Thomas, Michael Tilson (Contemporary Musicians)
Conducter, composer, accompanist
Image Pop-UpMichael Tilson Thomas. .
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 Lead-belly 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.usical 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 lifeo 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."
(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.
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.
Tilson-Thomas, Michael (Contemporary Musicians)
Piano, conductor, composer
Formerly hailed as a "Wunderkind" and, less flatter ingly, as the "bad boy" of conducting, Michael Tilson Thomas has been a prominent figure in the classical music world since the late 1960s. Considered a top talent among American conductors for decades, it was not until 1995, when he was named musical director and principal conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, that Tilson Thomas became a full-time leader of a major American orchestra. Tilson Thomas' charismatic personality and advocacy of unfamiliar twentieth-century musicspecially that of American composersave helped to make the San Francisco Symphony an excitingly revitalized organization. "Regular pilgrimages to California have become necessary for anyone who means to keep track of the national scene. The Eastern bias of American musiconumentalized by the false cliché of a Big Five group of orchestras, in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicagos collapsing under pressure from the West. It's not that these five orchestras have gone into decline: they still put a handsome frame around the nineteenth-century repertory. But they do not deliver surprises, and they do little to reflect the cities and cultures in which they live. The great Midwestern orchestras, in Cleveland and Chicago, are bolder: their programming shows an awareness that the twentieth century is happening, not to mention ending. But San Francisco has gone further and done the job better," wrote Alex Ross in the New Yorker.
Michael Tilson Thomas was born in Los Angeles in 1944. His father, Ted, was a screenwriter and film producer. His mother, Roberta, was a schoolteacher. Tilson Thomas' paternal grandparents were Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, renown performers in New York City's Yiddish theater in the early decades of the twentieth century. Ted Thomas shortened the family name to Thomas, but Tilson Thomas has contemplated going back to the name Thomashefsky to honor his grandfather. Although Tilson Thomas did not know his grandfather, who died in 1937, he feels a strong connection to him and uses his approach to the wide-ranging content of Yiddish theater as a model for his eclectic concert programming.
An only child, Tilson Thomas grew up in Hollywood with his parents and their friends who provided a stimulating cultural atmosphere. At age three, he began taking piano lessons. "I heard a lot of diverse music at home. I listened to everythingheater music, popular music, jazz, Stravinsky, medieval music, Beethoven quartets. I guess this contributed to the pluralistic view that I have of music," Tilson Thomas told Sheryl Flatow of A&E Monthly. At the University of Southern California Prep School, Tilson Thomas studied music with Dorothy Bishop. "Everything I am doing today is based on what I learned from Dorothy Bishop.... I started studying with her when I was ten. She appeared to be a scattered, elderly woman. She was, in fact, a tremendously imaginative educator," Tilson Thomas told Allan Ulrich of the San Francisco Examiner. Not surprisingly, Tilson Thomas is a strong supporter of increasing and improving music education in schools.
During high school, Tilson Thomas was drawn to a number of subjects besides music, including science and Asian culture. It was Tilson Thomas' broad range of interests that led him to attend the University of Southern California rather than a conservatory of music. His parents considered music a risky profession and hoped he would pursue a science-related career. Tilson Thomas told Katrine Ames of Newsweek that he insisted to his parents "No, I have to make music."
Tilson Thomas entered USC as an advanced placement student in 1962 where he studied piano with John Crown. He graduated with a master's degree five years later. In the summer of 1968, Tilson Thomas studied conducting at the Berkshire Music Festival, run by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where he won the Koussevitzky Prize as most promising young conductor. Tilson Thomas' impressive showing at the Berkshire Festival led to his being named assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the fall of 1969.
Tilson Thomas' rise to fame began shortly after his appointment with the Boston Symphony when the orchestra's principal conductor, William Steinberg, became ill during a performance at New York City's Lincoln Center. Tilson Thomas took his place. The response from both the audience and critics toward the young conductor was highly favorable. Tilson Thomas' sudden thrust into notoriety, his highly physical manner at the podium and his dark good looks, led to comparisons with Leonard Bernstein. Tilson Thomas is flattered by the comparisons to Bernstein, who became his close friend and mentor. Bernstein even likened Tilson Thomas to his younger self, but some commentators don't see the similarities. "Comparisons to Bernstein are nonsensical, because in temperament Tilson Thomas is almost his opposite. His style is bright-toned, pointed in rhythm, devoted to the melodic line. It's really Franco-Russian.... Bernstein, for all his jazz panache, was Germanic," wrote Ross.
