[L to R]: Thomas Campbell, Nancy Bechtle, Sakurako Fisher, Thomas E. Horn, Michael Tilson Thomas, Mayor London Breed, Consul General of France Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens, Joshua Robison, Mark C. Hanson, and Juliette Donadieu, at the award ceremony naming MTT an Officer in the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Order of Arts and Letters) held at the Legion of Honor on June 22, 2020.
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA (June 23, 2020) — On Monday, June 22, Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT)—Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the New World Symphony, and Conductor Laureate of the London Symphony Orchestra—was named an Officer in the French Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (Order of Arts and Letters), the second of three grades recognized in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, awarded to distinguished artists who have made significant contributions to furthering the arts in France and throughout the world. Previously a Chevalier (Knight) in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France, this promotion to Officer recognizes MTT’s continued contributions to global culture and the vast impact he has had during his 25 years as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony.
“By promoting Michael Tilson Thomas to the rank of Officer in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, France celebrates an immense artist, unanimously recognized by the Parisian public, who worked hard to promote French music composers in the United States. As a universal language, music brings people together and MTT’s work shows the essential role of culture in the Franco-American friendship.”
Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens, Consul General of France, San Francisco
MTT has frequently visited and guest conducted the major French orchestras and has regularly appeared at the premier French concert halls both on tour with the San Francisco Symphony and with the London Symphony Orchestra, among others. He was scheduled to lead the San Francisco Symphony on tour in Lyon and Paris in April 2020; those performances were unfortunately canceled due to COVID-19. MTT’s most recent appearance in France was conducting Orchestre de Paris, which he will return to conduct again in June 2021.
The Award Ceremony took place Monday afternoon—generously hosted by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco at the Legion of Honor’s outdoor Court of Honor—and included a medal pinning by Consul General Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens and congratulatory remarks by San Francisco Mayor London Breed, San Francisco Symphony President Sakurako Fisher, former SF Symphony President and CEO Nancy Bechtle, Director and CEO of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco Thomas Campbell, and President of the War Memorial Board of Trustees Thomas E. Horn. The ceremony also featured musical accompaniment by organist Jonathan Dimmock on the Legion of Honor’s magnificent Spreckels Organ, which could be heard outside in the Court of Honor through the opened-up frieze above the main entrance. Founder of San Francisco’s Legion of Honor, Alma Bretteville de Spreckels was inspired by the French Légion d’honneur, asking the French government for permission to copy the structure in San Francisco for the 1915 World Fair. Although the work was delayed by the First World War, ground was broken on San Francisco’s Legion of Honor in 1921.
The following are condensed excerpts from the remarks given at the ceremony:
Sakurako Fisher, President of the San Francisco Symphony
“On behalf of the San Francisco Symphony, I want to express my appreciation to Mayor Breed and Consul General Lebrun-Damiens for being here with us to acknowledge this incredible honor, which the French Minister of Culture has bestowed on our own Michael Tilson Thomas. The Officier des Arts and Letters recognizes people who have significantly furthered culture and the arts globally. And we at the San Francisco Symphony have been so fortunate to benefit from Michael’s passion, artistry, and dedication to spreading the transformational power of music worldwide for a remarkable 25 years. . . . France holds a deeply meaningful place in my heart. It has been, and is still a home for me, and is a place that truly celebrates curiosity and creativity in the arts. No other city in the United States upholds the same values more than San Francisco. We thank the French Ministry of Culture for bestowing this great and well-deserved honor on our MTT on the occasion of the conclusion of his 25 years as Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony.”
Thomas E. Horn, President of the Board of Trustees, San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center
“Mayor Breed, Consul General, dear Michael, you have brought us such a joy for this last 25 years. I feel like we’ve been riding on a wave of beauty and of music under your leadership. You have educated us with Keeping Score. You have shown us nuances and insights into Mahler. You’ve refocused some of our attention on American music, American composers, and now you’re training a whole new generation of artists and musicians with the New World Symphony. It is such a thrill for me to participate in this well-deserved honor of recognition by the Government of France—an acknowledgement that you so richly deserve having promoted French artists, French music, and French culture your entire career.”
