Michael Tilson Thomas (born December 21, 1944) is an American conductor, pianist and composer. He is currently the artistic director of the New World Symphony, an American orchestral academy based in Miami Beach, Florida. He is also Music Director Laureate of the San Francisco Symphony and Conductor Laureate of the London Symphony Orchestra.
Tilson Thomas was born in Los Angeles, California, to Ted and Roberta Thomas, a Broadway stage manager and a middle school history teacher respectively. He is the grandson of noted Yiddish theater stars Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, who performed in the Yiddish Theater District in Manhattan. The family talent goes back to Tilson Thomas's great-grandfather, Pincus, an actor and playwright, and before that to a long line of cantors; his father, Theodor Herzl Tomashefsky, was a poet and painter.
He was an only child and musical prodigy. Tilson Thomas studied piano with John Crown and composition and conducting under Ingolf Dahl at the University of Southern California. As a student of Friedelind Wagner, Tilson Thomas was a Musical Assistant and Assistant Conductor at the Bayreuth Festival.
Tilson Thomas lives in San Francisco with his husband and partner of over 40 years, Joshua Robison. The couple married on November 2, 2014.
Tilson Thomas has conducted a wide variety of music and is a particular champion of modern American works. He is also renowned for his interpretation of the works of Gustav Mahler; he has recorded all nine Mahler symphonies and other major orchestral works with the San Francisco Symphony. These recordings have been released on the high-resolution audio format Super Audio CD on the San Francisco Symphony's own recording label. Tilson Thomas is also known as a premier interpreter of the works of Aaron Copland, Charles Ives, and Steve Reich.
A sampling of Tilson Thomas's own compositions include From the Diary of Anne Frank (1990), Shówa/Shoáh (1995, memorializing the fiftieth anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima), Poems of Emily Dickinson (2002) and Urban Legend (2002).
Tilson Thomas has also been devoted to music education. He leads a series of education programs titled Keeping Score which offers insight into the lives and works of great composers, and led a series of Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic. Tilson Thomas founded the New World Symphony in Miami in 1987. Most recently, Tilson Thomas has led two incarnations of the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, which brings young musicians from around the world together for a week of music making and learning.
Tilson Thomas currently serves as president of the Tomashefsky Project, a $2 million undertaking formed in 2017 that will record and preserve his grandparents' theatrical achievements and is on the faculty of the University of Southern California Thornton School of Music.
From 1968 to 1994, Tilson Thomas was the Music Director of the Ojai Music Festival seven times. After winning the Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood in 1969, Tilson Thomas was named Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. That same year, he made his conducting debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, replacing an unwell William Steinberg mid-concert and thereby coming into international recognition at the age of 24. He stayed with the Boston Symphony as an assistant conductor until 1974 and made several recordings with the orchestra for Deutsche Grammophon. He was music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra from 1971 to 1979, and recorded for Columbia Records with the orchestra. Between 1971 and 1977, he also conducted the series of Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic as well as the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra based in Los Angeles. From 1981 to 1985, he was principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra. During a performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony at the Hollywood Bowl, a helicopter flew over the venue, disrupting the concert. This is when Tilson Thomas famously stormed offstage in the middle of the performance. In 2007, he returned to the Hollywood Bowl leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic again in the Mahler Eighth, announcing jokingly, "Now where were we?" He returned in 2013 with Mahler's Second Symphony, when another helicopter flew over the venue. Tilson Thomas stopped the orchestra, but then resumed the performance.
In 1987, Tilson Thomas founded the New World Symphony in Miami Beach, Florida, an orchestral academy for gifted young musicians whose stated mission is "to prepare highly-gifted graduates of distinguished music programs for leadership roles in orchestras and ensembles around the world." He is currently the academy's artistic director. He played an instrumental role in the development of the Frank Gehry-designed New World Center in Miami Beach, which opened in 2011. (The two had personal history, with Gehry sometimes having baby-sat for Tilson Thomas back when both were growing up in Los Angeles.)
From 1988 to 1995, Tilson Thomas was principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), and recorded with them for such labels as Columbia (now Sony Classical), including the Symphony No 3 of Mahler. From 1995, he held the title of principal guest conductor with the LSO, and became conductor laureate in 2016.
Tilson Thomas became the San Francisco Symphony's 11th Music Director in 1995. He originally made his debut with the orchestra in January 1974 conducting Mahler's Symphony No. 9. During his first season with the San Francisco Symphony, Tilson Thomas included a work by an American composer on nearly every one of his programs, including the first performances ever by the orchestra of music by Lou Harrison, and culminated with "An American Festival," a two-week focus on American music. In June 2000, Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony presented a landmark 12-concert American Mavericks Festival, recognizing the innovative works of 20th century American composers. Additional season-ending festivals in Davies Symphony Hall have included explorations of the music of Wagner, Prokofiev, Mahler, Stravinsky, Beethoven and Weill, including semi-staged productions of Rimsky-Korsakov's opera-ballet Mlada, Beethoven's Fidelio, and Wagner's The Flying Dutchman. During his tenure, the orchestra began to issue recordings on its own SFS Media label. In October 2017, the orchestra announced that Tilson Thomas would conclude his tenure as its music director at the close of the 2019–2020 season, and subsequently take the title of music director laureate.
