said, 'You've been selected to be the new conductor of the Young Musicians Foundation debut orchestra.'

So that seemed to be a sign that we were going in the direction of music and, of course, show business.

The creation of the sort of 'MTT' persona, which I began working on as an adolescent, was in some ways a conscious thing to realize, if I wanted the dreams to become real, I was going to have to find a way to come out of my only child, magical and enchanted San Fernando Valley world and learn how to actually include and work with people.

♪♪ ♪♪ Suddenly, I was mostly a conductor, and of course, where do young conductors go?

Tanglewood.

In the years that I was a fellow at Tanglewood at the end of the summer, a prize could be given to someone who it was felt was an outstanding enough conductor to be given an award named after Serge Koussevitzky, the eminent maestro of the Boston Symphony and creator of Tanglewood.

And the summer I was there, I won that prize.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Immediately after that summer, when I won the Koussevitzky Prize, I was in New York for a few days and I was introduced to Leonard Bernstein, and we had this wonderful exchange of ideas which quickly turnedto one liners from the show biz, Yiddish theater world, and Stravinsky, and old stories about Piatigorsky, who had been a lot with Bernstein when Bernstein was himself a fellow at Tanglewood.

So suddenly we began to see thatthere were many areas in common.

We had the opportunity often to get together and look through scores, just kind of the design of them, the shape of them.

He came to a performance of Mahler's Fifth in the early days that I did, and afterwards everyone cleared out and I finally said, 'So what did you think of my performance?'

And he said, 'What did I think of it?

I think that when you really have made up your mind what it means to you, and what you intend to do about it, it won't matter to you whatI think or anybody else thinks.'

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ That's really pretty, beautifully played.

Take ownership of it.

It's your story now.

It was Bach's story how many hundred years ago was that now?

300 or whatever!

[ Laughs ] Here are some ideas.

So this section, this is about, there are a lot of little notes littering the landscape, which are chromatically altered.

♪♪ ♪♪ You feel that, you know that; don't assume that the audience necessarily feels it or knows it as much as you do.

Tell them that it's special.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Great, Brendon, try this one thing for me once, would you: try this -- [ Playing piano ] ♪♪ Just do that once, see what it feels like.

♪♪ Just really -- just to hold on to it and let your spirit investigate what that space feels -- really feels like.

♪♪ Okay, where exactly is that and where is it going?

Just feel that space someplace in here.

Man: Okay.

Thomas: Or maybe a mixture of here and here.

♪♪ ♪♪ Okay, now that you understand that, there's more freedom there than you think.

Man: Okay.

I've been doing a lot ofpractice with a metronome, so... This is good to -- -Thomas: Yeah, put that away.

Man: ...to think about it this way.

Thomas: That's -- you did that, that's good. Okay?

This is the miracle of music that... I have a terrible toothache, I'm getting over a cold, I've my arm and bursitis and all that's going on, been chasing my tail all over the world and thinking, 'Oh, okay, I made this appointment to hear this young man play this Bach piece.

I am so tired.

How am I going to get through this?'

But that kind of talent, that kind of music, it's just like, I'm ready to go all over again!

You know? What shoulder?

What sinus?

What weltschmerz, what anything?

It's the music. It's just there. It's just amazing to me.

I just feel great.

♪♪ In the autumn of 1969, I arrived in Boston as pianist and assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Ohanian: March of 1970, I was asked to join the Boston Symphony in French horn section.

So we basically joined BSOat the same time, Michael and I.

He was on a meteoric rise at the time from being a West Coast phenomenon to becoming assistant conductor in a major orchestra.

Thomas: And I was working with Steinberg, accompanying all of his rehearsals with soloists, and would play something for him in his room and he would say, 'Yes, um, very lovely, very charming.

Now, next, we will see one another on the field, and let us hope it will be the playing field and not the battlefield.'

Then the fourth week of the season, I believe, we were going on tour to New York with Steinberg's programs towhat was then Philharmonic Hall.

I was hanging out backstage, Steinberg walked off the stage and said, 'You, young man, put on your suit, you're going to conduct.'

I was frozen.

He said, 'Didn't you hear me? Put your suit on!

You're conducting.'

He went on, took a bow, came back and went off to a hospital.

And I went on and conducted the second half of the program.

♪♪ ♪♪ Raeburn: Let's move on now to the rest of the season -- you, in fact, will now unexpectedly be conducting almost all the Boston Symphony concerts between now and the end of April.