London N. Breed, Mayor of the City of San Francisco
“Thank you everyone for being here today to celebrate someone who is absolutely incredible. I think about the fact that here in San Francisco, we’ve been able to have MTT give 25 years dedicated to the San Francisco Symphony, but also doing so much more for music in the entire world. We are so blessed and grateful for your service to San Francisco. What you have done has really put us on the map, but more importantly, what you have done has lifted our spirits with music. I know that the world is a more beautiful place because you are in it and because of what you have brought here. And again, I can’t express how significant it is to have you as a part of San Francisco. Even though you have spent your 25 years at the Symphony and now you’re stepping away somewhat, you’re still going to be a part of our city. You’re still going to be conducting here in San Francisco. You’re still going to be working with the next generation of artists and conductors and musicians. And that is truly incredible.”
Emmanuel Lebrun-Damiens, Consul General of France, San Francisco
“It is truly an honor, and a great pleasure for me as the French Minister of Culture asked me to present Michael Tilson Thomas with the insignia of Officer in the Order of Arts and Letters. Maestro, you have been a Knight in this order for a long time and you know well the importance France gives this distinction. In the United States and beyond you have made a profound impact upon the lives of many. Through your talent and your personality, you have transmitted your passion to thousands of musicians and audiences.
We very much value the relationship that you and the San Francisco Symphony developed with France. The Mayor mentioned the concert after the fire at Notre-Dame, and we will never forget the solidarity you showed with Paris. The Symphony immediately proposed to perform in these concerts, by which San Francisco showed that Sister Cities are stronger together. You should have been performing in Lyon and Paris this spring, but sadly, these concerts could not take place because of the health crisis. But this award that France gives you today is an invitation to come back as often as possible to our country so that we can continue to share creative moments with you and enjoy your talent.
At the time when you prepare to leave the San Francisco Symphony after 25 fabulous years, we wish Joshua and you the very best. I will never forget the day when both of you welcomed me backstage [at Davies Symphony Hall] and I discovered that a conductor could be welcoming, talkative, and relaxed! Today, we are awarding the Arts and Letters to a dear friend. A friend of the arts, a friend of France. We are celebrating someone who has continually supported artistic exchanges, relentlessly expanding cultural horizons, and supporting new generations of musicians and music lovers. It is to express our admiration and recognition that we present you with the insignia of Officer in the Order of Arts and Letters, Michael Tilson Thomas.”
Michael Tilson Thomas is Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the New World Symphony and Conductor Laureate of the London Symphony Orchestra. He is an eleven-time Grammy Award winner and has conducted the major orchestras of Europe and the United States. For his lifetime artistic achievements, he received the 2019 Kennedy Center Honors.
Born in Los Angeles, he studied piano, conducting and composition at the University of Southern California, and as a young musician worked with such artists as Igor Stravinsky and Aaron Copland. In his mid-20s, he became Assistant Conductor—and later Principal Guest Conductor—of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which he conducted in his New York debut. He subsequently served as Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic, Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra.
In 1988, he co-founded the New World Symphony, an orchestral academy in Miami Beach that prepares gifted music graduates for leadership roles in classical music. Since then, he has guided the artistic and professional development of more than 1,100 young musicians, many of whom have gone onto careers with major orchestras and institutions.
He became Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony in 1995, and his tenure has been a period of significant growth and heightened international recognition for the orchestra. He has led SFS in championing contemporary and American composers alongside classical masters, while also innovating new ways of engaging today’s audiences with classical music. In 2020, he concludes his 25-year directorship and becomes Music Director Laureate.
His discography includes more than 120 recordings, and his television work includes series for the BBC and PBS, broadcasts of the New York Philharmonic’s Young People’s Concerts and numerous televised performances.
Throughout his career, he has been an active composer, with major works including From the Diary of Anne Frank, commissioned by UNICEF and premiered in 1991 with narrator Audrey Hepburn, and recently, Meditations on Rilke, premiered in 2020 with SFS.
He is an Officer dans l’ordre des Arts et des Lettres of France, a member of the American Academies of Arts and Sciences and Arts and Letters, was awarded the National Medal of Arts and has also been inducted into the California Hall of Fame.