Trouble brews in San Francisco

Trouble brews in San Francisco


norman lebrecht

February 03, 2023

Members of the San Francisco Symphony are handing out flyers to arriving concertgoers.

That’s a bad sign.

You can read the full content here.

It looks like it’s heading to a smokeless room some time soon.

More here.




  • Concertgebouw79 says:

    Anyway I hope that this will not prevent this orchestra to do his European tour next month. I have a ticket for it and I want to see the SFS for the first time.

  • Gerry Feinsteen says:

    It’s hard to buy the argument that a 2018 salary jeopardizes an orchestra’s ability to attract and retain ‘top tier talent.’ Pay in the Berlin Phil, for example, is not as high, yet I doubt an SFO musician would turn down a job offer at the BPO. Likewise, there are up and coming young hotshots ready to take half the salary for a position in SFO. They’re playing with a weak argument at best.
    Where are these players gonna suddenly go if pay levels aren’t raised?

    • observer says:

      Cost of living in Berlin is still far lower than SF. You also get more weeks off in Berlin (meaning you have more freedom and time to earn extra income through solo, chamber or teaching work). Apples v. Oranges.

      • doubleBassGod says:

        You’re right about lower cost of living in Berlin. However, I believe salaries are lower in Berlin. Also, the schedule is really packed with Berlin Phil. Even with rotations, they still end up playing more concerts than many smaller orchestras around the world.

        I’m pretty sure even in their off weeks, they might have to hang around as a substitute or other duties (outreach etc.)

    • Thornhill says:

      Housing in San Francisco is among the most expensive in the nation. $180k/year won’t feel like much when you’re paying $3k/month to be an a tiny studio apartment, and unless you become concertmaster, you’ll only be able to afford a home that’s way the hell out in Oakland, but you won’t want to live there because you’ll have an hour commute to the concert hall.

    • Karayawnflaccidbaton says:

      Long time audience member for 20 plus years. The symphony in town is a cultural treasure that we do not want to lose!

      To those commenting about Berlin equivalency, the young hotshots, etc have you tried living on a 2018 wage in SF?

      Good luck affording a one bedroom for $4500 per month!

      And that is for something minimal. Having lived here 25 years I’ve watch the prices of this city inflate like you can’t believe.

      No one including said young hotshots could AFFORD to live here at all even if they wanted to. They could afford to move to Berlin.

      See the difference?

      And as for audiences. Perhaps the symphony should stop wasting its money on woke themed garbage concerts and I might consider returning as a long time audience member.

      Why would I want to hear compositional drivel weekly?

      Hall was nearly sold out last weekend when I attended, so that should put to bed the idea that the post pandemic orchestral world has no audience.

      It sure does, but San Francisco Symphony’s bad programming chased us away. If that paper is true about admin pay restoration then the following should happen:

      The administration should be fired because they can’t get an audience. Isn’t that their main job?

      Time for deep reflection all around.

      • Robyn P says:

        You were right until the “woke” drivel. My spouse and I are new to attending regularly symphony performances. I suppose what you call “woke” was actually just inclusion. And it attracted us!

      • Jules says:

        If the hall was nearly sold out, then apparently the “woke drivel” is not chasing away audiences.

      • Ich Bin Ein Berliner says:

        Maybe SFS should move its home base somewhere cheaper. Sacramento?

    • Margaret Koscielny says:

      They will start Chamber groups and tour. Or, they will guest/substitute at other orchestras. They deserve decent pay. You don’t seem to respect them very much.

    • PFmus says:

      You forget that the US is uncompetitive with ANY of the first world nations that have universal health CARE. The average cost of family health insurance (not care, mind you, just partial cost assistance requiring enormous amounts of paperwork) in the US is $23,000, not including the high deductables (which range from 2,000 to 5,000 USD) plus 20% “co-pays.” A US orchestral salary will never be directly comparable to first-world compensation.

    • Mrs. Jones says:

      That’s just inaccurate. In real dollars, the Berlin Phil is actually paying better than SFS, at the moment.
      Where will they go? Well, for one example, back to LA for the principal flute audition winner… But what kind of question is that? As one of the best orchestras in the country (and in one of the most expensive cities)they deserve to be compensated at the level of their peers. Go complain about unions in another thread.

    • Max Raimi says:

      The very best players, for example principals you are trying to lure from another top tier orchestra, will be daunted by the combination of SF’s lagging salary and local housing prices. I know of superb musicians who are leery of NY and SF for this reason. Tough to raise a family when your alternatives are a cramped living space in town or a brutal commute, unless the salary reflects these realities.

