Picker was born in New York City. He began composing at the age of eight and studied at the Manhattan School of Music, The Juilliard School and Princeton University, where his principal teachers were Charles Wuorinen, Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt. He received his first commissions while still in his late teens and quickly became established as one of America's most sought-after young composers.
By the age of thirty, Picker had earned numerous awards and honors including the Joseph H. Bearns Prize (Columbia University), a Charles Ives Scholarship and a Guggenheim Fellowship. In 1992, he received the prestigious Award in Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. From 1985–1990 Picker was the first composer-in-residence of the Houston Symphony. He has also served as composer-in-residence for such major international festivals as the Santa Fe Chamber Music Festival and the Pacific Music Festival. Tobias Picker will be inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in May 2012.
Picker’s symphonic music, including the tone poem Old and Lost Rivers, has been performed by major orchestras such as the New York Philharmonic, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Philadelphia Orchestra, the BBC Philharmonic, The Munich Philharmonic, the Tonhalle Orchester Zurich, and the Vienna Radio Symphony Orchestra. His piano concerto Keys to the City (written for the Centenary of the Brooklyn Bridge) is recorded on Chandos with his cello concerto and the orchestral work And Suddenly It’s Evening. Following this Chandos release, BBC Music Magazine proclaimed Picker’s recent music “one of the glories of the current musical scene.” The Encantadas (for narrator and orchestra) features texts drawn from Herman Melville’s poetic descriptions of the Galápagos Islands and was recorded on Virgin Classics by the Houston Symphony Orchestra with narration by Sir John Gielgud. Other works include Tres sonetos de amor, settings of Neruda love poems in versions for baritone and orchestra and voice and piano, and The Blue Hula, a work for chamber ensemble. Picker’s complete orchestral catalogue includes three symphonies, four piano concertos and concertos for violin, viola, cello and oboe.
Picker has also composed numerous chamber works. In 2009, the American String Quartet commissioned and premiered his String Quartet No. 2 at Merkin Concert Hall in New York. In that same year, the pianist Ursula Oppens premiered Picker's Four Etudes for Ursula and Three Nocturnes for Ursula at Baisly Powell Elebash Recital Hall, also in New York. In 2011, Picker was featured in a Miller Theatre Composer Portrait Concert, featuring the Signal Ensemble, Sarah Rothenberg, and the Brentano String Quartet, who premiered his Piano Quintet "Live Oaks".
- Emmeline (1996): The Santa Fe Opera gave the world premiere of Picker’s first opera, which was subsequently broadcast nationally on public television’s Great Performances series. The premiere recording was released by Albany Records.
- Fantastic Mr. Fox (1998): His second opera was an adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book commissioned and premiered by the Los Angeles Opera. Picker has written two more versions of this work: a version for Chamber Ensemble of seven instruments, premiered by Opera Holland Park in 2010. A version with reduced orchestration was written for the English Touring Opera, also in 2010.
- Thérèse Raquin (1999/2000): Picker's third opera (libretto by Gene Scheer) was commissioned by a consortium of companies including The Dallas Opera San Diego Opera, and the Opéra de Montréal. Picker then received a new commission from Opera Theatre Europe for a reduced-scale version of Thérèse Raquin, which was performed in March 2006 at the Linbury Studio of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
- An American Tragedy (2005/2006): Based on the novel by Theodore Dreiser, with a libretto by Gene Scheer, Picker's fourth opera was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera. The world premiere took place on December 2, 2005 and featured Patricia Racette, Nathan Gunn, Susan Graham, and Dolora Zajick in principal roles. The production was directed by Francesca Zambello and conducted by James Conlon.
- Dolores Claiborne: On 18 September 2013, the San Francisco Opera premiered a new opera by Picker with a libretto by J.D. McClatchy based on Stephen King's novel of the same name.
Picker completed his first ballet, Awakenings, inspired by the novel by Dr. Oliver Sacks and commissioned by the Rambert Dance Company, in 2010. The piece was premiered by Rambert in Salford, UK in September 2010. Rambert toured the work around the UK with over 50 performances in the 2010-11 season.
- Invisible Lilacs (Tzadik Records, 2014)
- Keys to the City (Wergo, 2008)
- Old and Lost Rivers (Virgin Classics)
- Songs and Encores (Bridge Records, 2006)
- Symphony No. 2, String Quartet No. 1 (First Edition, 2004)
- Keys to the City, And Suddenly It's Evening, and Cello Concerto (Chandos, 2003)
- Thérèse Raquin (Chandos, 2001)
- Emmeline (Albany Records, 1998)
- The Encantadas (Virgin Records, 1998)
Additional recordings of the composer’s music are available on Sony Classics, Virgin, Nonesuch Records, Ondine, Bridge and First Edition, among others.
Picker is diagnosed with Tourette's syndrome, and has mentioned that there are "tourettic" elements to his music. He also appeared in a BBC Horizon television documentary, titled Mad But Glad, about the link between Tourette's syndrome and creativity. He has been involved in mentoring programs for children with Tourette's.
- "Tobias Picker Biography - Chronology". Retrieved 2009-01-25.
- http://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/michael-chabon-jonathan-franzen-among-new-members-of-arts-academy/2012/03/09/gIQATVD20R_story.html. Missing or empty
- Schott Music - Tobias Picker - Profile
- Commissions & Premieres | American String Quartet
- Ursula Oppens Performs World Premiere of Tobias Picker's 'Three Nocturnes for Ursula'
- Miller Theatre at Columbia University
- The Production
- Fantastic Mr Fox: composer meets conductor - English Touring Opera
- An American Tragedy from the Met website
- Brian Kellow, "The Key to Tobias", Opera News, B 70(6), December 2005
- Alex Ross, "Opera Hot", The New Yorker, 26 December 2005
- http://theclassicalreview.com/2012/01/san-francisco-opera-to-present-three-american-world-premieres-in-2013/. Missing or empty
- Rambert Dance Company: The Making of Awakenings
- BBC Horizon, "Mad But Glad"
- Tourette's Syndrome Association of New Jersey newsletter, Spring 2000
- Raphael Mostel, "A Demanding Composer Meets His Orchestral Match," Forward
- Tobias Picker's official website
- Tobias Picker at Schott Music
- Tobias Picker featured in Opera News
- Review of An American Tragedy (opera) by Alex Ross