Background Information
Performer Bios

Poet/Composer Bios

Additional Information

Biographies of Performers: Main Page | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z
Explanation | Acronyms | Missing Biographies | The Sad Corner

San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (Symphony Orchestra)

Founded: December 1911 - San Fransico, California

The San Francisco Symphony (= SFS, SFSO) is an orchestra based in San Francisco, California. The current music director is Michael Tilson Thomas, who has held the position since September 1995.


The early years

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 led the Seattle Symphony Orchestra from 1909 to 1911. There were sixty musicians in the orchestra at the beginning of their first season. The first concert included music by Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Haydn, and Franz Liszt. There were thirteen concerts in the 1911-1912 season, five of which were popular music.

Hadley was followed in 1915 by Alfred Hertz, who had conducted for many years at the Metropolitan Opera and had 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.

Pierre Monteux

After Hertz's 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 1934-1935 season was cancelled, the people of San Francisco passed a bond measure to provide public financing and ensure the organization's continued existence. The French maestro Pierre Monteux (1875-1964), who had conducted the world premiere of Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring, was hired to restore the orchestra. Pierre 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, Pierre Monteux invited Arthur Fiedler to lead summer "pops" concerts in the Civic Auditorium. Arthur Fiedler also conducted the orchestra at free concerts in Sigmund Stern Grove in San Francisco and the Frost Amphitheater at Stanford University. Arthur Fiedler's relationship with the orchestra continued until the mid 1970's.

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

Enrique Jordá

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 had youthful enthusiasm, energy, and charm. Jordá sometimes conducted so vigorously that his baton flew from his hand. As the years passed, Jordá reportedly failed to maintain discipline or provide real leadership and the orchestra faltered. A major concern was Jordá's failure to adequately rehearse the orchestra. 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. Szell's comments, along with growing dissatisfaction among musicians and the public, led the symphony board to make a change.

Josef Krips

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, 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; Seiji 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 1969-1970 season and only returned once, to guest conduct the orchestra in Stern Grove, before his death in 1974.

Seiji Ozawa

The Seiji Ozawa era began in late 1970 with great excitement. His guest appearances had already generated enthusiasm. It suddenly became difficult to find seats at his concerts. He greatly improved the quality of the orchestra's performances and convinced 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 and Leonard Bernstein's symphonic dances from West Side Story, inspired DG to record the same music with Seiji 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 had dancers on the stage for some modern ballets performed by the orchestra. For a few seasons Seiji Ozawa used local university choruses when needed, but decided to form a San Francisco Symphony Chorus to ensure consistent singing. Seiji Ozawa purchased a home in San Francisco, and planned to stay for many years. However, he agreed to become music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and simultaneously direct both symphonies. He 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, Seiji Ozawa has returned twice as guest conductor.

Edo de Waart

Seiji Ozawa was followed by Edo de Waart, the young Dutch conductor. He was not as flamboyant as Seiji Ozawa and some audiences missed the showmanship. However, Edo de Waart maintained the orchestra's high standards, leading to additional recordings, including its first digital sessions. He conducted the orchestra's first performances in the newly constructed Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall in September 1980, including the nationally-televised gala. At this point the regular season was greatlyextended, beginning in September and lasting until May. This became possible as San Francisco now had two major classical venues, Davies Hall and the War Memorial Opera House. Consequently 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 recording of Camille Saint-Saëns' 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 Edo de Waart's final season, 1984-1985, was four sold-out performances of Gustav Mahler's 8th Symphony, utilizing the San Francisco Symphony Chorus, the Masterworks Chorale, the San Francisco Boys Chorus, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus.

Herbert Blomstedt

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 Dresden Staatskapelle. He further refined the orchestra, bringing greater precision and confidence, and more sensitivity, warmth and feeling to the orchestra's performances. The orchestra began its annual tours of Europe and Asia under Herbert Blomstedt, and resumed syndicated weekly radio broadcasts. He 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

Michael Tilson Thomas became music director in 1995, coming from the London Symphony Orchestra. Michael Tilson Thomas had guest conducted the orchestra as far back as 1974, and already had a relationship with the musicians. Like Seiji Ozawa, Michael Tilson 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 focused on Russian music, particularly Igor Stravinsky, as well as a prominent Gustav Mahler symphony cycle. Michael Tilson 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 recruit London Symphony Orchestra leader Alexander Barantschik to become SFS concertmaster. Michael Tilson Thomas' 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 Gustav Mahler recordings best-sellers among classical CDís. In an era of financial instability for many American orchestras, the SFSO has thrived under Michael Tilson Thomas both financially and artistically. Now in his 15th season with the SFSO, only Pierre Monteux's 17 years as music director is longer.

