Editor’s note: This article reflects the situation at the San Francisco Symphony prior to the new contract agreed to in October 2023, which runs through Nov. 18, 2024.

Winds and brass
Winds and brass of the SF Symphony | Credit: Brandon Patoc

In July 2023, SF Classical Voice reported on the state of the contract negotiations at the San Francisco Symphony and on the state of the orchestra itself. Our report mentioned 28 cumulative openings in the orchestra and also reviewed several appointments made last year.

As the SF Symphony’s fall season begins, SFCV is again checking in on the contract and personnel developments at the orchestra. Since July, SFS has announced several appointments and other personnel changes, most for the better but some leaving new openings to be filled.

New Principals

In August, the orchestra and Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen announced the appointment of Katherine Siochi as principal harp and Yubeen Kim as principal flute.

Siochi succeeds Douglas Rioth, who retired at the end of 2021 after 40 years with the SF Symphony. She joins SFS from the Minnesota Orchestra and was previously principal harp of the Kansas City Symphony and Sarasota Orchestra. Siochi is a graduate of The Juilliard School, where she earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees. She joined the orchestra this month.

Yubeen Kim
Yubeen Kim is the SF Symphony’s new principal flute | Credit: Taeuk Kang

Kim will join the orchestra in January 2024. Born and raised in South Korea, he is currently principal flute of the Konzerthausorchester Berlin, a position he won in 2016 at age 19. He studied at the Lyon Conservatory, Paris Conservatory, and the Hanns Eisler School of Music Berlin. He succeeds Tim Day, who retired at the end of the 2020–2021 season after 14 years with SFS.

Both appointees have extensive experience as solo performers, in addition to their work as orchestral principals.

New Chorus Director

On Sept. 18, SFS announced the appointment of Jenny Wong as the new director of the San Francisco Symphony Chorus. During the 2022–2023 season, Wong prepared the SFS Chorus and worked with Salonen on Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2, Kaija Saariaho’s Adriana Mater, and Ferruccio Busoni’s Piano Concerto. She was the guest conductor in May 2022 for Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Wong’s assignments during the 2023–2024 season include preparing the chorus for Beethoven’s Symphony No. 9 (Michael Tilson Thomas conducting), Steven Stucky’s orchestral arrangement of Igor Stravinsky’s Les noces (Salonen), Handel’s Messiah (Jonathan Cohen), and Mahler’s Symphony No. 3 (Salonen).

Jenny Wong
Jenny Wong conducts the SF Symphony Chorus | Credit: Stefan Cohen

Wong is associate artistic director of the Los Angeles Master Chorale, a position she will retain, and has also conducted at Long Beach Opera, The Industry, and Gay Men’s Chorus of Los Angeles, among others. She is the fourth director of the SF Symphony Chorus, which celebrates its 50th year this season. She succeeds Ragnar Bohlin, who resigned in 2021 because he disagreed with the orchestra’s COVID-19 safety requirements.

Additional Appointments

On Sept. 13, SFS announced four additional appointments.

Last season’s auditions for principal flute also yielded a new associate principal flute. Blair Francis Paponiu joins the orchestra this month, and she will hold the Catherine & Russell Clark Chair. She was previously assistant principal flute of the Naples Philharmonic (Florida) and served as acting section flute of the New York Philharmonic for two seasons. Francis Paponiu studied at Manhattan School of Music, University of South Carolina, and University of Texas at Austin. She succeeds Robin McKee, who retired at the end of the 2020–2021 season after 37 years with SFS.

Justin Cummings
Justin Cummings joins the SFS bassoon section | Credit: Allison DeFrancesco

Justin Cummings joins SFS as section bassoon. He was previously principal bassoon of the Knoxville Symphony and a fellow of the New World Symphony under Michael Tilson Thomas. He is an alumnus of the SF Symphony Youth Orchestra and studied at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music and the Colburn School.

Olivia Chen, a graduate of the Peabody Institute of the Johns Hopkins University, joins the second violin section. She was a Tanglewood fellow for two seasons and served as concertmaster of the Tanglewood Music Center Orchestra.

