Learn about the San Francisco Symphony, including its history, educational programs, and internationally renowned Youth Orchestra.

The San Francisco Symphony aims to shape and enrich cultural life across Bay Area communities. In this article, we look at its mission and history, as well as how it sets the highest standards in musical performance at home and around the world.

the history of the san francisco symphony

Image by Melinda Stuart | Flickr

The San Francisco Symphony arose in the aftermath of a setback in the city’s prospering musical culture. On April 18, 1906, California experienced one of the most significant earthquakes in history. The quake ruptured 296 miles of the San Andreas fault and confounded geologists with its magnitude. It occurred at 5:12 in the morning and was felt from the south of Los Angeles to southern Oregon, as well as inland into central Nevada.

As devastating as the San Francisco earthquake was, further destruction resulted from the ensuing fires, which caused an estimated 90 percent of the total damage. Over the course of three days, over 30 fires raged in the city due to ruptured gas mains. They spread across 490 city blocks and destroyed 25,000 buildings.

In the wake of the disasters, the city’s civic leaders joined forces to create the San Francisco Symphony, which provided the music-adoring city with a permanent orchestra. In December 1911, the symphony hosted its first concert season, a rejuvenation of the city’s cultural life that delighted people through a combination of classical and contemporary music. At the beginning of the season, the orchestra comprised 60 musicians led by the renowned conductor-composer Henry Hadley. The symphony presented 13 concerts, five of which featured popular music, and the first concert included music by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Franz Liszt, Franz Joseph Haydn, and Richard Wagner.

notable music directors

A chronology of remarkable music directors expanded the orchestra’s acclaim and stature. After Hadley came Alfred Hertz, the musical director behind the American premieres of Parsifal, Salome, and Der Rosenkavalier. Next came Basil Cameron, followed by Issay Dobrowen, Pierre Monteux, Enrique Jordá, Josef Krips, Seiji Ozawa, and Edo de Waart. The orchestra’s current Conductor Laureate, Herbert Blomstedt, also held the role until it was assumed by Michael Tilson Thomas, who has presided as the music director since 1995. Under his guidance, the San Francisco Symphony has expanded its audience reach and achieved new artistic heights.

During its concert history, the San Francisco Symphony has featured numerous modern and contemporary pieces by globally celebrated composers such as Sergei Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel, Igor Stravinsky, Paul Hindemith, Arnold Schoenberg, and Aaron Copland. Additionally, many esteemed conductors have been guests on its podium, including Leonard Bernstein, Leopold Stokowski, and Sir Georg Solti.

education and family-friendly programming

The symphony’s executive director, Mark C. Hanson, cites the music lessons that he took in his youth at the San Francisco Symphony as providing the necessary tools for listening and thinking creatively, as well as promoting teamwork and collaboration in order to achieve common goals.

The symphony, which administers programs and activities for the local community and the wider public, offers various educational opportunities for elementary school students. In addition, it supports orchestra and band programs in local middle and high schools throughout San Francisco. Educational activities offer young people an opportunity to engage with music through heritage events and family-friendly performances. The symphony also hosts interactive concerts and provides resources for teachers, parents, and students. In addition, it operates the tuition-free Youth Orchestra. All of its education programs are available free of charge to local public schools.

In addition, the San Francisco Symphony presents a comprehensive calendar of family-friendly concerts designed to bring the joy of music to the next generation. Through its interactive Music for Families, the symphony seeks to connect with children and young people by staging a variety of child-friendly events.

the san francisco symphony youth orchestra

Part of the symphony’s dedication to nurturing musical talent, its San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra offers orchestral training to young instrumentalists who live throughout the Greater San Francisco Bay Area. Participants are selected through an audition process that sees over 300 applications every year. The Youth Orchestra receive weekly coaching from the symphony’s musicians and practice under Wattis Foundation Hall director Daniel Stewart at Davies Symphony Hall.

The SFS Youth Orchestra has gained international recognition as one of the world’s finest youth orchestras. The 2017-2018 season marked its 35th anniversary.

san francisco symphony concerts in 2020

The San Francisco Symphony’s 2019-2020 landmark season will highlight Tilson Thomas’s history with the symphony and feature masterworks and inspiring music from numerous renowned artists and artists-in-residence.

The following are a few symphony events scheduled for 2020:

  • Salonen: Julia Bullock Sings Britten & Ravel – February 20 to February 22
  • MTT, Capuçon, Shostakovich, & Stravinsky – March 12 to March 14
  • San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra Plays Bates & Britten – March 15
  • Music for Families: Meet the Orchestra – April 4
  • Gardner & Montero: Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 – May 29 to May 31

About Mark Stevens

Mark Stevens

Based in Menlo Park, California, Mark Stevens is a venture capitalist with three decades of experience investing in the technology industry. Currently, he serves as managing partner of S-Cubed Capital and as a special limited partner of Sequoia Capital.  Continue.