San Francisco Symphony

San Francisco Symphony

Infobox musical artist
Name = San Francisco Symphony

Background = classical_ensemble
Alias = SFS
Origin = flagicon|USA San Francisco, California, USA
Genre = Classical
Occupation = Symphony Orchestra
Years_active = 1911–"present"
Label = BMG, Decca, Deutsche Grammophon, Philips, RCA Victor, SFS Media
Associated_acts = SFS Chorus
SFS Youth Orchestra
URL = []
Current_members = Music Director
Michael Tilson Thomas
Conductor Laureate
Herbert Blomstedt
Associate Conductor
James Gaffigan
Resident Conductor
Benjamin Schwartz
SFS Chorus Conductor
Ragnar Bohlin
Past_members = Founder
Henry Hadley
Notable_instruments = Concert Organ
"Fratelli Ruffatti" 5-147
The San Francisco Symphony (SFS) is a leading orchestra based in San Francisco, California. The current music director is Michael Tilson Thomas, who has held the position since September 1995.


The orchestra has long been an integral part of city life and culture in San Francisco. Its first concerts were led by conductor composer Henry Hadley, who had led the Seattle Symphony Orchestra from 1909 to 1911. There were only sixty musicians in the orchestra at the beginning of that first season. The first concert included music by Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Haydn, and Liszt. There were thirteen concerts in the 1911-1912 season, five of which were pops concerts.

Hadley was followed in 1915 by Alfred Hertz, who had conducted for many years at the Metropolitan Opera and had even appeared with the company during their historic performances in San Francisco in April 1906, just prior to the earthquake and fire. Hertz helped to refine the orchestra and convinced the Victor Talking Machine Company to record it at their new studio in Oakland in early 1925. Hertz also led the orchestra on a number of radio broadcasts.

After Hertz's official retirement in 1930, the orchestra was led by two conductors, Basil Cameron and Issay Dobrowen. During the Great Depression, when the Symphony's existence was threatened by bankruptcy and the 1934-35 season was cancelled, the people of San Francisco passed a bond measure to provide public financing and ensure the organization's continued existence. The famous French maestro Pierre Monteux (1875-1964), who had conducted the world premiere of Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring", was hired to restore the orchestra. Monteux was so successful in improving the orchestra that NBC began broadcasting some of its concerts and RCA Victor offered the orchestra a new recording contract in 1941. In 1949, Monteux invited Arthur Fiedler to lead summer "pops" concerts in the Civic Auditorium. Fiedler also conducted the orchestra at free concerts in Sigmund Stern Grove and the Frost Amphitheater at Stanford University. Fiedler's relationship with the orchestra continued until the mid 1970's.

When Monteux left the orchestra in 1952, various conductors led the orchestra, including Leopold Stokowski, Georg Solti, Erich Leinsdorf, Karl Munchinger, George Szell, Bruno Walter, Ferenc Fricsay, and William Steinberg. Stokowski even made a series of RCA Victor recordings with the orchestra.

It was two years before the board decided to hire the young Spanish maestro Enrique Jordá to be the next music director. From surviving eyewitness and newspaper accounts, Jordá began his association with great promise. He had youthful enthusiasm, energy, and charm. Nevertheless, Jordá sometimes conducted so vigorously that his baton flew from his hand.Fact|date=March 2008 As the years passed, Jordá reportedly failed to maintain discipline or provide real leadership and the orchestra faltered.Fact|date=March 2008 George Szell (1897-1970), the longtime music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, guest conducted the orchestra in 1962 and was so dismayed by the lack of discipline that he publicly condemned Jordá and even chastised San Francisco Chronicle music critic Alfred Frankenstein for commending Jordá and the orchestra.Fact|date=March 2008 Szell's comments, along with growing dissatisfaction among musicians and the public, led the symphony board to make a change.

In the fall of 1963, the Austrian conductor Josef Krips (1902-1974) became music director. He quickly became known as a benevolent autocrat who would not tolerate sloppy playing. He worked to inspire the musicians, too, and soon began to refine their performances, particularly of the standard German-Austrian repertoire. One of his innovations was to begin an annual tradition on New Year's Eve, "A Night in Old Vienna." which was devoted to music of Johann Strauss and other Viennese masters of the nineteenth century. Similar concerts have continued to this day, though the format has changed somewhat in recent years. Krips would not make recordings with the orchestra, insisting they weren't ready. He did agree to allow KKHI to broadcast some of the Friday evening concerts. He also paved the way for his successor when he invited the young Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa (b. 1935) to guest conduct the orchestra; Ozawa quickly impressed critics and audiences with his fiery Bernstein-like conducting, particularly in the performances of the Mussorgsky-Ravel "Pictures at an Exhibition", the Tchaikovsky fourth symphony, and "Symphonie Fantastique" by Hector Berlioz. Krips retired at the end of the 1969-70 season and only returned once, to guest conduct the orchestra in Stern Grove, before his death in 1974.

