Chamber Music San Francisco is announcing its 2023 season of live performances in three cities. From February through May, the organization presents its 19th season, consisting of 10 concerts in San Francisco, five in Walnut Creek, and five in Palo Alto.
“As for every organization in the performing arts, this is a bittersweet period for us,” said CMSF Executive Director Daniel Levenstein. “The tribulations of recent years remind us of how privileged we are to have this meaningful work in our lives, but at the same time, we have been thrown one impediment after another.
“COVID, of course, has thrown a damper on our operations, both atmospheric and financial. After the worst of the pandemic, our ticket sales last season, 2022, were off around 40 percent from pre-pandemic levels, and so far this coming season looks to be even worse.
“Having said that, I recall vividly at our concerts last season that, although our patrons were all wearing masks, you could still see many eyes welling up with tears from the emotion patrons felt to be returning to live performances again. As I say, bittersweet.”
The next blow, Levenstein told SF Classical Voice, “was from SF Grants for the Arts, which cut our allocation from $50,000 (which was 10 percent of our budget) to zero. In the new GFTA, every organization is scored annually on a framework that rigorously prioritizes community involvement, service to communities of color, etc. and pays no heed to either artistic quality or the capacity to attract visitors to the city.”
This is the subject of a forthcoming SFCV investigation, but briefly: Dozens of prominent, long-serving San Francisco organizations among this year’s 279 grantees had their GFTA allocations cut drastically. For example, Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra’s grant dropped from $137,000 to zero, Smuin Ballet’s from $160,000 to $85,000, and Chanticleer’s from $158,000 to $30,000.
Asked about the changes, GFTA Director Vallie Brown told SFCV that changes were not the result of income cuts as the organization’s $12 million budget has been maintained even when the funding hotel tax was diminished by the virtual disappearance of visitors to the city during the pandemic. (Revenues from the 14 percent tax on the city’s more than 32,000 hotel rooms halved from 2019 to 2021 before some improvement in 2022.)
“Mayor London Breed, who believes culture and arts are essential for San Francisco,” Brown said, “assured continued funding, and it’s our mission to make sure funds have a fair and equitable distribution.” Brown asserts that the money is now spent more equitably than when she became director two years ago, “as we are opening the door to new organizations, to the underfunded and underserved.”
Acknowledging the importance of bringing artists to the city and reaching out to neighboring cities, as Chamber Music SF does, Brown said GFTA’s priority is for activity, employment, and engagement in San Francisco.
As for CMSF, Levenstein said, “We will adapt and survive. Through some fancy footwork on the spending side — cutting here, making do there — and strengthening the income side, both fundraising and ticket prices, we will find our balance again.”
Highlights of the season include violinist Christian Tetzlaff and his trio; pianist Angela Hewitt playing Bach, Domenico Scarlatti, and Johannes Brahms; the season-opening debut of the Aris Quartet, a young German ensemble; and the French Arod Quartet (with, Levenstein said, a laser-focused sound and a predilection for high-wire risk-taking).
Other young artists being introduced by CMSF are violinist Stella Chen, first-prize winner at the Queen Elisabeth Competition in Brussels, with pianist Henry Kramer, who won second prize at that competition in a different year; and violinists Paul Huang and Danbi Um.
“I am delighted to be presenting Alisa Weilerstein and Inon Barnatan on Mother’s Day,” said Levenstein. “This is actually the fourth time we have tried to schedule this duo. The first two times were canceled due to COVID and the third time due to Alisa being pregnant, so my fingers are crossed that the fourth time is the charm. Individually these two young artists are brilliant, of course, but together they seem to form a sort of ‘double star’ with a special synergy.”
Returning artists include pianist Olga Kern, the Anderson & Roe piano duo, and multiple award-winning pianist Jon Nakamatsu. Kern is a Van Cliburn gold medalist whose program will feature the works of Sergei Rachmaninoff, honoring the composer’s 150th birthday.
Levenstein said CMSF makes an extra effort to deal with the universal challenge of “bringing young people into the concert hall. We have a half-price discount for under-30s, advertised heavily, and run a creative social media campaign on TikTok, Facebook, etc.”
The series will be presented in San Francisco at the 892-seat Herbst Theatre, in Walnut Creek at the 297-seat Margaret Lesher Theatre, and in Palo Alto at the 330-seat Schultz Cultural Arts Hall at the Oshman Family Jewish Community Center.
Season tickets for San Francisco concerts cost up to $360 for all 10 events; single tickets are also available, ranging from $48 to $70. Purchases may be made online or by calling (415) 392-4400.