Born in Los Angeles, Tilson Thomas’ grandparents were the founders of the Yiddish Theater in America, and both of his parents worked in films and television.
Tilson Thomas studied at the University of Southern California and at the age of 19 was appointed Music Director of the Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestra. While holding this position, Tilson Thomas worked with several contemporary composers, including Aaron Copland, to give premieres of their works in Los Angeles.
Tilson Thomas had his big break as a conductor in 1969. While he was serving as Assistant Conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, a post he had taken that same year, he was called upon to fill in for Music Director William Steinberg mid-concert. Thus Tilson Thomas’ career as a conductor was launched, and he subsequently held positions at the Boston Symphony Orchestra (Principal Guest Conductor), Buffalo Philharmonic, and Los Angeles Philharmonic.
As part of Tilson Thomas’ efforts to reach out to younger audiences and musicians, Tilson Thomas conducted the Young People’s Concerts with the New York Philharmonic from 1971-1977. He also founded the New World Symphony in 1988, a full-time orchestral academy preparing musicians from the finest conservatories in the practical orchestral field.
Tilson Thomas is also a distinguished composer. He has set the texts of Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Anne Frank.