The greatly talented American conductor, pianist and composer, Michael Tilson Thomas, is the 3rd generation of his family to follow 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 in the Mercury Theater Company in New York before moving to Los Angeles where he worked in films and television. His mother, Roberta Thomas, was the head of research for Columbia Pictures. 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.
Michael 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, obtaining his Master of Art in Music in 1967. Hae also studied at the Berkshire Music Center, Lenox, MA, summers of 1968 and 1969. Initially trained as a pianist, he began conducting carre in 1963, at age 19, when he was named Music Director of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra. He worked with Igor Stravinsky, Pierre Boulez, Stockhausen and Copland on premieres of their compositions at Los Angeles' Monday Evening Concerts. During this same period he was the pianist and conductor in master-classes of Gregor Piatigorsky and Jascha Heifetz. As a student of Friedelind Wagner, Thomas was a Production/Musical Assistant and Assistant Conductor at the Wagner Festival, Bayreuth, Germany in 1966. He was Chief Conductor of the Ojai Music Festival, Ojai, California in 1967.
In 1969, after winning the Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood, Michael Tilson Thomas was appointed Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. That year he also made his New York debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra and gained international recognition after replacing Music Director William Steinberg in mid-concert. He was later appointed Principal Guest Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra where he remained until 1974, and made several recordings with the orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon (which have been reissued on CD).
Michael Tilson Thomas was Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra from 1971 to 1979. He made recordings for Columbia Records in Buffalo. During much of the time from 1971 to 1977, he also conducted the series of Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. From 1981 to 1985 he was Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra.
In February 1988 Michael Tilson Thomas inaugurated the New World Symphony, an orchestral academy for graduates of prestigious music programs, whose stated mission is “...to prepare highly-gifted graduates of distinguished music programs for leadership roles in orchestras and ensembles around the world.” In addition to their regular season in Miami Beach, they have toured in Austria, France, Great Britain, South America, Japan, Israel, Holland, Italy and the USA. Prior to their January, 2007 appearance at Carnegie Hall, the New World Symphony was profiled in a feature story in The New York Times. New World Symphony graduates have gone on to major positions in orchestras worldwide. In 1991 Tilson Thomas and the orchestra were presented in a series of benefit concerts for UNICEF in the USA, featuring Audrey Hepburn as narrator of From the Diary of Anne Frank, composed by Tilson Thomas and commissioned by UNICEF. This piece has since been translated and performed in many languages worldwide. Thomas remains involved, currently serving as the academy's artistic director.
In August 1995 Michael Tilson Thomas led the Pacific Music Festival Orchestra in the premiere of his composition Showa/Shoah, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima. Thomas Hampson premiered his settings of poetry by Walt Whitman, Renée Fleming premiered his settings of the poetry of Emily Dickinson and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra premiered his concerto for contrabassoon entitled Urban Legend. As a Carnegie Hall Perspectives Artist from 2003 to 2005, he had an evening devoted to his own compositions which included Island Music for four marimbas and percussion, Notturno for solo flute and strings and a new setting of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke. Other compositions include Street Song for brass instruments and Agnegram, an overture for orchestra.
As Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1988 to 1995, Michael Tilson Thomas led the orchestra on regular tours in Europe, the USA and Japan as well as at the Salzburg Festival. In London he and the orchestra have mounted major festivals focusing on the music of Steve Reich, George Gershwin, Johannes Brahms, Toru Takemitsu, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov and the School of St. Petersburg, Claude Debussy and Gustav Mahler. As Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra since 1995, he continues to lead the orchestra in concerts in London and on tour.
In 1995, Michael Tilson Thomas became Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. His fifteen-year tenure in this post as Music has been broadly covered by the international press with feature stories in Time, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, The Times of London and The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung among many others. With the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra he has presented eight summer festivals including ones devoted to the music of G. Mahler, Igor Stravinsky, Wagner and American Mavericks. With the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra he has made numerous tours of Europe, USA and the Far East.
His guest conducting includes appearances with the major orchestras of Europe and the United States.
