Michael Tilson Thomas to Step Down From San Francisco Symphony

Michael Tilson Thomas announced he will step down as Music Director in 2020. (Art Streiber)

Michael Tilson Thomas, the well-loved conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, will step down from his role as Music Director in 2020, the Symphony announced Tuesday.

Tilson Thomas has been in the role since 1995, when he came to San Francisco as a respected figure in the classical music world with determination to present new works, fresh ideas for the concert experience, and an unwavering love of Mahler. All have helped define his tenure in San Francisco, which reads as a long list of awards, accolades, and achievements.

With over two dozen U.S. and international tours, and 44 releases on the symphony's own record label, Tilson Thomas brought the music of the Symphony to a global audience. He also doggedly presented the music of 20th Century composers with the American Mavericks series, and regularly worked alongside emerging composers in the Bay Area and beyond to perform new works.

Michael Tilson Thomas surveys the crowd before introducing the premiere of SoundBox in 2014.
Michael Tilson Thomas surveys the crowd before introducing the premiere of SoundBox in 2014. (Gabe Meline/KQED)

“Looking back over these decades I am filled with gratitude for the extraordinary artistic partnership I have had with the members of the orchestra and for the warm and generous style of music making we have shared with all of our audiences,” Tilson Thomas said in a statement. “Having been a Music Director of an orchestra for most of my adult life and as I approach my 75th birthday, I feel this is an appropriate moment to set aside some of my administrative responsibilities and begin a new period of creative possibilities."

In the past three years, Tilson Thomas celebrated his 70th birthday, as well as his 20th year at the Symphony. He also presided over the opening of SoundBox, the nightclub-esque series in a rehearsal room at Davies Symphony Hall that has proved a runaway success with younger audiences.

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After 2020, Tilson Thomas will transition to Music Director Laureate of the Symphony, conducting the orchestra for at least four weeks each season.

“Michael Tilson Thomas embodies the personality and the spirit of San Francisco,” said Sakurako Fisher, President of the San Francisco Symphony, in a statement. “Striving for excellence in all that he does, creative and curious in nature, inclusive of all, and adventurous in his thinking."

A new Music Director for the Symphony has not been announced, although guest conductors who appear during the upcoming seasons may be eyed as potential candidates — no doubt with large shoes to fill.

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