-Thomas: Yes. -Raeburn: This must come as a shock, perhaps -- pleasurable shock in many ways, but also there must be great responsibility, which you've never had to face before.

Thomas: It's an enormous responsibility and I feel, I must say, terribly humble and terribly... terribly grateful at the same time, I mean, I'm sort of in awe of the responsibility I've been given, and terribly pleased about the confidence that Mr. Steinberg and management the orchestra have had in me.

One thing that's a comfort as I stay up late nights worrying about some other problem and some piece that's happening next week, while meanwhile worrying about how tonight's performance or next night's performance will go -- when all of this happened, Colin Davis was here at the time as a guest conductor, and he said, 'Oh, yes, when I was a young man, very similar thing happened to me -- conductor got sick and I suddenly had to conduct six weeks of concerts.'

He said, 'It was absolutely a hell of a time because I had to just keep working and working and staying up.

But don't worry, you'll get through it.'

And Mr. Bernstein, Leonard Bernstein said very much the same thing to me.

So that was a little bit of encouragement.

I wasn't the first person to have gone through this ordeal by fire.

♪♪ And I did some 40 more concerts that first season, and big variety of repertoire, nearly all of which I had never conducted before.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ I had the idea of starting a new kind of concert series, which would be attractive to young audiences, particularly in Cambridge, and that the concertswould have thematic connections.

I was introducing a lot of new repertoire, the kinds of things I had played back at Monday Evening Concerts.

Ohanian: One of the differences, I think, that Michael had from the conductors that normally would pass through Boston was that he was very spontaneous, and maybe that was a bit of a fault with him because he knew a lot, and he understood a lot about the music that he was conducting.

And so he would try to teach.

Volpe: Back then -- how to say this delicately... I mean, the core was still Beethoven, Brahms, Mozart, Haydn.

Ohanian: It took a while for the orchestra and for the audience to warm up to Michael's style because he was bringing new ideas to a very traditional setting.

Thomas: Part of the new music I was doing was a series called Spectrum Series, which was really a kind of blow up of what Monday Evening Concerts programming had been.

The programs stretched very commonly from the Middle Ages till last week.

Ohanian: And it was a hard sell for Michael to get that concept across.

I thought it was marvelous because, I mean, I learned so much.

I knew the music, but I didn't know the story behind the music oftentimes.

Arzewski: It was hard.

It was really, really difficult on the older members.

And to tell you the truth, I was -- I loved it.

I looked forward to his Spectrum concerts.

I couldn't wait because I always knew I would learn something.

But I never would admit it to the older players that I liked it.

I was afraid -- I was young, I was a woman, I was a new member.

I didn't want to rock the boat.

Thomas: I began talking to the audience and explaining the context of the music they were going to hear.

And one very venerable member of the Boston Symphony board who was not aware of the fact that I was doing this, that the whole idea of the concert was to do that, as I was speaking, said, 'Oh, why don't you shut up?!' Stravinsky said there is some music that is meant not to be enjoyed, but to be admired, and perhaps some of this music was in that area.

Then by accident at a party I heard a piece of Steve Reich's, which was filled with melody and harmony.

Reich: In 1970, the phone rang, and there was Michael Tilson Thomas.

And he says, 'I'm calling you, I'm at the BSO, and we'd like to do a piece of yours -- what do you suggest?'

I said, 'Well, I've got a piece called 'Four Organs'.' There was an immediate meeting of the minds and sensibilities.

I's a very odd piece, and he got it right away.

And I'd say the audience reaction was a sort of polite boos, polite bravos and polite -- because we were in Boston.

Thomas: The reaction in Carnegie Hall was entirely different.

♪♪ Reich: The piece 'Four Organs' took place, and basically it's about augmentation, short chord gets long -- very long indeed, and the duration of 20 minutes is probably one of the most abrasive pieces I ever wrote.

♪♪ Thomas: We did this in a program at the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

And we got about, I'd say, a third of the way into the piece when protests began to erupt.

The audience became wilder and wilder.

The ushers were moving about not knowing whether they should call the police because certain people were getting a bit violent.

And little by little, the noise became so great that even on stage with these amplified instruments, we could not hear one another.

And we were trying to get through the cycle, the complicated rhythmic cycle of this piece.

The only way we could do it was that we were looking at one another and I was going -- Steve, together, we were going like -- 'One, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven' -- mouthing numbers.

Reich: So by the time the piece ended, there were a few bravos and overwhelming boos.

And people say there was a woman banging on the stage with her umbrella, her hand, saying, 'I'll confess, I confess.'

