A Maestro Made in Los Angeles: A Hometown Tribute to Michael Tilson Thomas


Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl | Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic

This was to have been a triumphant month of farewell performances by conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony, capping his 25 years at the Symphony’s helm, the longest tenure of any music director of a major American orchestra. But the pandemic intervened, forcing all spring concerts to be canceled. Still, MTT, as he’s known everywhere, will be celebrated virtually in San Francisco, and here in his hometown of Los Angeles, KUSC pays tribute, too, highlighting some of the 11-time Grammy winner’s more than 120 recordings.

If you’re a longtime LA classical fan you may remember young MTT bounding onto the stage of the Hollywood Bowl or the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion to conduct the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra or the Los Angeles Philharmonic, where he was Principal Guest Conductor from 1981 to 1985. First, he’d charm the audience with a few words of sparkling commentary, then wow them with dynamic, lushly colorful performances of Tchaikovsky, Gershwin, Mahler, Stravinsky, and more.


Itzhak Perlman and Michael Tilson Thomas on the stage of the Hollywood Bowl, crica 1980s | Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic


Michael Tilson Thomas and Leonard Bernstein during the Los Angeles Philharmonic 1985 Tour | Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Tilson Thomas began his career as a pianist. While still a student at USC, he accompanied the master classes of two legends, violinist Jascha Heifetz and cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. In this same period, he worked as a pianist under Stravinsky at the Monday Evening Concert (MEC) series, a groundbreaking forum for contemporary music and neglected early composers founded in 1939. There he also met MEC and Ojai Festival guiding light Lawrence Morton, who became another key mentor. MTT conducted and curated seven seasons of the Ojai Festival, most recently in 1994 when he led works by some of the composers who helped shape his musical thinking: Ingolf Dahl, Aaron Copland, Stravinsky, and Asian-influenced California composers Lou Harrison and Henry Cowell.


MTT with mentor Lawrence Morton at the Ojai Music Festival in the 1970’s | Photo courtesy of the Ojai Music Festival

Michael Tilson Thomas comes from a family of artists going back several generations. His parents worked in the Hollywood studios. His grandparents, Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, helped found America’s Yiddish Theater. I’ve always suspected this theatrical legacy helped define Tilson Thomas as a conductor—not just his charisma, dramatic stage presence and inimitable pizzazz, but also the open-heartedness of his music-making. At the time of his last Ojai performances, he told LA Times writer Mark Swed: “As a conductor I am utterly uninterested in going out on the stage and giving beats and having people follow them…What I’m interested in doing is helping to create a kind of musical space…And I enter this space with my ideas, and all of my colleagues with me enter this space with all of their ideas, their past experience. And somehow in this space we find one another.”


A Portrait of Michael Tilson Thomas taken in January 9, 1974 | Photo by Arnold Newman, courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic