San Francisco Symphony: a look back

by David Bratman, October 2011

A PBS documentary on the history of the SFS proved to be not a documentary but a puff piece. Organization by topic rather than chronologically (a section on recordings, one on venues, one on educational activities, and so on) enabled the narration entirely to avoid mention of the two music directors whose tenures are generally considered to have been disastrous. Since it name-checked every other music director SFS has ever had, the omissions were particularly glaring. (The new coffee-table book history of the orchestra by Larry Rothe is more forthcoming; a 1983 history by SFS violinist David Schneider is less thoroughly researched but, with its inside view, is even franker.)

I never heard any concerts by either of those bad music directors (their names were Issay Dobrowen and Enrique Jordá, if you must know, and if their names are unfamiliar to you, you're better off), but I thought I could contribute to the orchestra's centenary by offering my personal evaluation of SFS Music Directors Whose Work I Have Known.

Josef Krips, 1963-70. Krips was a Viennese martinet who was brought in to rebuild the orchestra with his concentration on the basic German-Austrian repertoire, after the colorful and exciting but sloppy and undisciplined Jordá tenure. How well he succeeded I don't know, as I wasn't attending concerts yet in his day, but I did get to hear his work when he came back for a guest slot a year or two after his retirement. He led a conventionally-paced but immensely bouncy and vigorous Beethoven Seventh that was a great delight to hear.

Seiji Ozawa, 1970-76. Ozawa, one of the first of the many Leonard Bernstein protégés to be launched on the conducting world, was brought in with the level of hoopla that would later accompany MTT's arrival in 1995, only in 1970 style. He was young! (35 at the time) He had a Beatles haircut! He wore a turtleneck sweater while conducting! He was announced with pop art posters! Unfortunately, unlike MTT, he didn't live up to the hype. His conducting was unexciting, his repertoire choices wayward. (I liked his penchant for obscure Haydn symphonies, but others didn't; even Herb Caen carped about it occasionally.) The orchestra had terrible flaws in technique during Ozawa's tenure, and the conductor got caught up in debilitating personnel wars when he tried to do something about it. I recently picked up a CD re-release of their recording of Dvorak's Symphony from the New World; it perfectly captures the blatty sound of the SFS of those days, and listening to it made me drip with nostalgia (which proves you don't have to like something to be nostalgic for it).

Ozawa's greatest sin, however, was that, though he'd assured everyone he was committed to San Francisco and wouldn't be just a jet-setting hired hand dropping in every now and then, after only three years on the job he accepted simultaneously the music directorship of the Boston Symphony. It was hard to believe he could devote sufficient attention to both at once, and soon afterwards he gave up SFS entirely for Boston, where critical consensus is that he stultified a great orchestra for an enormous tenure of thirty years. He's never been back, but he did leave one great legacy in San Francisco: He created a permanent symphony chorus, instead of hiring community groups whenever we needed one; the result has been continually one of SFS's most solid assets.

Edo de Waart, 1977-85. De Waart was a rather bland-looking fellow, neither colorful nor charismatic. This is unfortunate, because it obscures what a good music director he actually was. He raised the orchestra to the solid level of professional competence that Ozawa had failed to achieve; you could hear them getting better all the time during his tenure. He presided over the building of Davies Symphony Hall and the final separation of the symphony orchestra from the opera orchestra, which had previously shared personnel as well as a venue, both of which facts had put serious crimps in the symphony's ability to play a full season. Lastly, he invited a young, obscure composer named John Adams to become SFS's first composer in residence. Adams made his name and fame during his time here. After Davies was settled in to, de Waart grew itchy to do other things and left the post, but he returned for annual visits throughout his successor's tenure, and we were always glad to see him.