In April 2005, he conducted the Carnegie Hall premiere of The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater, partly as a tribute to his own grandparents. Other American orchestras have since performed this production, including the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, New World Symphony and San Francisco Symphony. It has also been recorded for future broadcast on PBS.
Tilson Thomas collaborated 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 such soloists as Mason Bates, Measha Brueggergosman, Joshua Roman, Gil Shaham, Yuja Wang, Jess Larsen, Charlie Liu, and Derek Wang, participated in a 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. On March 20, 2011, Tilson Thomas also conducted the "YTSO2" (YouTube Symphony Orchestra 2) in Sydney.
His first television appearances were in the Young People's Concerts with the New York Philharmonic, airing from 1971 to 1977. He has also made regular appearances on PBS, with broadcasts featuring Tilson Thomas airing from 1972 through 2008. Eight episodes of WNET's Great Performances series have featured Tilson Thomas. He has also been featured on Japan's NHK and the BBC many times in the last three decades.
In 1976, Tilson Thomas appeared alongside Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck in a prime-time special, Bugs and Daffy's Carnival of the Animals, a combined live action/animated broadcast of The Carnival of the Animals by Saint-Saëns.
In 2011 he hosted a concert stage show celebrating his grandparents and the music of American Yiddish theatre The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater, which aired in 2012 on the PBS series "Great Performances." 
Tilson Thomas hosted the Keeping Score television series, nine one-hour documentary-style episodes and eight live-concert programs, which began airing nationally on PBS stations in early November 2006. He and the San Francisco Symphony have examined the lives and music of Gustav Mahler, Dmitri Shostakovich, Charles Ives, Hector Berlioz, Aaron Copland, Igor Stravinsky, Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky, and Ludwig van Beethoven.
Tilson Thomas has made more than 120 recordings, including works by Bach, Mahler, Beethoven, Prokofiev and 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. He recently finished recording the complete orchestral works of Gustav Mahler with the San Francisco Symphony.
|Year||Orchestra||Composer||Work (and soloists, if any)||Label|
|1991||London Symphony Orchestra||Adam||Music from "Giselle"||Sony|
|1990||London Symphony Orchestra, Ambrosian Singers||Beethoven||Late Choral Music||CBS Masterworks|
|1986||Orchestra of St. Luke's||Beethoven||Symphony No. 3
Contredanses for Orchestra, WoO 14
|2010||San Francisco Symphony||Beethoven||Symphony No. 5
Piano Concerto No. 4 (Ax)
|1999||English Chamber Orchestra||Beethoven||Symphony No. 6, "Pastorale"||Sony Classical|
|1996||London Symphony Orchestra||Bernstein||Arias and Barcarolles (von Stade, Hampson), Suite from A Quiet Place and Symphonic Dances from West Side Story. For details, see Arias and Barcarolles (Michael Tilson Thomas recording)||Deutsche Grammophon|
|1993||London Symphony Orchestra, London Voices||Bernstein||On the Town (Daly, von Stade, Lear, Laine, McLaughlin, Hampson, Garrison, Ollmann, Ramey) For details, see On the Town (Michael Tilson Thomas recording)||Deutsche Grammophon|
|1991||London Symphony Orchestra||Brahms||Serenade No. 1
Academic Festival Overture
|1992||London Symphony Orchestra||Brahms||Serenade No. 2 / Haydn
Variations / Hungarian
Dances – selections
|The Rite of Spring
|1996||San Francisco Symphony||Copland||Concerto for Piano and Orchestra
Symphonic Ode (with Garrick Ohlsson)
|RCA Victor Red Seal|
|1972||Boston Symphony Orchestra||Debussy||Images
Prélude À L'Après-Midi D'Un Faune
|1993||London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus||Debussy||Le martyre de St. Sebastien (with McNair, Murray, Stutzman, Caron)||Sony Classical|
|2007||Boston Symphony Orchestra Chamber Players||Debussy||Sonata No. 1 for Cello and Piano (Eskin, Tilson Thomas)
Sonata No. 2 for Flute, Viola and Harp (Dwyer, Fine, Hobson)
Violin Sonata (Silverstein, Tilson Thomas)
|1999||New World Symphony||Feldman||Coptic Light (Cohen, Feinberg)||Argo|
|1976||Columbia Jazz Band,
New York Philharmonic