  • Old Man in the Midwest says:

    The coming years will be hard for US orchestra contract negotiations since people are not returning to concert halls.

    The whole business model has to be reconsidered starting with addressing the impacts of streaming and HD broadcasts and availability.

    And in San Francisco, they have issues with homelessness and now upcoming tech layoffs. It will be tough to get sympathy in this Brave New World.

    • mel says:

      Although it was a daytime (and free) concert, the recent Crain-Maling Foundation concert at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra was absolutely packed with very few spare seats. People *are* returning, but there needs to be reason to make that effort — perhaps far more than many orchestras who used to take their audience for granted.

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      As a person who has lived in the S.F. Bay Area most of his life, I agree with your assessment. Middle class and lower middle class folk are hurting, and I doubt that there that are many nouveau riche folks dying to contribute to that endowment (no pun intended). Also, as much as I do like Esa-Pekka Salonen, he is a bit of a retread – having conducted as long as he did down in Los Angeles. I view him as a ‘stop-gap’ until the S.F.S. can find the right younger candidate. There are other orchestras in a far worse position, but I don’t think it’s wise of the S.F.S. musicians to play the, ‘you’re comprising our quality’ card just now.

    • Max Raimi says:

      Not sure you read the flyer. SF Symphony is actually in good fiscal condition, assuming what the flyer said was accurate. And they can afford to keep the raises coming to management.
      On a related topic, it would seem to me that if I were in charge of revitalizing cities in our new era of working from home, I would invest substantially in the performing arts. We need to give people a reason to go downtown.

  • Nelson says:

    The same old arguments I hear every time… Young hot shots will work for less money, and supposedly the orchestra will be just as good. Nonsense. If you wanna hear young hotshots, go listen to a student orchestra. You either want a top rank orchestra and pay accordingly or go listen to your second tier ensembles. I would think people coming to the site would know better, but apparently not.

  • Rupert Kinsella says:

    I’ve attended four SFS concerts during the current 2022-2023 season with tickets to three more. Some evenings have had fantastic attendance with others showing a lot of empty seats.

    Like most orchestras, mobile device usage during concerts has become a serious problem but, it seems, San Francisco allows it because it puts younger folks in seats.

    Anecdotal, but during a recent performance, a woman in front of me was creating and posting a TikTok of the music.

  • Greg Bottini says:

    I think the complaint is legitimate.
    Why has the administrators’ salary been restored and not the musicians’?

  • Margaret Koscielny says:

    Please pay the musicians what they are worth….great music is worth the money.
    Spend less on management, court the usual
    supporters of wealth. Heavens! The tech leaders in that neck of the woods could fund the orchestra with just a fraction of their yearly salaries.

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      Yes, but they won’t. It’s not what most of them are interested in (tech leaders). Also, tech leaders view labor as just that: labor. Why would their viewpoint suddenly change at the symphony hall.

  • Tony R. says:

    I’m not sure SFS is in that much trouble. I just went to a performance this past weekend of MTT conducting the orchestra with Jean-Yves Thibaudet in a program of Debussy and one contemporary piece. The hall was at least 90 percent sold and the crowd went nuts at the end.

  • Karden says:

    Greed, self-indulgence and a lack of moral balance over the past 20 years have put quite an armlock around the arts, culture and entertainment.

    I guess it would be better throwing more money at, say, squatters defecating and shooting up drugs on the sidewalks of San Francisco than throwing more money at people (such as in the SF Symphony) complaining about “first-world problems.”

    • Barry Guerrero says:

      So what do you suggest as a solution? The homeless come to S.F. and L.A. because you run out of America at that point. Any farther west, and you’re on your way to Hawaii. If YOU were homeless, would you want to try to stay alive in the frigid cold of the Midwest and back east? This is why homeless people end up out here. They’re not going away, and there’s no place to just send them off to. I have a different viewpoint – we can’t have our cake and eat it too. By that, I mean we can’t go on complaining endlessly about climate change – which IS real (with or without man’s intervention) – and at the same time, deny people of jobs, housing, food, health care, etc. – all of which draws upon the limited resources that planet Earth has left. It’s a heck of conundrum, which is why politicians have not been able to solve it. It’s also why I have little sympathy for musicians who claim they can’t live on $150,000 per year (some paid even more). I lived in S.F. for three and a half decades – and mostly for less than one third of that. I got by. I’m a fairly decent pro-am musician myself, and I don’t go around expecting people to pay me well for my side hustle. I ‘get it’ that management should not be handing themselves pay raises. I have no argument there. But it’s quite ridiculous to dump greed, self-indulgence and a lack of a moral balance upon the homeless. Like it or not, classical music plays to a small percentage of the population. That being the case, the onus is upon the classical music community to find ways to fund itself.

