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Michael Tilson Thomas - Biography

Michael Tilson Thomas is the Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, the Founder and Artistic Director of the New World Symphony and Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra. Born in Los Angeles, he is the third 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.

Mr. 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. At age nineteen he was named Music Director of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra. He worked with Stravinsky, 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 for Gregor Piatigorsky and Jascha Heifetz. As a student of Friedelind Wagner, he was Musical Assistant and Assistant Conductor at the Bayreuth Festival.

In 1969, after winning the Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood, he was appointed Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. That same year he made his New York debut with the Boston Symphony 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. He was Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic from 1971 to 1979, a Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic from 1981 to 1985 and the Principal Conductor of the Great Woods Music Festival from 1985 to 1988. His guest conducting includes appearances with the major orchestras of Europe and the United States.

His recorded repertoire, recipient of numerous Grammys and international awards, includes works by Bach, Beethoven, Mahler, 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 and George Gershwin. In 1995 Mr. Tilson Thomas became an exclusive BMG Classics/RCA Red Seal recording artist. His debut recording for that label with the San Francisco Symphony, Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, won a Grammy for best orchestral recording of 1996 and their recording of Stravinsky Ballets won three Grammys in 1999, including awards for best classical album and best orchestral performance. Current releases with the San Francisco Symphony include a disc of the Aaron Copland’s early works and a disc of his most popular ballets, Gustav Mahler's Das klagende Lied, Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, and a Gershwin collection. With the New World Symphony he has released an album of works by Heitor Villa-Lobos and a collection of classical interpretations of jazz. Current releases with the London Symphony Orchestra are works composed by Igor Stravinsky while he lived in the United States and the Mahler Symphony No. 7, which garnered him the prestigious Toblacher Komponierhcuschen 2000, an award given by a consortium of European critics to the best Mahler recording of the year.

Among Mr. Tilson Thomas' works for television is a series with the London Symphony Orchestra for the BBC, including programs on Strauss' Till Eulenspiegel and Ein Heldenleben, Sibelius' Symphony No. 6, Beethoven's Symphonies No. 3 and 5, and an examination of late 19th century Russian music. Other television productions include a three-hour international celebration of the music and life of George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein's On The Town, and Concerto!, a five- part BMG audio/video series.

Noted for his commitment to music education, Michael Tilson Thomas has given lecture demonstrations at Carnegie Hall, led the television broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic Young People's Concerts from 1971 to 1977, and was Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic Institute and the Great Woods Summer Institute in Massachusetts. In February of 1988 he inaugurated the New World Symphony, an orchestral academy for the most gifted graduates of America's music conservatories. In addition to their regular season in Miami Beach, Florida, they have toured in Austria, France, Great Britain, South America, Japan, Israel and the United States. Many of the graduates of the New World Symphony have gone on to major positions in orchestras worldwide. In 1991 Mr. Tilson Thomas and the orchestra were presented in a series of benefit concerts for UNICEF in the United States, featuring Audrey Hepburn as narrator of From the Diary of Anne Frank, composed by Mr. Tilson Thomas and commissioned by UNICEF. This piece has since been translated and performed in many languages worldwide. As a composer, Mr. Tilson Thomas is also known for his song cycles. In 1999 Thomas Hampson premiered his settings of poetry by Walt Whitman, and Renee Fleming has premiered his settings of the poetry of Emily Dickinson.

As Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra from 1988-1995, Mr. Tilson Thomas led the orchestra on tour in England, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, France, Israel, Spain, the United States 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, Rimsky-Korsakov and the school of St. Petersburg, Claude Debussy and Gustav Mahler. As Principal Guest Conductor of the LSO, he continues to lead the orchestra on tours and to record with them for BMG.

In June 1990, along with Leonard Bernstein, he inaugurated the Pacific Music Festival in Sapporo, Japan, which he directed until he stepped down as Artistic Director in September of 2000. In August 1995 the orchestra presented the world premiere of Mr. Tilson Thomas's composition Showa/Shoah, commemorating the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima.

In 1994, Mr. Tilson Thomas received the Ditson Award for contributions to American music and was named Musical America's "Conductor of the Year." His tenure as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony began the following season and was widely recognized in the national and international music press with feature stories and reviews in Time, Newsweek, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and The Times (London), among many others. With the San Francisco Symphony, he has presented five summer festivals including festivals devoted to the music of Mahler, Stravinsky and American Mavericks; each of those festivals focused the attention of the international music community on the West Coast of America. Critics have recognized Mr. Tilson Thomas for his innovative programming concepts and his stewardship of American and 20th century composers. With the San Francisco Symphony he has made three tours of Europe, five American tours and a tour of Japan and Hong Kong. They have won four Grammys for their recordings of Prokofiev and Stravinsky, and their partnership was one of the highlights of a recent profile of Mr. Tilson Thomas on the CBS program 60 Minutes.

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