Discord at the Symphony: Losing a Star, San Francisco Weighs Its Future

For a night at the symphony, there was a lot of tension in the air.

As concertgoers filed in to Davies Symphony Hall earlier this month, they were greeted by players from the San Francisco Symphony passing out bright yellow fliers accusing management of having “no clear artistic vision.” Then, shortly before the performance began, a shout echoed from one of the balconies, exhorting people to “Act!”

It was the conductor Esa-Pekka Salonen’s first concert in the hall since March, when he stunned the classical music world by announcing that he would step down as the orchestra’s music director amid a dispute with management over budget cuts. The evening’s program was just the sort of thing he had promised when he was hired with a mandate to rethink the concert experience: Ravel’s charming “Mother Goose” brought to life by dancers from Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet, and then Schoenberg’s nightmarish “Erwartung” staged by the director Peter Sellars.

His decision to leave once his contract is up next year has upset fans — “Who he is and what he brings can’t be replicated,” Mark Malaspina, an audience member, lamented as he entered the hall — and left some concerned about the future of the 113-year-old San Francisco Symphony.

“An orchestra that was in very good shape is now in crisis,” said Peter Pastreich, a longtime arts administrator who managed the San Francisco Symphony from 1978 to 1999. “It is heartbreaking to watch.”

Salonen’s unexpectedly short tenure in San Francisco is in some ways a very local story, but it also says something about the challenges facing classical music in 21st century America. Even before the pandemic, many orchestras around the country were struggling. Audiences were aging and shrinking. Costs were rising. Old business models were withering. And philanthropy, which has replaced ticket sales as the main source of income for most orchestras, was becoming increasingly hard to come by.

When San Francisco landed Salonen, it was hailed as a coup.

The orchestra enjoyed a reputation for musicianship and innovation and had a relatively large endowment. But it also had been running deficits, losing subscribers and seeing its donor base diminish. Salonen — a pathbreaking, charismatic conductor and composer from Finland who had previously led the Los Angeles Philharmonic — was seen as someone who could capture the imaginations of new audiences.

Salonen, 65, was also considered someone who could make inroads with the Bay Area’s vibrant, wealthy tech community, which has been seen as reluctant to support the arts. (He was, after all, the rare conductor cool enough to have appeared in an Apple ad.) Salonen arrived in San Francisco with ambitious plans to champion new music and tap into the creative energy of Silicon Valley, bringing in experts in robotics and, several years before the rise of ChatGPT, artificial intelligence to reimagine the concert experience.

“The worst thing we could do to our art form,” he told The San Francisco Chronicle when his appointment was announced in 2018, “is to assume that everything is going to be like this forever, and therefore we don’t have to do anything.”

His vision was not cheap. As one of the world’s most in-demand conductors, he received about $2.1 million in compensation from the San Francisco Symphony during the 2021-22 season, the most recent year for which records are available. He recruited eight artistic partners, including the composer Nico Muhly and the computer scientist Carol Reiley. And he made plans to commission a steady stream of new music.

Then the pandemic struck before he began, derailing hopes for a splashy rollout. His debut as music director in the fall of 2020 was a muted affair that took place online, with the virtual premiere of Muhly’s digital work “Throughline.” As the virus spread, the orchestra canceled hundreds of performances and lost millions of dollars.

The team that lured Salonen to San Francisco was gone soon after his arrival. Sakurako Fisher stepped down as president of the board in 2020, as planned. Mark C. Hanson, the orchestra’s chief executive, abruptly departed in 2021 after clashing with the musicians and the board on issues including programming, labor talks and the pace of diversity initiatives, according to musicians, board members and people who have spoken with Hanson. (Hanson, who now leads the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, declined to comment.)

A new team took over, and became concerned about finances.

The orchestra had struggled for years with deficits, a shrinking donor base that executives said had decreased by about 20 percent over the last decade and the decline of the old subscription model in which patrons buy a season’s worth of tickets each year. Less than a third of the orchestra’s expenses are covered by ticket sales.

“We’ve been living beyond our means, frankly, since well before the pandemic,” Matthew Spivey, the San Francisco Symphony’s new chief executive officer, said in a recent interview.

The orchestra, which has an annual budget of about $80 million, said in March that it had incurred a cumulative deficit of $116 million over the past decade, which it had been able to fill only through extraordinary measures and nonrecurring sources including federal pandemic relief and drawing down reserves. The orchestra’s audited financial report showed a surplus of about $6 million last year. But orchestra officials said that their internal accounting, which excludes investment gains and extraordinary one-time contributions, showed an $11 million deficit, with operating expenses of $78.6 million and operating revenues of $67.4 million.

