Michael Tilson Thomas

Photo: Julian Broad

World famous conductor/composer/pianist - Class of 1962


Michael age 6 with grandmother Bessie Thomashevsky and father Ted Thomas and below with James Brown

Michael Tilson Thomas at the helm of The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra

Introduction by Bill Baldwin, Jr., Class of 1962

 Think of your favorite Woody Allen movie and then consider how important music is to that film. Can you possibly imagine “Sleeper” without the New Orleans jazz score featuring Woody himself on clarinet, or “Annie Hall” without  Diane Keaton’s marvelous performance of “Seems Like Old Times”? And for the film many consider Woody Allen’s masterpiece, “Manhattan”, it’s inconceivable to think of it without the music of George Gershwin. In a 2001 USA Today interview, Allen credited his inspiration for “Manhattan’s” soundtrack: “It was the Michael Tilson Thomas album of Gershwin overtures. I was playing them, and they were all so beautiful. And I was thinking of scenes. 'Oh, this would be great to put in Central Park, and this would be great over the rooftops.' "

 A  champion of American composers, Gershwin, Gould, Copland, Cage and new music in general, and as comfortable with the late soul singer James Brown as he was with Jascha Heifetz, Tilson Thomas is unique among conductors today in the depth of his appreciation and understanding of vastly different musical genres. And so,  it seems only fitting  that the grandson of the greatest stars of the Yiddish Theater, Boris and Bessie Thomashevsky, would someday inspire  Woody Allen  to capture the grandeur and timelessness of the city they made their own.

When Morley Safer profiled Tilson Thomas on 60 Minutes in 2000, the title of the segment was “The Passion of Michael Tilson Thomas.”  Passion and performance. It’s how he was raised by his parents and grandparents and how Tilson Thomas has always approached his work. Looking forward with enthusiasm and delight in the pursuit of excellence.  It is what he has always done and why many consider Michael Tilson Thomas to be the most important American conductor and composer since Leonard Bernstein. And they would be right. 

Consider the similarities between the two men: both are passionate about the music and performers in the best traditions of the American theater. Amongst his contemporaries, only MTT has been able to effectively  reach beyond the core classical music audience with his specials on PBS and television the way Bernstein did so memorably with his “Young People’s Concerts” of the 1950’s and 60’s.  And only MTT has ventured out, as Bernstein once did,  beyond the tried and true to embrace and perform modern music of such diverse styles. The recordings of Mahler done by Tilson Thomas and his San Francisco Symphony Orchestra are equal to the finest ever made.  And then there are the nights when you might find the heavy metal band Metallica on stage with the full SF Symphony. It takes a lot of chutzpah to pull that kind of presentation off, and Michael Tilson Thomas has it in spades. Not only because his mentors were Bernstein, Copland and Heifetz, but also because as the  grandson of Bessie and Boris, Tilson Thomas knows how to hit his marks, plant his feet and deliver the goods, every single night.    

The parallels between “Lennie” and MTT don’t stop there.  Even how each “broke into the big time” mirrors one another: The emergence of Michael Tilson Thomas on the world scene can be traced to the night in 1969 when the then 24 - year old assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony was called upon to substitute  for Music Director William Steinberg in mid-concert at Lincoln Center. The New York press hailed Thomas as a sensation, just as it had for his mentor Bernstein when he pulled off a similar feat some twenty six years before. 

Michael Tilson Thomas did not, however, mirror Leonard Bernstein’s sometime  mercurial temper in dealing with musicians. Rather, Michael  has always had the ability to inspire others, to communicate that passion of his to the musicians, lively, intense sometimes, yes, but never harsh. Consequently, if asked,  the players will seemingly run through walls for MTT, and you hear that commitment in the music they make together.

 On a personal note, I remember seeing Michael  occasionally at USC, but I hadn’t spoken to him in 25 years until the night of our class reunion on the lot at Universal Studios. Michael arrived early for cocktails and conversation, remembering everyone’s name and then made a quick announcement around 7:45: saying something about “having a gig down the street”, but that  he would be back.The gig was at The Dorothy Chandler Pavilion where Tilson Thomas was conducting the LA Philharmonic, and yes, Michael did come back to the reunion. He missed our 40th due to the SF Symphony’s tour of Europe, but it was uniquely Michael that he replied to a letter of mine about singing the NHHS alma mater,  which  nobody could remember, by enclosing  the lyrics verbatim.

This past August  2nd, Michael made his first Hollywood Bowl appearance with the LA Philharmonic in 22 years.  According to LA Times Music Critic, Mark Swed,  Michael "returned to his hometown a master." And of the Dances from West Side Story, Swed remarked, "No performance for me had ever touched Bernstein's 1982 recording of the Dances with the Philharmonic. Tilson Thomas touched it."

In concert halls around the globe, wherever the world’s greatest musicians gather to play, it’s enough just to say his initials and they instantly know who you’re talking about……, “MTT.?  Oh, yes, Michael Tilson Thomas ! ...... Not bad for the second chair oboe player from the NHHS  Orchestra of 1961.

 Bill Baldwin, Jr. August 15, 2007