Matthew Searing joins the orchestra as assistant librarian, a position he previously filled at The Florida Orchestra and Sarasota Orchestra. He studied horn at Montclair State University in New Jersey and was a library fellow at the New World Symphony.

Big Changes in the Horn Section

At the last concert of the 2022–2023 season, the horn section looked like this: Robert Ward (principal), Mark Almond (associate principal), Bruce Roberts (assistant principal), Jonathan Ring (section horn), Jessica Valeri (section horn), and Daniel Hawkins (utility horn).

As of the beginning of the 2023–2024 season, the horn section looks like this: Ward (retiring at the end of 2023), Almond (on leave, appointed principal horn of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra), Roberts (retired at the end of the 2022–2023 season), Ring (still with the orchestra), Valeri (still with the orchestra), and Hawkins (on leave, appointed principal horn of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra).

In other words, of the six horns, two are on leave and one has retired, leaving only three horns, with Ward also set to retire in December after 43 years with the orchestra. Auditions were held in June for the principal position but were completed too late for trial weeks during the 2022–2023 season. The audition outcome won’t be known until SFS makes an announcement.

The section’s eventual makeup is complicated by the appointments of Almond and Hawkins as principals of other orchestras. They might decide to stay with Chicago and Dallas, resigning from SFS, or they might return. Until they decide, SFS can’t hold auditions for associate principal and utility horn. We also don’t know whether either is a candidate for SFS principal horn, but their new jobs are prestigious promotions from their SFS positions.

Jessica Valeri
SFS horn player Jessica Valeri | Credit: Kristen Loken

Season Substitutes

For 2023–2024, the orchestra has appointed two one-year substitutes, a step it did not take in the last two seasons despite the large number of openings and complicated hiring process. Jesse Clevenger will be acting third and assistant principal horn. (If the Clevenger name rings a bell, that’s because Jesse Clevenger is the son of the late, legendary CSO principal horn Dale Clevenger and his second wife, Anne Render, who was also a professional horn player.)

Elsewhere in the orchestra, Michael Kemp will be acting assistant principal timpani and section percussion. Bryce Leafman resigned from that position at the end of the 2022–2023 season and is pursuing a different career path.

Other Personnel News

Longtime associate principal cello Peter Wyrick has assumed the fourth-chair position in the cello section. Amos Yang, assistant principal cello, will be acting associate principal during the 2023–2024 season, with Sebastian Gingras serving as acting assistant principal. Auditions for associate principal are scheduled for October and November. One cello position, the Elizabeth C. Peters Cello Chair, remains vacant.

The position of associate concertmaster remains open (Nadya Tichman, formerly in that chair and currently section first violin, is on leave this season), and the orchestra has confirmed that a new round of auditions will be announced at a later date. Auditions for bass trombone are scheduled for September and October.

The SF Symphony’s first violins | Credit: Kristen Loken

Meanwhile in the first violins, Wyatt Underhill serves as acting associate concertmaster, Jeremy Constant moves up a chair as acting assistant concertmaster, and Mariko Smiley fills Constant’s seat, also as acting assistant concertmaster. Catherine Van Hoesen, section first violin, is on leave this season, as is oboist Pamela Smith. And in the second violins, Jessie Fellows serves as acting associate principal, with Olivia Chen, new to the orchestra, filling in as acting assistant principal.

A Plea for the Orchestra

Concerns about the state of the SF Symphony, whose musicians are still playing without a contract, continue to be raised. An orchestra with constantly shifting personnel is not at its best and can’t develop the kind of rapport that a stable ensemble has. A board that isn’t providing competitive salaries is undermining its orchestra’s ability to hire the best available players, especially considering San Francisco is among the most expensive cities in the country. That the orchestra is playing magnificently much of the time is a tribute to the individual musicians, permanent or freelance, and to Salonen, but the continuing labor situation runs the risk that he won’t renew his contract, which has two years to run.