Born on December 21, 1944, in Los Angeles, CA. Education: Graduated from the University of Southern California, 1967. Addresses: Office--San Francisco Symphony, Davies Symphony Hall, San Francisco, CA 94102, website: http://www.sfsymphony.org.
Over the course of his 35-year career, Michael Tilson Thomas has done much to enliven the field of traditional classical music. Staging works by such avant-garde artists as John Cage and Lou Harrison alongside classics by Beethoven and Brahms, he has become known as much for his adventurous programming and unorthodox approach to performance as for his highly regarded talents as a composer, conductor, and musical director.
Thomas was born into an artistic, Hollywood-affiliated family in Los Angeles on December 21, 1944. His paternal grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky (from whom he takes his shortened last name) were founding members of the Yiddish Theater in America. His father, Ted Thomas, was a director of New York's politically progressive Project 891, a program of the Federal Theater Project and predecessor to the Mercury Theater, which is best known for its association with actor Orson Welles. Following a split with Welles and other members of Project 891, Ted Thomas and his family relocated to Los Angeles and Ted began working in Hollywood. Thomas's mother, Roberta Thomas, headed the research department for Columbia Pictures.
Thomas's parents were musically inclined, and introduced their son to many adventurous composers, as well as to influential vernacular music. "I grew up in a household where my parents frequently played Schoenberg and Stravinsky as well as Broadway and Leadbelly and every other kind of music," Thomas recalled in a 1996 interview with Fanfare. "So I heard all of this when I was a child, and it never occurred to me to draw distinctions between one musical genre and another. If it was good music, it was good music."
After graduating from preparatory school at the University of Southern California (USC), where he studied piano with Dorothy Bishop, Thomas enrolled at USC. There he studied piano with John Crown, as well as composition and conducting with Ingor Dahl. He also worked with the renowned Monday Evening Concerts series in Los Angeles, alongside such legendary composers as Stravinsky, Karlheinz Stockhausen, and Aaron Copland. Proximity to the composer Igor Stravinsky proved to be a major influence. Thomas told Fanfare, "He had this great curiosity about music. People have this thing about calling me M.T.T.---Musical Time Traveler! That idea of being very interested in the music of both the future and the past was one thing I definitely picked up from that Stravinsky circle."
In 1966 Thomas served as musical assistant and assistant conductor at the Bayreuth Festival in Bavaria. He graduated summa cum laude from USC in 1967. The following year he was awarded a conducting fellowship to Tanglewood, the summer venue of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO), and was awarded the organization s Koussevitzky prize. He also began an affiliation with BSO conductor Leonard Bernstein and accepted a post as assistant conductor of the BSO in 1969, working under William Steinberg. That October Thomas made international headlines when he replaced an ailing Steinberg during mid-concert at New York City's Lincoln Center. The following year Thomas was appointed the orchestra's associate conductor.
Thomas relocated to Buffalo, New York, in 1971 to take a post as musical director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, where he remained until 1979. From 1981-85 he served as principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. In 1988 he began an acclaimed tenure with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), where he became known for his adventurous programming, demonstrative conducting style, and rapport with the audience. While with the LSO, Thomas initiated the Discovery community concert series, during which he sought to promote an understanding of classical music through spoken word introductions to the works.
Thomas remained in London until 1995, when he became musical director of the San Francisco Symphony. Upon arriving in San Francisco, he quickly became known for his passionate approach to performance and especially for his bold programming choices, which were eye-opening even by the standards of that culturally liberal city. Thomas debuted with a piece commissioned especially for him from avant-garde composer Lou Harrison, and in his inaugural year he included a piece by an American composer on almost every program. He concluded the season with a summer American Festival, a two-week exploration of works by composers ranging from Copland, Bernstein, and George Gershwin, to Terry Riley, Steve Reich, and Meredith Monk. Monk and Harrison performed with the symphony during the festival, as did the highly esteemed Kronos Quartet and members of the Grateful Dead. Thomas further promoted the works of contemporary American visionaries in the San Francisco Symphony's 2000 American Mavericks program, a 12-concert series that explored the works of many of the composers visited during the American Festival, in addition to works by avant-garde artists like Frank Zappa and Morton Feldman.
