Michael Tilson Thomas: A Mahler Nut and So Much More

San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas goes over sheet music during the orchestra's 2015 European tour.

San Francisco Symphony Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas goes over sheet music during the orchestra's 2015 European tour. (Photo: Courtesy San Francisco Symphony)

This week, the San Francisco Symphony announced the retirement of Michael Tilson Thomas after 25 years as music director.

Tilson Thomas is best known for his championing of the works of the Austrian composer Gustav Mahler, including a series of Grammy Award-winning recordings.


But this is just one piece of the conductor’s contributions to classical music.

“His championing of new music and his adventurous programming have been  models for me in my career,” says Marin Alsop, music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Sao Paulo Symphony.

“His advocacy for American music and American composers is unparalleled,” says California Symphony and Las Vegas Philharmonic music director Donato Cabrera. “He was a strong advocate for the iconoclasts of the American music scene like John Adams, Lou Harrison, and Charles Ives.”

California Symphony and Las Vegas Philharmonic music director Donato Cabrera worked closely with Michael Tilson Thomas as resident conductor of the San Francisco Symphony for seven seasons.
California Symphony and Las Vegas Philharmonic music director Donato Cabrera. (Photo: Aubrey Bergauer )

Cabrera worked closely with Tilson Thomas as the Symphony’s resident conductor for seven seasons. He says his boss was a brilliant mentor who shared personal stories in his dressing room with his protege.

“He would share a little memory of when he was working with Stravinsky, or having an evening of word games with Leonard Bernstein,” Cabrera says.

Silicon Valley-based composer Mason Bates also benefited from Tilson Thomas’ mentorship. Bates worked with the conductor on several high-profile world premieres, including Mothership, a cutting edge collaboration with YouTube in 2010.

“He has an incredible ability to communicate complicated artistic ideas in the most engaging way, while not sacrificing substance at any level,” Bates says.

Bates says Tilson Thomas made classical music matter to people at a time when its appeal is waning, like through his Keeping Score and MTT Files radio projects, and his mid-concert musings to the audience.

Bay Area composer Mason Bates.
Bay Area composer Mason Bates. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

“When Michael speaks, what he says is interesting to everybody in the room whether it be a 30-year veteran of the San Francisco Symphony or a new audience member who’s never even walked into Davies Hall,” Bates says.

Tilson Thomas will step down in 2020 at 75 years old. He will continue to conduct the orchestra a few weeks a year and undertake special projects for the organization.

In addition to the above mini radio feature embedded above, listen to a conversation between KQED weekend news host Jeremy Siegel and culture commentator Chloe Veltman about Tilson Thomas’ retirement:

Michael Tilson Thomas: A Mahler Nut and So Much More 6 November,2017Chloe Veltman

Author

Chloe Veltman

Chloe Veltman covers arts and culture for KQED. Prior to joining the organization, she launched and led the arts bureau at Colorado Public Radio, was the Bay Area’s culture columnist for the New York Times, and was also the founder, host and executive producer of VoiceBox, a national award-winning weekly podcast/radio show and live events series all about the human voice. Chloe is the recipient of numerous prizes, grants and fellowships including both the John S Knight Journalism Fellowship and Humanities Center Fellowship at Stanford University, the Sundance Arts Writing Fellowship and a Library of Congress Research Fellowship. She is the author of the book “On Acting” and a guest lecturer at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. She holds a BA in english literature from King’s College, Cambridge, and a Masters in Dramaturgy from the Central School of Speech and Drama/Harvard Institute for Advanced Theater Training.
cveltman@kqed.org
@chloeveltman
www.chloeveltman.com

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