Michael Tilson Thomas to Step Down From the S.F. Symphony

Michael Zwiebach on October 31, 2017
Michael Tilson Thomas and the S.F. Symphony | Credit: Kristen Loken.

The San Francisco Symphony announced on Tuesday that Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas would step down from the position following the 2019–2020 season. At the conclusion of his tenure, he will have served for 25 years and will be 75 years old (or young, depending on how you look at it.) He will immediately assume the title of Music Director Laureate after he leaves the music directorship.

“Having been a Music Director of an orchestra for most of my adult life and as I approach my 75th birthday, I feel this is an appropriate moment to set aside some of my administrative responsibilities and begin a new period of creative possibilities,” said Tilson Thomas.

There is no question that, since arriving in 1995, the conductor has presided over a period of creative expansion at the Symphony, in partnership with thoughtful and effective executive directors like Brent Assink, who retired this year after an 18-year run. From a series of acclaimed recordings on the orchestra’s own label (founded in 1996) to the American Mavericks festivals, in 2000 and 2012, to memorable opera and musical theater performances (Peter Grimes, The Flying Dutchman, and Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and On the Town), to programs designed for the Soundbox series for adventurous listeners in a club-like environment, MTT has broadened the orchestra’s base repertoire and led pathfinding performances.

Like Bernstein, his mentor, he has been a force in music education, conceiving of and fronting the Symphony’s Keeping Score program (inaugurated in 2004) to bring music to tens of millions of Americans through national radio and television programs, DVDs, in-school education programs, and a website. Under his encouragement, the orchestra expanded its education outreach “to more than 100,000 children, students, educators, and families annually. Its Adventures in Music program now ensures that every child in grades 1–5 in San Francisco’s public elementary schools receives free and equitable access to music education for five consecutive years; after which the Symphony’s training programs for young adults nurture the next generation of musicians and citizens, from amateurs to scholars of the highest pre-professional level.”

“Working with Michael has been one of the most joyful and meaningful collaborations of my life,” said Eugene Izotov, SFS Principal Oboe. “His inspiration, guidance, and spirit have raised the artistic level of this orchestra and shaped the San Francisco Symphony into the kind of ensemble it has never been before. Although he leaves his post as Music Director, I know that his passion, youthful energy, and endless musical curiosity are here to stay with us.”