The early years
The orchestra's first concerts were led by conductor-composer Henry Hadley. There were sixty musicians in the Orchestra at the beginning of their first season. The first concert included music by Wagner, Tchaikovsky, Haydn, and Liszt. There were thirteen concerts in the 1911–1912 season, five of which were popular music.
Alfred Hertz on the cover of Time
In 1915, Alfred Hertz succeeded Hadley. Hertz helped to refine the orchestra and arranged for the Victor Talking Machine Company to record it at their new studio in Oakland in early 1925. Hertz also led the orchestra during a number of radio broadcasts, including on The Standard Hour, a weekly concert series sponsored by Standard Oil of California. The series began in 1926 when the orchestra faced bankruptcy; Standard Oil of California paid the orchestra's debts and in return was given broadcast rights to that year's concert series. The first broadcast aired on the NBC Pacific Network, on October 24, 1926. and the broadcasts continued for more than 30 years.:633
After Hertz's retirement in 1930, two conductors, Basil Cameron and Issay Dobrowen, jointly headed the orchestra. During the Great Depression, the Symphony's existence was threatened by bankruptcy and the 1934–35 season was cancelled; the people of San Francisco passed a bond measure to provide public financing and ensure the organization's continued existence. Pierre Monteux (1875–1964) was subsequently hired to restore the orchestra. Monteux succeeded to the point where NBC began broadcasting some of its concerts and RCA Victor offered the orchestra a new recording contract in 1941. In 1949, Monteux invited Arthur Fiedler to lead summer "pops" concerts in the Civic Auditorium. Fiedler also conducted the orchestra at free concerts in Sigmund Stern Grove in San Francisco and the Frost Amphitheater at Stanford University. Fiedler's relationship with the orchestra continued until the mid-1970s.
When Monteux left the orchestra in 1952, various conductors led the orchestra, including Leopold Stokowski, Georg Solti, Erich Leinsdorf, Karl Münchinger, George Szell, Bruno Walter, Ferenc Fricsay, and William Steinberg. Stokowski made a series of RCA Victor recordings with the orchestra in 1952 and 1953.
In 1954, the board hired Enrique Jordá as music director. Surviving eyewitness and newspaper accounts describe him as having youthful enthusiasm, energy, and charm. Jordá sometimes conducted so vigorously that his baton flew from his hand. As the years passed, Jordá reportedly failed to maintain discipline or provide sufficient leadership, resulting in inadequate rehearsal of the orchestra George Szell (1897–1970), the longtime music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, guest-conducted the orchestra in 1962 and was so dismayed by the lack of discipline that he publicly condemned Jordá and even chastised San Francisco Chronicle music critic Alfred Frankenstein for commending Jordá and the orchestra. Szell's comments, along with growing dissatisfaction among musicians and the public, led the symphony board to dismiss Jordá.
In the fall of 1963, Josef Krips (1902–1974) became music director. He quickly became known as a benevolent autocrat, and would not tolerate sloppy playing. He soon began to refine the performance of the musicians, particularly of the standard German-Austrian repertoire. One of his innovations was an annual tradition on New Year's Eve, "A Night in Old Vienna", which was devoted to music of Johann Strauss and other Viennese masters of the nineteenth century. Similar concerts continued into the 2000s, though the format has changed in recent years. Krips would not make recordings with the orchestra, insisting they weren't ready. He did agree to allow KKHI to broadcast some of the Friday evening concerts. He also paved the way for his successor when he invited Seiji Ozawa to guest conduct the orchestra; Ozawa impressed critics and audiences with his fiery Bernstein-like conducting, particularly in the performances of the Mussorgsky-Ravel Pictures at an Exhibition, the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony, and Symphonie Fantastique by Hector Berlioz. Krips retired at the end of the 1969–70 season and only returned once, to guest conduct the orchestra in Stern Grove, before his death in 1974.