|Gershwin||Rhapsody in Blue (composer, piano roll)
An American in Paris
|1990||Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra||Gershwin||Gershwin Live! (Vaughan, Tilson Thomas)||Sony Classical|
|1984||Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra||Gershwin||Rhapsody in Blue (Tilson Thomas)
Second Rhapsody for Orchestra with Piano
Preludes for Piano Promenade
Unpublished Piano Works
|1970||Boston Symphony Orchestra||Ives
|Three Places in New England
|1991||Chicago Symphony Orchestra||Ives||Symphonies Nos. 1 & 4||Sony Classical|
|2002||San Francisco Symphony||Ives||An American Journey||RCA Victor Red Seal|
|1990||Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus||Ives||Holiday Symphony
Unanswered Question (Herseth)
Central Park in the Dark
|1992||London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus||Janáček||Glagolitic Mass (Benackova, Palmer, Lakes, Kotscherga)
|1974||London Symphony Orchestra||Mahavishnu||Apocalypse (Mahavishnu Orchestra)||Sony Classical|
|2004||San Francisco Symphony||Mahler||Symphony No. 1||SFS Media|
|2004||San Francisco Symphony and Chorus||Mahler||Symphony No. 2||SFS Media|
|2004||San Francisco Symphony and Chorus,
San Francisco Symphony Girls Chorus
|Mahler||Symphony No. 3
|2004||San Francisco Symphony||Mahler||Symphony No. 4 (Claycomb)||SFS Media|
|2004||San Francisco Symphony||Mahler||Symphony No. 5||SFS Media|
|2004||San Francisco Symphony||Mahler||Symphony No. 6||SFS Media|
|2005||San Francisco Symphony||Mahler||Symphony No. 7||SFS Media|
|2009||San Francisco Symphony and Chorus,
San Francisco Girls Chorus
|Mahler||Symphony No. 8||SFS Media|
|2005||San Francisco Symphony||Mahler||Symphony No. 9||SFS Media|
|2008||San Francisco Symphony||Mahler||Das Klagende Lied (Shaguch, DeYoung, Moser, Lieferkus)
Das Lied von der Erde (Skelton, Hampson)
|RCA Red Seal|
|1990||London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus,
South End Boys
|Mahler||Symphony No. 3
Rückert Lieder (Baker)
|1999||London Symphony Orchestra||Mahler||Symphony No. 7||RCA Victor Red Seal|
|2010||San Francisco Symphony||Mahler||Songs with Orchestra (Graham, Hampson)||SFS Media|
|1998||New World Symphony||New World Jazz||New World Jazz||RCA Victor Red Seal|
|1997||London Symphony Orchestra||Prokofiev||Symphonies Nos. 1 & 5||Sony Classical|
|2004||San Francisco Symphony||Prokofiev||Romeo & Juliet||RCA Red Seal|
|1991||Hungarian State Orchestra||Puccini||Tosca (Marton, Carreras, Pons, Tajo)||Sony Classical|
|1989||London Symphony Orchestra||Ravel||Ma mère l'oye
Pavane pour une infante défunte
Pièce en forme de Habañera
L'éventail de Jeanne
Brooklyn Philharmonic Orchestra
|Reich||The Desert Music||Nonesuch|
|1994||London Symphony Orchestra||Reich||The Three movements||Nonesuch|
|1980||Buffalo Philharmonic||Ruggles||Complete Music of Carl Ruggles||Columbia|
|1971||Boston Symphony Orchestra||Schuman
|Violin Concerto (Paul Zukofsky)
Symphony No. 2
|1986||London Symphony Orchestra||Strauss, R.||Ein Heldenleben
Till Eulenspiegels Lustige Streiche
|1972||Boston Symphony Orchestra||Stravinsky||Le sacre du printemps
Le roi des etoiles
|1997||London Symphony Orchestra||Stravinsky||Stravinsky in America||Sony Classical|
|1999||San Francisco Symphony, San Francisco Symphony Chorus,
San Francisco Girls Chorus,
Ragazzi, the Peninsula Boys Chorus
|Stravinsky||Le sacre du printemps
L'oiseau de feu
|RCA Victor Red Seal|
|1993||New World Symphony||Tangazo||Tangazo||Argo|
|1970||Boston Symphony Orchestra||Tchaikovsky||Symphony No. 1||Deutsche Grammophon|
|1990||Philharmonia Orchestra||Tchaikovsky||Suite No. 2
Suite No. 4
|2005||Berliner Philharmoniker||Tchaikovsky||Violin Concerto (Bell)
Méditation No. 1: Souvenir d'un lieucher
Swan Lake: Danse russe
|RCA Red Seal|
|1997||New World Symphony, BBC Singers||Villa Lobos||Bachianas Brasileiras Nos. 4 & 5 (Fleming)
Bachianas Brasileiras No. 9
Coros Nos. 5 & 10
|RCA Victor Red Seal|
|1990||London Symphony Orchestra||Weill||The Seven Deadly Sins (Migenes)
The Little Three Penny Music
|2013||London Symphony Orchestra||Saint-Saëns||Cello Concertos n°1 Op.33 & n°2 Op.119 (Steven Isserlis)||RCA BMG|
Grammy Award for Best Classical Compendium
Grammy Award for Best Orchestral Performance
Grammy Award for Best Classical Album
Grammy Award for Best Choral Performance
National Medal of Arts
Kennedy Center Honor