In 1999, the SFSO hit a new commercial high on the album S&M with heavy metal band Metallica. The album reached number two on 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.

Radio broadcasts and tours

The SFSO 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 SFSO makes regular tours of the USA, Europe and Asia. Its first tour was from March 16 to May 10, 1947, when Pierre Monteux conducted the musicians in 57 concerts in 53 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 Seiji Ozawa and Wyss and played 12 concerts in 11 cities. Edo de Waartand 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 SFSO 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 SFSO has had some great conductors, musicians, and singers as guests. Many famous composers have also led the orchestra over the years. In 1915, Camille Saint-Saëns (1835-1921) conducted the orchestra at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition held that year in San Francisco's Marina District. In 1928, Maurice Ravel conducted some of his music. In 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 Rodziński, Walter Damrosch, Sir Thomas Beecham, John Barbirolli, Andre Kostelanetz, Lorin Maazel, Leonard Bernstein, Guido Cantelli, Victor de Sabata, Dimitri Mitropoulos, Erich Leinsdorf, George Szell, Charles Munch, Paul Paray, Rafael Kubelík, Daniel Barenboim, István Kertész, Karl Richter, Antal Doráti, Leonard Slatkin, Andrew Davis, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Yevgeny Svetlanov, Simon Rattle, Kurt Masur, Neeme Järvi, Kirill Kondrashin, Eugene Ormandy, Georg Solti, Alex Shkurko, 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, Ruth Slenczynska, Patricia Benkman, Ozan Marsh and André 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 Theatre at 445 Geary Street in 1918, then to the Tivoli Theater at 75 Eddy Street in 1921-1922. The musicians returned to the Curran Theater from 1922 to 1931, then back to the Tivoli Theater from 1931 to 1932. On November 11, 1932, the SFSO moved to the 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 Civic Auditorium. The final concert in the opera house, a L.v. 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. The Davies hall 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.

The first recording, of Auber's overture to Fra Diavolo, was made on January 19, 1925. It was an acoustical recording for the Victor Talking Machine of music by Auber and Richard Wagner, conducted by Alfred Hertz. 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 1925-1930 recordings, Hertz conducted music by L.v. Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, Léo Delibes, Alexander Glazunov, Johannes Brahms, 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.

Pierre Monteux's recordings were made in the War Memorial Opera House from 1941 to 1952, initially using a sound film process and then magnetic tape; there was also a stereo session for RCA with Pierre Monteux in January 1960. Pierre Monteux's first major recording with the orchestra was of Scheherazade by N. Rimsky-Korsakov; his last was of Siegfried Idyll by Wagner and Death and Transfiguration by Richard Strauss. Some of the recordings have appeared on LPís and CDís, especially in France.

Enrique Jordá made several stereo recordings for RCA in 1957 and 1958, and an album for CRI in 1962. Jorda's recording of Sergei Rachmaninov'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 Seiji Ozawa recorded L.v. Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 in E-flat and Dvořák'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 Edo de Waart's sets of digital recordings was devoted to the four piano concertos of Sergei Rachmaninov, featuring pianist Zoltán Kocsis. For Deutsche Grammophon, Seiji Ozawa and the orchestra recorded William Russo's Three Pieces for Blues Band and Symphony Orchestra with the Siegel-Schwall Blues Band, and Leonard Bernstein's Orchestral Dances from West Side Story. These recordings featured 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 CDís released in the USA 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 Johannes Brahms, and orchestral works of Richard Strauss and Paul Hindemith. The recordings helped to build the orchestra's worldwide reputation as one of the best in the USA.

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 Gustav Mahler symphony cycle. The SFSO, with Michael Tilson Thomas, have produced several Grammy Awwinning recordings.

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 SFSO gave the world premiere of Henry Brant's Ice Field, which later won that year's Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Music directors

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

Source: Wikipedia Website (June 2010); San Francisco Symphony Orchestra Website
Contributed by
Aryeh Oron (July 2010)

Pierre Monteux: Short Biography | San Francisco Symphony Orchestra | Recordings of Instrumental Works | Recordings of Vocal Works

Recordings of Bach Cantatas & Other Vocal Works






Excerpt from BWV 232 [w horn player David Krehbiel]

Links to other Sites

San Francisco Symphony Orchesra (Official Website)

San Francisco Symphony (Wikipedia)

Biographies of Performers: Main Page | A | B | C | D | E | F | G | H | I | J | K | L | M | N | O | P | Q | R | S | T | U | V | W | X | Y | Z
Explanation | Acronyms | Missing Biographies | The Sad Corner


Back to the Top

Last update: Tuesday, May 30, 2017 03:05