By Lisa Petrillo

MIAMI (CBSMiami) – The New World Center is home to the New World Symphony led by Artistic Director Michael Tilson Thomas, a champion for the music world whose impact is now earning him a most prestigious award for the arts.

CBS4’s Lisa Petrillo met up with the world-renowned conductor, known to his friends as MTT, in Washington D.C. just hours before he was to receive the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor.

Tilson Thomas first wielded the baton as a conductor fifty years ago with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. It happened one fateful night when he was just 24 years old and the main conductor got sick.

“He said ‘you put your suit on’ and I went on and conducted the program and here we are today,” Tilson Thomas recalled.

He went on to lead the London Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony and since 1988 he’s been Artistic Director and co-founder of Miami’s New World Symphony. We asked him about juggling his time between San Francisco and Miami.

“I would call it counterbalancing, I counterbalance between San Francisco and Miami,” he said.

Recognized as a world leader in symphony orchestras, he’s known for that intense stare down from his platform and that instinctual way he translates the music that seems to come through his soul.

“It’s as if your eyes become a camera and suddenly you’re seeing these people and now its time to look at the harp. When you’re conducting that’s what’s going on and suddenly I’m looking at all the violins and you’ll notice I’m not looking at first violin because the first violin is next to me, I’m looking at the person in back because they are far away and I want to bring them into the center,” he explained

Throughout his storied career, MTT has earned many accolades. In 2010 President Barack Obama awarded him the National Medal of Arts. He’s won eleven Grammy Awards and now a Kennedy Center Honor.

The Kennedy Center Honors artists who’ve made a profound artistic impact. How does MTT feel about it?

“I am very proud of the work, pioneering work, I’ve done in San Francisco, London, and Florida because alums of New World are going out and making a difference and being very gutsy,” he said.

Gutsy like MTT’s collaboration with rock legends Metallica this September in San Francisco at the Chase Center is just one example of his wide reach in the music world.

Sarah Arison is President of the Arison Arts Foundation. Her grandfather, the late Ted Arison, co-founded the New World Symphony with MTT all those years ago. She said the maestro’s impact on South Florida has been monumental.
“I can say when I go most places in the world and I say “New World Symphony” and I get an incredible response,” said Arison.

The New World Center opened in 2011, a Frank Ghery designed building features the perfectly placed Wallcast, giving music to the community for free.

“When I look out from the roof when there are thousands of people with all of their families, pets, and blankets, I’m deeply touched by that,” said Tilson Thomas.

But it’s his teaching role with the fellows at New World Symphony, an orchestra made up highly gifted music school graduates, that gives this music master the most reward.

“You can find yourself thinking what did I do all this for, was it worth it? Then when I meet a young musician who says ‘my gosh this Mendelssohn piece, this Stravinsky piece is everything to me’, I think it was worth it.”

The Kennedy Center Honors airs Sunday, December 15th, at 8 p.m. on CBS4.

You can also watch the CBS broadcast of The Kennedy Center Honors, in true South Florida fashion at a Wallcast watch party at Soundscape Park in Miami Beach.  Bring a chair or a blanket and enjoy the FREE show!


Lisa Petrillo