Absent cuts or new funding, the administration said, it was on track to run $80 million in deficits over the next five years.

Spivey said that the organization came to realize that to survive, it had to focus on reducing the deficit and building revenue.

“We cannot build a sustainable business model that relies on unpredictable, extraordinary, one-time sources of revenue,” he said.

Earlier this year the orchestra’s leaders began imposing cuts. They canceled a planned Europe tour, limited commissions of new music to no more than five a year and moved to scale back semi-staged productions, like the Ravel and Schoenberg program Salonen recently conducted. They also discussed shifting programming to attract more audiences.

The orchestra’s endowment fund is valued at about $315 million, one of the largest of any ensemble in the United States. Endowments are investment funds intended to earn enough interest to keep growing even as some of their gains are used to help pay for an organization’s operating expenses. It is not uncommon for troubled organizations to draw more from their endowments, but taking too much can cause big problems down the road: New York City Opera decimated its endowment to meet operating needs before it went bankrupt a decade ago. San Francisco is withdrawing 6.45 percent from its fund this year, up from 5.75 percent last season; the industry standard calls for withdrawing around 5 percent.

Spivey says that these cost-cutting steps will help secure the orchestra’s future. “These are challenges that we can overcome,” he said. “We really believe deeply in the music that we create onstage and the impact that can have.”

But Salonen saw many of the expansive initiatives eroding. He announced that he would leave when his five-year contract is up next year. “I have decided not to continue as music director of the San Francisco Symphony,” he said in a statement in March, “because I do not share the same goals for the future of the institution as the Board of Governors does.” (He declined to comment for this article.)

His statement, which brought the dispute into the open, was unusually candid for the buttoned down world of classical music. Behind the scenes, Salonen had been pushing for the orchestra to do more, not less, to try to forge connections with new audiences. He had become passionate about an idea to build two performance venues, designed by Frank Gehry, on Treasure Island in the San Francisco Bay. The idea, which was never announced, was put on hold.

The drama comes as a labor showdown with the orchestra’s players looms. The San Francisco Symphony’s musicians, who are among the highest paid in the country, had their salaries cut during the pandemic and have been seeking to have their pay restored. Some accuse management of exaggerating the organization’s financial woes and driving Salonen out by refusing to fund his vision. Others say management should draw more from the endowment.

“To lose a music director of his stature and talent is a huge blow to the organization,” said Catherine Payne, a piccolo player with the symphony since 1996, in an interview. “It’s a huge blow to the city of San Francisco.”

And some players worry about who their next music director will be. Melissa Kleinbart, a first violinist who was also out leafleting, said, “Without touring and without recording, it’s going to be nearly impossible to replace somebody of Esa-Pekka’s stature.”

It is unclear what the cost-cutting measures will mean for the orchestra’s hope of renovating Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall, which opened in 1980. The orchestra has begun the process of seeking permissions for a possible renovation; it is trying to get them approved before the building turns 50 years old, when it will acquire historic status under local law, making changes difficult. The orchestra is considering a project — to be designed in part by Gehry — to renovate the main hall, lobby and public spaces; reduce the number of seats to improve acoustics; and construct a small recital hall.

“We’re not actively fund-raising for a building project right now,” Spivey said. “Our priority 100 percent is to provide financial stability to our core operations — to what we’re doing today — before we embark on any kind of building project in the future.”

Jerome L. Dodson, a financier who serves on the board and has committed $50 million to build the small recital hall, recalled joining Salonen on a visit last year to Treasure Island, where the conductor outlined his hopes for the project.

While Dodson said Salonen was a talented musician, he said the board had concerns about his sprawling vision.

“He never actually said, ‘Can we do this or will you support this?’” Dodson said. “He just kind of went off on his own and assumed that the money would be there, as if by magic.”

Many orchestras face financial challenges. The difficulty is finding ways to reduce expenses without reducing excitement, which could make it harder to attract audiences and donors.

“If you’re just cutting and cutting, people lose faith,” said Mark Volpe, a veteran orchestra manager.

Priscilla B. Geeslin, the symphony’s chairwoman, said that she was confident that the orchestra could get past this moment. “We survived so many things — the Spanish flu, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II — and we have come out of it,” she said in a recent interview. “I’m incredibly optimistic that we will be able to do what needs to be done to right ourselves financially, because we have to do it.”

But the pending loss of Salonen has dispirited some fans.

Andrea Trave, finishing a preconcert ice cream cone, said that he had moved to San Francisco in part for its cultural offerings. “Esa-Pekka Salonen was my favorite conductor, so when it was announced that he was going to be the director, I was absolutely in awe with my good luck,” he said. “All these things happening in the last year are kind of sad.”

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