The San Francisco Symphony is an outstanding orchestra of world-class renown and is at the centre of cultural life in the Bay Area. The orchestra has won a host of prestigious awards and continues to attract some of the most eminent conductors and soloists in the classical sphere. The San Francisco Symphony's music director is Michael Tilson Thomas, who is also conductor laureate of the London Symphony Orchestra and founder and artistic director of the prominent training orchestra, the New World Symphony.
The San Francisco Symphony was founded in 1911, its first season of concerts consisting of a mix of core classical repertoire and newly composed works, which cemented their reputation as a progressive and multifaceted ensemble. The orchestra’s first conductor, Henry Hadley, had previously led the Seattle Symphony. His successor Alfred Hertz began to introduce the orchestra to recording, arranging for the Victor Talking Machine Company to make recordings as early as 1925. He also organised radio broadcasts, the first one taking place on NBC Pacific Network on 24 October 1926. Other music directors in the early decades of the SFS were Basil Cameron, Issay Dobrownen, Enrique Jordá and Josef Krips.
The mid-20th century saw the orchestra rise in reputation and brilliance, attracting such renowned conductors such as Pierre Monteux, Leopold Stokowski, Georg Solti, Erich Leinsdorf, George Szell and Bruno Walter. The young Japanese conductor Seiji Ozawa gave guest appearances in the late 1960s which attracted critical acclaim. He became the orchestra’s director in 1970 and during his tenure, concerts were often sold out. It was Seiji Ozawa that arranged for the label Deutsche Grammophon to record the San Francisco Symphony. After leaving to become music director of the Boston Symphony, Ozawa famously returned to the SFS twice as guest conductor.
Under its next chief conductor, the Dutch conductor Edo de Waart, the orchestra made many renowned recordings, including its first digital sessions. Although he was noticeably less flamboyant than Ozawa, his tenure was marked by four sold-out performances of Mahler’s 8th Symphony.
Herbert Blomstedt was the orchestra’s music director from 1985-1995, bringing precision and a sense of warmth and expression to the SFS’s performances. The 29 albums recorded with Decca during his tenure are a superb testament to these qualities. Blomstedt helped to push for improvements in the orchestra’s regular performance venue, Davies Symphony Hall, which has stood to the orchestra thereafter.
Michael Tilson Thomas (often known as MTT) has been the San Francisco Symphony’s music director since 1995. Under his influence, the orchestra has performed a large proportion of American repertoire, while also focusing on Russian music and on the repertoire of Mahler. The orchestra has made many superb recordings on RCA/BMG label and via its own label SFS Media. MTT’s charisma led to him becoming almost a household name, with “MTT: SFS” posters visible all-around San Francisco that led to increased sales of the SFS’s Mahler recordings. MTT is the longest-standing music director of the SFS, having celebrated his 20th anniversary as music director in the 2014-15 season.
The San Francisco Symphony has won 15 Grammy awards in the past 25 years. The orchestra received 19 awards from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers for its commitment to American music. It won a Gramophone Award for best orchestral recording in 1991, with its Nielsen Symphonies 2 & 3. The orchestra has also won prestigious awards in Japan, Germany, France and Belgium.
The orchestra has a long history of recording, from the first Victor Talking Machine Company recordings in the 1920s to the creation of the orchestra’s in-house label SFS Media. In 1999, the SFS reached a commercial high in their collaboration with Metallica, selling 2.5 million albums and reaching number 2 on the Billboard 200. The SFS Media was created after RCA’s move away from classical recordings, with the SFS releasing the Mahler cycle recordings in 2010.
Photo: Bill Swerbenski