The San Francisco Musical Association, established in 1908, founded the San Francisco Symphony, which gave its first concert in 1911. Its early conductors included Henry Hadley and Alfred Hertz. After the orchestra had to cancel its 1934 season for financial reasons, the city ratified an amendment to its charter in 1935, establishing municipal funding for the orchestra. That year, Pierre Monteux was named music director, and under his leadership, the orchestra grew substantially in stature and reputation, making its first national tour and over 40 recordings for RCA. Some of the world's leading conductors have served the orchestra, including Seiji Ozawa, Edo de Waart, and Herbert Blomstedt. In 1980, during de Waart's tenure, the orchestra moved from the War Memorial Opera House, where it had performed since 1932, into the Louise M. Davis Symphony Hall. That same year, it expanded its season to 52 weeks and inaugurated its New and Unusual Music Series, planned by composer John Adams, the orchestra's composer-in-residence, from 1979 until 1985.
In 1995, Michael Tilson Thomas became the orchestra's music director, bringing it to a new level of prominence through its local performances, national and international tours, and many recordings and broadcasts. The orchestra offers more than 220 concerts and other presentations annually, reaching audiences of nearly 600,000 locally and through its tours. The orchestra significantly increased its recording schedule under Tilson Thomas' leadership and founded its own label in 2001, SFS Media. Since that time, it has recorded all of Mahler's symphonic works, including works voice and chorus. The orchestra's discography is broadly diverse but has focused on the music of the Romantic and late-Romantic eras, Russian music, and 20th and 21st century American music.
The orchestra is committed to an ambitious program of education. In 2006, Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony launched the Keeping Score PBS television series and multimedia project, a national program that aired for three seasons. The orchestra offers free community concerts in the Bay Area, plus professional coaching for student and amateur musicians, and its music education program, Adventures in Music, reaches all first- through fifth-grade students in the San Francisco Unified School District. Highlights of Tilson Thomas' tenure include a highly successful campaign to raise the orchestra's profile in San Francisco; a busy schedule of tours of the U.S., Europe, and Asia, including the group's first trip to China; a series of televised performances at the BBC Proms; and opening Carnegie Hall's 2008-2009 season with A Celebration of Leonard Bernstein, which was broadcast on PBS' Great Performances and released on DVD. It also presents semi-staged and multimedia productions, such as Britten's Peter Grimes and Rimsky-Korsakov's Mlada.
In 2020, Tilson Thomas concluded his tenure as music director, assuming the title of music director laureate, and Esa-Pekka Salonen became the orchestra's new music director. The San Francisco Symphony has garnered an impressive collection of honors for its recordings, including the Grand Prix du Disque, a Gramophone Award, and a slew of Grammy Awards, including one in 2021 for its recording of Tilson Thomas' From the Diary of Anne Frank and Meditations on Rilke. That year, it issued a recording of Alban Berg's Violin Concerto, Seven Early Songs, and Three Pieces for Orchestra, with Tilson Thomas conducting. ~ Stephen Eddins & Keith Finke, Rovi
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