Arts and CultureLocal LegendsMusicPerformer you should knowSan Francisco

Conductor of The San Francisco Symphony : Local Legend Michael Tilson Thomas

Updated: Jun 12, 2023 10:39
The Bay's best newsletter for underground events & news

We here at like to show love to the people who make cities like San Francisco and New York special. That’s why we’re doing a series called Local Legends. This is our chance to hip you to some of the strange, brilliant, and unique folks who populate these towns and give them the character that people from around the world have come to love.  Meet Michael Tilson Thomas, the Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony for more than 20 years, the longest-tenured music director at any major American orchestra.
mtt conducting

Michael Tilson Thomas or ‘MTT’ as he’s commonly referred to, is the Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, Founder and Artistic Director of the New World Symphony, and Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.  He’s also a composer and a producer of multimedia projects that reimagine the classical concert experience. He has won twelve Grammys for his recordings, is the recipient of the National Medal of Arts, and is a Chevalier dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France.  You can read his full bio of accolades, titles, and general amazingness here.

We were lucky enough to ask the MTT some questions about his life, San Francisco, & the current and future state of classical music.

Interview with Local Legend MTT:

When did you very first conduct the San Francisco Symphony?
My first concert leading the San Francisco Symphony was in 1974 conducting the Orchestra in Mahler’s 9th Symphony in the Opera House. It was a wonderful experience. At the time, I had no idea that it would develop into such a significant partnership – one of the defining partnerships of my life.

old school mtt


When did you really get to know San Francisco?
I grew up in Los Angeles but always loved coming to San Francisco as a child, often on a streamlined train called “Daylight.” It was great fun. But it wasn’t really until I began conducting the San Francisco Symphony in 1974, that I came to know some of the great spirits in the community, such as Rhoda Goldman and Agnes Albert, big supporters of the Orchestra. They were charming and involved and talked to me as a young artist, so, there was a real personal connection to San Francisco from that point forward. In the years that followed, I always looked forward to my concerts here in San Francisco, because of that personal connection. During those early visits, Nancy Bechtle who was the Symphony President at the time, would often make a point to take me out to a great sushi bar or somewhere fun. I was really able to appreciate the quality of the food, the wine, and of course the company.

What are some of your favorite things to do in San Francisco?

“On Saturdays, I love going to the Ferry Building farmer’s market to enjoy the fresh produce and sample the delights of local culinary artisans.”

Then it’s often off to Crissy Field, a great place to run with my dogs and take in those one-of-a-kind San Francisco vistas.


MMT is the Principal Guest Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, here he is with the Queen

You just returned from a tour of Europe, what where the highlights? And how is performing in Europe different than the U.S?

Performers sense the character, the attention level, the expectations of an audience almost from the first movement that they go out onto the stage. And that can be a very exciting and inspiring thing. There is a great delight about coming to a major city – such as London, Paris, Amsterdam, or Berlin – which has a very deep and sophisticated musical culture and an audience that has heard many wonderful performances and putting ones’ best foot forward and sharing with them the particular take, the particular joy that we have for our music.  When we’re on tour, I try to give an impression of the whole range of what the orchestra does in a season.  And…

“it’s always a process to develop programs which present something adventurous and also work in a particular city, in the character of the different halls, and respond to what the different presenters believe their audience is interested in hearing.”

When you’re at work does the orchestra call you maestro? Mike? ‘Mr. T’?
My friends and colleagues in the Orchestra and I are very much on a first-name basis. They call me Michael.

If you could play any instrument in your orchestra, what would it be, and what piece of music?
In addition to my role as conductor and part-time composer, I am also a pianist. For my 70th birthday concert last year I had the wonderful opportunity to perform Lizst’s rarely heard work Hexameron for Six Pianos and Orchestra, with the San Francisco Symphony and five of the most talented pianists in the world – Jean Yves Thibaudet, Yuja Wang, Jeremy Denk, Marc-André Hamelin and Emanuel Ax. It was an extraordinary evening of music and friendship and one I will always treasure.

You’ve been the Music Director of the SF Symphony for 20 years…What is that like?
I feel keenly aware of how fortunate I am to be here working with this orchestra in this community. I have always felt welcome here, and I’m proud of the fact that after 20 years, the level of communication that I feel with the musicians in the orchestra is stronger than ever. We are still finding new and wonderful ways to explore our conception of music together, many of them more subtle and more lustrous than ever.

“It is very rare in the performing arts world, that, after such a long time, people have a greater affection and respect for one another than they did in the beginning. I am thrilled this is the case here in San Francisco.”


MTT 1990’s

What’s really exciting in classical music right now? When you’re throwing a cocktail party, what are the musicians all gushing about? For example The Weekend is the hottest thing in popular music right now, is there a ‘classical’ artist equivalent?
We here at the San Francisco Symphony have opened up a new and experimental space for music called SoundBox. The space itself is flexible and informal. Different events are curated by different musicians of very different generations and with very different priorities. Audiences enter a space in which there are things to see. You can have a drink, to meet your friends, and then settle down to hear the musicians of the San Francisco Symphony perform three 20-minute sets of music coming from very different countries, different centuries, and different worlds. You’re able to move around, and change your position inside of the space. You can experiment a little bit yourself on how you want to experience and relate to the music that is being performed.

