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Michael Tilson Thomas, for my money, is the best American conductor around. More consistently thoughtful and engaging (not to mention photogenic) than National Symphony Orchestra's Leonard Slatkin or Baltimore's David Zinman and more riveting a presence on the podium and more catholic in his tastes than Seattle's Gerard Schwarz, Tilson Thomas is the logical heir to the legacy of Leonard Bernstein, to whom he's often compared. Yet for a long time--partly due to a pot-smoking scandal in his youth--the LA-born maestro had a tough time getting a permanent post with a major American orchestra. His recordings and guest stints, however, gradually illuminated a superb musical intellect bent on elucidating the structure and emotional resonance of worthy works. Now, at 51, Tilson Thomas is finally getting his due: he's the new music director of the underrated San Francisco Symphony and the recipient of a five-year recording contract with BMG Classics. Tilson Thomas is embarking with his colleagues on a ten-city tour. Their Chicago program serves as an index of his agenda: an orchestral showcase (Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique, which has become a crowd pleaser in this town) coupled with a 20th-century classic (excerpts from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet) and an American original (Henry Cowell's 1931 Synchrony, a freewheeling, exuberant score intended to be choreographed by Martha Graham). Wednesday, 8 PM, Orchestra Hall, 220 S. Michigan; 435-6666. TED SHEN

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nancy Ellison Rollnick.

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