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Opinion

The San Francisco Symphony is in crisis. It’s time to bust open the books

SF Symphony major donor Cynthia Hersey criticizes deep programming cuts and a leadership void after the music director announces departure.

A black-and-white photo of a few audience members watching an orchestra play in a large, nearly empty modern concert hall.
Carlos Avila Gonzalez/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

By Cynthia Hersey

The unexpected announcement last month that world-renowned Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen will soon leave the San Francisco Symphony has sparked a wave of deep concern among those of us who cherish this institution. This isn't just about losing a brilliant music director; it's a wake-up call highlighting deeper issues within the symphony's leadership and governance.

I am a long-time subscriber and major donor to the symphony. I’ve been proud to support the institution because its cultural impact is important to San Francisco and mirrors the innovation and creative expression that are at the core of who we are as a city. The broad array of programming, from the Concerts for Kids to the groundbreaking SoundBox performances, represents the best of what San Francisco has to offer.

The hiring of Salonen in 2020 was a boon to the organization, and his leadership has helped solidify the symphony’s status as a leader among its peer orchestras. His unexpected announcement that he will depart next year, less than four years after his hiring, led to an outpouring of distress from the symphony’s musicians and subscribers, over 7,000 of whom have signed a petition calling for him to stay.

Salonen’s decision to leave is reportedly the result of the administration’s cuts to innovative and educational programming, the elimination of touring and an unwillingness by the symphony to restore full pay to musicians after it was cut during the pandemic. Following almost two weeks of public outrage and general confusion, the symphony released an unsigned statement claiming that, despite having an endowment of over $325 million, its hands are tied, and it will need to make the planned cuts because of financial pressures.

A conductor leads an orchestra of masked violinists, evoking a performance in a pandemic era.
Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen, center, has decided to leave the San Francisco Symphony, which has caused concern among supporters and donors to the institution. | Source: Francine Orr/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

The recent cuts to the symphony's programs and operations have many of us questioning the path being taken. Reductions in programming like SoundBox, Concerts for Kids and other semi-staged productions will make it harder to attract new audiences and expand the symphony’s subscriber base. Furthermore, the abrupt cancellation of the 2025 European festival tour and the indefinite pause on all future touring will hurt the symphony’s international standing and make it more difficult to recruit top talent. Such decisions threaten the symphony’s brand as a force for innovation. The responsibilities of the Board of Governors go beyond simply balancing the books—it also needs to reaffirm the symphony's commitment to innovation and artistic integrity. 

Time for transparency

Transparency around the symphony's finances and decision-making is also sorely needed. The leadership’s failure to release financial documents has only added to our unease. Open dialogue and regular financial updates on operations and the endowment would go a long way to rebuilding confidence and ensuring that donors, patrons and leadership are aligned in our efforts to support the symphony. 

With the institution now in a state of crisis, the administration and the board face a crucial test: They must stabilize the organization, reassure worried donors like me and set a clear, positive direction forward. It is incumbent upon them to reexamine these cuts and do whatever is necessary to both keep Salonen here in San Francisco and keep his transformative vision alive.

The Board of Governors, as fiduciaries of the symphony’s creative and financial well-being, must articulate a strategic vision that includes specific fundraising targets and a road map to reverse the recent cuts. This plan must be ambitious yet achievable, demonstrating a commitment to securing the symphony's future while restoring trust among its supporters and the broader community.

My concerns mirror those expressed by Salonen and the musicians. There's a palpable disconnect between the symphony's creative heart and the decisions being made by the administration. The board and administration need to listen and collaborate more closely with the musicians and supporters to navigate this challenging period together.

The San Francisco Symphony is at a crossroads. The actions taken by the Board of Governors in the coming months will be critical in shaping the institution's future. I urge the board to lead with transparency, engage openly with all stakeholders and chart a course that not only addresses the immediate challenges but also secures the symphony's standing as a pillar of cultural excellence. 

My love for this iconic institution has driven me to speak out. I hope that symphony leadership will foster a future for the organization that is focused on growing audiences, revenue and donations rather than diminishing the artistic product and the institution’s standing with ever-escalating cuts. Let's come together to ensure that the symphony continues to thrive as a source of inspiration and joy for generations to come.

Cynthia Hersey is a longtime supporter and major donor to the San Francisco Symphony.

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