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Robert Ward, retired Principal Horn

(NB: What follows is a commentary on Adam Lashinsky's article in the SF Standard from June 20th, 2024. If you haven't already, go read that article first!)


My former colleague Jonathan Ring, brought this excellent article to my attention this morning. It is a sad commentary on the state of my former organization, and now that I am retired after 43 seasons in the horn section (leading it for the last 24), I have some thoughts.

If you are not expanding, you are contracting.

And when you contract, you devalue the organization. No more tours. Less new programming. Fewer special events. Esa-Pekka's quote is right on the money:

“We are in danger of becoming a regional orchestra.”

And regional orchestras have a less-than-stellar history in the Bay Area. When I moved here in 1980, both the Oakland Symphony and the San Jose Symphony had substantial, full seasons. Now they are shadows of their former selves. Is this the future the Board has in mind?

Photo Credit: Chen Zhao

The San Francisco Symphony during soundcheck at Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles, March 2024

Salonen's departure is an embarrassment to an organization that has won multiple Grammy Awards and toured around the world. Being well connected to the Bay Area community, while essential, cannot be the end of it. And I write this as someone who has advocated for years for more local concerts away from Davies Hall. This orchestra has an outstanding international reputation that has been forged over years of commitment by the musicians, Board and management. Under the leadership of Board presidents like Nancy Bechtle and John Goldman, the world applauded what we brought to them, and the Bay Area celebrated us when we returned. Every major orchestra tours. You can draw your own conclusions about whether the Board thinks we are still a major orchestra. Perhaps they do not understand the value of what we have here. Maybe they want more movie soundtrack accompaniment evenings and fewer concerts where the orchestra is the centerpiece. If so, they have already devalued the organization.

And yes, a negotiation is coming. They come around more and more frequently these days. Why? Because the Board does not have a long term vision. A Board that values its product would go to any lengths to show its public that its house is in order, that it wants to keep its patrons happy, and that it knows how important a well functioning organization is. But no -- let's wait till right before the contract expires to negotiate. What could possibly go wrong?

And combining the Symphony and Opera into one group? Why make just one organization smaller and less important when you can do two at the same time? This is a ridiculous idea and one that smacks of a business model based on mergers and acquisitions. Those never benefit anyone except the bankers that put them together, and would be just a way to make the Board's job easier. (One tiny quibble with the original article: the two were never the same before Davies Hall was built, they just shared the Opera House and some musicians played in both groups)

In my almost 5 decades in the orchestra world, I have observed over and over that when an organization flounders, it is most often due to a Board that is unclear on its mission, unskilled in raising the money necessary, and uneducated about what it is that they are supposed to be stewarding. When I was still playing, I watched my colleagues take incredible musical risks, soar to heights that I didn't think were possible and inspire the audiences who were raptly listening. It is long past time for the Board to take a hard look in the mirror, accept responsibility for how badly it's going, and do what is necessary to right this ship. The musicians leave it all on the stage every night with the utmost commitment.

It's time for the Board to do the same.


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