Michael Tilson Thomas Biography

American classical conductor
An acclaimed pianist, composer, educator, and proponent of American music, Thomas has an interest in a diverse array of music, including American jazz, Russian folk, German Romantic, and contemporary pop.

December 21, 1944; Los Angeles, California
Also known as:
Michael Tomashevsky (birth name)
Principal works
orchestral work: From the Diary of Anne Frank, 1990.

Principal recordings
albums (as conductor): Stravinsky: Suite No. 1 for Small Orchestra, 1963; Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 1 in G Minor, Op. 13, Winter Dreams, 1970; Debussy: Images for Orchestra, 1971; Stravinsky: Le Sacre du printemps, 1972; George Gershwin: Rhapsody in Blue, 1976; Steve Reich: The Desert Music, 1985; Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74, Pathetique, 1986; Charles Ives: Symphony No. 4, 1989; Tchaikovsky: Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a, 1991; Prokofiev: Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64, 1995; Copland: The Modernist, 1996; Copland: The Populist, 2000; Mahler: Symphony No. 1, 2004; Mahler: Symphony No. 7, 2005.

The Life
Michael Tilson Thomas was born to Theodor and Roberta Thomas on December 21, 1944, at Cedars of Lebanon Hospital in Hollywood, California.

Thomas’s musical lineage runs deep: His father worked on Broadway, and his grandparents starred at New York’s Yiddish Theatre after emigrating from Russia to the United States. Thomas began playing piano by ear at a young age, and he studied at the University of Southern California music preparatory school until 1962. He then enrolled as a full-time piano and composition student, with John Crown and Ingolf Dahl, respectively.

Thomas’s first formal conducting experience came at the age of nineteen, as the music director of the Young Musicians Foundation’s Debut Orchestra in Los Angeles. Soon after, he was appointed musical assistant to Friedelind Wagner at the internationally acclaimed Bayreuth Festival.

Thomas’s first major breakthrough came in the summer of 1968 when, as a conducting fellow at the Tanglewood Music Festival, he won the coveted Koussevitzky Prize. By the end of the year, he had been appointed assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and on October 22, 1969, he conducted an impromptu performance in New York, in place of ailing music director William Steinberg, to rave reviews.

International success came quickly thereafter.

He stayed as assistant and then associate conductor in Boston until 1974, and then he served as music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (1971-1979), director of the New York Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concert series (1971-1977), principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1981-1985), principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (1988-1995), and, starting in 1995, music director of the San Francisco Symphony. Thomas has also served as founder and artistic director of the New World Symphony, an American training orchestra for recent conservatory graduates in search of full-time orchestral employment.

Beginning in 1987, the group has performed at its home in Miami, Florida, and around the world, blending youthful enthusiasm and professional pedigree to create memorable music.

Thomas is active in other musical arenas as well, composing numerous works and performing the piano music of Igor Stravinsky, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Bernstein. In June, 2000, Thomas hosted a festival celebrating American Maverick composers. He performed a recording cycle of Gustav Mahler’s major orchestral works with the San Francisco Symphony, and he hosted Keeping Score, an interactive, multiyear program with the San Francisco Symphony that brings classical music to people of all ages and backgrounds.

The Music
Thomas has multiple musical identities: most prominently as conductor, as pianist, and as composer.

As a conductor, Thomas is a premier interpreter and proponent of American music, particularly that of Ives, Copland, and Bernstein. He is dedicated to performing the more difficult, modernist works of these composers, and he continues to premiere works by contemporary composers such as Steve Reich. As a composer, the expansive harmonies and colorful writing of Gershwin, Dahl, and Copland have influenced his own music.

The Desert Music.
This is a large, five-movement work for voices and orchestra by American composer Steve Reich. Thomas conducted the premiere in 1984, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

The Desert Music is one of Reich’s longest works, lasting nearly forty-five minutes, and it sets text by American poet William Carlos Williams. Thomas’s conception of this piece accentuates the wide range of vocal and instrumental textures, as well as the pulsing, repetitive rhythmic layers that are so prevalent in minimalist music. Thomas has a history of collaborating with Reich, performing in and leading the premiere of Reich’s Four Organs with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1971.

From the Diary of Anne Frank.
Written and premiered in 1990, From the Diary of Anne Frank is Thomas’s most well-known composition. The work was conceived for a series of benefits for the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) at the behest of Audrey Hepburn, a goodwill ambassador for the organization, and it sets spoken excerpts from Frank’s diary to music for orchestra. The piece takes shape with a series of loose variations on four themes, and it fuses Hebraic music, American pop, Balinese influences, and original tunes to create a compelling musical portrait. While this polystylistic work deals with the terror of the Holocaust through the eyes of an innocent teenager, Thomas emphasizes the joy and hope that persist in Frank’s words. The piece was premiered by theNewWorld Symphony and Hepburn at the Philadelphia Academy of Music.

Appalachian Spring.
This ballet by American composer Copland has become one of the most popular and recognizable musical works from the twentieth century. Written in 1943 and 1944 for Martha Graham, Copland’s Appalachian Spring aurally represents the expansive American frontier through traditional folk melodies and expansive harmonies. Thomas studied with Copland, and he has recorded a series of discs dedicated to both the accessible (Copland the Populist) and relativelymore difficult (Copland the Modernist) music of Copland, complete with commentary. As a premier conductor of Copland’s music, Thomas juxtaposes an Impressionistic flair with the open harmonies and singable melodies associated with Appalachian Spring (1944), and he emphasizes the conglomeration of high art form and texture with simple, traditional folk tunes.

Musical Legacy
Thomas was named Musician of the Year in 1971 and Conductor of the Year in 1995 by Musical America. He has won numerous Grammy Awards with the San Francisco Symphony, and he was named Gramophone’s Artist of the Year in 2005. He continues to advocate contemporary American composers and their music, not only verbally but also musically, through commissions and recording projects.

Thomas’s lasting contribution is his work with the New World Symphony. For aworld-renowned conductor to continually support and actively perform with a training orchestra is a testament to Thomas’s commitment to the future of orchestral music. His work with Keeping Score has unified diverse audiences across the globe. Like Bernstein before him, Thomas is a lively and integral part of the American musical scene. ¶