February 19, 2020

Michael Tilson Thomas to Speak at CIM Commencement, Receive Honorary Doctorate

Michael Tilson Thomas working with the CIM Orchestra at Severance Hall on February 18. (Photo by Roger Mastroianni)

In a school-wide event on Tuesday, the Cleveland Institute of Music announced that acclaimed conductor, composer and educator Michael Tilson Thomas will be awarded an honorary doctorate at the school’s 95th Commencement Ceremony on Saturday, May 16.

Michael Tilson Thomas – Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony, Co-Founder and Artistic Director of the New World Symphony, Conductor Laureate of the London Symphony Orchestra and a 2019 Kennedy Center Honoree – is recognized globally as an innovator on and off the podium. His wide-ranging projects encompass a broad repertoire – from the classical canon to 20th-century masterpieces to contemporary works, particularly those by leading American composers. He shares this music with audiences in person in the concert hall; in televised performances and radio broadcasts; through recordings and online streaming; and even via “wallcast” simulcasts at the New World Center in Miami, Florida.

“The word ‘legend’ gets used a lot,” said CIM President & CEO Paul W. Hogle, “and only occasionally is it actually true. In the case of Michael Tilson Thomas, his charismatic presence, his deep musical insight, his inspired leadership and his boundless creativity have established him among the greatest of all time – the definition of a true legend. Michael led a CIM Orchestra rehearsal when he was in Cleveland in 2018, and we wanted our students to have more opportunities to learn from him."

“We benefited from his generosity of spirit again Tuesday,” Hogle continued, “when he worked with the CIM Orchestra, teaching, coaching and refining technical details as well as imparting his understanding of Brahms’ Second Symphony – honed from years of experience – and his vision.” MTT is in Cleveland to conduct The Cleveland Orchestra in concerts February 20-23.

A member of CIM’s International Council since 2013, MTT will address graduates and their families via a live video feed from San Francisco. “Like CIM, Michael embraces the opportunities that modern technology affords,” Hogle explained. “Live connections to distance locations is an important part of the educational landscape today. CIM students use this technology to collaborate with colleagues in other locations, take lessons with faculty members who are traveling and gain valuable feedback from worldwide educational partners in the Global Audition Training Program, and Michael uses it for his own virtual teaching. While we believe this may be the first-ever virtual commencement address, it undoubtedly won’t be the last.”

Founded in 1920 by the women of the Fortnightly Club, CIM is celebrating its centennial throughout 2020 and 2021. As it enters its second century, CIM is working to ensure that the world’s most talented classical music students have affordable access to its esteemed faculty and programs, with more than $14 million raised for student scholarships in the past 18 months.


CIM has awarded more than 90 honorary doctorates since 1965 when the practice began. Recipients are recommended by the faculty and the honor is granted by CIM’s Board of Trustees. Among the musical luminaries to receive this distinction are conductors Christoph von Dohnányi, Kurt Masur and Franz Welser-Möst; composers Donald Erb, Pierre Boulez and Malcolm Arnold; violinists Josef Gingold, Itzhak Perlman and Robert Mann; harpist Ann Hobson Pilot; vocalists Frederica von Stade and Tony Bennett; and pianists Van Cliburn and Leon Fleisher.


Due to space limitations, only invited guests may attend Commencement in Kulas Hall on Saturday, May 16, at 10am. The event will be livestreamed; visit cim.edu for more information and a link to the live stream once it’s available.


Michael Tilson Thomas is Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), 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 also worked with leading performers, including Gregor Piatigorsky and Jascha Heifetz, and composers, including Stravinsky, Boulez, Stockhausen and Copland. In 1969, after winning the Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood, he was appointed Assistant Conductor and pianist of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and also conducted the BSO in his New York debut. Later serving as BSO Principal Guest Conductor until 1974, he held subsequent appointments as Music Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic (1971–79), Principal Guest Conductor of the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1981–85) and Principal Conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra (1988–95).

In 1988, he co-founded the New World Symphony, an orchestral academy in Miami dedicated to preparing gifted music graduates for leadership roles in classical music. As Artistic Director, he works with NWS Fellows to further their artistic and professional development. Of the more than 1,100 NWS alumni, 90% maintain careers in music, often with major orchestras. Since 2011, the NWS campus has been the technologically advanced, Frank Gehry-designed New World Center.

He was appointed 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. In addition to exploring the standard repertoire, he has led SFS in championing contemporary and American music and enriching the concert experience through semi-staged performances. In 2020, he concludes his 25-year directorship and becomes SFS Music Director Laureate, continuing to lead the orchestra regularly in concert, as well as in special projects.

For more information, visit michaeltilsonthomas.com

Read the full press release.