And I turned white as a sheet because I wanted people to love what I do.

Michael looked at me and said, 'This is history!'

Thomas: I said, 'Steve, this is it!

This is fantastic!

Do you realize what you've done?

You've gotten under their skin.'

♪♪ Reich: When Steinberg left, I was pretty sure that Michael wouldn't be offered that position.

Volpe: William Steinberg was a very, very traditional, old-school European conductor, and then you have this incredible burst of energy and a tad bit of brashness.

And Michael Tilson Thomas, I won't say, is the antithesis of William Steinberg, but it's so different.

I don't know if there was pushback, per se, but certainly early on there had to be skepticism.

And I've been told that, I mean that, you know, how can someone so young, I mean, what are you going to tell us about Beethoven that we haven't heard almost from the source?

Ohanian: He was too young to be a music director of the Boston Symphony.

So I was pretty sure that he would not be offered that.

And so was he.

Thomas: You could imagine doing 40 subscription concerts with the Boston Symphony, mostly with repertoire thatyou're doing for the first time, and then developing all these new series and new directions of things.

This was all happening under enormous scrutiny.

So all of that was involved in the possibility that came up of my becoming the conductor, the music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic.

So I gratefully accepted the position of music director there, where I did indeed do many, many pieces for the very first time, Beethoven and Berlioz and Brahms, and I was having the chance to really think about it, and to really try out different solutions, because the attitude of the orchestra wasn't so much as it was in some of the orchestras, 'this is the way we do this,' it was like, 'Okay, well, you know, how are we going to do it?'

There are a lot of different ways it could go.

Let's explore that.

♪♪ This is a period of my life when I still had no personal relationships, I still had not come out, and I needed to figure out a lot of things about what it meant just to be alive.

And having a lot of time just to dream again.

There were a number of pianos in that house on different floors.

I spent hours and hours and hours exploring music.

This was like returning to my father's world.

It was something in the genetic code of the Thomashefskys to spend hours improvising and exploring through the notes what was really spiritual territory.

I began to write songs which were for somebody's birthday or about some inner heartache that I myself had but didn't speak about.

Robison: One day I was sitting in my West Side apartment in October 1971, and there was Michael on the cover of So I said, 'Oh, so that's what happened to Michael.'

Didn't know about his sudden rise to stardom.

A couple of years later, my sister Paula, who is a flutist among the founding members of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, called me up and she said, 'Hey, I'm doing a concert with your old friend, you should come, he's really good.'

So I went, and then I saw Michael on stage and saw him backstage, and he wasn't that kind of brainy kid with a sinus problem.

I remember from junior high school, but he was a star.

Thomas: And I walked in and I just -- saw him, and I knew something.

When Josh and I met up again in New York in our later 20s, and it's, 'Well, let's have dinner some night.'

So we went out to have sushi or something.

And -- but before that, I said, let's stop by Philharmonic Hall.

And there was a rehearsal room that was empty.

I said, 'Well, let me play you some of my music.'

Robison: First of all, I was really impressed because we walked in and all the people at the stage door knew Michael and they said, 'Oh, Michael, come in.'

You know, 'You need a piano? Here you go.'

So that was all, you know,very star struck and fun for me.

And then we went into this room and Michael just started playing his music and I was just staggered to hear it, just the freshness and the virtuosity of it.

Thomas: I think at one point he climbed up on the piano.

So he was kind of sitting up here kind of looking at me, and -- ♪♪ Robison: But what also immediately came out from that night,from my getting to know Michael, was his incredible tenderness, and his warmth, and his sense of fun and adventure.

And then he called me -- June 1976, and I got a call from Berlin that was Michael, which was at that time very exotic to get a call like that, and he said -- Thomas: I'm going to be back in town, whatever you're doing next weekend, cancel it, because I'd like to see you.

And... That turned out to be an iconic weekend as far as beginning to reimagine the shape of our lives.

♪♪ Robison: That's our basic story. [ Laughs ] And then I moved back to Buffalo.

Thomas: I learned a tremendous amount of music in Buffalo, but I realized it was time to move on, it was time to take a lot of the repertoire I had now learned in Buffalo and take that into the mainstream of national and international orchestras.

Robison: Michael decided that it was time to leave Buffalo.

It was a bit of a daring move for him at the moment because he didn't have an immediate appointment.

What we did have at that point was a very good recording contract because we were making three or four recordings a year with CBS Masterworks.

So at that point we could say, Okay, we want to make certain records with the Philharmonia Orchestra in London, or the LSO, or with orchestras in Berlin or Los Angeles.

