Michael Tilson Thomas: A Modern Classic

In the often nostalgic world of classical music, Michael Tilson Thomas (AKA MTT) has always been on the cutting edge. In 1973, before turning 30, Thomas performed on a seminal recording that brought the works of John Cage and Steve Reich to a mainstream audience.

Nearly 40 years later, he turned to YouTube to form the YouTube Symphony Orchestra, comprising players selected from more than 3,000 video auditions from 30 countries who would go on to perform a live concert at Carnegie Hall that was seen — you guessed it, on YouTube — by 33 million viewers.

As founder of the New World Symphony Orchestra in Miami Beach in 1987, Thomas has been training the gifted musicians who will help shape the sounds that will be heard in old-fashioned concert halls and on state-of-the-art digital gadgets across the globe.

"We enjoy the fact that classical music goes back many centuries, but we're championing the music of the future," Thomas says. "We've been exploring very sophisticated new and historical concepts of music making."

He hasn't turned his back on the traditional repertoire. When he picks up the baton at the New World Center, designed by iconic architect Frank Gehry, you'll still get Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms. But you'll also hear the work of up-and-coming composers such as James Lee III, whose Sukkot: Through Orion's Nebula, premiered at the New World Symphony in October. The intimate size of the new venue allows the orchestra to "take risks with the repertoire," Thomas says. "There's a freedom."

His tenure in South Beach has paralleled the area's artistic boom. "Twenty-four years ago, we were in a one-room school house surrounded by the ballet and a few little [artist] studios," Thomas says. "Lincoln Road was pretty much closed."

Since then, "the street has thrived," he adds, ticking off the big movie houses, the philharmonic, and the Bass Museum of Art. "We're in the midst of a cultural district here." And the symphony and its new hall have become a centerpiece of that cultural boom. Live performances are beamed onto the wall outside, giving people who can't afford tickets a chance to catch the concerts on the lawn for free and hear firsthand what the classical buzz is all about.

A native of Los Angeles, Thomas divides his time between the East Coast and the West Coast, where he is music director of the San Francisco Symphony. When he's not out discovering "new little restaurants and cafés," he's at peace on the water, always listening.

"I love the night in Miami, the quality of the air, and the quietness of things on the water," he says. "It's a magical experience."

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