Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Watch Live

Arts & Culture

AMERICAN MASTERS: Michael Tilson Thomas: Where Now Is

Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Boston Symphony Orchestra. (undated photo)
Courtesy of Paul Hoeffler/CTS Images
Michael Tilson Thomas conducting Boston Symphony Orchestra. (undated photo)

Stream or tune in Friday, Oct. 23, 2020 at 9 p.m. & Sunday, Oct. 25 at 11 p.m. on KPBS 2

Discover the Grammy-winning conductor, pianist, composer and National Medal of Arts recipient

Michael Tilson Thomas was considered the great young hope of American classical music, becoming a star overnight and gaining international recognition in 1969 when he stepped in mid-concert for ailing Boston Symphony conductor William Steinberg.

The young conductor was well-poised to follow in the footsteps of his orchestral forebears. Instead, the free spirited Tilson Thomas — also a composer and pianist — forged his own path to become an 11-time Grammy-winning artist, National Medal of Arts recipient and Kennedy Center Honoree.


Throughout his illustrious career, he has stretched the boundaries of classical music and championed the works of American composers with orchestras in the U.S. and around the world.

AMERICAN MASTERS “Michael Tilson Thomas: Where Now Is” premieres Friday, October 23. The 2020–21 concert season marks his first year as Music Director Laureate of the San Francisco Symphony, with which he concluded his 25-year tenure as Music Director in June 2020.

The documentary follows Tilson Thomas from his childhood in California to the world stage and his leadership roles with the San Francisco Symphony and New World Symphony.

Michael Tilson Thomas and Steve Reich (undated photo)
Courtesy of Joshua Robison
Michael Tilson Thomas and Steve Reich (undated photo)

The film features original interviews with Tilson Thomas and classical music luminaries, including:

  • Composer Steve Reich
  • Los Angeles Philharmonic CEO Chad Smith
  • Pianist Ralph Grierson
  • Boston Symphony Orchestra CEO Mark Volpe
  • San Francisco Chronicle music critic Joshua Kosman
  • BBC’s former head of music and arts Humphrey Burton
  • Clive Gillinson, executive and artistic director of Carnegie Hall
  • Commentary from architect Frank Gehry, who babysat Tilson Thomas when he was a boy and built the New World Center
  • Joshua Robison, Tilson Thomas’s husband and manager
Michael Tilson Thomas and Joshua Robison (undated photo)
Courtesy of Jack Mitchell / Getty Images
Michael Tilson Thomas and Joshua Robison (undated photo)

The film also incorporates concert footage from his youth through the present, performing with the San Francisco Symphony, New World Symphony, Boston Symphony Orchestra and London Symphony Orchestra, among others.

Montage of Michael Tilson Thomas conducting in high school. (undated photo)
Montage of Michael Tilson Thomas conducting in high school. (undated photo)

In addition, the film showcases a conversation between Tilson Thomas and his idol, legendary recording artist James Brown, whose song “Cold Sweat” inspired the composer’s concept of timing; as Tilson Thomas explains in his conversation with Brown, as a conductor, “you're trying to get a lot of people to agree where 'now' is.” This idea was inspired by Brown’s precision and what he called the “situation of music.”

Starting as assistant conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1969, in the late 1980s, he co-founded and became the artistic director of the New World Symphony, a postgraduate orchestral academy in Miami Beach dedicated to preparing young musicians of diverse backgrounds for leadership roles in classical music.

The New World Symphony has long been at the forefront of developments in the arts and in education, and over the course of its more than 30 years, Tilson Thomas has mentored thousands of young musicians — many of them featured in the film — at critical junctures in their artistic and professional development.

Michael Tilson Thomas, rehearsal, 1970s Buffalo, N.Y.
Courtesy of Mary Morris Lawrence
Michael Tilson Thomas, rehearsal, 1970s Buffalo, N.Y.

In 1987, he was appointed Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, serving in that role until 1995, when he became Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony.

His directorship of the San Francisco Symphony was a period of significant growth and heightened international recognition for the orchestra, marked by an adventurous expansion of the orchestra’s repertoire and a commitment to rethinking and innovating upon the traditional concert hall experience. Through this work, he has become a beloved member of the San Francisco community.

Leonard Bernstein with Michael Tilson Thomas. (undated photo)
Courtesy of Heinz Weissenstein/Whitestone Photo
Leonard Bernstein with Michael Tilson Thomas. (undated photo)

Tilson Thomas appears on more than 120 recordings, including interpretations of classic works by Bach, Beethoven, Debussy and Stravinsky; pioneering recordings of music by American composers Charles Ives, Carl Ruggles, Steve Reich and John Cage; and projects with Elvis Costello, Sarah Vaughan and Metallica.

He brought orchestral music to a wider audience with his television appearances: a BBC series with the London Symphony Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic Young People’s Concerts (1971-1977) and numerous PBS specials, including 12 for WNET’s GREAT PERFORMANCES series.

With the San Francisco Symphony, he created "Keeping Score," a multimedia project featuring PBS and public radio series, with an interactive website and education program.

Michael Tilson Thomas on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. 1971
Courtesy of Ted Polumbaum/New York Times
Michael Tilson Thomas on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. 1971

Watch On Your Schedule:

This film will be available for streaming simultaneously on all station-branded PBS platforms, including and the PBS Video App, which is available on iOS, Android, Roku, Apple TV, Amazon Fire TV and Chromecast.

Extend your viewing window with KPBS Passport, video streaming for members supporting KPBS at $60 or more yearly, using your computer, smartphone, tablet, Roku, AppleTV, Amazon Fire or Chromecast. Learn how to activate your benefit now.

Subscribe To The American Masters Podcast:

Listen to new interviews with contemporary artists, along with previously unreleased interviews from the series' award-winning documentary films. Subscribe now

Join The Discussion:

Michael Tilson Thomas is on Facebook. Follow @mtilsonthomas on Twitter.

AMERICAN MASTERS is on Facebook, Instagram, tumblr, and you can follow @PBSAmerMasters on Twitter. #AmericanMastersPBS


A production of SIMON + FILM in association with THIRTEEN’s AMERICAN MASTERS for WNET. Susan Froemke and Kirk Simon directed the program. Mina Farbood and Sarah Arison are executive producers. Produced by Catherine Mulry. Michael Kantor is executive producer for AMERICAN MASTERS.