Renaissance Symphony: The San Francisco Symphony's Rise to Greatness

Steven Winn on September 4, 2011
The San Francisco Symphony and Chorus

The big number on everybody’s mind at the San Francisco Symphony right now is 100. And, the announcement of some of the programming for the orchestra’s 2011-2012 centennial season promised a major musical birthday bash. [Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in Dec. of 2010.]

Newly commissioned works by John Adams and Mason Bates in a revived American Mavericks Festival; a week of concerts devoted to “Barbary Coast and Beyond: Music from the Gold Rush to the Birth of the Symphony;” an all-star lineup of visiting American orchestras; an expanding slate of educational and community programs, and much more attest to a vibrant and thriving organization in a buoyantly celebratory mood as it passes the century mark.

But there may be an even more important round number that went largely unremarked when that anniversary came and went earlier this year. With the opening of Davies Symphony Hall 30 years ago, the San Francisco Symphony marked the beginning of a well-planned and brilliantly executed ascendancy into the elite rank of American orchestras. Led by a committed and ambitious board that consistently took the long view, the organization pursued artistic and management leadership consciously aimed at driving the orchestra and its programs to the next level. The San Francisco Symphony wouldn’t be feeling nearly so festive and fulfilled about turning 100 if its board, staff, and artists hadn’t been working with such diligence and foresight for the past three decades to bring it to this point.

Phase One: The Buildup

Edo de Waart and Louise M. Davies

Spool back to the late 1970s, when the Symphony and San Francisco Opera shared both playing time and some musicians at the War Memorial Opera House, and the distance traveled becomes clear. When Peter Pastreich was hired as executive director in 1977, he knew he was taking over an ensemble in need of a makeover. “I was managing the St. Louis Symphony at the time,” he recalls, “and it was a better orchestra and quite successful.” Pastereich had his work cut out for him here. With Davies Hall as the potential promised land, he and his staff looked ahead.

“You can’t rebuild an orchestra in one year. It takes time,” says Henry Fogel, past board chair and president of the American Symphony Orchestra League (now the League of American Orchestras) and a longtime orchestra manager himself. “I think what San Francisco has done over the years is just brilliant.”

Fogel, like others, views the progression of music directors from Edo de Waart (1977-85) to Herbert Blomstedt (1985-95) to Michael Tilson Thomas (1995-the present) as the well-made arch that underlies it all. It was de Waart, with his strength in personnel, who began to weed out weaker players and hire better ones as the Symphony prepared to sever its confining arrangement with the Opera and enter the Davies Hall era. Blomstedt, whose sober, Swedish demeanor made him something of a marketing challenge, was tapped to school an ebullient but sometimes wayward ensemble in the orchestral repertoire of Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner. Those two conductors, both of whom who will return to the Davies podium in the centennial season, had complementary strengths (and shortcomings).

Listen To The Music

Then, in a defining leap launched from this sturdily constructed springboard, Thomas arrived to take the San Francisco Symphony to its current, consistently lofty level. Passed over in previous music director searches here, Thomas was a ripe and ready 50 when he took over in 1995. Combining first-rate musicianship with a silver-tongued gift for communicating and a showman’s instinctive and salable touch, MTT has become a kind of artistic force field and a San Francisco Symphony brand in the best sense of that possibly overworked term. From his original American Mavericks Festival in 2000, to a magisterial Mahler cycle and recordings, to his engaging PBS Keeping Score programs, Thomas is both the racing pulse and reassuringly familiar face of the Symphony.

At Monday’s centennial season press conference, the usually voluble MTT was struggling with laryngitis. But he did manage to work in a plug for next year’s Mavericks Festival (“This is mega”) while simultaneously kidding himself for a penchant to let his enthusiasm run a little wild at times. Even at less than vocal full strength, the city’s brightest musical star is never less than great company.

Pointing out that Thomas is now one of the longest-tenured music directors in the country, executive director Brent Assink regards that continuity as an asset in an era of short attention spans and the perpetual fascination with the new. “Michael often talks about going the distance,” says Assink, “how it’s easy to reinvent yourself but much harder to look deeper and constantly stretch within the context of who you really are as an artist.”

Phase Two: Expansion

SFS Executive Director Brent Assink
SFS Executive Director Brent Assink

The Symphony’s progression from the late 1970s to its centennial year may look organic and preordained when viewed in retrospect. But none of it happened by accident or without some risky and counterintuitive moves along the way.

David Landis, director of publicity and community relations from 1980-87, recalls the early years in Davies as a time of “incredible growth in a very short period.” The Great Performers series, the establishment of the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, the New and Unusual Music series, commissioning of new work, recording and revitalized touring were all initiated in those first years in the new hall. “It was all because we had the technical capabilities of a permanent new home,” says Landis. “The Youth Orchestra had a place to rehearse. We were drawing new audiences with new programs.”