The Ozawa era began in late 1970 with great excitement. His guest appearances had already generated enthusiasm. Now it suddenly became difficult to find seats at his concerts. He greatly improved the quality of the orchestra's performances and was able to convince Deutsche Grammophon (DG) to record the orchestra in 1972. A special concert series devoted to "Romeo and Juliet", as interpreted by Hector Berlioz, Peter Tchaikovsky, and Sergei Prokofiev with the Leonard Bernstein symphonic dances from "West Side Story", inspired DG to record the same music with Ozawa. He was known for considerable innovations, such as presenting partially-staged versions of "La vida breve" by Manuel de Falla and "Beatrice and Benedict" by Berlioz. He even had dancers on the stage for some modern ballets performed by the orchestra. For a few seasons Ozawa continued the practice of using university choruses whenever needed; then he decided to form a San Francisco Symphony Chorus so that he could be ensured of consistent singing. Ozawa talked of staying in San Francisco for many years, especially after he bought a house in the city. Then he agreed to also become music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He conducted both in Boston and San Francisco, then decided to give up San Francisco, possibly because of a disagreement with the players committee over granting tenure to two young musicians he admired. After leaving San Francisco, Ozawa has returned only twice as guest conductor.

Ozawa was followed by Edo de Waart, the young Dutch conductor, who brought an entirely new face to the orchestra. He was not as flamboyant as Ozawa and some audiences missed the showmanship. However, de Waart maintained the orchestra's high standards, leading to additional recordings, including its very first digital sessions. He conducted the orchestra's very first performances in Davies Symphony Hall in September 1980, including the nationally-televised gala. At this point the regular season was greatly extended, beginning in September and lasting until May, while musicians had to decide whether to play in the Symphony, or the Opera and Ballet. A mammoth Fratelli Ruffatti concert organ featuring five manuals, 147 registers and 9235 pipes, was soon added to the new hall. This organ was used in the orchestra's performance of the spectacular recording of Saint Saens' third symphony with Michael Murray as soloist. Philips also taped Joseph Jongen's "Symphonie Concertante" and César Franck's "Fantaisie in A". A highlight of de Waart's final season, 1984-85, was four outstanding, sold-out performances of Mahler's mammoth eighth symphony, utilizing the Symphony Chorus, the Masterworks Chorale, the San Francisco Boys Chorus, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus.

Herbert Blomstedt, the Swedish-American conductor, arrived in the fall of 1985. He had been offered the position immediately after guest conducting for two weeks in 1984, while he was music director of Staatskapelle Dresden. He further refined the orchestra, bringing greater precision and confidence, as well as more sensitivity, warmth and feeling, to the orchestra's performances. The orchestra also began its annual tours of Europe and Asia under Blomstedt, and resumed syndicated weekly radio broadcasts. He also recognized the continuing shortcomings of Davies Symphony Hall's acoustics, helping push for a major renovation, completed in 1992, even contributing a substantial amount of money to the cause himself. He has remained Conductor Laureate of the orchestra, conducting several weeks of concerts each year.

Michael Tilson Thomas became music director in 1995, coming from the London Symphony Orchestra. Thomas had guest conducted the orchestra as far back as 1974, and already had a good relationship with the musicians. Like Ozawa, Thomas ensured that the orchestra played more American music and this has been carried through to its recordings, for RCA/BMG and its own label. He has also focused on Russian music, particularly Stravinsky, as well as a prominent Mahler symphony cycle. A master communicator, Thomas excels at reaching out to audiences to enhance their experience of music through education. He has extended the orchestra's reputation as one of the world's best, further refining its balance and poise. His main personnel change was to lure LSO leader Alexander Barantschik to become SFS concertmaster. Thomas' great charisma has enabled the orchestra to be marketed as never before, with giant "MTT:SFS" posters displayed around San Francisco; his image has helped make the orchestra's Mahler recordings best-sellers among classical CDs. In an era of financial instability for many American orchestras, the San Francisco Symphony has thrived under Michael Tilson Thomas both financially and artistically. After more than a decade with the SFS, only Pierre Monteux's 17 years as music director is longer.

In 1999, the symphony hit a new commercial high with the album "S&M" with metal group Metallica. The album reached number two on the The Billboard 200 selling 2.5 million units and earning platinum status five times over. The track "No Leaf Clover" was number one on the Mainstream Rock Charts, 18 on Modern Rock Charts and 74 on the Billboard Hot 100. The version of "The Call of Ktulu" featured on the album won the Grammy Award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance.

