Michael Tilson Thomas ’67, MM ’76, one of the world’s leading conductors and an esteemed alumnus of the USC Thornton School of Music, has been awarded the National Medal of Arts, the nation’s highest award for artistic achievement.
President Barack Obama presented the award at a ceremony in the East Room of the White House on Feb. 25. Tilson Thomas, the longtime music director of the San Francisco Symphony, was cited for his contributions to American culture.
“I am grateful to have the opportunity to share the deep and ongoing tradition of classical music with all Americans,” Tilson Thomas said. “I receive this award with gratitude to President Obama, the National Endowment for the Arts and to my many musical colleagues throughout the country whose devotion makes all this possible. I especially want to thank the San Francisco Symphony and the New World Symphony families for our special collaborations over these many years.”
Tilson Thomas is in his 15th season with the San Francisco Symphony. He is principal guest conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, and the founder and artistic director of the New World Symphony. Founded in 1987, the New World Symphony is a renowned orchestral academy based in Miami that is dedicated to the development of young musicians. Hundreds of New World Symphony alumni work in orchestras around the world.
In addition to Tilson Thomas, the 2009 National Medal of Arts recipients include singer Bob Dylan, actor and director Clint Eastwood, graphic designer Milton Glaser, architect Maya Lin, singer and actress Rita Moreno, soprano Jessye Norman, design advocate Joseph P. Riley Jr., painter Frank Stella and composer John Williams.
“Michael Tilson Thomas is one of the premier conductors in the world, and his commitment to music education is as commendable as his immense artistry on the podium,” said Robert Cutietta, dean of the USC Thornton School. “We are so pleased that he is being honored with this award.”
In October, Tilson Thomas visited campus to lead the USC Thornton Symphony in a concert at Bovard Auditorium. The performance, part of the school’s 125th anniversary celebration, featured the conductor reflecting on his time as a student at USC.
Tilson Thomas is the fourth USC alumnus to win the National Medal of Arts, joining architect Frank Gehry ’54 and two fellow USC Thornton alumni — opera star Marilyn Horne BM ’53 and USC Thornton distinguished professor of composition Morten Lauridsen BM ’66, MA ’68, DMA ’74. Horne was honored in 1992, Gehry in 1998 and Lauridsen in 2007.