Thomas, Michael Tilson


Michael Tilson Thomas was born into a distinguished artistic family: his grandparents Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky were founding members and stars of the Yiddish Theatre in New York; his father Ted Thomas was a producer with the Mercury Theater Company in New York before moving to Los Angeles where he worked in films and television; and his mother Roberta Thomas was head of research for Columbia Pictures. Michael began his musical studies with the pianist Dorothy Bishop at the University of Southern California Preparatory School when he was ten years old. He entered the University of Southern California in 1962, where he studied piano with John Crown, and conducting and composition with Ingolf Dahl. From 1963 onwards he performed many contemporary works as the conductor of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra in Los Angeles, and as both pianist and conductor for the Monday Evening Concerts series. At the same time he worked as a pianist for master-classes given by Gregor Piatigorsky and Jascha Heifetz. During 1966 he was a student of Friedelind Wagner at the Bayreuth Festival. The following year he graduated from USC, and conducted at the Ojai Festival. He attended the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood in 1968 and won the Koussevitzky Prize for conducting.

In the autumn of 1969 Tilson Thomas took up the position of assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and within a few days was called upon to replace the orchestra’s chief conductor William Steinberg during a concert in New York. He went on to conduct the orchestra in thirty-seven concerts during the same season and was promoted to the position of associate conductor with effect from the 1970–1971 season, when in addition he made his debuts with the London Symphony Orchestra and in Japan. He also made his first recording in 1970 for Deutsche Grammophon with a typically adventurous programme: Carl Ruggles’s epic Sun Treader and Charles Ives’s Three Places in New England. During the 1970s he held several key appointments: principal guest conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (1971–1974), music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra’s Young People’s Concerts (1971–1977), and chief conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (1971–1979). In addition he signed an exclusive recording contract with Columbia-USA in 1973 which resulted in numerous recordings.

During the 1980s Tilson Thomas undertook an extensive programme of guest-conducting and recording in the USA and Europe, as well as serving as principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra between 1981 and 1985. He was appointed chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra in 1987 with effect from the following year, retaining this position until 1995. In 1988 he founded the New World Symphony Orchestra, based in Florida; this was America’s first training orchestra, and Tilson Thomas serves as its artistic director. While continuing to work with the London Symphony Orchestra as its principal guest conductor, in 1995 he became chief conductor of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra; he completely re-invigorated this orchestra and its audiences with highly creative programming initiatives, and embarked on the recording of a complete cycle of the Mahler symphonies for the orchestra’s own record label.

Tilson Thomas is an elegant figure on the podium, and has a clear if large-scale beat. He is a natural communicator, often speaking to audiences directly and enjoying great success on television. Himself a composer of note, he has been a consistent supporter of contemporary music, commissioning and performing many new works by composers from both Europe and America. He is without question one of America’s most pre-eminent musicians and has to a certain extent inherited the mantle of Leonard Bernstein, with whom he worked closely, for instance founding the Pacific Music Festival at Sapporo in 1990. His discography of recordings is large and extremely catholic in terms of repertoire. As he has aged his performances have gained a depth and expansiveness that show the hand of a true master.