In 1970, Tilson Thomas was named associate conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the following year became musical director and principal conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, while continuing his association with the Boston Symphony as principal guest conductor. Under Tilson Thomas' direction, the Buffalo Philharmonic became an important venue for avant-garde works. However, the young conductor's brash personal style, his arrogant statements to the press, and his cultivation of a disco-hopping celebrity image were not universally appreciated. Disgruntled musicians took to calling him Michael Tinsel Tushy. An older and wiser Tilson Thomas acknowledges his youthful hauteur: "Back then, I thought the way to improve an orchestra was to fire a lot of the players," Tilson Thomas told Schiff.
Renewed Commitment to Music
In 1978, Tilson Thomas' supreme self-confidence was shaken by a drug arrest. Customs inspectors at Kennedy Airport in New York City found small amounts of marijuana, cocaine and amphetamines in his luggage. Tilson Thomas plea bargained and ended up paying only a $150 fine. Although the drug incident had no major effect on his professional reputation, it did lead Tilson Thomas to reassess his personal behavior and attitudes. "Some of the statements that I made years back about symphony orchestras being old fossils and about certain social scenes that were intolerable those were in some ways accurate observations of what was going on. But they were also manifestations of my frustration at the time. My God, I was booked up then, giving eight million concerts all over the world.... There was no place for any personal existence. I had to resolve that so I wouldn't resent what I do, which I don't. So what I'm trying to say is that I am now a very serious and committed musician," Tilson Thomas said of his life in the 1970s to Roddy in 1980.
In 1979, Tilson Thomas left Buffalo to freelance with orchestras around the world, including the New York City Opera, whose artistic director and premiere soprano, Beverly Sills, became one of his biggest fans. "He's got a non-stop mind. He's open to new ideas, and he's a delight to make music with," Sills said of Tilson Thomas to Birnbaum. In 1981, Tilson Thomas became principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Despite a successful four years in the post, he was passed over in favor of Andre Previn when the position of musical director and principal conductor opened in 1985.
Ironically, when Tilson Thomas took over the London Symphony in 1987, he was assuming a post formerly held by Previn. Time and experience had given Tilson Thomas maturity as both a conductor and a person. He enjoyed a good relationship with his associates in London. "He's a fantastic musician. He's helped us a lot. He's a stickler on the box [podium], and he hears everything," London Symphony senior concertmaster Lennie MacKenzie told Birnbaum in 1990. Tilson Thomas guided the London Symphony through rigorous touring and recording schedules and helped bring the orchestra back to the high standards it had maintained under Previn in the 1970s. "I think the LSO and I joined forces at just the right moment for both of us. And eight years there were important ones for me, as they really were the years of my mid-life crisis - when I had to come to terms with both my parents passing away - as well as that time when I stopped being a young musician," Tilson Thomas explained to Douglas Kennedy of Classic FM.
Success in San Francisco
In 1995, Tilson Thomas' returned to the United States as musical director and principal conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, an orchestra which he had guest conducted dozens of times over the previous 20 years. He took the baton from Herbert Blomstedt, who became the San Francisco Symphony's conductor laureate. "It was time for me to come back to the U.S., in my prime, or at least my majority. I find myself rediscovering all the love I had for music in the beginning, except that now I have experience as well," he explained to Michael Walsh of Time. His arrival in San Francisco sent a shock wave through the city's cultural establishment. Symphony subscriptions went up by ten percent as the orchestra underwent a transformation from an unadventurous Old Guard organization to a vibrant musical force offering fresh renditions of familiar works and introducing new compositions. One of Tilson Thomas' innovations was to include an American work in nearly all of his concert programs. As he explained to Anthony Tommasini of the New York Times, "I have a passion for American twentieth-century music not based on dogma but on my instincts."
Tilson Thomas' inaugural season ended with An American Music Festival, a two-week celebration of American music featuring works by John Adams, Aaron Copland, John Cage, Leonard Bernstein, and others. "A marathon concert of avant-garde showpieces was capped by a dissonant jam session in which Tilson Thomas joined surviving members of the Grateful Dead. No one who was there will forget the sight of Davies Hall overrun with Deadheads, or the sound of them cheering Varese's Ionisation and Henry Cowell's Quartet Euphometric. Most wonderfully, the festival lacked the condescension that so often poisons classical-pop crossover schemes. It was an authentically festive day topsy turvy, at times sublime," wrote Ross of An American Festival. To close his second season, Tilson Thomas presented a musical event called Celebrations of the Sacred and Profane which offered a wide variety of musical luminaries in eclectic combinations including Mozart, Bach, Schubert, Berlioz, and Kurt Weill. In June of 1998, Tilson Thomas and the orchestra presented an internationally acclaimed festival focusing on the works of Gustav Mahler. "The San Francisco Symphony has been a distinguished orchestra for many years, but the appointment of Michael Tilson Thomas as music director in 1995 served to confirm its stature as one of the country's more virtuosic and creative ensembles," wrote Tim Page of the Washington Post in 1998.