The San Francisco Symphony was the first to feature symphonic radio broadcasts in 1926, and in 2003 the Symphony was heard in syndicated radio broadcasts on over 300 radio stations. There were regular live, stereo broadcasts for many years on KKHI in San Francisco featuring music directors Josef Krips and Seiji Ozawa, including the first live transatlantic stereo satellite broadcast in 1973, originating in Paris.

The orchestra makes regular tours of the United States, Europe and Asia. Its first tour was from March 16 to May 10, 1947, when Pierre Monteux conducted the musicians in fifty-seven concerts in fifty-three American cities. Josef Krips led them on a Japanese tour in 1968, in which they gave twelve concerts in seven cities. The May 15 to June 17, 1973 tour saw Seiji Ozawa and Niklaus Wyss conduct the orchestra in 30 concerts in nineteen cities in Europe and the Soviet Union. They returned to Japan from June 4 to 19, 1975, with Ozawa and Wyss and played twelve concerts in eleven cities. Edo de Waart and David Ramadanoff led an American tour from October 20 to November 2, 1980, giving ten concerts in seven cities. There was another American tour from October 27 to November 12, 1983, again led by Edo de Waart, with thirteen concerts in eleven cities.

In 2004, the San Francisco Symphony launched "Keeping Score – MTT On Music", a series of projects comprising audio-visual performances for DVD and broadcast on PBS's "Great Performances", multimedia websites, and educational programs for schools.

The associated San Francisco Symphony Chorus was founded in 1972, and the San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra was founded in 1981.


Throughout its history the San Francisco Symphony has had some of the greatest conductors, musicians, and singers as guests. Many famous composers have also led the orchestra over the years. In 1915, Saint-Saens (1835-1921) conducted the orchestra at the Panama-Pacific International Expedition held that year in San Francisco's Marina District. In 1928, Maurice Ravel conducted some of his popular music. In June 1937 George Gershwin (1898-1937) conducted a suite from his opera "Porgy and Bess", then was soloist in his "Concerto in F" with Pierre Monteux conducting. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) was a regular guest conductor, appearing periodically from 1937 until 1967. Aaron Copland (1900-1990) conducted the orchestra in 1966. Other composers who have led the orchestra include Ernst von Dohnányi in 1927, Ottorino Respighi in 1929, Arnold Schoenberg in 1945, Darius Milhaud in 1949, Manuel Rosenthal in 1950, Leon Kirchner in 1960, Jean Martinon in 1970 and Howard Hanson. John Adams, composer-in-residence from 1979-1985, also frequently conducts his own works with the orchestra.

Besides visiting composers, some legendary conductors have led the orchestra, including Artur Rodzinski, Walter Damrosch, Sir Thomas Beecham, John Barbirolli, Andre Kostelanetz, Lorin Maazel, Leonard Bernstein, Guido Cantelli, Victor de Sabata, Dmitri Mitropoulos, Erich Leinsdorf, George Szell, Charles Münch, Paul Paray, Rafael Kubelik, Daniel Barenboim, Istvan Kertesz, Karl Richter, Antal Dorati, Leonard Slatkin, Andrew Davis, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Yevgeny Svetlanov, Simon Rattle, Kurt Masur, Neeme Jarvi, Kiril Kondrashin, Eugene Ormandy, Georg Solti, Michael Kamen, and Christopher Hogwood.

Some of the many soloists who have appeared with the orchestra include violinists Jascha Heifetz, Fritz Kreisler, Yehudi Menuhin, Midori, Itzhak Perlman, Isaac Stern and Efrem Zimbalist; and pianists Vladimir de Pachmann, Peter Serkin, Rudolf Serkin, and Andre Watts.

Concert Halls

The SFS gave its first performance in December 1911 in the Cort Theater at 64 Ellis Street. The concerts moved to the Curran Theater at 445 Geary Street in 1918, then to the Tivoli Theater at 75 Eddy Street in 1921-22. The musicians returned to the Curran Theater from 1922 to 1931, then back to the Tivoli Theater from 1931 to 1932. Finally, on November 11, 1932, the San Francisco Symphony moved to the brand new War Memorial Opera House at 301 Van Ness Avenue, where most of the concerts were given until June 1980. The pops concerts were usually given in the huge Civic Auditorium. The final concert in the historic opera house, a Beethoven program conducted by Leonard Slatkin, was in June 1980. The orchestra now plays in Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall at Grove Street and Van Ness Avenue, which opened in September 1980 with a gala concert conducted by Edo de Waart, televised live on PBS and hosted by violinist/conductor Yehudi Menuhin. (Davies underwent extensive remodeling in the 1990s to correct numerous acoustical problems.)


The orchestra has a long history of recordings, most notably those made with Pierre Monteux for RCA Victor, Herbert Blomstedt for Decca, and Michael Tilson Thomas for BMG and the orchestra's own label, SFS Media.

