Michael Tilson Thomas
Michael Tilson Thomas | Credit: Art Streiber

“I will continue to compose, to write, and to mull over your thoughts and mine. I’m planning more time to wonder, wander, cook, and spend time with loved ones — two legged and four. Life is precious”

This was the message from Michael Tilson Thomas, 77, announcing that illness is curtailing some of his future activities. The San Francisco Symphony music director laureate, who underwent brain surgery last August and heart surgery in 2019, today released this message:

I have glioblastoma multiforme, a type of aggressive brain cancer. I had an operation to remove what was visible and had radiation and chemotherapy. Currently the cancer is in check. But the future is uncertain as Glioblastoma is a stealthy adversary. Its recurrence is, unfortunately, the rule rather than the exception ...

It takes strength to meet the demands of the music and to collaborate on the highest level with the remarkable musicians who so generously welcomed me. I now see that it is time for me to consider what level of work and responsibilities I can sustain in the future.

I’m taking stock of my life and will be reducing my administrative responsibilities.”

MTT and Joshua Robison at the SF Conservatory of Music centennial gala in 2018
MTT and Joshua Robison at the SF Conservatory of Music centennial gala in 2018. The two married in 2014, having lived together for almost four decades; MTT thanked him in his note today, writing “He has always been by my side and is, as ever, my hero.” | Credit: SF Conservatory of Music

The major change in that aspect of MTT’s activities is to step down as artistic director of the New World Symphony, the prestigious training orchestra in Miami he co-founded in 1987.

“I’m proud of what we have accomplished and very proud of our 1,200 alumni. I will soon assume the role of artistic director laureate and will dedicate myself to working with the NWS fellows and alumni on adventurous projects that have long been close to my heart.”

Constance Shuman, MTT's representative, told NPR that the conductor plans to continue leading the New World Symphony as much as he can from behind the podium, but will pass off administrative duties.

Among recent challenges and misfortunes MTT has shared with the world was the COVID-caused disappearance of his final season with SF Symphony, meant to crown his extraordinary quarter-century long reign here.

About his future work with SF Symphony and orchestras around the world, MTT said: “I look forward to my work the remainder of this season with orchestras in the United States and Europe and to the many musical collaborations planned for next season.

“I intend to stick around for a bit. Creating and collaborating to make great music is what it’s all about for me. Every moment on stage with my colleagues is memorable.”

That pledge represents extensive demand on his health, as he continues to fulfill a busy, geographically widespread schedule:

  • March 9, 10, 13, La Maison Symphonique, Quebec; Grieg, Prokofiev, Schubert

  • March 25–26, Kennedy Center, D.C., National Symphony; Ruggles, MTT, Copland

  • March 31, April 1, Kennedy Center, D.C., National Symphony; Mahler Symphony No. 2

  • April 16, New World Center, Miami, New World Symphony; Primous Fountain III, Mahler Symphony No. 7 (first movement)

  • April 28–30, Severance Hall, Cleveland Orchestra; Tchaikovsky, Fauré, Britten

  • May 6–7, New World Center, Miami, New World Symphony; Beethoven, Boulogne, Mahler

  • May 15, Barbican Hall, London, London Symphony; Mahler Symphony No. 5

  • June 2-3, Hercules Hall, Munich, Bavarian Radio Orchestra; Beethoven, Copland

  • June 8–10, Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Philharmonic; Copland, Schubert

  • Aug. 27, Tanglewood, Festival Orchestra; Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff, Copland

  • Aug. 28, Tanglewood, Festival Orchestra; Beethoven Symphony No. 9

Response to MTT’s announcement on social media was immediate, with shock, concern, and heartfelt best wishes. Singer and SF Lamplighters Executive Director Cheryl Blalock wrote:

“What grace and care MTT gives even to this disclosure. May our huge love and care support and uplift him and Joshua as they step through, fight through, plow through this difficult path. May our prayers work a miracle.”

Michael Tilson Thomas
Michael Tilson Thomas | Credit: Kristin Loken

Music critic Tim Page said:

“In time, Steve Reich came to feel that this first professional recording of Four Organs was simply too long. (Later versions — and some earlier ‘live” ones — are about 15–16 minutes while this one is almost 25.)  

“But think of the courage Michael Tilson Thomas showed in programming this with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1971! No other ‘traditional’ classical conductor would have dreamed of such a thing. It must have sounded like music from Mars.”

Violinist Jeremy Constant wrote:

“I’m eternally grateful to have worked with Michael for his entire tenure as music director and for many performances prior to that. He came into the position announcing that one of his goals was to make the San Francisco Symphony a ‘destination orchestra’ for both soloists and guest conductors. He accomplished that exceedingly well.

“His legacy of performances, touring and recording with us will last many lifetimes and I hope it provides pride and warmth in the coming time. He should be very proud of both the accomplishments and the careers he has launched, relationships he has nurtured and future colleagues he has cultivated through New World Symphony. Bravo Michael!”