In addition to his duties in San Francisco, Tilson Thomas serves as artistic director of the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan, an event which he co-founded with Leonard Bernstein in 1990. He also maintains a relationship with the London Symphony as principal guest conductor and is the artistic director and co-founder of the New World Symphony. Based in Miami Beach, the New World Symphony is made up of musicians who are beginning their professional careers. Tilson Thomas told Birnbaum that the New World Symphony is a "very important expression of my idealism. We can give these kids a foundation at the very beginning, so they won't burn out and so they can keep their souls together. I've told them that whoever has his soul at the end of fifty years of music making will be the winner."
Wine and Song
Tilson Thomas lives in a 1908 house in San Francisco's Pacific Heights section. The turn-of-the-century house reflects Tilson Thomas' interest in that time period. "Because of my grandparents and because of my involvement in the music of Ives and Mahler, I've always had a fixation about the years 1880 - 1910. So to discover this eclectic Edwardian American house was just fantastic," Tilson Thomas told Kennedy. In his nonworking hours, Tilson Thomas enjoys fine food and wines. He likened great music to great wine. "Music is a psychological landscape, with all sorts of indefinable things. Wine is the same way. It has tastes that are very hard to define. The Chinese say that true flavor can only be defined by itself. When I drink a great wine, I get a sense of breadtht's like a chord sounding and echoing," Tilson Thomas told Harvey Steiman of Wine Spectator.
In the future, Tilson Thomas would like to spend more time on composing. His major compositions so far are "From the Diary of Anne Frank," which premiered in 1990 with narration by Audrey Hepburn, and "Showa/Shoah," written to commemorate the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, Japan in 1945 and first performed at a fiftieth anniversary observance of the bombing in 1995. He would also like to delve further into conducting opera. "Until now my efforts in opera were rather negative. The time came when the necessary singers were not available, or when the stage directors acted crazy. But now such friends as Thomas Hampson and Renee Fleming are urging me to a new start with opera. May be this time things will go better," Tilson Thomas told Klaus Geitel of Die Welt. Most of all Tilson Thomas would like to find a balance between his enthusiasm for work and his personal need for peace and reflection. As he explained to Kennedy: "Quiet is so hard to find. When you have to react to so many different things as I do, you're just grateful for a little time to yourself at the end of the day. And what you want most of all is silence. You really need to stop yourself sometimes in order to remember what silence is like. And to hear the notes again."
With the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Carl Ruggles, Sun-Treader, 1970.
Igor Stravinsky, Le Sacre du Printemps, 1972.
With the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Serge Prokofiev, Romeo and Juliet, 1995.
Aaron Copland, Orchestral Variations, Short Symphony, Symphonic Ode, 1996.
Hector Berlioz, Symphonie Fantastique, 1997.
George Gershwin, The 100th Birthday Celebration, 1998.
(Cleveland Orchestra and Chrous) Carl Orff, Carmina Burana, 1974.
(New York Philharmonic) George Gershwin, Rhapsody in Blue, An American in Paris, 1975.
(Buffalo Philharmonic) Carl Ruggles, Complete Works, 1976.
(Los Angeles Philharmonic) Serge Prokofiev, Lieutenant Kije Suite, Love for Three Oranges Suite, 1978.
Gershwin Live! with Sarah Vaughan, 1982.
(Mormon Tabernacle Choir, Utah Symphony) Aaron Copland, Choral Works, 1985.
Richard Strauss, Ein Heldenleben, Till Eulenspiegel, 1988.
(Chicago Symphony) Charles Ives, Symphony No. 1, Symphony No. 4, 1989.
Leonard Bernstein, On the Town, 1992.
A & E Monthly, June 1996.
Classic fm, November 1997.
Fi: The Magazine of Music and Sound, January/February 1996.
Newsweek, October 2, 1995, pp. 82-83.
New Yorker, November 17, 1997, pp. 118-126.
New York Times, June 17, 1997.
New York Times Magazine, August 20, 1995, pp. 29-31.
Opera News, July 1975, pp. 18-19.
People, April 14, 1980, pp. 111-116.
San Francisco Examiner Magazine, August 6, 1995.
Sunday Times (London), November 3, 1996.
Time, April 16, 1990, pp. 66-68; April 1, 1996, p. 74.
Die Welt, November 15, 1996.
Washington Post, March 13, 1998, p. C1, 3.
Wine Spectator, November 15, 1997.
Additional information provided by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra public relations office.