Michael Tilson Thomas: Purveyor of emotions

When history repeats itself…

An exceptional conductor, composer and pedagogue, Michael Tilson Thomas has transmitted his passion for classical music to thousands of musicians, including several OSM members who have performed under his direction over the course of many years. This American conductor, member of the Gramophone magazine Hall of Fame, solidly engages with the legacy of his mentor Leonard Bernstein, for whom music was a timeless human adventure whose spirit follows an uninterrupted thread from concert to concert. Tilson Thomas comes from an artistic family: his parents worked in theatre and cinema, and he embraced classical music at a very young age. At 25, he became Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, rising to international renown after stepping in for William Steinberg, who had taken ill in the middle of a concert in October 1969. The event echoed the young Bernstein’s own last-minute replacement of Bruno Walter in 1943.

Right to the source of the work

During his formative years, Tilson Thomas worked with Stravinsky, Boulez and Copland, later becoming an important line of transmission for their works while active himself as a prolific composer. In 1995, he was named Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, in whose ranks he instilled the spirits of Mahler, Stravinsky, Reich and Gershwin. From an esthetic perspective, he considers the score as a guide and not as an end in itself, letting the musicians contribute to the life of a musical text, its colour and personality. The key to Tilson Thomas’ success is conceivably his attention to the musicians of the orchestra: rather than seeking to directly impose his own choices on them, he prefers to engage with each orchestra’s vision, building on their individual strengths. He remains convinced that music, the haven of emotions, is transformed by those who perform it without sacrificing its essence.


“We’re trying to get back to the inspiration that caused the notations to exist.”

– Michael Tilson Thomas


Transmission rooted in modernity

The analogy with Bernstein is also apparent in the importance Tilson Thomas gives to the transmission of musical works. As the champion of a living, uninterrupted tradition, he engages with multiple new projects, such a the television series “Keeping Score,” simplifying and demystifying the orchestral repertoire or working with young musicians of the New World Symphony in Miami or the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, whose first concert he conducted in Carnegie Hall in 2009. Here is a conductor of great experience, rooted in modern life, who will take to the podium for the first time in Montreal next May 22 and 23. The programme features Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and the First Piano Concerto by Liszt, with pianist George Li. It is a meeting you do not want to miss!