The Kennedy Center Honors announced July 18 that it would recognize a member of Yiddish Theater royalty.
Michael Tilson Thomas, the longtime music director of the San Francisco Symphony and an 11-time Grammy winner, will receive the prestigious award at a ceremony to be broadcast December 15. Thomas is a veteran maestro, pianist and composer whose work includes the cantata “From the Diary of Anne Frank” (1990) and the composition “Shówa/Shoáh” (1995), which laments the two tragedies of the Hiroshima bombing and the Holocaust. His five-decade career has taken him from Miami to San Francisco to London, but Thomas’s roots in America begin on Second Avenue.
Thomas is the grandson of theater impresario Boris Thomashefsky and his wife, the actress Bessie Thomashefsky. Boris, known for his Yiddish renditions of Shakespeare’s classics, was a theatrical wunderkind akin to Orson Welles, producing his first play, the wildly-popular U.S. premiere of Avrom Goldfaden’s “The Sorceress,” as a teenager. Going back further, Thomas’s great-grandfather Pincus Thomashefsky was an actor and playwright who was himself descended from a long line of cantors as well as the painter and poet Theodor Herzl Thomashefsky.
Thomas’s father, Ted, also did his time in the performing arts as a producer for Welles’s Mercury Theatre while his mother, Roberta, was the head of research for Columbia Pictures. Show biz rubbed off on Thomas and his approach to conducting.
“I tend to think of an orchestra more like a repertory theater company,” Thomas told The New York Times in 2014.
In 1969, shortly after finishing his studies in piano, composition and conducting at the University of Southern California, Thomas won the Koussevitzky Prize for outstanding student conducting at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He subsequently became pianist and assistant conductor for that company.
From there, Thomas’s rise was meteoric, due in part to his last minute, mid-performance replacement of Boston Symphony Music Director William Steinberg during the ensemble’s 1969 visit to New York. After making headlines in that event (Steinberg fell ill while conducting Brahms’s Second Symphony), Thomas was appointed music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic in 1971.
After several years behind the baton as the principal guest conductor for the Boston Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic, he co-founded the New World Symphony in Miami and still serves as that organization’s artistic director. He made the jump across the pond in 1988, working with the London Symphony Orchestra, where he is currently conductor laureate. In 1995, Thomas was made musical director of the San Francisco Symphony – he will complete his final season there in 2020.
“It sort of makes me feel very connected to many people in the past who have won these honors, but also to just the positive characters, these inspiring people who made time in their very busy lives to share some of their visions and projects with me,” Thomas told The New York Times.
Other Kennedy Center honorees include singer Linda Ronstadt, actor Sally Field, the band Earth, Wind and Fire. The educational television show “Sesame Street” will also be honored, marking the second time in the award’s history – after last year’s recognition of “Hamilton” – that a work, and not an artist, is a recipient.
PJ Grisar is the Forward’s culture fellow. He can be reached at Grisar@Forward.com.