Michael Tilson Thomas has conducted a wide variety of music, and is a particular champion of modern American works, recording the complete symphonies of Charles Ives and the premiere recording of Steve Reich's The Desert Music (1984). Reich's composition The Four Sections (1987) was actually commissioned for the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and dedicated to Thomas. The piece premiered with Thomas in San Francisco and was later recorded for Nonesuch with the London Symphony Orchestra. He is also renowned for his interpretation of the works of G. Mahler, and since the death of Leonard Bernstein he is considered the world's premier interpreter of the works of Aaron Copland.
His recorded repertoire of more than 120 discs includes works by composers such J.S. Bach, L.v. Beethoven, G. Mahler, Prokofiev and Igor Stravinsky as well as his pioneering work with the music of Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, Steve Reich, John Cage, Ingolf Dahl, Morton Feldman, George Gershwin, John McLaughlin and Elvis Costello. Thomas's 1976 recording of George Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue with the Columbia Jazz Band featured not only the original 1924 jazz band arrangement (as opposed to the more popular symphony orchestra arrangement, written in 1942), but also the piano part "played" by the late composer, via a piano roll Gershwin himself made in 1925. Thomas recently finished recording the complete orchestral works of G. Mahler with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. These recordings have been released on the high resolution audio format, Super Audio CD on the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra's own recording label.
Michael Tilson Thomas's television work includes a series with the London Symphony Orchestra for BBC Television, the television broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra Young People's Concerts from 1971 to 1977 and numerous productions on PBS Great Performances. Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra produced a multi-tiered media project, Keeping Score, which includes a television series, web sites, radio programs and programs in schools. The television series includes three one-hour documentary-style episodes and two live-concert programs which began airing nationally on PBS stations in early November 2006. The shows detail L.v. Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 (Eroica), I. Stravinsky's Rite of Spring, and Aaron Copland/American Music. They have been compared to Leonard Bernstein’s Young People's Concerts which aired in the 1960’s.
Thomas joined-up with YouTube in 2009 to help create the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra whose members were selected from 30 countries based on more than 3,000 video auditions on YouTube. The Orchestra, as well as soloists Mason Bates, Measha Brueggergosman, Joshua Roman, Gil Shaham, Yuja Wang, Anna Larsen, Charlie Lui, Derek Wang, participated in classical music summit in New York City at the Juilliard School over three days. The event culminated in a live concert at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday, April 15. The concert was later made available on YouTube.
Despite being one of the busiest conductors on the international scene, Michael Tilson Thomas has devoted considerable time to composing throughout his career. His From the Diary of Anne Frank (1990), for narrator and orchestra, was commissioned by UNICEF and given its world premiere at Philadelphia's Academy of Music in 1990 by the late Audrey Hepburn and the New World Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the composer. Since then the work has been played by the London Symphony Orchestra, televised throughout Japan in a new Japanese translation, played by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra in a Hebrew version, performed in Holland in the original Dutch, in South Africa, in Germany, in Spain by the Orquestra Simfonica de Barcelona, at the Ravinia and Aspen Music Festivals and throughout the USA.
Michael Tilson Thomas was commissioned by the city of Hiroshima to compose a piece for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the bombing of that city Shówa/Shoáh (1995), a work for orchestra, is the result. It was premiered on August 6, 1995 by the Pacific Music Festival Orchestra.
More recent compositions include a song cycle on Poems of Emily Dickinson (2002), premiered by the San Francisco Symphony in February 2002, performed on their 2003 European tour and 2005 American tour; Urban Legend, for contrabassoon and orchestra, first performed by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in October 2002; Three Poems by Walt Whitman for baritone and orchestra; Five Songs, for voice and piano, including We Two Boys Together Clinging, recorded by baritone Thomas Hampson and pianist Craig Rutenberg for EMI; Street Song, written for the Empire Brass Quintet and also available in a version for symphonic brass; Agnegram, the composer's short (4') 90th-birthday orchestral tribute to longtime San Francisco Symphony Orchestra patron Agnes Albert. Described as buoyant and exuberant with shades of Igor Stravinsky, William Walton, Leonard Bernstein, and Spike Jones, Agnegram was premiered by the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra on May 14, 1998; and Urban Legend (2002).
In April 2005 Michael Tilson Thomas conducted the Carnegie Hall premiere of his work The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater, in which he re-creates the world of his grandparents, Yiddish theater legends Boris and Bessie.