San Francisco, California, located in one of the world's most beautiful bays, exploded in population during the 1849 Gold Rush. It quickly became the trading, entertainment, and arts center of the Far West, with a solid tradition of German-style choral societies and a Symphony Society.
After the devastating earthquake of 1906, civic leaders decided to establish a permanent Orchestra; the San Francisco Symphony
gave its first concert in December, 1911, with the composer Henry Hadley at the podium.
The 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition allowed for appearances by guest orchestras, and local supporters soon realized that San Francisco's own Symphony was not on par with these other groups. They then engaged Alfred Hertz, the conductor of German repertory at the Metropolitan in New York, as the new music director. He stayed through 1929, and was succeeded by Basil Cameron and Isaay Dubrowen.
Much of the orchestra's history is connected to opera in San Francisco. Gaetano Merola founded the San Francisco Opera Company in 1923. In 1932 both organizations moved into the beautiful War Memorial Opera House. But in 1934 the orchestra's deficits, partly a result of the Depression, forced the Musical Association of San Francisco (the SFS's corporate identity) to declare bankruptcy and cancel its season. The opera continued, however, allowing many of the musicians to remain together. In 1935 the citizens of San Francisco ratified an amendment to the city charter establishing municipal funding for the Symphony, with the stipulation that the orchestra would establish a series of municipal concerts.
The orchestra organization, now known as the San Francisco Symphony Association, was re-established in 1935. In the same year it hired Pierre Monteux
as its conductor. In 1950 Arthur Fiedler
began giving an annual series of summer Pops concerts (part of the municipal series). Monteux
was succeeded by Enrique Jordá (1954), Josef Krips
(19863), Seiji Ozawa
(1970), and Edo de Waart (1977).
However, the orchestra suffered from sharing a venue and substantial personnel with the Opera. Traditionally, the opera maintained an autumn season from September to December, and in 1960 added a short Spring Season, leaving the SFS only a short season from December to May. In 1973 plans began for a permanent symphony hall, resulting in the opening of Davies Symphony Hall in 1980 and the expansion of the SFS to a 52-week season. The Concerts Arts Orchestra of San Francisco was founded to provide accompaniment for opera and ballet.
Immediately upon the expansion of the season, the SFS inaugurated the "New and Unusual Music" series planned by its New Music Adviser, John Adams
. Herbert Blomstedt's ten-year tenure (1984-1994) lifted the orchestra to its highest standards and resulted in excellent recordings on the London Label. His successor, Michael Tilson Thomas, had to face, almost immediately, a long and potentially crippling strike in 1996. However, the labor issues were resolved, and the SFS maintains the high standards, fine recordings (on RCA) and adventuresome programming that have become its tradition.