Ozawa's guest appearances had generated interest before he became the symphony's director in 1970. Concerts were frequently sold out. He greatly improved the quality of the orchestra's performances and convinced Deutsche Grammophon (DG) to record the orchestra in 1972. A special concert series devoted to Romeo and Juliet, as interpreted by Hector Berlioz, Peter Tchaikovsky, and Sergei Prokofiev and Leonard Bernstein's symphonic dances from West Side Story, inspired DG to record the same music with Ozawa. He introduced a number of innovations, including presenting partially staged versions of La vida breve by Manuel de Falla and Beatrice and Benedict by Berlioz. He had dancers on the stage for some modern ballets performed by the orchestra. For a few seasons Ozawa used local university choruses when needed, but later formed a San Francisco Symphony Chorus to ensure consistent singing. Ozawa purchased a home in San Francisco, planning to stay for many years. However, he agreed to become music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and for a time simultaneously directed both orchestras. After leaving San Francisco, Ozawa has returned twice as guest conductor.
Edo de Waart
Edo de Waart succeeded Ozawa in 1977. Though considered to be not as flamboyant as Ozawa, de Waart maintained the orchestra's high standards, leading to additional recordings, including its first digital sessions. He conducted the orchestra's first performances in the newly constructed Louise M. Davies Symphony Hall in September 1980, including the nationally televised gala. At this time the regular season was extended, beginning in September and lasting until May. This was possible because San Francisco now had two major classical venues, Davies Hall and the War Memorial Opera House. Consequently, musicians could choose to play in the Symphony, or the Opera and Ballet. A large Fratelli Ruffatti concert organ featuring five manuals, 147 registers and 9235 pipes, was added to the new hall. This organ was used in the orchestra's performance of the recording of Saint-Saëns' third symphony with Michael Murray as soloist. Philips also taped Joseph Jongen's Symphonie Concertante and César Franck's Fantaisie in A. A highlight of de Waart's final season, 1984–85, was four sold-out performances of Mahler's eighth symphony, incorporating the Symphony Chorus, the Masterworks Chorale, the San Francisco Boys Chorus, and the San Francisco Girls Chorus.
Herbert Blomstedt became music director as of the 1985–1986 season. He had been offered the position immediately after guest conducting for two weeks in 1984, while he was music director of Staatskapelle Dresden. He emphasized precision and confidence, and worked to develop sensitivity, warmth and feeling in the orchestra's performances. The orchestra began its annual tours of Europe and Asia under Blomstedt, and resumed syndicated weekly radio broadcasts. He recognized the continuing shortcomings of Davies Symphony Hall's acoustics, helping push for a major renovation, completed in 1992, contributing a substantial amount of money to the cause. He has remained Conductor Laureate of the orchestra, conducting several weeks of concerts each year.
Michael Tilson Thomas
Michael Tilson Thomas (known colloquially as "MTT") became music director in 1995, coming from the London Symphony Orchestra. Thomas had guest conducted the orchestra as far back as 1974, and already had a relationship with the musicians. Like Ozawa, Thomas ensured that the orchestra played more American music and this has been carried through to its recordings, for RCA/BMG and its own label SFS Media. Tilson Thomas has focused on Russian music, particularly Stravinsky, as well as a prominent Mahler cycle. He recruited London Symphony Orchestra leader Alexander Barantschik to become SFS concertmaster. During his leadership the Symphony achieved financial and artistic stability. Tilson Thomas is currently the longest-serving music director in the Symphony's history. In October 2017, the orchestra announced that Tilson Thomas is to conclude his tenure as its music director at the close of the 2019–2020 season, and subsequently to take the title of music director laureate. Thomas was inducted into the California Hall of Fame in 2017.
Esa-Pekka Salonen guest-conducted the orchestra in 2004, 2012, and 2015. In December 2018, the orchestra announced the appointment of Salonen as its next music director, effective for the 2020–2021 season, with an initial contract of 5 seasons.