Michael Tilson Thomas brain surgery news draws wave of love and support

It’s a sad moment for the San Francisco culture scene with the announcement that Michael Tilson Thomas is recovering from brain surgery.

Liz and I have attended the San Francisco Symphony for years sitting in the seats directly behind the orchestra. It was always a special event when MTT was the conductor.

We will always remember attending the Summer Series when vocalist Natalie Merchant was the featured performer. She reminisced about first meeting MTT when she was a young woman and waited for him outside the Buffalo, New York Symphony building. Ms. Merchant said it was a hi-lite of her career and she always thought of Michael Tilson Thomas as a mentor.

Excerpted from San Francisco Chronicle 8.6.2021

The musical world in San Francisco and beyond reacted with concern and optimism on Friday to the news that Michael Tilson Thomas, the San Francisco Symphony’s longtime former music director and now music director laureate, was recovering from surgery for a brain tumor.

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President Barack Obama presents the 2009 National Medal of Arts to conductor Michael Tilson Thomas during a ceremony in 2010 in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

“I’m heartbroken but incredibly grateful that we have UCSF and other amazing medical centers here in the city,” said former Symphony board President Sakurako Fisher. “And with a brain as prodigious as Michael’s, I’m sure this won’t slow him down for a nanosecond.”

As he recovers from surgery, Thomas canceled public appearances through the end of October, including concerts with the New World Symphony — the Miami training orchestra that he founded and directed — as well as the National Symphony Orchestra, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.

Yet friends and artistic partners who have spoken with him in recent days reported that Thomas was in generally high spirits — cracking jokes, making music and adjusting to the news.

MTT in 1985
“Michael is still Michael,” said former board president Nancy Bechtle, who oversaw Thomas’ hiring in 1993. “He’s funny, he’s fun, he’s playing the piano. He offered to write a song for the brain surgeons who were operating on him.”

Mezzo-soprano Sasha Cooke, a frequent musical collaborator, said that Thomas had sounded “good and positive” when she spoke with him by phone.

“It doesn’t surprise me at all that he’s handling this with such grace, as he always does,” she said. “I’m sending him all my love and feel glad that he’s healing.”

There were also statements of support from musical organizations with which Thomas has had a close association, including the New World Symphony and the London Symphony Orchestra.

But response was keenest in the Bay Area.

“He’s been so much a part of San Francisco life for 25 years,” said Symphony President Priscilla B. Geeslin. “So many of our memories of the San Francisco Symphony are tied up with Michael and watching him conduct.”

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MTT with the Godfather of Soul – James Brown