Michael Tilson Thomas Goes Public About Cancer, Steps Back from Some Engagements

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Michael Tilson Thomas. (Brandon Patoc)

Michael Tilson Thomas, the former longtime music director of the San Francisco Symphony, announced Wednesday that he has an aggressive form of brain cancer and is taking a step back from professional life.

The conductor and composer shared the news publicly for the first time in a signed letter sent to the media by his New York publicist, Constance Shuman.

Tilson Thomas has been diagnosed with Glioblastoma Multiforme, a serious form of brain cancer, he says. He has undergone radiotherapy, chemotherapy and surgery to remove the visible signs of the disease. "Currently the cancer is in check," he writes. "But the future is uncertain as Glioblastoma is a stealthy adversary. Its recurrence is, unfortunately, the rule rather than the exception."

"It takes strength to meet the demands of the music and to collaborate on the highest level with the remarkable musicians who so generously welcomed me," Tilson Thomas writes in the letter, with reference to the major orchestras including the San Francisco Symphony, the New York Philharmonic and the Los Angeles Philharmonic whom he has led in 20 concerts in recent months. "I now see that it is time for me to consider what level of work and responsibilities I can sustain in the future."

"It was so amazing to have Michael back this January with the magnificent two programs featuring Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony and Mahler One -- pieces that I have a long history of playing with Michael all over the world -- and to see him in very good spirits, projecting energy and most of all, love of music and love of all the musicians who were collaborating with him," said San Francisco Symphony concertmaster Alexander Barantschik in an interview with KQED.  "I'm just wishing Michael all I can wish from the bottom of my heart, and I hope to see him soon on stage again. "

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"Michael Tilson Thomas has been a longtime friend, mentor, and fellow hippy-at-heart, and his love of adventurous music-making has been one of the most inspiring elements of my life in the Bay Area," said local composer Mason Bates. "He has much more to contribute and I can't wait to see what's next."

Tilson Thomas adds that he plans to reduce his administrative responsibilities and step down from his role as the artistic director of the New World Symphony, the top-tier youth orchestra based in Miami that he co-founded more than 30 years ago. He says he intends to go ahead with currently scheduled conducting engagements in the United States and Europe.

"I'm planning more time to wonder, wander, cook, and spend time with loved ones—two legged and four," he writes by way of signing off. "Life is precious."

Read Michael Tilson Thomas' letter in full:

Letter from Michael Tilson Thomas, March 2, 2022 (Printed with permission from Constance Shuman, Publicist)