Crisis at San Francisco Symphony as chief exec quits

Crisis at San Francisco Symphony as chief exec quits


norman lebrecht

July 16, 2021

News broke late last night that Mark Hanson has quit as chief executive of the San Francisco Symphony.

The chief programming officer Matthew Spivey has stepped in on an interim basis but there is no disguising the depth of the crisis.

The orchestra has a new music director coming in and has just undergone a glitzy rebrand. For the CEO to go at this juncture, and after just four years in the job testifies to an impossible situation.

Hanson had established a good workng relationship with Esa-Pekka Salonen (pictured below). The next chief will start from scratch.

No official reason is given for his departure but one insider text says: I had heard that Mark has been weighed down by COVID and DEI.

DEI stands for Diversity, Equality and Inclusion, the demands of a strident minority. The Symphony needed a rethink more than a rebrand.

UPDATE: Hanson said: ‘I have decided that this is the right time to pursue my next professional opportunity within a different environment.’

We wish Mark well in his next endeavour. He was previously CEO at Houston.


  • mary says:

    “Diversity, Equality and Inclusion, the demands of a strident minority”

    1) Because the “silent majority” wants “uniformity, inequality and exclusion”?

    2) Helloooo, we’re talking San Francisco, Bay Area, Berkeley here, the “strident minority” IS the majority. There IS no other population here. It’s like lamenting Texas has a “strident minority” of God-fearing, gun-toting, Trump-voting cowboys.

    3) So whatever the reason he has for resigning, it ain’t the demographics, otherwise he should’ve never left Houston, Texas.

  • David Fisk says:

    The E stands for Equity

  • Anon says:

    Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong, but I did a quick glance through their online roster and didn’t see a single black musician in the orchestra.
    This is surprising to me, as San Francisco is known to be a progressive city that leads the way forward.

    • Hayne says:

      You sir, would be right. To “fix” that brings us back to racism…er, I mean equity.

    • Karl says:

      How many black people are usually in the audience? I never see more than a handful even in a city like Hartford that has a higher black than white population.

      • Saxon says:

        In London the concert audience contains plenty of black and ethnic minority people. And nobody pays any particular attention to the ethniticity of the audience: I would hope everyone feels welcome.

    • Benno von Archimboldi says:

      How many black classical musicians are there auditioning for orchestra jobs? Not having enough black musicians within a musical organization doesn’t automatically mean discrimination or racism.

    • PaulD says:

      What about other “marginalized people”, such as Asians, gays and women? Does their presence not register for the diversity count?

    • Hans-Dieter Glaubke says:

      One word suffices to be on stage in whatever endeavor: Talent.

    • anon2 says:

      FYI SFS had 2 black musicians. 1 quit after having playing issues and the other just retired this year. But way to focus strictly on color and not talent in an attempt to divide. Orchestras have very fair and unbiased methods of hiring. Asking a group to hire based solely on color, like you are suggesting, is horrible and not fair in the least.

  • Tod Verklärung says:

    Anyone who takes on the CEO position at this moment needs confidence, creativity, a thick skin, magnificent social skills, political savvy, and the talent of an expert juggler.

    The challenges include managing the issue of diversity of an orchestra’s roster, the disparate desires of an audience (some of whom might have drifted away), finances, the safety of the players and listeners, and the possibility of a resurge of the virus and its variants.

    Keep your fingers crossed.

  • Sir David Geffen-Hall says:

    Hanson is a good administrator and has a solid track record with working will all constituents that make an American orchestra function efficiently.

    If he is leaving, there is more to this story than what is in the press. SF is a top orchestra and Essa-Pekka is a good conductor and someone that is a star in our industry.

    Look forward to hearing more about this abrupt departure but perhaps its just burn-out after years of good work.

  • Gustavo says:


    Drinking Esa Interviewed

  • Cardinal says:

    I wish I could say the SFS is in good hands now. Knowing the replacement, sadly I cannot.

    • Larry says:

      Spivey is not a “replacement.” He is simply an interim CEO – he may or may not be interested in the job.

  • Stendhal says:

    At this rate the panic stricken internal politics of Classical Music is going to put it out of business long before any external forces do.

  • Paula Kerner says:

    A crisis? Really. Not being able to pay your bills is a crisis. There are plenty of good executive directors. One will be found, Hanson will be replaced, and that will be that.

  • fflambeau says:

    Somehow I think San Francisco and Essa will make it. It’s a huge, wealthy, and creative area. He’s good (New York Phil wanted him badly).

  • Freewheeler says:

    San Fransisco, where Culture goes to die.

  • Tom Clowes says:

    “Diversity, Equality and Inclusion, the demands of a strident minority…”
    But those of us who want these things can hardly be considered a minority.
    And “strident” has such a negative connotation. Should we call MLK “strident,” as his contemporaries would have? Or acknowledge that diversity, equality (or equity), and inclusion are reasonable things to want?

  • Steven Larsen says:

    Mark has been a rising star in the orchestra management world ever since he won a year’s fellowship with the League of American Orchestras (formerly the unfortunately acronymed American Symphony Orchestra League) immediately after graduating Harvard. His track record is unblemished, and some of his former orchestras owe their very existence to his skill and diplomacy.

    He is also living proof that one can be an absolutely primo CEO and still be a great human being. I wish him all the best.

  • Will Wilkin says:

    The diversity issues in classical music are indeed complex. So much segregation in today’s society is based on personal choices of individuals. In my work on many construction sites, I have almost never seen a woman, and they would definitely be hired if only they would apply. One of my black coworkers told me “Black people aren’t interested in opera”), which is probably statistically mostly true but nonetheless disproven by notable examples of black singers. All that said, I have lately become more open to the argument that outreach and reflection and corrective action are indeed needed in classical muic, to end an exclusion of black people from orchestras and music textbooks that cut me off from awareness of a deep and wonderful African-American dimension of American classical music that I am now discovering. For example, recently I read Maurice Peress’ book “Dvorak to Duke Ellington” which opened my mind and recently I acquired a 10-CD box set “Black Composers Series” put out by Sony of reissues of LPs from Columbia records in the 1970s: very fine music opening my ears and making me want to discover more. Also the recent debut CD of young violinist Randall Goosby is another fine example of black Americans finding a place in the heart of American classical music. At first I resisted some writings of Philip Ewell but my recent discoveries make put me in interested anticipation of his upcoming book “The Practicing Music Theorist,” which promises a diverse and inclusive textbook to replace what he calls “white supremacy” in traditional approaches to classical music. All told, I am excited at the new horizons opening to my ears and understanding.

    • Saxon says:

      There are big differences between much of the US (where the practical segregation of ethnic groups remains an issue) and the UK (where black people are not socially, culturally and spacially segregated from white people). It is bizarre to import the American debate into the British environment and think the arguments are the same.

  • Jake Thonis says:

    Just an FYI to all chronic mis-spellers, it’s Esa-Pekka, not Essa-Pekka and certainly not Essa

  • Fridolf says:

    At The League of American Orchestra’s conference back in June 2020, the SFS board chair announced that she would be basing the CEO compensation on meeting diversity percentages in hiring, programming, etc.