Its recorded legacy began in early 1925 with acoustical recordings for the Victor Talking Machine of music by Auber and Richard Wagner, conducted by Alfred Hertz. The very first recording, of Auber's overture to "Fra Diavolo", was made on January 19, 1925. They soon switched to electrical recordings with Victor, conducted by Hertz, which continued until 1930. These recordings were produced by Victor's Oakland plant, which had opened in 1924. It is unclear where the various recordings were made, although it is apparent that some were made in a large auditorium. One early complete set was of the ballet music from "Le Cid" by Jules Massenet. During the 1925-30 recordings, Hertz also conducted music by Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Leo Delibes, Alexander Glazunov, Charles Gounod, Fritz Kreisler, Franz Liszt, Alexandre Luigini, Felix Mendelssohn, Moritz Moszkowski, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, Franz Schubert and Carl Maria von Weber. All of these recordings have only been issued on 78 rpm discs and are prized by collectors for their remarkable fidelity and solid performances.

Monteux's recordings were made in the War Memorial Opera House from 1941 to 1952, initially using a revolutionary sound film process and then magnetic tape; there was also a stereo session for RCA with Monteux in January 1960. Monteux's first major recording with the orchestra was of "Scheherazade" by Rimsky Korsakov; his last was of "Siegfried Idyll" by Wagner and "Death and Transfiguration" by Richard Strauss. The recordings remain quite impressive and some have appeared on LPs and compact discs, especially in France.

Enrique Jordá made several stereo recordings for RCA in 1957 and 1958, as well as an album for CRI in 1962. Jorda's recording of Rachmaninoff's second piano concerto, with pianist Alexander Brailowsky was in the catalogue for many years, despite major editing.

Commercial recordings resumed in June 1972 with Seiji Ozawa for Deutsche Grammophon in the Flint Center at De Anza College in Cupertino, California. In May 1975 Ozawa recorded Beethoven's "Symphony No. 3 in E-flat" and Dvorak's "Carnival Overture" and "Symphony No. 9 in E Minor" for Philips. Recordings of the SFS under the direction of Edo de Waart, including digital recordings made in Davies Symphony Hall, were also published by Philips. One of de Waart's sets of digital recordings was devoted to the four piano concertos of Sergei Rachmaninoff, featuring pianist Zoltan Kocsis. For Deutsche Grammophon, Ozawa and the orchestra recorded William Russo's "Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra" with the Siegel-Schwall Blues Band, and Bernstein's Orchestral Dances from "West Side Story". These recordings featured memorable solo performances from hornist David Krehbiel, concertmaster Stuart Canin, trumpeter Don Reimberg, and violist Detlev Olshausen.

Soon after the arrival of Herbert Blomstedt, the SFS signed contracts with the British label Decca resulting in 29 CDs release under the London label. Several of recordings won international awards. Among their recording projects were the complete symphonies of Nielsen and Sibelius, choral works of Brahms, and orchestral works of Richard Strauss and Hindemith. The recordings helped to build the orchestra's worldwide reputation as one of the best in the United States.

The orchestra returned to RCA Victor when Michael Tilson Thomas became music director. Its first recording of the new contract was extended excerpts from Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet". There were special tributes to two American composers, Charles Ives and Aaron Copland. With the RCA label decision to no longer produce new classical recordings, the SFS created its own label, SFS Media and production of its ongoing Mahler symphony cycle. The San Francisco Symphony, with Thomas, have produced several Grammy Award-winning recordings.

Music directors

*1995– Michael Tilson Thomas
*1985–1995 Herbert Blomstedt
*1977–1985 Edo de Waart
*1970–1977 Seiji Ozawa
*1963–1970 Josef Krips
*1954–1963 Enrique Jordá
*1952–1954 "no incumbent"
*1935–1952 Pierre Monteux
*1930–1934 Basil Cameron and Issay Dobrowen
*1915–1930 Alfred Hertz
*1911–1915 Henry Hadley

Honors and awards

The SFS has won eleven awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for programming of new music and commitment to American music. In 2001, the San Francisco Symphony gave the world premiere of Henry Brant’s Ice Field, which later won that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Music.cite news | url= | title=San Francisco Symphony History Overview | publisher=San Francisco Symphony | date=August 2003 | accessdate=2007-04-04]

ee also

*San Francisco Composers Chamber Orchestra


*cite book | last=Schneider | first=David | title=The San Francisco Symphony: Music, Maestros, and Musicians | location=Novato, CA | publisher=Presidio Press | year=1983 | isbn=089141181X

External links

* San Francisco Symphony [ Official website]
* [ San Francisco Symphony Complete Discography]
* [ Keeping Score website]
* [ Keeping Score – Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony]

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