  • Bedrich Sourcream says:

    It’s utter garbage, of course, that the quality of players is completely pegged to the dollars paid. If that were true, the Minnesota Orchestra wouldn’t be superior to the SFSO. This kind of thing makes musicians look like greedy pigs.

  • Samech says:

    Google just laid of 12,000 workers, and a bunch of orchestra musicians are complaining about not getting a “world-class salary”, not to worry, housing costs will fall with the tech layoffs.

  • Guest 123 says:

    SFS has been doomed financially for years and have been held hostage by their overpaid, cruel players. Their salary is ridiculous. A miserable lot. Their arguments lack merit. It’s like Newsmax interpreting the “news”. Just spin and nonsense. Honestly they should be glad their job even exists at all. Looking at the general population of SF especially near their hall, all of their money should be diverted to homelessness solutions. Not to players who maybe play 14hrs a week for 32 weeks a year due to their excessive leave, rotation, relief weeks, etc.

    • M2N2K says:

      Speaking of “cruel”, this ignorant comment by “Guest 123” above here is one of the most mean-spirited on this site. Most musicians in major US orchestras such as SFS “play” (WORK would be a more appropriate word) close to 30 hours a week (including rehearsals and individual practicing) for at least 40-41 weeks a year.

  • Mr. Ron says:

    Great symphony orchestra that deserves better. A top area to live in. Stupid: “It’s hard to buy the argument that a 2018 salary jeopardizes an orchestra’s ability to attract and retain ‘top tier talent.” Why? Costs have gone up.

  • Mick the Knife says:

    If their salaries are what they were 5 years ago, they have a point. Everyone else has seen a wage increase including those getting the minimum wage a Walmart.

  • Omar Goddknowe says:

    It’s the same h—- s— the union spouts off every time they are in a contract negotiation. A large segment of the public believes it (usually the same segment that believes the marketing created hype of “world class” “best orchestra in the country”) The last time my local orchestra was saying that I wanted to say go audition for the New York Philharmonic, I doubt you will win.

  • MuddyBoots says:

    Since we don’t know what the salary ranges were in 2018, it is difficult to discuss this at all. But the fact that they have restored executive pay is a giveaway. It’s not like the executives there are so irreplaceable, so this self-dealing raises serious issues.

  • Player1 says:

    The San Francisco Symphony has never been richer, they have almost 400 million in the bank. The musicians took huge pay cuts during the pandemic and just want their pay restored to pre pandemic levels (most other big American orchestras are back to 100% pay).
    For those people here that think that these musicians are overpaid, just remember that they have to be among the best in their field to win an audition in this orchestra. Would anyone here think that the best lawyers, doctors, stock brokers, athletes, actors….would be overpaid if they made $150,000 a year?

  • Jay says:

    The musicians who made to the top tier of the orchestras were starting to learn how to play the instruments when they were 5 years old, not in their high school years!

  • John says:

    The flyer ought to have the Board leadership’s emails and phone numbers. That’s who’s calling the shots.

  • Nadal says:

    Doesn’t sound like critics in Paris think “Our” San Francisco Symphony is so worthy. Today’s review from ReMusica (

    “The entire second part is devoted to Symphony No. 5 (1919) by Sibelius, which has, for the time being, the honors of the Philharmonie de Paris, since given here by Sir Antonio Pappano and the Orchestra of the Saint Cecilia Academy in Rome last February. A proximity allowing many comparisons…

    Because where Antonio Pappano gave us a quivering vision, carried by an epic breath, Salonen offers us a certainly Apollonian reading, of great formal beauty, but indisputably more distanced, colder and without emotion.

    Here, no dream, no imagination, no urgency, but an interpretation that we politely admire for the profusion of details, for the beauty of the orchestral plastic, but which disappoints by the abusive sophistication of the phrasing, almost mannered by its slowness and its abusive rhythmic and dynamic nuances which penalize the tension and the continuity of the speech.

    Damage ! “