So it was a ticket to work in these various places.

Thomas: The situation for Josh and me was a special one.

We were not only living together for the first time, we were working together,we had become a production team.

Bousfield: Professionally, Joshua is this kind of invisible ring of steel around Michael.

He's the one that protects him.

He's the one that looks out for him the whole time and just allows Michael just to be able to focus on what he needs to.

And what makes what Joshua does so brilliant is you would never know that.

He's invisible.

♪♪ Burton: Michael first came onto my radar with the magic name George Gershwin.

♪♪ Because Michael made the most wonderful recordings of Gershwin's music, and I felt immediately that he was in touch somehow with something that other conductors didn't have.

Thomas: As you listen to the 'Rhapsody,' you can still hear the echoes of old Jewish songs... ♪♪ Burton: I, as a television producer working in the BBC, was looking for that kind of talent.

♪♪ Thomas: Of black music.

♪♪ Of Debussy.

♪♪ Burton: We were looking for people who would, when talking about music, give it a vitality which would attract the general public, and Michael had that in spades, I could see that straight away.

Thomas: But somehow George's genius forged them all into a language that gives witness to the ambiguous and ambivalent ache that we all feel in this mad whirl of a 20th century.

Burton: One felt as one watched that, that the spirit of George Gershwin had somehow flown down from Valhalla and was entering into Michael Tilson Thomas's body, he sat there and he was playing as if it was Gershwin at the keyboard.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Thomas: Those years were an adventure in many ways.

♪♪ Josh and I were on the road together and living in a lot of different hotels and exploring a lot of different cities.

Robison: And there was some years in which we would go into 14, 15 different orchestras.

♪♪ But he was always hungering for his own orchestra too, and we kept that, looking what was going on.

♪♪ Gillonson: For his debut with the LSO, Michael came in as this unbelievable young whiz kid conductor.

♪♪ I was blown away by his intensity, his enthusiasm, his passion for the music.

Incredible energy and anextraordinary intellect as well.

And in 1987, I appointed him as our principal conductor.

[ Laughing ] Thomas: Unbelievable.

Gonna really have to work hard to deserve, aren't I?

Well... Marriner: Michael arrived with amazing new ideas of how to satisfy a London audience, which is often quite fickle, actually.

Thomas: So when this barking dog thing, try all down bows, do all downs.

Marriner: So you need really interesting, adventurous programing.

And that's what Michael brought immediately to the LSO.

Thomas: Terrifically well.

The ratchet -- can I hear that ratchet, by the way? [ Ratcheting ] Marriner: A well as a very different approach to orchestral politics, really.

Thomas: Figure nine!

♪♪ Robison: At the exact same time, we actually started the New World Symphony -- the same year that Michael started the LSO in 1987 was the same year we started the New World Symphony.

So that became our real... our real axis between London and Miami.

And they were two very, very different scenes.

♪♪ Thomas: For years, I had been mentioning that I thought it was a pity that there was no national resource for young musicians, and suddenly I hear that Ted Arison wants to talk to me.

And he said, 'Well, I've been hearing something about your idea and I want you to make this happen in Miami.'

And that was it.

Robison: Those were pretty wild days when we first got to Miami.

Thomas: We were rehearsing various places on the beach.

Members of the orchestra were living in one hotel or another surrounded by snowbirds.

We realized we had to havesome kind of more permanent home where we could have real practice rooms.

Then Ted spotted the Lincoln Theatre -- old movie house, it had become a porno theater, and now it had been shut down for who knows how long.

And he said, well, maybe we could make music in there.

The whole thing was renovated, and that became the beginning of the real solid identity of the orchestra having our own theater.

Smith: When I first got to New World, it was that this really interesting juncture, right -- there was this amazing music happening in this old deco theater on the Mall, on Lincoln Road.

You walked into the lobby space and you couldn't quite believe that you're going to hear Mahler.

I used to love that.

And it was it was a laboratory.

In this beautiful place, which was also just a really fun place to kind of live and be young and working.

♪♪ Thomas: When I was eight years old, Frank Gehry was my babysitter.

Gehry: It was clear that Michael was headed on a meteoric path, you just didn't know where -- he could have become a... a serial killer even.

Thomas: Well, part of the experience of doing this building with Frank did feel like going back to being eight years old again in a certain way, because he lives in such an imaginative space.

I kind of felt like both of us were eight years old some of the time.

Gehry: You know, I let the client take the lead.

