The San Francisco Story

San Francisco Classical Voice, the online publication covering  the Bay Area classical music scene, has a fascinating article on how the San Francisco Symphony became a powerhouse:

With the opening of Davies Symphony Hall 30 years ago, the San Francisco Symphony marked the beginning of a well-planned and brilliantly executed ascendancy into the elite rank of American orchestras. Led by a committed and ambitious board that consistently took the long view, the organization pursued artistic and management leadership consciously aimed at driving the orchestra and its programs to the next level. The San Francisco Symphony wouldn’t be feeling nearly so festive and fulfilled about turning 100 if its board, staff, and artists hadn’t been working with such diligence and foresight for the past three decades to bring it to this point.

It’s worth reading in its entirety. Having said that, however, I found it lacking in a few areas.

The author spends much of the piece talking about the various music directors the orchestra has had since 1977, but less time talking about the role of the two executive directors during that period, Peter Pastreich (from 1977 through 1999) and Brent Assink (1999-present). Both are brilliant orchestra managers; charter members of the Orchestra Managers Hall of Fame, in my view.

But I think the author has the sequence, or perhaps the responsibilities, reversed. SFS became a great institution not because of the music directors they hired, but because of the vision and hard work of the people who hired them and made it possible for them to be successful by raising money and selling tickets. The brilliant work of Pastreich and Assink really doesn’t get the attention it deserves. And the author, except for a throwaway line, doesn’t talk about the role of the Board at all.

This is unfortunate not only because it unfairly diminishes a key group of volunteers, but because the author misses a wonderful chance to teach us about just what a great board does and how it becomes a great board in the first place. Yet weaknesses at the board level are the fundamental cause of every single orchestral crisis we’ve seen in the past few years.

Of course having the economy being driven off a cliff by greedy lunatics didn’t help. But we all need to understand why some orchestras survived the past few years in good shape, why some have barely survived it, and why some went under.

I suspect that both Pastreich and Assink would give the fundamental credit for the San Francisco Symphony’s health to the board (although of course the Board’s decision to engage first-class staff and support their work is at the heart of what a great board does). I wish the author of this otherwise-excellent piece had the same insight.

About the author

Robert Levine
Robert Levine

Robert Levine has been the Principal Violist of the Milwaukee Symphony since September 1987. Before coming to Milwaukee Mr. Levine had been a member of the Orford String Quartet, Quartet-in-Residence at the University of Toronto, with whom he toured extensively throughout Canada, the United States, and South America. Prior to joining the Orford Quartet, Mr. Levine had served as Principal Violist of The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra for six years. He has also performed with the San Francisco Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, and the Oklahoma City Symphony, as well as serving as guest principal with the orchestras of Indianapolis and Hong Kong.

He has performed as soloist with the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra, The Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, the Oklahoma City Symphony, the London Symphony of Canada, the Midsummer Mozart Festival (San Francisco), and numerous community orchestras in Northern California and Minnesota. He has also been featured on American Public Radio's nationally broadcast show "St. Paul Sunday Morning" on several occasions.

Mr. Levine has been an active chamber musician, having performed at the Festival Rolandseck in Germany, the Grand Teton Music Festival, the Palm Beach Festival, the "Strings in the Mountains" Festival in Colorado, and numerous concerts in the Twin Cities and Milwaukee. He has also been active in the field of new music, having commissioned and premiered works for viola and orchestra from Minnesota composers Janika Vandervelde and Libby Larsen.

Mr. Levine was chairman of the International Conference of Symphony and Opera Musicians from 1996 to 2002 and currently serves as President of the Milwaukee Musicians Association, Local 8 of the American Federation of Musicians, and as a member of the Board of Directors of the League of American Orchestras. He has written extensively about issues concerning orchestra musicians for publications of ICSOM, the AFM, the Symphony Orchestra Institute, and the League of American Orchestras.

Mr. Levine attended Stanford University and the Institute for Advanced Musical Studies in Switzerland. His primary teachers were Aaron Sten and Pamela Goldsmith. He also studied with Paul Doctor, Walter Trampler, Bruno Giuranna, and David Abel.

He lives with his wife Emily and his son Sam in Glendale.

One Comment

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  • Thanks for the article, Robert

    Any thoughts about how the lengthy strike ( in 96, I believe) affected the organization? It seems like it must have had some impact on how management, board and musicians moved forward after that point-

    Certainly the results 15 or so years later are an interesting contrast to the strike that Philadelphia went through around the same time.

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