Empty Davies Symphony Hall
An empty Davies Hall as SF Symphony performances made a slow return after the worst of the pandemic | Courtesy of SF Symphony

Lately, questions to the San Francisco Symphony’s press representative have been answered with “We’ll be sure to share news when it’s available,” but the following appears valid … and important.

Lacking an announcement, news came yesterday, from an automated email response:

“Oliver Theil has left the San Francisco Symphony. Please direct inquiries to:

“SFS+ and Digital Innovation: Andrew Dubowski, Senior Director of Operations, and Joyce Wessling, Director of Operations / SFS Media: Ali Khan, Manager of Media and Label Services.”

That news was confirmed today by SF Symphony Director of Public Relations Taryn Lott in an email:

Changes were made last week to the structure of the Symphony’s administrative team. The marketing and communications departments were merged to better support the organization’s work in audience development and concert promotion. The in-house video department was dissolved in a strategic move towards working with independent contractors with specialized skill sets, catered to the bespoke needs of future digital projects. The changes were part of a strategic internal restructure and will not impact the audience experience or any of the organization’s public-facing programs.”

Robin Freeman will serve as the interim chief marketing and communications officer. On Monday, July 11, she wrote, “Because this is a sensitive internal personnel matter and out of respect for the privacy of individuals, we will not be sharing a list of names.”

For nearly a year now, SF Symphony has operated without a CEO and has been without a chief financial officer since January — not a time for making major changes — and yet last week, apparently a reorganization of the administration began, involving a good number of layoffs.

Unlike the San Francisco Opera’s reorganization a year before the beginning of COVID, what’s happening now at the SF Symphony and elsewhere is due to the looming recession, stock market losses, and continued COVID problems. Expect more of same in a widening circle.

Oliver Theil
Oliver Theil with some of the trophies won by the SF Symphony

A bit about Theil: Beginning in 1991, he had important positions with the orchestra, including a role on the team for the acclaimed series Keeping Score, in addition to other work. Then, two years ago, he was shifted full-time from media and public relations to digital innovation.

Under his leadership, the SF Symphony continued to serve as a model for orchestras through its in-house production and media company SFS Media, its robust use of technology, its self-produced content, and award-winning television programs and recordings.

Matthew Spivey, the interim CEO, commented on Theil's contributions, saying,

Oliver was a valued member of the San Francisco Symphony leadership team and consistently introduced new ideas and fresh thinking. As the head of the digital innovation team, he rapidly built an extremely high-functioning media production team that was able to create new digital content that quickly became a critical part of the San Francisco Symphony strategy during the pandemic.”

During the Symphony’s COVID closure, the previous operating budget of $80 million plunged to $55.3 million, and it increased recently, but no information about the amount is available. (IRS disclosure of nonprofit organizations’ finances lags two years or more behind the current fiscal year.)

Along with SF Opera, the Symphony received major concessions from its musicians as the organizations returned from pandemic closure. At the end of October 2020, Symphony musicians ratified an unprecedented 25-month contract modification that runs through Nov. 26, 2022. The orchestra’s salary was first reduced to 90 percent of regular wages retroactive to April 2020 and then set at 65 percent of regular wages beginning in September 2021.

Corrections: The article, as originally published, overstated Theil’s contributions to Keeping Score and SFS Media, both of which originated under John Kieser’s tenure with the orchestra. Additionally, the article has been updated to include quotes from Matthew Spivey and Robin Freeman.