While the Symphony was capitalizing on the public’s early fascination with a new building and a greatly expanded season of concerts, wheels were turning in less visible ways as well. Fogel, who credits Pastereich as one of the “undersung heroes” of the San Francisco Symphony’s transformation, credits him for presenting great orchestras like the Chicago Symphony and the Berlin Philharmonic in San Francisco and giving his own musicians free tickets to the concerts. “Basically the point of it was to say, ‘This is what music can be. And folks, we’re not there yet.’ It was a very smart and unusual way of thinking,” says Fogel.

Another deft and daring move came in advance of Blomstedt’s arrival. Then-marketing director Margo Hackett conceived a campaign that both acknowledged and sought to exploit the new conductor’s decided lack of name recognition and celebrity appeal. For months before his first concerts as music director, billboards sprouted all over town bearing nothing but the word “Blomstedt” and the super-sized image of a conductor’s hand gripping a baton. It was at once blatant and cunningly subliminal, linking the faceless Blomstedt with the essence of music itself.

Michael Tilson Thomas

Ten years later, by clear contrast, Thomas’ arrival was promoted with a series of large banners that depicted the dashingly handsome and charismatic new conductor in dramatic bands of light and shadow over the legend “MTT.” Symphony insiders still refer to the banners as “Michael’s prison photo” or “perp shot.” The drama wasn’t confined to the promotional campaign. Before Thomas was hired, Pastreich recalls, opinion on both the board and among the musicians was sharply divided.

“It was either we want Tilson Thomas, or we want anyone but Tilson Thomas. Nobody said we want (Vladimir) Ashkenazy or (Christoph) Eschenbach instead of Michael.” The board took the plunge, offering Thomas 40 percent more money than it was paying Blomstedt. “That year,” says Pastreich, “we earned 100 percent more.”

Through it all, a kind of institutional coherence took hold. Content and message always seemed to be in sync. The Symphony seemed to know what it was doing and where it was going in a way that many arts organizations did not. Karen Ames, who first came to work for the orchestra in 1986 and served as its director of communications and public affairs from 1999-2005, credits both Pastreich and Assink for understanding that “being recognized for our accomplishments was actually serving the institution in a fundamental way. Public relations didn’t involve just ticket sales or marketing. We were part of senior management and valued that way. That was in the mission statement.” Not everything worked according to plan, of course. Long-standing acoustical problems forced the closure of Davies Hall in the early 1990s; it reopened in 1992 with about 500 fewer seats and an improved overall sound. Tickets sales and fundraising have remained challenging in the economic convulsions of the past 30 years. But the San Francisco Symphony has weathered the storms with far less turbulence than many other orchestras or other arts organizations in the Bay Area.

Box office revenues that dipped in the 2009-10 season are back up this year and projected to rise again in the high-visibility centennial season. Responding to an increasing interest in weekend concerts and lighter attendance during the week, the Symphony has adjusted its performance schedule accordingly, by adding more Sunday concerts and dialing back on Wednesdays. An endowment that took a 25 percent hit in the market downturn still stands at a relatively healthy $200 million (on a $63-million annual budget).

Embracing a Wider Audience: What the Future Holds

S.F. Symphony’s Adventures in Music Program

Big anniversaries get organizations thinking about themselves in long-lens views. Assink is fond of pointing out that the San Francisco Symphony’s founding came just five years after the devastating 1906 earthquake. “There is some great desire in this setting of great natural beauty, even in times of great distress,” he says, “for people to gather together to make and hear music.” Today, in an effort to make music reach as many people as possible in a fragmented, media-saturated age, everything from outdoor community concerts to the SFS Kids website for children remain vital complements to the regular concerts.

Ron Gallman, director of the education and youth orchestra programs, is constantly looking to the future. The Symphony’s massive Adventures in Music (AIM) serves some 23,000 San Francisco first- to fifth-graders every year with concerts, curriculum support, and more. “It would be very hard,” notes Gallman, “to find another orchestra that reaches that many students.”

Children’s concerts have been performed without interruption since the Symphony’s founding. Next year, an amateur symphony, chorus, and chamber music program for adults will be launched. “We see music integrated with lifelong learning,” says Gallman.

No one could — or should — try to integrate all these component parts. In a sense that’s the underlying truth of the San Francisco Symphony’s justly celebrated 100th anniversary. Compelling as a great night in Davies Hall may be, with MTT on the podium and the orchestra performing at its peak, that’s only one shining facet. Matured in ways that were only glimmers of possibility 30 years ago, this now-great orchestra is the bulwark of the region’s music life, reaching into the lives of second graders and seniors, longtime subscribers and first-timers. The San Francisco Symphony needed a new building to make it all happen. But in the end, great music always pushes out beyond the walls.