Mission & History

The San Francisco Symphony sets the highest possible standard for excellence in musical performance at home and around the world; Enriches, serves, and shapes cultural life throughout the spectrum of Bay Area communities; Maintains financial stability and gains public recognition as a means of ensuring its ability to fulfill its mission. 

A Symphony Rises from the Ashes

In the wake of the devastating 1906 earthquake and fire, San Francisco’s civic leaders set about creating a permanent orchestra in the music-loving city.  In December 1911, the San Francisco Symphony (SFS) gave its first concerts, rekindling the city’s cultural life. It delighted audiences with a kaleidoscopic mix of classics and new music.

A Growing Reputation

The orchestra grew in stature and acclaim under a succession of distinguished music directors. Henry Hadley was followed by Alfred Hertz, who had led the American premieres of Parsifal, Salome, and Der Rosenkavalier at the Metropolitan Opera. Then came Basil Cameron, Issay Dobrowen, the legendary Pierre Monteux, who had introduced the world to Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du printemps and Petrushka,  Enrique Jordá, Josef Krips, Seiji Ozawa, Edo de Waart, and Herbert Blomstedt, who continues to serve as Conductor Laureate. Michael Tilson Thomas (MTT) became Music Director in 1995. Under his leadership, the orchestra has reached new artistic heights and new audiences. 

Awards & Recordings Aplenty

The SFS has won some of the world’s most prestigious recording awards, including Japan’s Record Academy Award, France’s Grand Prix du Disque, Britain’s Gramophone Award, and a bundle of Grammy® awards. With MTT, the Symphony has won eleven Grammy®s, including three for its 1999 recording of Stravinsky ballet scores, and seven for the acclaimed Mahler symphony cycle recorded over the last decade. The Mahler recordings were released on the Symphony’s own label, SFS Media, which launched in 2001. Earlier, for RCA Red Seal, MTT and and the orchestra recorded scenes from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, which also won a Grammy®, Mahler’s Das klagende Lied, two Copland albums, Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, a Gershwin collection (featuring works they performed at Carnegie Hall’s 1998 opening gala, telecast nationally on PBS’s Great Performances), and Charles Ives: An American Journey.

Conductors & Composers

Some of the most important conductors of their time have been guests on the SFS podium, among them Bruno Walter, Leopold Stokowski, Leonard Bernstein, and Sir Georg Solti. The composers who have led the orchestra comprise a who’s who of modern and contemporary music: Igor Stravinsky, Sergei Prokofiev, Maurice Ravel, Arnold Schoenberg, Paul Hindemith, Aaron Copland, and John Adams. For its adventurous programming, the Symphony has been honored twelve times by the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers. And in 1979, the appointment of John Adams as New Music Adviser became a model for composer-in-residence programs adopted by major orchestras across America.

A Leader in Education

The San Francisco Symphony provides the most extensive education and community programs offered by any American orchestra. It brings music into every classroom, K-12, in the San Francisco Unified School District, free of charge. The Symphony’s Adventures in Music is the longest-running education program of its kind in the country. Begun in 1988, it teaches music to every child in grades one through five in San Francisco’s public schools, reaching more than 23,000 students. The Symphony’s Instrumental Training and Support program brings professional musicians into middle and high schools throughout the city to coach students once a week. It also provides technical assistance, supplies and concert tickets.

The acclaimed San Francisco Symphony Youth Orchestra, which has toured the world and made impressive recordings, gives pre-professional training to the Bay Area’s most gifted young musicians at no cost. In 2002, the SFS launched sfskids.org, a comprehensive and interactive online music education resource for children, schools, and families. More than 35,000 students throughout Northern California hear the Symphony each year in its Concerts for Kids program, which began in 1919. For adult amateur musicians, the Symphony created Community of Music Makers, an innovative new program of workshops and events for vocalists and instrumentalists in Davies Symphony Hall. SFS orchestra players mentor the community musicians, who get help forming chamber ensembles.

The Soul of the City

In October 1989, in a gesture harkening back to the Symphony’s beginnings, Herbert Blomstedt and the SFS Orchestra and Chorus helped San Francisco begin to heal five days after the destructive Loma Prieta earthquake, playing Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to an audience of more than 20,000 in Golden Gate Park. In September 2011, to celebrate its 100th anniversary, the Symphony, led by MTT and joined by pianist Lang Lang, played a free, sun-drenched concert in the city’s Civic Center Plaza that drew 10,000 people.

Music for Everyone

In 2006, MTT and the SFS launched Keeping Score, a multi-year, multimedia program designed to make classical music accessible to people of all ages and musical backgrounds. It included a national PBS television series seen by over 6 million Americans, an interactive Web site, a national radio series hosted by MTT, documentary and live performance DVDs, and a classroom program for K-12 schools that integrated classical music into core subjects. Keeping Score is available on DVD and Blu-ray, and can be accessed at keepingscore.org. The Symphony’s use of new technology to reach audiences dates back to 1926, when it became the first orchestra in the United States to play on regular radio broadcasts. Today, the SFS is heard on nearly 300 radio stations across the country, enriching American musical life. 

Discover Our First Century

The interactive Adobe Timeline captures the Symphony's first 100 years.

Watch MTT's TED Talk

Music and emotion through time. 

Michael Tilson Thomas traces classical music through the development of written notation, the record, and the re-mix.

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