In his second year with the San Francisco Symphony, Thomas entered into a recording agreement with the BMG Classics/RCA Red Seal label. Their first release, a live recording of scenes from Sergei Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, earned the symphony a Grammy award for Best Orchestral Performance. A 1999 Stravinsky recording earned them three more Grammies, for Best Classical Album, Best Orchestral Recording, and Best Engineered Classical Album. Thomas told Fanfare he hoped the BMG/RCA recordings would have broad appeal. "We all have hundreds of CDs, but it always winds up that there are only about six or seven that you actually listen to," he said. "So my approach to making records with BMG is that I would like to make more records that people actually will listen to."
Thomas and the symphony launched their own recording label, SFS Media, in 2001, with ambitious plans to release all nine of Gustav Mahler's symphonies, as well as the Adagio from his unfinished tenth. The label's first issue, Mahler's Symphony No. 6, earned the 2003 Grammy for Best Orchestral Performance.
In addition to being known as a maverick for both for his programming and business choices, Thomas is regarded as a passionate conductor who gives his musicians space to breathe. "Live music requires a certain amount of interpretive space," he told Keyboard in 1996. "The composer has to trust the performer to do something with this thing, to reanimate it, to give it life---to be able to look through it and see what the composer really was meaning, since the notation will never be adequate to completely express what he means. And the performances that we like most are when we feel, as Liszt said, that someone real is speaking with us or singing to us. And when we sense that personality, then we think this is a touching performance, a moving performance, an important performance, and we remember it."
by Kristin Palm
Michael Tilson Thomas's Career
Assistant conductor, Boston Symphony, 1969-70, associate conductor, 1970-71; music director, Buffalo Philharmonic, 1971-79; principal guest conductor, Los Angeles Philharmonic, 1981-85; principal conductor, London Symphony Orchestra, 1988-95; founder and artistic director, New World Symphony Orchestra, 1988--; music director, San Francisco Symphony, 1995--.
Michael Tilson Thomas's Awards
Tanglewood Music Center, Koussevitzky Prize, 1968; Chevalier des Arts et Lettres, 1996; Grammy Awards, Best Choral Performance (as conductor), 1975; Best Engineered Recording, Classical, 1976, 1999; Best Orchestral Performance, 1996, 1999, 2002; Best Classical Album, 1999, 2003.
- Selected discography
- (With London Symphony) Adams: Giselle Sony Classical, 1991.
- (With London Symphony) Stravinsky: Symphonies Sony Classical, 1994.
- (With San Francisco Symphony) Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet (Scenes from the Ballet) Red Seal, 1996.
- (With San Francisco Symphony) Copland: The Modernist Red Seal, 1996.
- (With San Francisco Symphony) Alma Brasileira: Music of Villa-Lobos Red Seal, 1997.
- (With San Francisco Symphony) Mahler: Das Klagende Lied Red Seal, 1997.
- (With San Francisco Symphony) Stravinsky in America Red Seal, 1997.
- (With San Francisco Symphony) George Gershwin: The 100th Birthday Celebration Red Seal, 1998.
- (With San Francisco Symphony) Stravinsky: Rite of Spring; Persephone; Firebird Red Seal, 1999.
- (With San Francisco Symphony) Mahler: Symphony No. 7 Red Seal, 1999.
- (With San Francisco Symphony) Copland: The Populist Red Seal, 2000.
- (With New World Symphony) Tuck and Roll: Music of Steve Mackey Red Seal, 2001.
- (With San Francisco Symphony) Mahler: Symphony No. 6 SFS Media, 2002.
- (With San Francisco Symphony) Mahler: Symphony No. 1 SFS Media, 2002.
- (With San Francisco Symphony) Mahler: Symphony No. 3 and Kindertotenlieder SFS Media, 2003.
- (With San Francisco Symphony) Mahler: Symphony No. 4 SFS Media, 2004.
- Selected writings
- Viva Voce: Conversations with Edward Seckerson Faber and Faber, 1994.
- Fanfare, March/April 1996.
- Keyboard, July 1996.
- "Michael Tilson Thomas," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 14, 2004).
- "Michael Tilson Thomas," Grove Dictionary of Music, http://www.grovemusic.com (June 14, 2004).
- "Michael Tilson Thomas," Sony Classical, http://www.sonyclassical.com (June 25, 2004).
- Additional information provided by San Francisco Symphony publicity materials, 2004.