I get more fun out of that because then I'm working and, you know, I'm playing off them so I don't repeat myself.

Thomas: We began to get this idea of the exterior of the building being very minimalist and the interior of the building being very elaborate.

Gehry: So we decided that the building should be a box, period -- just make an overall box.

So it's like a very sculptural landscape inside.

And from the outside, you see that.

So I think people are going to say it's not a Frank Gehry building, whatever that is.

It doesn't look like -- 'Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh.'

[ Players tuning ] Bousfield: I first met Michael in 1987.

They were the happiest days of my life in orchestras.

Thomas: One!

[ Playing 'Happy Birthday to You' ] ♪♪ Bousfield: There were a lot of young players in the orchestra and he played a bit like a rock band.

You know, we had fun. We had so much fun.

♪♪ Michael runs a happy ship.

Thomas: This piece, this Bartok piece, the piece was commissioned by Koussevitzky.

What Koussevitzky wanted from Bartok was a very entertaining piece to show off the talents of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

Meanwhile, Bartok was in the last days of his life, basically, and wanted to write this big memorial piece.

So there's a certain conflict here.

What I think we need to do is be as kind of entertaining and bravura as possible.

♪♪ ♪♪ Bousfield: Michael was 50 years ahead of his time, you know, in that he really had this insight into the meaning of phrases that he could pass on.

Thomas: Good, okay, great, great, great, great.

Let's just start here at 95.

Let this be more singing.

And as I said, more kind of exuberance across the phrases [ Vocalizing ] Connected it up, one impulse. One, and -- ♪♪ Burton: He had that ability to stretch time, he could stop and analyze it in his mind and know what he wanted and know the sound he was looking for.

Thomas: That's it.

♪♪ Bousfield: I once -- I was playing a little bit of devil's advocate, and I said, 'Come on, Michael, when you're conducting, you -- you don't really have to show the audience the structure of the piece, do you?'

And he said, 'No, you don't.

You have to show them the emotion of the structure.

Thomas: Still dancing.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Thomas: Relationship with the London Symphony of having the.... direct contact with the musicians themselves, people who really were making the music that we were making together was inspiring for me and taught me many lessons about working with people and sustaining a dream.

♪♪ ♪♪ Burton: I thought that Michael galvanized the orchestra, he gave it a signature, gave it a style.

He did it through his conducting.

He was the most brilliant conductor, you know, his gestures, his hands, his eyes, everything about Michael was alert.

Quicksilver is the word I use most often.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Thomas: So all that work was thrilling and exciting, but at the same time, Josh and I expressed to one of our managers, you know, it's great, but... we'd like to come back to the United States and have a fireplace and a dog.

Reporter: Young, dynamic, exciting, may be the man to propel the San Francisco Symphony into the very front ranks of the world's orchestras.

Definitely the man to make the symphony a hot ticket this season.

Kosman: The decision to hire Michael in 1993 was a really bold and interesting and daring move.

-Woman: Good evening, Maestro. -Thomas: Good evening.

Kosman: We can lose sight of it now because his tenure here has been so successful and with such longevity.

But that was not at all clear when he was first announced.

He was a well-known conductor,but hadn't really proven himself in a major American orchestra.

He had the London history and that was understood to be a success.

And he'd had the Buffalo thing.

But he still had a reputation as being kind of brash and ungovernable and a little bit unpredictable.

[ Applause ] His first season, he did this marvelous thing where he he said, 'Every program I conduct with the orchestra is going to have one piece of music by an American composer.

And at the end of his fifth year, he did this festival called American Mavericks.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ And people flocked to it.

It was a wonderful thing, it was a kind of a citywide celebration almost.

I think I've said this in one of my reviews, that there were blue hairs of both varieties, you know, the old ladies with the blue hairs and the young punks with the blue hair rubbing elbows together in this wonderful free for all.

Thomas: Mahler's been essential to my relationship to music and my relationship with the San Francisco Symphony.

Oh, yeah, here's the very first one.

The orchestra has become a great ensemble because of the work we've done together.

And a lot of that work has been on these Mahler symphonies.

A lot of my ambitions for the San Francisco Symphony were part of this larger ideal I have that orchestral performance should be much like solo performance or chamber performance, that all the imagination of sound and phrasing and nuance that I had heard and the Heifetz/Piatigorsky master classes, this is just what we should be doing in an orchestra that, simply because it involves 90, 100 people, we shouldn't be checking all of our solo or chamber music ideals at the door.

Upbeat to two, all the strings, please.

♪♪ ♪♪ The thing I always loved the most about Mahler's music was not the shattering climaxes, but rather the lyrical moments in it, in the songful elements in it, the quiet moments when you're establishing a kind of atmosphere which seems to flow along ideally as if it's all by itself.

Great, great.

So can we sort of move on a little bit more, but just take the tiniest bit of time to set up the four schlags each time they happen?

[ Vocalizing ] Shazam!

[ Vocalizing ] Generally a little more forward motion, but setting up the four schlags -- okay, last time, figure two.

Never less than forte in the melody.

Let's do it.

♪♪ Barantschik: The conductor and the orchestra, conductor and musician, its collective working, and he gives us freedom to express ourselves.

♪♪ We know what he wants, but it's a two-way road.

It's always a work of colleagues.

♪♪ Thomas: Very gentle sforzandi.

Izotov:At the end of today's rehearsal, when we played our -- it was our dress rehearsal of Mahler Five, we were about to leave the stage and we're about to reenter the real world.

And he just said, 'Excuse me, just one more thing to say.'

And then he said, 'I would ask you to play tonight's concert and preserve in it the delicacy, the tenderness, the sweetness and the beautiful qualities of life that Mahler so very much intended in his music, most of these qualities, a lot of us don't get to experience in today's world anymore.'

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Kosman: You say the Mahler Five is not the same tonight as it was 10 years ago.

Listen, my friend, the Mahler Five is not the same tonight as it was last night, and it's not the same as it will be tomorrow night.

That's how much fluidity and spontaneity and the improvisation goes into that.

And one of the things that's happened very noticeably over the last 20-some-odd years that Michael's been here is that he has brought in musicians and retained musicians who share that kind of commitment with him.

Most of the musicians who are in the orchestra now have been shaped by 25 years of working with him to have that kind of spontaneous and improvisatory esthetic that's so important to him -- I mean, he has instilled that in the orchestra and in the ensemble, in these things, they last, you know, there's a kind of an institutional memory so that even when he's gone, that kind of -- those kind of esthetic priorities are going to linger for a very long time.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Cheering and applause ] [ Indistinct chatter ] Thomas: Good evening, everybody.

I'm Michael Tilson Thomas, 'MTT.'

I'm so happy to be welcoming you tonight to this WALLCAST Concert, which is the start of the New World Symphony's 31st season.

When we started in the Lincoln, we always had loudspeakers and a small television screen outside so that anyone passing by would be able to hear the music and see what was going on inside.

This idea was very much part of the new building to include a large wall of the building, which would be a projection surface.

Morning, everybody. Okay, we're back to Britten.

So almost unprecedented thing.

Let's start in the fugue at letter J.

And this is such an unusual moment because it is a moment during which the winds and strings are going to have to wait and listen while the brass rehearse something, as opposed to the other way around, which is nearly the way it always is.

So -- [ Humming ] ♪♪ ♪♪ That's nice, that's nice -- so the more that charm detail is there, you know, the better.

Let's take the trumpets now. Your entrance, please.

♪♪ Great, can more of it be at the same volume level?

I think you're doing a little too much -- [ Vocalizing ] So it's all at the kind of fanfare-y chord thing, all the same, but pretty.

♪♪ That's that's really good, the first part of that, guys.

Trombones and tuba, here we are -- one and... ♪♪ Very nice, very nice.

All right, the whole brass section.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ That -- now!

That's what they call polyphony.

Okay!

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ Man: Get ready for... [ Applause ] Thomas: You know, for manyyears, the New World Symphony -- Being here with the New World Symphony in Florida over the last 30 years now has been perhaps the most important thing I've done in my life.

♪♪ ♪♪ I'm lucky enough to be in a situation with all these young people that I can expand a lot of the music world and expand a lot of their understanding in a way that my wonderful teachers did for me.

Volpe: What Michael's doing is perpetuating an art form, perpetuating institutions.

I mean, every American orchestra of consequence has people he's trained in the New World Symphony.

He wanted there to be a future for classical music.

♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ ♪♪ [ Cheering and applause ] Man: 'Come by the fire.

Let your salty tears' -- What's your line in that song?

Thomas: Oh, it's, 'Never you mind if your sunny morning starts turning gray.

It's much too early to be singing a sorry tune.

A hazy afternoon can make a wonderful day.

Come by the fire.

Let my loving take the sting from your tears, and don't be thinking that your life is a one-way door.

Good things are still in store.

No matter what you might fear.'

♪ ♪ ♪ ♪ ♪♪

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