Michael Tilson Thomas: An Appreciation of the American Conductor

The acclaimed American orchestra leader, celebrated for his Gustav Mahler concerts, continues performing while dealing with an aggressive form of brain cancer

By George Gelles


Michael Tilson Thomas

Off the podium: Michael Tilson Thomas checks a score. Photo by Art Streiber.
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June 28, 2024
Michael Tilson Thomas is the most successful American conductor since Leonard Bernstein, and as Bernstein will forever be remembered for his long association with the New York Philharmonic, so will Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony be linked. The two men shared similarities. Both were American-born and -bred, a rarity among major conductors; both were politically engaged and leaned leftward; and both proudly shared a Jewish heritage—Thomas, in fact, is the grandson of Bessie and Boris Thomashefsky, stars of Lower Manhattan’s once-vibrant Yiddish theater.

As musicians, both were voracious. Conducting, composing for concert stages as well as popular venues, including Broadway and Hollywood; performing as pianists; lecturing, writing, and mentoring the young—there was nothing they couldn’t, wouldn’t do. Early in his career, Tilson Thomas perhaps flew too close to the sun—Bernstein was an irresistible, magnetic role model—but he found his own artistic voice and shaped a career of singular distinction.

Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony were entwined, in ambitions and achievements, for more than half a century. He first led the orchestra in 1974, as guest conductor, in a program that included Mahler’s Ninth Symphony, a piece he cherished as much as any. Regular guest appearances followed, and after succeeding Herbert Blomstedt as music director in 1995, he made the orchestra his own. Through often stunning performances, he schooled his audience in the music he loved, conducting a wide swath of Americana, some works known, many not; he heightened the orchestra’s profile as he and his musicians toured nationwide and internationally; and he cemented its preeminence with recordings that won Tilson Thomas and his orchestra a bushelful of Grammy Awards. Their cycle of the complete Mahler symphonies was among their major achievements.

Michael Tilson Thomas

On the podium: A “kinetically engaged” Tilson Thomas in action. Photo by Kristen Loken.
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After the 2020 season, he was named music director emeritus, and his health was the cause.  In 2022, Tilson Thomas shared the news that he had been diagnosed with brain cancer, specifically with glioblastoma multiforme, an aggressive variant of this scourge. He already had undergone surgery for his illness and would be receiving continued treatment.

“I now see,” he wrote, “that it is time for me to consider what level of work and responsibilities I can sustain in the future … [and] the future is uncertain as glioblastoma is a stealthy adversary. Its recurrence is, unfortunately, the rule rather than the exception.”

See “An Update From MTT”

Recently he led two performances of Mahler’s Third with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) in London’s Barbican Centre (and with the LSO would repeat this performance, twice, in Copenhagen). I heard the first of these, and in truth, through much of the evening Tilson Thomas was far from his best. But the ending … the sublime final movement blazed in a way that was thrilling.

Tilson Thomas is a local favorite—he was the LSO’s principal conductor from 1988 to 1995, principal guest conductor from 1995 to 2005, and conductor laureate from 2016 to the present—and when he stepped onto the Barbican stage he received a rapturous greeting. His entrance, however, was hesitant, and his gait was cautious as he made his way to the podium.

The performance did not start auspiciously. Mahler asked for the opening to be strong and decisive (Kraftig. Entschieden), but we heard a movement that was flaccid, with tempos poorly judged and instrumental details slighted. When the ensuing four movements seemed no better, similarly unfocused and diffuse, you suspected something was wrong. And indeed, something was.

Between the fifth movement and the last, Tilson Thomas looked lost, unsure of his place or purpose. After a long minute or two standing solitary on the podium—it felt like an hour—he closed the pages of his conductor’s score, stepped down to the stage, and quipped to the audience that what we heard was a rehearsal for the concert’s Barbican reprise, scheduled for five nights later. Musicians hovered around Tilson Thomas to console him, and then Joshua Robison, his husband, walked from the wings to center stage. After the men spoke briefly, Tilson Thomas stepped back onto the podium and led the LSO in the Adagio of a lifetime. Marked “Slowly. Tranquil. Deeply felt” (Langsam. Ruhevoll. Empfunden), the movement is the piece’s emotional core, as heartfelt as anything Mahler composed, and with his remarkable performance, Tilson Thomas redeemed the evening.

