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San Francisco Symphony In Major Trouble

Updated: May 27, 2024 09:36
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Davis Symphony in San Francisco, CA (Photo – Arthur Kobin for Drew Altizer Photography)

After a stein of pilsner for me, and a radler for the lady in the Hayes Valley Biergarten, we skipped our way toward Davies Symphony Hall to watch the movie Gladiator on the big screen while our city’s symphony and chorus played and sang the gorgeous Hans Zimmer score live.

The tingle of anticipation was palpable.

With my date on my arm, I whimsically strolled along, picturing myself as Russel Crowe in a tight Roman tunic.  “What we do in life, echos and eternity, Maximus”, replayed in my head as we approached San Francisco’s Coliseum of classical composition.

Out front we were approached by a friendly violinist with a flyer, “Please take this message from the Musicians of the SF Symphony,” she said, “we are trying to save our important programming here.”

“What the whaaaat?” I stammered, Maximus’ perfectly trimmed beard temporarily ripped from my imagination, “what programming?”

“They’re cutting all sorts of educational and innovative programming, and the Symphony’s Musical Director has resigned,” she said.

“They’re not cutting SoundBox are they!?” I questioned selfishly.

“Yes they are, and they’ve canceled the Symphony’s European tour as well,” she answered. The dramatic words of Gladiator Maximus Decimus Meridius whispered in my head, “You risk too much…”.

“They’re not canceling Gladiator tonight are they?” I asked half-jokingly.

“No,” she smiled, I’ll be playing the violin in there in a few minutes.”  And with that, we took her flyer, promised to sign the digital petition, and joined the masses inside for bread and circus.

SF Symphony Board: Retain Esa-Pekka Salonen, Invest in the Symphony! Petition Here

SF Symphony in crisis on a major scale

The effects of this will echo through the entire symphony and out into the greater musical programming of our city.  The famed Finnish conductor and composer who only joined our Symphony 4 years ago said this May, that he plans to leave when his contract expires at the end of the 2024-25 season.

“I have decided not to continue as music director of the San Francisco Symphony, because I do not share the same goals for the future of the institution as the Board of Governors does,” Salonen said in a statement shared by his publicist with NPR. “I am sincerely looking forward to the many exciting programs we have planned for my final season as music director, and am proud to continue working with the world-class musicians of the San Francisco Symphony.”

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Like many arts organizations, the Symphony has been struggling financially, it lost millions of projected dollars in income during the pandemic, and most of our large performance arts institutions (like the SF Opera and Ballet), rely heavily on private donors to maintain their budgets.

Time for Financial transparency

BUT, at the same time, the orchestra has amassed one of the healthiest endowments in the classical music business. The SF Symphony raised $315 million in 2023, up from $273 million in 2019.

Long-time donor Cynthia Hersey, wrote in the SF Standard:

“Salonen’s decision to leave is reportedly the result of the administration’s cuts to innovative and educational programming, the elimination of touring and an unwillingness by the symphony to restore full pay to musicians after it was cut during the pandemic. Following almost two weeks of public outrage and general confusion, the symphony released an unsigned statement claiming that, despite having an endowment of over $325 million, its hands are tied, and it will need to make the planned cuts because of financial pressures…”

Hersey also wrote: “Transparency around the symphony’s finances and decision-making is also sorely needed. The leadership’s failure to release financial documents has only added to our unease.”

In a statement in March of 2024, the SF Symphony wrote:

“In recent years, we have strived to be as transparent as possible about the mounting financial pressures that the Symphony is facing due to the cumulative impact of operating deficits stretching back more than a decade. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated and accelerated problematic trends in declining fundraising and ticket sales even as organizational expenses have continued to increase. As a result of these financial circumstances, the Symphony is now faced with a series of difficult and painful decisions to pare back or temporarily discontinue certain programs and initiatives that are extremely important to all of us. We take these actions very seriously, and they are done solely to stabilize the organization’s finances and secure the future of this institution.”

The only words we may take some comfort from in that statement are “temporarily discontinue”.  And it’s rumored that our top-tiered musicians have already begun receiving offers from symphonies in other cities, with more promising futures.

The Symphony Performance of Gladiator

Since I originally went to Symphony to cover a performance, (and got a bit sidetracked with the news of a crisis) please allow me to do that here, perhaps it will remind you, dear reader, why having a world-class Symphony in our city…is amazing:

Anyone who’s experienced a cinematic score by Hans Zimmer (and perhaps Russel Crowe clad in armor) knows what it’s like to have their hair stand on end and their spine straighten…the music is exhilarating, haunting, and beautiful.  Zimmer’s composition of Interstellar (and many other Christopher Nolan films) may have jerked a tear out of me on occasion. But to hear Zimmer played live, from a world-class orchestra, with their chorus singing tall, is wonderful to experience.

Justin Freer conducted masterfully in his bright blue socks and encouraged the audience to clap, shout, and cheer during the performance. Exclamations from the audience of “Strength & Honor, Maximus!” Were heard throughout the performance.  Soprano Ayana Haviv sung beautifully, the chorus filled us with joy, and the orchestra lifted us out of our seats.

But as Russel Crowe slew lions and disemboweled Roman slaves on the big screen, I couldn’t help but think of the dire straits facing our precious orchestra.  If the loss of innovative programming like SoundBox wasn’t enough, the resignation of a world-class music director like Esa-Pekka Salonen is more than a paper cut, it’s tantamount to a decapitation.

But here are some words from the 2001 Best Picture-winning film Gladiator that may encourage you to take action:

Proximo : “Listen to me. Learn from me. I wasn’t the best because I killed quickly. I was the best because the crowd loved me. Win the crowd and you’ll win your freedom!”

Maximus : “I will win the crowd. I will give them something they’ve never seen before.”

So you, in the crowd, sign the petition below, and win our city’s musical freedom!

The Musicians of the San Francisco Symphony

The Musicians of the San Francisco Symphony urge the Board of Governors to do everything in their power to retain Esa-Pekka Salonen as Music Director and reverse planned cuts to programming, touring, and education.

Please sign our petition to call on the administration to reverse course so that we can keep producing innovative and compelling programming for years to come and ensure that San Francisco has a world-class orchestra that continues to enrich the community.

Sign here:

Musicians of the San Francisco Symphony Linktree:

For tickets to the SF Symphony visit


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