Michael Tilson Thomas and the CSO: a timeline

Michael Tilson Thomas remains the conductor with the longest performance history with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, a record that exceeds even those of former music directors Frederick Stock and Riccardo Muti. After making his CSO debut in 1970 at the Ravinia Festival, Tilson Thomas has gone to lead the Orchestra in more than 50 programs at Orchestra Hall and elsewhere.

As he returns Nov. 30-Dec. 5 for his first CSO concerts since 2018, we look back at some of his milestone performances in Chicago:

Michael Tilson Thomas and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6.

Todd Rosenberg Photography

Dec. 13-15, 2018, a triumph with Tchaikovsky

In his most recent appearance, Michael Tilson Thomas led the CSO in Stravinsky’s Concerto in D for String Orchestra, Prokofiev’s Violin Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, Op. 63 (with Nicola Benedetti as soloist) and Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 (Pathétique).

Lawrence A. Johnson in the Chicago Classical Review declared of the Tchaikovsky, “The rendering by MTT and the Chicago Symphony often felt like the equivalent of musical power-washing — shearing off decades of accumulated excess, emotional baggage and hoary interpretive tradition to reveal what a strong, powerful and moving work this is on its own terms without undue pleading.”

To mark the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's assassination, Tilson Thomas and the CSO perform "Elegy for JFK."

Todd Rosenberg Photography

Nov. 21-24, 2013, 50th anniversary of JFK’s assassination 

For this occasion, Michael Tilson Thomas memorably paired Mahler’s Symphony No. 9 with Stravinsky’s Elegy for JFK. Lawrence A. Johnson in the Chicago Classical Review wrote: “Mahler’s Ninth Symphony is invariably performed alone due to its length, weight and complexity. But leave it to Tilson Thomas, a master of quirky and distinctive programming, to serve a historically apt micro-prelude of sorts with Stravinsky’s Elegy for JFK.

“This two-minute work for mezzo-soprano and three clarinets on a text by Auden is typical late Stravinsky in its taut concision. Yet the Elegy is clearly deeply felt by Stravinsky, who met and greatly admired the young president. Kelley O’Connor sang the homage with dignified feeling, sensitively supported by clarinetists John Bruce Yeh, Gregory Smith and J. Lawrie Bloom, in a timely tribute on this 50th anniversary weekend of President Kennedy’s assassination.

“There are several superb Mahler conductors extant today: Riccardo Chailly, Christoph Eschenbach, Simon Rattle and Bernard Haitink. ... Yet I’m not sure Tilson Thomas has a current peer in this repertory. He seems to get the best of both worlds, with attentive focus on details of dynamics, expression and tempos shifts while also being free enough to invest the music with a raw vitality that is part of Mahler’s world as well.”

The Chicago Symphony Chorus, the CSO and Tilson Thomas stand for a bow after performing "Oedipus Rex."

Todd Rosenberg Photography

Feb. 18-21, 2010, Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex 

As part of an all-Stravinsky program, Tilson Thomas led the CSO and Men of the Chicago Symphony Chorus in the rarely heard Oedipus Rex (1927), which its composer termed “opera-oratorio.” John von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune lauded Tilson Thomas for a “powerful performance, [reminding us] that Oedipus Rex has a gripping tale to relate, about a proud king brought low by hubris and the caprice of the gods. The tragedy emerged with purgative force on this occasion, thanks in no small degree to the conductor’s taut marshaling of the collective energy onstage.

“He had a superlative narrator in actor Patrick Stewart, who brought proper histrionic grandeur to the English translation of Jean Cocteau’s original French text. He was matched in splendor by the firm-voiced singing of the 70 male voices of the Chicago Symphony Chorus playing the plague-stricken people of Thebes. Their staccato declamation of the fast portions of the Latin text proved as apt as the lean textures Tilson Thomas elicited from the orchestra.”

Backstage, Michael Tilson Thomas (left) and actor Patrick Stewart, who served as narrator, go over the score.

Todd Rosenberg Photography

Michael Tilson Thomas and members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform "The Thomashefskys," a tribute to Yiddish theater and MTT's grandparents. Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky.

Dan Rest

June 1 and 3, 2008, The Thomashefskys: Music and Memories of a Life in the Yiddish Theater 

This very personal project celebrated Yiddish theater pioneers Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky by their grandson, Michael Tilson Thomas. The Thomashefsky Project, born in 1988 of his desire to preserve the music of the Yiddish theater, was expanded to a stage production hosted and conducted by Tilson Thomas. It featured music reconstructed from the original Yiddish theater repertoire, illustrated with projected images and accented with stories from Bessie and Boris’ memoirs.

Tilson Thomas toured with the production and performed it in Chicago as a Symphony Center Presents Special Concert. (A few years later, The Thomashefskys was recorded and broadcast on PBS’ “Great Performances” and released on DVD.) “My grandparents became mega-stars and found themselves smack in the public eye,” he said. “They were subject to adulation and relentless scrutiny. Legions of crazed fans were obsessed with every detail of their work and their lives.”