Prior to a 2016 performance of Mahler’s Third at the Verbier Festival in the Swiss Alps, Tilson Thomas made a remarkable video, in which he said:

“Mahler always said that each one of his symphonies was an entire world. But it was a world that was a reflection of his experiences, of his understanding of the world around him. More particularly, his symphonies were based on experiences that he had as a child, as a young man, in the small city, almost a village, called Iglau.

“Everything we’re going to hear in this symphony—the big military processions, the cabaret music—[were] all part of his daily life, the memories of which he made into these enormous structures, these sculptures in sound, these symphonies that contained his message, which was: In life, many things happen. Some are beautiful and wondrous. Some are bitter, sad, confusing, sarcastic, angry, frightening. But no matter what happens, don’t lose your contact to wonder. Keep what is wondrous, what is beautiful, in your life. And that is the point of all his symphonies.”

At the time of this video, Tilson Thomas had not yet been diagnosed with cancer. Yet his words about life’s “bitter, sad, confusing …” aspects have the ring of premonition. Though lacking a background in medicine, I’d wager it was no ordinary illness that caused his momentary incapacitation in concert, but rather brain cancer’s dire effects. Confusion and mental impairment, we read, are unfortunate hallmarks.

Throughout the final movement, we saw something new. Tilson Thomas would reach with his left hand for the podium’s railing behind him—he hadn’t done this in earlier movements—his grasp giving him greater stability, which in turn let him be more physically involved, and Tilson Thomas was always among the most kinetically engaged and engaging of conductors. Reaching with his right hand into the orchestra, he encouraged and exhorted, coaxed and cajoled rich phrases of uncommon intensity from the strings, from all the instruments.

And there was something else. If you’re familiar with the Great American Songbook, you’ll recall “I’ll Be Seeing You (In All the Old Familiar Places).” As the late musicologist and Mahler expert Deryck Cooke first noted, the tune was likely appropriated from Mahler’s Adagio by Tin Pan Alley tunesmith Sammy Fain, with lyricist Irving Kahal crafting the perfect, tender words. Composed in 1937, the song achieved great popularity in 1943 as an anthem of loneliness felt for those fighting wars overseas. Tilson Thomas, himself steeped in popular music, was likely aware of these associations. Or so I like to think.

The London Symphony is an elite ensemble; its home base, the Barbican’s Concert Hall, can’t do it justice acoustically, yet we heard some exceptional performances—from Isobel Daws, whose trombone solos were stentorian and deeply felt, and from Nigel Thomas and Patrick King, the two tympanists in the battery of percussion, whose gunshot thwacks rang to perfect effect.

Alice Coote, the mezzo-soprano soloist, was as usual superb, and the women of the London Symphony Chorus and the Tiffin Boys’ Choir sounded excellent.

When the performance ended, I sat overwhelmed with tears in my eyes, and in this I wasn’t alone, deeply grateful for the Adagio, and wondering if I was reacting to the performance itself, or to the triumph it represented over the conductor’s earlier confusion, or to the entire scope of an extraordinary career. Tilson Thomas is clearly in his twilight, but the Third Symphony’s conclusion was a poignant reminder of his many triumphs, shared over decades along the way.

A Postscript: In 1969 Tilson Thomas was assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and I was assistant music critic for The Boston Globe. Hanging out at Symphony Hall, he and I would occasionally spend idle time playing a version of Jeopardy! before the quiz show was invented, trying to stump each other with the most outlandishly obscure musicological factoids.

I don’t remember examples of our trivial pursuits. I do remember that Michael always won.

George Gelles was the dance critic of The Washington Star from 1970 to 1976 and the author of A Beautiful Time for Dancers. He thinks of himself basically as a musician—a horn player—who just happened not to play professionally for 37 years. Gelles has also written about music and dance for The New York Times, The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, and Musical America, and lectured on music and dance at the Smithsonian, George Washington University, and the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. And from 1986 to 2000, he was the executive director of San Francisco’s Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra.


You may enjoy other articles by George Gelles:

Pina Bausch’s Power-Packed “Rite of Spring”

I’ll Never Forget … My Friendship with Seiji Ozawa

Art on the Go: In the NYC Subway (of all places)

Why Dance Matters: A Soaring Review

You’ve Never Heard of Soundies?

Roll Over, Beethoven—This Time for Women


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