Herbert Blomstedt, 1985-95. Blomstedt (pronounced Bloomshtet) was an older man and a very scholastically-oriented conductor who liked large, serious works played with great concentration. His role in SFS's history was to build on de Waart's achievement and take the next step of putting on the final technical polish that would turn SFS from a good orchestra into a great orchestra. He hit that mark about halfway through his tenure, and I heard a great difference between the earlier and the later Blomstedt years. I liked Blomstedt's concentration on Nordic symphonists like Sibelius, Nielsen, and Berwald (all of whom he recorded with SFS, all excellently) and on Bruckner. But much of the rest of his programming tended to be so dull that I actually gave up my subscription for a couple of years. He could also be a frustratingly wayward conductor, his specialty being large works that would start out like fiery gangbusters, but the energy would slowly leak out and the intended triumphal ending would lie there like a deflated balloon. As with many other things, he got much better about this over time. His return visits since his retirement have enabled him to concentrate on what he does best, and I regularly look forward to them.

Michael Tilson Thomas, 1995- . MTT, as he's universally known (no one seems quite sure if his last name is "Thomas" or "Tilson Thomas," and the initials enable us to avoid the problem), may best be seen in the context of SFS history as "Ozawa done right." Though older than Ozawa (over 50) when he took the job, he was brought in with the same sense of excitement and promise, and with the same degree of advertising hoopla (though the posters weren't pop art, thank God). Like Ozawa, he was a Leonard Bernstein protégé; unlike Ozawa, he has Bernstein's gift for enthusiastic educational communication. So what if I find much of his discussion of music to be superficial and too focused on biographical interpretation; Bernstein's sometimes was too. Unlike Ozawa, also, he has fulfilled his promise to stay. Not a tremendously famous figure when he arrived, after many years with so much publicity at the head of a great orchestra, he's now so renowned that he could probably have any other orchestral directing slot in the country if it comes open, but he's shown no sign of being at all interested in leaving. Why should he? He can do anything he wants here, and, on a personal level, as a gay man he's probably more comfortable in San Francisco than he would be anywhere else. After the end of the current season, he'll become the longest-serving music director SFS has ever had, passing the greatest previous occupant, Pierre Monteux (1935-52).

As a conductor, MTT seems well-liked, and his work can often be supremely exciting. Yet, while hoping not to unbalance this assessment, I need to point out some flies in the ointment. For the first couple of seasons of MTT's tenure, he capitalized on Blomstedt's supreme technical polish while adding the brash vigor and enthusiasm that were outside Blomstedt's ken, and produced some of the greatest orchestral performances I've ever heard. But while his own additional virtues have continued unimpaired, after a couple of years SFS started to lose the keen edge of its sheen of technique, and the blade has grown duller ever since. I sometimes hear flubs nowadays that would have barely been tolerable under de Waart. Most of the time, SFS is still brilliantly competent, but judging from where they've been, it's a decline. MTT is too concerned with the surface, and not the foundation. Blomstedt was purely a foundation man, but it's possible to go too far the other way. MTT has proved not to be Seiji Ozawa; please God in his dotage may he not turn into Enrique Jordá.

My other concern is repertoire. In his early years, MTT focused on a lot of interesting modern music, culminating in his excellently-programmed if misconceived "American Mavericks" festival in 2000, and his other festivals - Stravinsky, Prokofiev, even the world of Beethoven with a lot of obscure miscellanea surrounding that composer - were equally intriguing. But in recent years he's dropped the festivals in favor of deep emotional engagement with more standard classics in his "Keeping Score" series and his cycle of Mahler recordings. (By this time, Mahler is a standard classic and playing him is no longer an act of courage or rebellion.) As I've implied elsewhere, I've concluded that I'm not entirely satisfied with MTT's Mahler. My preferences for good performances of that composer seem not to be the ones that he, or other famed Mahlerians, are prepared to give, and I have to find them in more obscure venues. (Another composer, though not an orchestral one, I have a similar problem with is Chopin.) This may be my problem, but all reactions to art must be personal, and so that's where I stand about MTT: hopeful, but concerned.

Return to David Bratman's home page for contact information. Last Updated: Oct. 15, 2011
Copyright 2011, David Bratman