Tilson Thomas was born in Los Angeles in 1944. He was musically influenced by his family: his grandparents were Boris and Bessie Thomaschevsky, founders of New York's Yiddish Theater, and his father Ted Thomas was an avid amateur pianist and worked in films and television. He studied piano at the University of Southern California with John Crown and conducting and composing with Ingolf Dahl
. At the age of 19 he was named music director of the Young Musicians Foundation Orchestra, accompanied master classes by Jascha Heifetz
and Gregor Piatigorsky
. Tilson Thomas became assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra
in 1969 after winning the Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood.
On October 22, 1969, he was called to replace William Steinberg
during a Carnegie Hall concert, repeating the circumstances of Leonard Bernstein
's sensational debut 26 years earlier with nearly identical results: Tilson Thomas was catapulted into the top ranks of American conductors. In 1970 he was appointed associate conductor of the BSO, then principal guest conductor until 1974. He served as music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra (1971-1979), principal guest conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1981-1985), and principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra
(1988-1995). In the summer of 1990, Tilson Thomas and Bernstein began the Pacific Music Festival in Japan, and he was its artistic director for many years thereafter. In 1995, Tilson Thomas was appointed the 11th music director of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. Together, he and the orchestra have gone on international tours, won a Grammy for their 1997 recording of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet, created the cross-platform educational program Keeping Score, and launched their own label in 2001. In the 2014-2015 season, they celebrated 20 years of partnership.
In 1988, recognizing a need for music graduates to gain experience, he created the New World Symphony
. Membership in that ensemble is now considered a desirable first step in an orchestral career. Tilson Thomas remains its music director and has recorded notable CDs with the group, including a highly popular album of Villa-Lobos.
Tilson Thomas also spends time composing. He wrote From the Diary of Anne Frank on commission from UNICEF in 1990 (the premiere was narrated by actress Audrey Hepburn), which has since been performed in several countries and languages. In 1995, he was commissioned by Hiroshima, Japan, to write Shówa/Shoáh for the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the city. Among his other compositions are Three Poems by Walt Whitman, for baritone and orchestra; Street Song for brass quintet; and Notturno for chamber ensemble.
Tilson Thomas is a Chevalier dans l'ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France, and in 2010 he received the National Medal of Arts, the highest artistic award given in the United States. By 2014, he had received 12 major Grammy awards in the categories of Best Orchestral Performance, Best Choral Performance, and Best Classical Album.