Michael Tilson Thomas Talks About the Symphony, the Bay Area, Food and More

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

Photo by Art Streiber

[This is an excerpt from the October 2020 issue of On KQED magazine.]

Think of the greatest composers, conductors and musical minds of our time and Michael Tilson Thomas, an icon in the Bay Area and around the world, tops the list. He was the San Francisco Symphony’s music director for 25 years (he recently became music director laureate). He’s also the co-founder and artistic director of the New World Symphony and conductor laureate of the London Symphony Orchestra. His list of accomplishments and accolades include eleven Grammy awards, appearances on more than 120 recordings, the National Medal of Arts and the 2019 Kennedy Center Honors, to name just a few.

I spoke with him recently on the day when Bay Area skies glowed orange from the fires (“almost biblical,” he noted) and learned more about his music and his life. 

Tilson Thomas is featured in two upcoming shows on KQED 9. On Friday, October 23, at 9pm, we’ll air a new American Masters’ documentary Michael Tilson Thomas: Where Now Is. And on Thursday, October 29, we’ll broadcast Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony: S&M 2, which focuses on symphonic renditions of Metallica fan favorites. If you’re interested in knowing more about him and his work, you don’t want to miss them. -- Ellyn Hament, Managing Editor of On KQED

How has the pandemic affected your work?
The San Francisco Symphony’s tour to New York and Europe and the rest of the orchestra’s season were cancelled. It’s hard because the members of the orchestra had been doing these pieces over many years and we were looking forward to enjoying each other’s company and having the pleasure of just being back in the national parks of symphonic culture. During this time, I want to do more composing and musical theater work. And I’m in touch with people and working on various projects.


Was there a standout moment from your tenure as music director for the San Francisco Symphony?
That’s a hard question. There were spectacular moments on tour in Paris and Vienna when the audience was applauding and stamping their feet and wouldn’t go home. But it was also wonderful to be on a hiking trail in Marin and have a stranger pass by and say, "Thank you, maestro, for the Mahler.

What do you think people may be surprised to learn about you in the upcoming American Masters’ show on PBS? 
The concerts and products are important and wonderful things. Still, they’re not the actual experience of my life.  There are little moments in the documentary that will give people more insight into the quality of my childhood, and what kind of atmosphere I live in.

What was it like to do the Metallica show, which airs on KQED this month?
I’ve always pointed out that there are some parallels between the music of the Middle Ages and metal music. We brought them together by playing a couple of Russian Futurism pieces of the very early 20th century. It was a colossal effort to put this show together. I realized that I was going to have to have heart surgery so I asked Edwin Outwater to take over the center of the project. He did a fabulous job. The first thing I did after the heart surgery was this concert. I conducted three or four numbers. It was interesting to have to go from convalescent mode to the stage right away. It was really fun and I was grateful that I was able to do it.

Musical Director Michael Tilson Thomas (left) conducts the San Francisco Symphony. James Hetfield, lead vocalist, rhythm guitarist and co-founder of Metallica (right). Photo credit: Eagle Rock Entertainment

What are you listening to now – in any genre?
I don’t listen to music all that much. I’m feeling a lot of music. It’s in my life. I do have it on sometimes when I’m doing other things like cooking or reading or puttering around the house. 

I tend to listen to Gesualdo — 17th-century eccentric vocal music — Haydn keyboard music and the music of Mali. Every once in a while I listen to old jazz standards.

What do you like about living in the Bay Area?
It’s a sophisticated city with a lot of very strong and wide-ranging cultures. It is a real center of cultural and political activities. And it has access to beautiful countryside. Joshua [his husband] and I have been so welcomed in San Francisco. And the whole period has been very much of a collaboration with the people on stage, a lovely voyage of discovery, one that’s been influenced by the city and not by impenetrable intellects. I’ve also enjoyed working with John Adams and with Lou Harrison. I wanted people to become aware of Harrison’s wide-ranging works. It’s been gratifying to be able to do that.

Do you regularly watch or listen to anything on KQED, PBS
or NPR?
I’m very faithful to watching the PBS NewsHour, and I watch the BBC World News broadcast. I’ve gotten involved with some of the wonderful series though I’m not so much of a series watcher. And it’s not PBS, but during the Jerry Orbach years I got very into Law & Order. [Editor’s note: Orbach had an interesting Broadway career.]

I appreciate the various cooking shows; I’m a pretty respectable cook. I was on a cooking show with Jacques Pépin. I enjoy going to farmers’ markets, seeing what’s seasonal and fresh and thinking of what to cook with it. I don’t use recipes. This week I took my conception of tandoori chicken much further than I ever have before, using lots of local spices and vegetables. I also like to make a lot of different relishes, pico de gallo and preserved lemons.