Michael Tilson Thomas Receives Kennedy Center Honors

Classical maestro Michael Tilson Thomas receives the lifetime achievement award alongside Earth, Wind & Fire, Sally Field, and others.

WORDS As told to Tom Austin
November / December 2019

Michael Tilson Thomas interviews James Brown at his home in Georgia, 2006. / Photography by Stefan Cohen

It was such an exciting moment to be included in this year’s Kennedy Center Honors, which recognize a lifetime of achievement in the performing arts. No performer works alone and I’m keenly aware of all of the great artists of many generations who have been my collaborators and mentors. 

As a young musician, I greatly respected Leonard Bernstein, and learned from him just by being in his presence. He was a friend, a colleague who reaffirmed many of the central values of imagination, hard work and sense of humor that I got from my family and teachers. Bernstein’s probing mind, his intense belief in the possibility for mankind, and his brilliant music making have always been a hallmark.

Now, teaching and working with accomplished young musicians, I’m imagining the brightest and most inclusive future for the great tradition of classical music: Their enthusiasm is inspiring. Next year, I’m celebrating my 50th anniversary with the London Symphony Orchestra, a long, warm and exciting musical relationship. I’ve become the conductor laureate and spend time every year with the orchestra. When I first worked with them, I was the youngest person on stage. Now, by far, I’m the oldest.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducting the San Francisco Symphony.
After almost 25 years with the San Francisco Symphony, we’re still making great and daring music together. This season, I’m looking forward to revisiting works by composers we have shared together over the years, as well as explorations of American music, including new works by myself and John Adams. After this season, I will become music director laureate and spend four weeks a year with the orchestra.

It was decided in May that I was going to have a heart operation, and the final piece I was able to perform with the San Francisco Symphony before withdrawing this past season was Mahler’s Symphony No. 9. Curiously, it was the first piece I conducted at the San Francisco Symphony in 1974. That Mahler piece is a signpost in my life, and I would not be the person I am without it. It’s like a vast national park: Guiding people through it is one of my greatest joys.

My cardiac operation made me appreciate anew how special every day is, that we have to care for one another and, as the famous Latin expression goes, carpe diem, or “seize the day.” I met Joshua Robison in the orchestra at Walter Reed Junior High School in Los Angeles—he played cello and I played oboe and piano. In our 20s we found each other in New York. We’ve been together 43 years and married for five. It’s been a wonderful life.

The New World Symphony in Miami Beach, one of the most important institutions of higher musical learning in this country, is my pride and joy: I’m totally devoted to its future. Ted and Lin Arison had the courage to launch this remarkable institution at a time when Miami needed a vote of confidence.

Lincoln Road, on Miami Beach, had been a fashionable shopping area up through the 1970s. Then it fell on very hard times and was almost completely shuttered: Often it seemed like the only people on the mall were Andean singers or barkers for the local Cuban diner.

We were able to purchase a wonderful art deco movie theater—the Lincoln Theatre—and refurbish it as our home. We made sensational music, audiences started to come, and we created a new community. The New World Symphony stayed in the Lincoln Theatre for more than 20 years, and became part of the restoration of Lincoln Road.

MTT performing with the New World Symphony in Miami Beach's New World Center, 2013.
In 2011, we opened the New World Center, designed by my friend Frank Gehry and now a cultural town hall for all of Miami Beach. The New World Center provides so many opportunities for our musicians, and we project performances as Wallcast concerts on the 7,000-square-foot exterior of the building. This was a dream Ted and I had—to bring the arts to the community. The thousands of people who picnic and watch the concerts are a testimony to the vision of the great patrons who helped make this into a reality.

In the last hundred years, the United States, more than any other nation, has influenced the world’s ideas about what music can be and how it is experienced. The New World Center has so many possibilities to be a beacon for the arts worldwide. It’s part of my ultimate dream, to help people understand the place that the arts have in the sustaining of the human soul.


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