New World Symphony Co-Founder Michael Tilson Thomas Awarded Kennedy Center Honors

Dec 12, 2019

A national audience will see New World Symphony co-founder and Artistic Director Michael Tilson Thomas receive the Kennedy Center Honors for Lifetime Achievement this Sunday night.

For the past three decades, Mr. Tilson Thomas has led the orchestral academy on Miami Beach and received numerous accolades for his work. He will also leave his post at the end of this season as musical director for the San Francisco Symphony after spending 25 years as their conductor.

“I work with people somewhere between being a coach or a director in the theater. I’m not so much trying to get people to color in the lines I’m trying to encourage them to see the opportunities they have to invent something that’s new and different,” said Tilson Thomas during a conversation with Sundial Producer Chris Remington about his career. Here are some highlights of the interview: 

  This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. 

WLRN: This honor speaks to the contributions you’ve made to classical music orchestras and audiences over 50 years working in this field. That impact has been felt deeply here in Miami, where you founded the New World Symphony back in the late 1980s. Take us back to that time and what you envisioned for the program. 

TILSON THOMAS: It was an amazing adventure because I had a dream for a very long time of there being a place where young musicians could do some of their most creative work. A place to really work that focused on becoming who they needed to be, as opposed to fulfilling the expectations of some curriculum.

How is the New World Symphony different from a conservatory or traditional graduate program?

It's different in that every week or two there's a huge change of the faculty. Coaches and great soloists come in from all around the world and they have very different conceptions of how to go about making the music.

Can you think back to a performance of your time with New World that really illustrates your approach to classical music and what you wanted to achieve here?

It's hard for me to pick out one. Over the years, there have been great associations, relationships that have been developed with some of the world's greatest soloists, including people like Gil Shaham. We've learned a lot of pieces together. I think that's the fundamental thing about World, is that we all look into the music with a new eye, however many times you may have played it. It has become a real resource for very celebrated artists around the world.

The 2019 group of people receiving the Kennedy Center Honors include really some legends in the arts: Linda Ronstadt, Earth, Wind & Fire, Sally Field, Sesame Street. How do you see yourself within this class of iconic artists?

We've all been very involved with how the arts really get into people's lives, how they become a partnership in people's lives. Linda is such an amazing singer. She sang so in so many different genres, really defined them, it was remarkable. And of course, Sally has had a great career on stage and film on television.

And Earth, Wind & Fire is an iconic group, which music has become the soundtrack of people's lives and the whole idea of Sesame Street brought all these topics, some of which were social, political, some of which were very artistic and had wonderful artists on the show. None of these artists are thinking of just what they do as being limited by the words of the play or the notes of the symphony, but rather the idea of what remains with the audience after the performance is over.

If You Go

You can watch the Kennedy Center Honors Sunday night on CBS. They will also be broadcast in the SoundScape Park at the New World Center on Miami Beach, the event is free and open to the public.