It's hard to imagine conductor Michael Tilson Thomas at retirement age. When he led the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra, he was a boy wonder.
Tilson Thomas announced Oct. 31 that, in June 2020, he would be stepping down as music director of the San Francisco Symphony. The 2019-2020 season will mark his 75th birthday. It will also mark his 25th year leading the San Francisco Symphony, where he has been music director since 1995.
His retirement will not be complete, Musical America reported. The classical music website said that Tilson Thomas would assume the title of Music Director Laureate and continue to conduct the orchestra for a minimum of four weeks a season.
But the move marks quite a milestone to anyone with even dim memories of Tilson Thomas' time here.
Born in Los Angeles in 1944, Tilson Thomas was the youngest music director the BPO has ever seen. His predecessor Lukas Foss, for all his revolutionary spirit, was 18 years older.
Tilson Thomas gained recognition in his mid-20s when he won the Koussevitzky Prize at Tanglewood -- named for Serge Koussevitzky, the celebrated music director of the Boston Symphony. He made a splash at the Boston Symphony when William Steinberg, the orchestra's music director at the time, fell ill and asked Tilson Thomas to step in for him mid-concert.
He was appointed Music Director of the BPO when he was 24. He remained at the BPO from 1971 until 1979. During those years, he enjoyed an unparalleled reputation for youthful hipness.
"He had a rope swing rigged in his living room and padded around the downtown streets in his tennis whites," People magazine reported in 1980. "Neither his players nor his patrons ever knew for sure what music really struck the young man’s fancy ... He played back-up piano for Sarah Vaughan, wrote songs with Art Garfunkel, savored the Rolling Stones and danced until dawn on visits to Manhattan’s Studio 54. All of which kept that clergyman-sized moniker of his appearing in places where the Buffalo board of directors wished it would not."
Thomas left the BPO to concentrate on a conducting job with the Los Angeles Symphony.
His legacy here lives on. He conducted the BPO in the 1977 vinyl album "Gershwin on Broadway," heard in the Woody Allen classic "Manhattan." He and the BPO also made two critically acclaimed records on the Columbia label, of the music of American composers Carl Ruggles and Charles Ives.
He last appeared with the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra as a guest conductor in 2001.