In Perfect Harmony: Michael Tilson Thomas, San Francisco and Its Orchestra
San Francisco, California
Bad economic times hit art institutions particularly hard. But with American symphony orchestras generally in crisis, the San Francisco Symphony has bucked the trend in recent years while catapulting into the ranks of the world's great ensembles. Its music director, Michael Tilson Thomas, says San Franciscans are proud of their city's cultural institutions. Even in a tough economy, their ambitions for their city make them willing to back what they perceive as a winner.
A single program, like the recent Mahler Fourth, can play five times a week in San Francisco and be well sold every performance. For the 2002-03 season, the symphony sold 84% of capacity for 106 subscription concerts -- the second-longest series of any orchestra in this country (the New York Philharmonic was first). The 84% figure was up three percentage points from the previous season, though still down from 88% for 2000-01 before the stock market downturn. These more than respectable numbers show the resiliency of concert support.
Before Mr. Tilson Thomas arrived at the symphony in 1995, Herbert Blomstedt, a European conductor of the old school, led the symphony for a decade. Mr. Blomstedt upgraded the quality of the players and drilled the revamped orchestra in the great masterpieces of the European tradition. But the orchestra came to chafe under Mr. Blomstedt's old-world discipline and narrow repertory, and his tenure was relatively brief.
In stepped Mr. Tilson Thomas, a perfect fit for musicians who were well-trained technically but starved for new directions and artistic adventure. Mr. Tilson Thomas is as comfortable with contemporary American composers, like John Adams and Lou Harrison, as Mahler and Stravinsky. He is a risk-taker unafraid of experimentation. And unlike Mr. Blomstedt and other proponents of the European elitist model, he wants to broaden the audience base.
Critic Mark Swed wrote of the American Mavericks festival in 2000: "What makes the San Francisco Symphony's festival such a success . . . is that the whole city (City Hall politicos, Castro Street gays, Pacific Heights matrons, Mission District dot-commers, students and feisty local press) takes pride in discovering and celebrating its musical heritage." Opening doors has gone over extremely well in this diversity-obsessed Left Coast city.
Mr. Tilson Thomas's identification with the orchestra is so complete, that even its members cannot conceive of life without Michael. Like George Szell's in Cleveland, Eugene Ormandy's in Philadelphia and Leonard Bernstein's in New York, Mr. Tilson Thomas's tenure in San Francisco promises to be a long one. Now in his ninth season as music director, Mr. Tilson Thomas remains as committed to the symphony and the Bay Area as they are to him. When I asked the maestro whether he plans to stay in San Francisco forever, he answered, "no -- not forever, but indefinitely." This is another reason there are few empty seats in the symphony's Davies Hall. San Franciscans appreciate Mr. Tilson Thomas's commitment, especially in times when music directors typically bounce from one post to another.
The stunning success of Mr. Tilson Thomas's inclusive, community-based model in San Francisco stands in stark contrast to other American symphony orchestras that find the European elitist model is faltering, yet have failed to come up with a suitable alternative.
The Pittsburgh Symphony has been hinting at bankruptcy and is trying to whittle down a projected $3 million deficit for 2003-04. Both the Philadelphia and Cleveland Orchestras are facing deficits this season. The Chicago Symphony balanced its books this year only because of a larger-than-usual draw on its endowment. It took a $1 million emergency antideficit drive in April, which included a $100,000 donation from its new music director, Lorin Maazel, for the New York Philharmonic to avoid red ink. Was the $100,000 worth it? This fall, in a striking example of moribund programming, Mr. Maazel is devoting 12 straight concerts to nothing but Beethoven -- a complete cycle of Beethoven's symphonies and piano concertos.
Of course, what works in San Francisco may not work in other cities. Each has to find its own best solution. But the first step has to be the recognition that the empty seats in concert halls and the budget woes of symphony orchestras across this country reflect more than just hard economic times. While the old ways still may be working in Europe, they most definitely are not working here. There must be "new self-confident models with their own repertory, styles and objectives," as the San Francisco maestro puts it, or our symphony orchestras will face the unhappy fate of the dinosaur and Washington Senators -- they will disappear.
While the most visible factor in the San Francisco Symphony's ability to prosper in bad economic times has been its music director, the behind-the-scenes hero, according to most insider accounts, has been its board -- especially its former president, Nancy Bechtle, and her handpicked successor, John Goldman. For at least the past two decades, the board has recognized the importance of a healthy endowment. When trouble came, the symphony was ready for it.
True, the endowment lost a lot of its value during Wall Street's swoon, but its initial value was sufficiently high so as not to compromise the symphony's artists and programs. Not all artistic institutions in this city and elsewhere had the wisdom and prudence of the board -- and they are paying for it to this day.