The San Francisco Chronicle declared of The Thomashefskys: “Tilson Thomas and his collaborators ... make you forget your troubles for an evening, plunge into another world and feel your own more fully in the end.”

Oct. 2-4, 2008, MTT and Street Song  

In a program anchored by Sibelius’ Fourth and Shostakovich’s Fifth, Tilson Thomas offered his own Street Song, originally written for brass quintet (and later arranged for orchestra). Street Song was dedicated to his father Ted, “who was and still is the central musical influence on my life.”

John von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune observed: “The fabled CSO brass choir got its day in the sun with the conductor’s Street Song, its pungently sonorous chords and bantering rhythmic exchanges laced with rakish slides borrowed from big-band jazz.”

On the CSO's 1988 Australian tour, Michael Tilson Thomas and Sir Georg Solti speak at a press conference in Perth.

Jim Steere

March 1988, Australian tour

Tilson Thomas joined Sir Georg Solti and the CSO for the ensemble’s first tour to Australia, leading a program of Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 3, Op. 72b; Ives’ Symphony No. 3 (The Camp Meeting) and Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2 in E Minor, Op. 27, in concerts at Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.

In the ’80s, Tilson Thomas led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in the first recordings of critical editions of Ives' works. The second disc received Grammy nominations for best orchestral performance and best classical album.

May 1986 and April 1989: MTT and Ives

Always an advocate for 20th-century American composers, Tilson Thomas has a special affinity for Charles Ives. For CBS/Sony, he made the first recordings of the critical editions of several Ives’ works, teaming with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus at the Medinah Temple in two sessions three years apart. In May 1986, they tackled Central Park in the Dark, New England Holidays Symphony and the original and revised versions of The Unanswered Question. In April 1989, they recorded Symphony No. 1 in D Minor and Symphony No. 4. The latter disc received Grammy nominations for best orchestral performance and best classical album.

Of the discs, Gramophone hailed the “stellar performance of the Fourth [Symphony with the CSO]. Not only are all the elements in place — no easy feat in itself — but the performance revels in the piece’s American roots, with marches and ragtime passages tossed off with as much apparent simplicity as the piece’s modernist language ...and Tilson Thomas moves through his seasonal year [the New England Holidays] with fine flourish that balances the musical fireworks of The Fourth of July and the sombre moments of Decoration Day.”

June 13-15, 1985: World premiere of David Del Tredici’s March to Tonality 

The Chicago Symphony Orchestra commissioned March to Tonality, which was dedicated to Michael Tilson Thomas (his initials are mirrored in the title) and who led the CSO in the work’s world premiere. At points in this percussion-heavy piece (featuring a siren and wind machine), musicians whisper the letters DDT, the initials of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Del Tredici (who died Nov. 18 at age 86).

In his program note, Del Tredici observed, “I chose the title because it seemed an appropriate description of the essential harmonic drama underlying the piece. Beginning with chromatically ambiguous, almost cadenceless harmonic progressions (Marcia Triste), the music makes a gradual, implacable shift (March) toward harmonic stability, climaxed by the arrival of a grandly unambiguous D-flat Major (Trio Estatico). Thereafter, D-flat Major remains the sovereign tonality: the key to which all subsequent music — however divergent, frenetic or capricious must return.”

The disc "Gershwin Live!" (here, back-cover photo) inspired a tour; in 1983, Michael Tilson Thomas, Sarah Vaughan and the CSO performed the program at the Ravinia Festival.

Aug. 7, 1983, All-Gershwin concert with Sarah Vaughan 

Long an admirer of the legendary jazz vocalist affectionately known as Sassy, Tilson Thomas joined Sarah Vaughan and the Los Angeles Philharmonic to record the disc “Gershwin Live!” (1982). For her renditions of the George and Ira Gershwin standards such as “Do It Again” and “The Man I Love,” Vaughan won a Grammy for best jazz vocalist, female. Tilson Thomas and Vaughan eventually took the program on the road, including a concert with the CSO at the Ravinia Festival.

July 12, 1970: Tilson Thomas made his debut with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra at the Ravinia Festival, leading a program of J.C. Bach’s Sinfonia for Double Orchestra in E-flat Major, Haydn’s Symphony No. 60 in C Major, Varèse’s Intégrales and Stravinsky’s Suite from Pulcinella.

Two weeks later, he returned Aug. 1 for a program of J.S. Bach’s Suite No. 4 in D Major, BWV 1069, Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23 in A Major, K. 488 (with John Browning as soloist), Ruggles’ Sun-Treader and from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, Siegfried’s Rhine Journey, Siegfried’s Death and Funeral March, and Brünnhilde’s Immolation.