Born in Los Angeles on 21 December 1944, Michael Tilson Thomas is the third generation of his family to follow an artistic career. Internationally acclaimed as both conductor and composer, Tilson Thomas composes in a colorful, eclectic style that reflects his passion for the diversity of American musical life. He began his formal studies at the University of Southern California where he studied piano with John Crown and conducting and composition with Ingolf Dahl. At age 19, he was named Music Director of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra. In 1969, after winning the Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood, Tilson Thomas was appointed Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He has served as Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Principal Conductor of the Great Woods Festival and Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.
Tilson Thomas began his tenure in September 1995 as the San Francisco Symphony's 11th Music Director in a contract that extends through the year 2005. He and the orchestra have also signed an exclusive contract with BMG Classics/RCA Victor Red Seal which will yield 15 recordings over the next five years. He is also the Founder and Artistic Director of the New World Symphony.
Tilson Thomas is one of the busiest conductors on the international scene, but, throughout his career, he has devoted considerable time to composing. His From the Diary of Anne Frank, for narrator and orchestra, was commissioned by UNICEF and given its world premiere at Philadelphia's Academy of Music in 1990 by the late Audrey Hepburn and the New World Symphony, conducted by the composer. Since then the work has been played by the London Symphony Orchestra, televised throughout Japan in a new Japanese translation, played by the Israel Philharmonic in a Hebrew version, performed in Holland in the original Dutch, in South Africa, in Spain by the Orquestra Simfonica de Barcelona, at the Ravinia and Aspen Music Festivals and throughout the United States.
Tilson Thomas was commissioned by the city of Hiroshima to compose a piece for the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the bombing of that city. Shówa/Shoáh, a work for orchestra, is the result. It was premiered on 6 August 1995 by the Pacific Music Festival Orchestra, and will become part of the composer's First Symphony. Agnegram is the composer's short (4') 90th birthday orchestral tribute to longtime San Francisco Symphony patron Agnes Albert. Described as buoyant and exuberant with shades of Stravinsky, Walton, Bernstein, and Spike Jones, Agnegram was premiered by the San Francisco Symphony on 14 May 1998.
Other compositions include Three Poems by Walt Whitman for baritone and orchestra; Five Songs, for voice and piano; We Two Boys Together Clinging, recorded by baritone Thomas Hampson and pianist Craig Rutenberg for EMI; Street Song, written for the Empire Brass Quintet and also available in a version for symphonic brass. A song cycle on Emily Dickinson's poems for Reneé Fleming, was premiered by the San Francisco Symphony in February 2002, and the soprano will perform the voice and piano version on an upcoming tour. Urban Legend, for contrabassoon and orchestra, will receive its premiere by the San Francisco Symphony in October 2002.