Michael Tilson Thomas: Where Now Is Raises the Curtain on the Extraordinary Life and Career of the Renowned Conductor and Classical Music Innovator
Michael Tilson Thomas was considered the great young hope of American classical music, becoming a star overnight and gaining international recognition in 1969 when he stepped in mid-concert for ailing Boston Symphony conductor William Steinberg. The young conductor was well-poised to follow in the footsteps of his orchestral forebears. Instead, the freespirited Tilson Thomas—also a composer and pianist—forged his own path to become an 11-time Grammy-winning artist, National Medal of Arts recipient and Kennedy Center Honoree. Throughout his illustrious career, he has stretched the boundaries of classical music and championed the works of American composers with orchestras in the U.S. and around the world. The 2020–21 concert season marks his first year as Music Director Laureate of the San Francisco Symphony, with which he concluded his 25-year tenure as Music Director in June 2020.
The documentary follows Tilson Thomas from his childhood in California to the world stage and his leadership roles with the San Francisco Symphony and New World Symphony. The film features original interviews with Tilson Thomas and classical music luminaries, including composer Steve Reich; Los Angeles Philharmonic CEO Chad Smith; pianist Ralph Grierson; Boston Symphony Orchestra CEO Mark Volpe; San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joshua Kosman; the BBC’s former head of music and arts Humphrey Burton; and Clive Gillinson, executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall, as well as commentary from architect Frank Gehry, who babysat Tilson Thomas when he was a boy and built the New World Center, and Joshua Robison, Tilson Thomas’s husband and manager. Michael Tilson Thomas: Where Now Is also incorporates concert footage from his youth through the present, performing with the San Francisco Symphony, New World Symphony, Boston Symphony Orchestra and London Symphony Orchestra, among others.
In addition, the film showcases a conversation between Tilson Thomas and his idol, legendary recording artist James Brown, whose song “Cold Sweat” inspired the composer’s concept of timing; as Tilson Thomas explains in his conversation with Brown, as a conductor, “you’re trying to get a lot of people to agree where ‘now’ is.” This idea was inspired by Brown’s precision and what he called the “situation of music.”
Starting as Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1969, in the late 1980s, he co-founded and became the Artistic Director of the New World Symphony, a postgraduate orchestral academy in Miami Beach dedicated to preparing young musicians of diverse backgrounds for leadership roles in classical music. The New World Symphony has long been at the forefront of developments in the arts and in education, and over the course of its more than 30 years, Tilson Thomas has mentored thousands of young musicians—many of them featured in the film—at critical junctures in their artistic and professional development.
In 1987, he was appointed Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, serving in that role until 1995, when he became Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony. His directorship of the San Francisco Symphony was a period of significant growth and heightened international recognition for the orchestra, marked by an adventurous expansion of the orchestra’s repertoire and a commitment to rethinking and innovating upon the traditional concert hall experience. Through this work, he has become a beloved member of the San Francisco community.
Tilson Thomas appears on more than 120 recordings, including interpretations of classic works by Bach, Beethoven, Debussy and Stravinsky; pioneering recordings of music by American composers Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, Steve Reich and John Cage; and projects with Elvis Costello, Sarah Vaughan and Metallica.
He brought orchestral music to a wider audience with his television appearances: a BBC series with the London Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts (1971-1977) and numerous PBS specials, including 12 for WNET’s Great Performances series. With the San Francisco Symphony, he created Keeping Score, a multimedia project featuring PBS and public radio series, with an interactive website and education program.