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. (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.

Michael Tilson Thomas: A Mahler Nut and So Much More

Michael Tilson Thomas: A Mahler Nut and So Much More

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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.

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"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

Michael Tilson Thomas: A Mahler Nut and So Much More

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