“The room has a new kind of acoustical environment which uses state-of-the-art technology to alter the acoustic of the room between the acoustic of a cathedral to the acoustic of a heavy metal recording studio,”

so you can hear music performed from many different musical eras, in the kind of acoustic for which the music was imagined at the time it was written. This season’s SoundBox series begins Dec 11, and I’ll be curating a program of French avant garde music at SoundBox in March.

What’s the future of classical music? Do you think the main audience is aging or shrinking? Are young people going to carry the tradition on? Or are they too busy listening to Fetty Wap and playing with synthesizers?
Classical music has been around for over 1200 years. It’s a unique, unbroken tradition. But the place of that tradition in society is changing. Music has, for a very long time, been on the front edge in terms of challenging the accepted norms of the way people think. Composers like Monteverdi, Wagner, and Stravinsky presented music that was shocking to the public. But we now live in a world that is shocking, challenging, and dangerous in so many other ways. It is interesting to see music also assume a role which is to offer people a kind of comfort, a refuge, a haven in which for a brief period of time they can remember some very important values and qualities about being a human being. All of those qualities of human experience which the information age and the challenges of our times seem to be eliminating.

What do you think about the multi-media in the concert hall?

“Particularly in the last decade I’ve turned so much of my attention to doing things with film, with video, and in multimedia online. Installations – visualizations – of repertoire,”

which involve film projection, lighting, particularly unusual configurations of the way the orchestra itself is setup.It fascinates me to work with video teams or lighting teams or stage craft people, and to explore the music in a very different way where there are few presuppositions. I really do believe that there is a whole large vocabulary of experience that can happen in the quote ‘concert hall,’ which is still there to be discovered.

SF Symphony performing Back II the Future 2015

SF Symphony performing Back II the Future 2015

You’ve won twelve @*#$% Grammy’s?! Excuse me, I meant: You and SF Symphony have won 12 Grammy awards for your recordings over the years? Do you have a favorite Grammy?
We are always appreciative of Grammy awards, but particularly honored that the Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony Chorus, and my recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 garnered three of them. To be able to record all of Mahler’s voice for voice and orchestra on our own record label was an exciting project that will be a lasting legacy of our musical partnership. I’m also really pleased that we won a Grammy for John Adam’s Harmonielehre. John lives in the By Area and this is a piece we commissioned from him. It’s a sensational piece of music.

MTT’s Grammy Award Winning Recording:

What music would you recommend to someone just getting into classical music (young or old).
A composer like Aaron Copland’s music is appealing and accessible for a lot of people including those who are not Western classically-trained musicians. But at the same time it is quite abstract. Because Copland took things about the way the traditional instruments sound, or the way certain sounds and melodies shape themselves, or references from cowboy music, Appalachian music, Jewish music, or jazz the basic sound of it comes together in a distinctive way that can be instantly familiar for new listeners.


MTT and James Brown

What is your favorite place/theater/location to perform?
Our home in San Francisco, Davies Symphony Hall, is a wonderful place to perform. The Orchestra and I also love to record there, when it’s filled with people and the acoustic really is warm, and comforting.

“I really feel the presence of the audience here. I feel that people are there because they want to really hear the music, and that makes me and all of my colleagues on stage do our very best.”

San Francisco has changed a lot since you’ve been here. What is a way in which it has stayed the same?
San Francisco has always had adoring music fans, ever since before the 1849 gold rush. One characteristic that distinguishes us here in San Francisco is a sense of adventure in everything we do, and that definitely carries over into the spirit of audiences in the concert hall. They’re game for anything, from Beethoven piano concertos to Mason Bates accompanying the Orchestra with electronic sounds from his laptop.

What’s coming up for you?
Over the course of this season, and starting in November, the Orchestra and I will perform Robert Schumann’s four completed symphonies. In each of the four concert programs featuring a Schumann symphony, the piece will be paired with multiple works by a single composer: Brahms, R. Strauss, Sibelius, or Copland. The cycle will be recorded for release on our in-house record label SFS Media.

Robert Schuman’s music has captivated me ever since I became a musician. His symphonic music requires great imagination, attention, and sensitivity on the part of the orchestra and conductor alike. This project comes at an outstanding moment in the SF Symphony’s history and in our relationship. I’m looking forward to sharing our fresh perspective on this songful music with our audiences in concert, and later in recording.

MTT Show Times in San Francisco this November:

MTT conducts Sibelius featuring Kavakos
Friday, November 13 – Sunday, November 15

MTT conducts Schumann and Strauss
Thursday, November 19 – Sunday, November 22


All photos via or

Previous post

Tea Is the New Whiskey

Next post

Win Tickets to Joey "Coco" Diaz @ The Punchline SF!

Alex Mak - Managing Editor

Alex Mak - Managing Editor

I'm the managing editor and co-owner of this little expiriment. I enjoy covering Bay Area News as well as writing about Arts, Culture & Nightlife.

If you're a writer, artist, or performer who would like to get your work out there, or if you've got great things to promote, we've got 160k followers and really fun ways to reach them. We love making things with other Bay creatives, for our partners, and our community. Don't be shy.
alex at
IG: @alexmaksf