San Francisco’s long love affair with music 

The San Francisco Symphony’s centennial season, opening this week, is an important story in itself, but there is more to it than another celebration focused on the number 100.

Click on the photo at right to see more on the history of the San Francisco Symphony.

Going back to the orchestra’s first concert, on Dec. 8, 1911, there is the utter devastation of The City just five years before.

When the 1906 earthquake and fires laid waste to almost 5 square miles of San Francisco, the mayor of the city was Eugene (“Handsome Gene”) Schmitz, a violinist, composer, conductor and president of the American Federation of Musicians’ Local 6 (founded in 1896).

Going even further into the history of music here, Yerba Buena, settled in 1835 (renamed San Francisco in 1847), did not have to wait long before “grand concerts” and opera came to the muddy streets of the Wild West town of some 25,000.

The Germania Concert Society made its appearance in 1854, the San Francisco Musical Institute in 1869, and the Orchestral Union in 1879.

Standards of the performances varied. Larry Rothe’s “Music for a City, Music for the World” describes how in the 1880s, the conductor at a concert dropped his baton and covered his ears.

Yet the arrival of Harry Hadley, the symphony’s first maestro, was considered a triumph before he first lifted a baton.

Leta E. Miller’s upcoming “The Multitude Listens with the Heart,” about the early years of the San Francisco Symphony, cites a 1911 San Francisco Examiner report of Hadley, “a musician of international reputation,” being “the kind of a man that society takes to, and without society music cannot succeed in San Francisco.”

Reviews of that first concert ranged from “extremely intelligent” to “’disappointed’’ and described the audience’s “paralyzed state of astonishment.’’

Miller’s history of the symphony’s early years traces the ups and downs of the organization through the chaotic post-quake days, to World War I, the Great Depression and up to World War II, which involved The City in a dramatic fashion.

Today’s fiscal problems pale in comparison to those in the 1930s, when one season consisted of four concerts and another was canceled altogether. That’s why the centennial technically comes during the orchestra’s 99th season.

But San Francisco’s support for the arts never wavered during the worst of times, as voters approved a property tax of half a percent to help the Save Our Symphony campaign.

The emphasis has always been on the importance of the performing arts for The City, with organization leaders spreading the word that “the symphony is an institution that has not only been a cultural, but a business asset to our union and city.”

Miraculously, in 1935, the worst year of the Depression, a ballot measure passed by 64 percent to maintain the orchestra — just one of the many meaningful chapters of the symphony centennial.

Longtime love
San Francisco Symphony’s first season features 13 concerts.

1915: Alfred Hertz becomes the orchestra’s music director.

1925: Hertz records symphony performances at the new Victor Talking Machine Company studio in Oakland.

1926: The symphony becomes the country’s first orchestra to broadcast concerts nationwide.

1934: The season is canceled at the nadir of the Great Depression.

1935: Pierre Monteux, who conducted the world premiere of Stravinsky’s “The Rite of Spring” in Paris, is hired to restore the orchestra.

1937: George Gershwin conducts the orchestra in a suite from his opera “Porgy & Bess” and is the soloist in his Concerto in F, with Monteux conducting.

1949: Arthur Fiedler begins leading summer pops concerts in the Civic Auditorium, an association that continues for a quarter century.

1970: Seiji Ozawa’s directorship galvanizes the orchestra, with his concerts selling out the War Memorial Opera House.  

1980: Edo de Waart conducts the orchestra’s inaugural concert in the Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, a nationally televised event.

2010: MTT and the symphony complete recording all of Gustav Mahler’s symphonies and other major works in a project that wins seven Grammy Awards.

About The Author

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben

Janos Gereben is a writer and columnist for SF Classical Voice; he has worked as writer and editor with the NY Herald-Tribune, TIME Inc., UPI, Honolulu Star-Bulletin, San Jose Mercury News, Post Newspaper Group, and wrote documentation for various technology companies.
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