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Discovering a History

May 21, 2012

by Larry Rothe

In 2001, when the idea of a book documenting a century of San Francisco Symphony history was proposed and I took on the project, I anticipated the work ahead with equal parts of excitement and intimidation. I had only a vague notion of how to tell the story and no idea of what I had gotten myself into.

Others had already told versions of the tale. Writing for the California Historical Society in the late 1940s, the Symphony’s then-President, Leonora Wood Armsby, chronicled the organization’s first decade.

In the early sixties she wrote a memoir of her Symphony years, We Shall Have Music, telling how she and music director Pierre Monteux revived a demoralized orchestra as the country climbed out of the Great Depression. Armsby’s early account is a dry compilation of dates and numbers; her memoir is more impassioned, driven by her love of music and the Symphony. In 1983, David Schneider, a violinist with the SFS for fifty years, wrote The San Francisco Symphony: Music, Maestros, and Musicians. Schneider offers an engaging narrative, but he makes no secret that his book is deeply personal, half a century of an orchestra’s life as seen through the eyes of one musician.

The Armsby and Schneider efforts, partial histories both, were nevertheless invaluable models, not only for the stories they told, but because they showed me that telling a Symphony story was possible.

As I worked on the book that eventually became Music for a City, Music for the World,  I learned the truth of the commonplace that history is not just the story we wish the past would tell.

History is populated by provable facts and by characters who once walked the earth, or still do. History is always an interpretation, but just as the interpretation of a piece of music is based on note values, tempo markings, and dynamic indicators, history’s interpretation must be suggested by the facts, and by what the men and women who created those facts have said about their desires and decisions, sometimes speaking clearly and sometimes trying to cover their trail.

This kind of interpretation aims at veracity. Any other kind of interpretation is fiction, the story we wish the past would tell.

I knew as I entered this project that any organizational history told by the organization itself was bound to be considered “authorized” or “official,” and that those terms are synonymous with “promotional piece.” I didn’t want to write a promotional piece. I was delighted to discover that no one else wanted such a thing, either. Besides, to write a promotional piece based on Symphony history would be asking readers to stretch their credibility. While the story of the past three decades has been pretty consistently upbeat, that achievement has been hard-won. Before the watershed day thirty-two years ago when the Orchestra moved into Davies Symphony Hall, the highs and lows of day-to-day affairs were distributed more evenly, and when highs are balanced equally by lows the scale can tip as quickly out of your favor as into it. While telling stories of appreciative audiences, odd technologies that resulted in treasured recordings, and a two-month tour that carried the Symphony into America’s musical heart, I could not ignore tales of management by wishful thinking, a Depression-era music director more interested in lining his pockets than in the good of the orchestra, or a scandal that went public, humiliated a conductor, and led to his ouster. Along with apogees, nadirs like these are also part of the saga, and to ignore them is to ignore the truth and lose readers’ trust.

I started looking for the story, for the truth, by sitting down with people who had been part of Symphony history.

Candid and eager to share their experiences, these men and women scoured memories that went back to the 1930s and earlier. I spoke with Agnes Albert, a board member whose taste, intelligence, generosity, and love of music shaped SFS history for almost fifty years; flutist Paul Renzi and violist Detlev Olshausen, both hired by the great conductor Pierre Monteux; Ava Jean Brumbaum, a founding member of the Student Forum in 1939; and Joe Scafidi, who joined the Symphony administration in the late 1930s as jack-of-all-trades and rose through the ranks, leaving in 1978 after years as the organization’s manager and, at last, as executive director. 

But oral histories are just part of the background story, and a person’s memory is a notoriously unreliable foundation on which to build a comprehensive history.

For that, you need documents: board minutes, memos, letters, newspaper and magazine clippings, program books. Sources such as these help discern plot and identify a dramatis personae. Such documents were scattered in libraries and collections around the Bay Area. Many were closer to home, right in Davies Symphony Hall. The problem was, no one at the Symphony had attempted to catalogue and evaluate them. On the verge of its centennial, the Symphony had to face an inconvenient truth. It had no central repository: no archives, no archivist.

That changed in 2007, when Joe Evans joined the organization. Joe had worked as an archivist at the California Historical Society and in Bank of America’s corporate archives.

Today, in addition to his Symphony work, he is a research associate in the California Academy of Sciences’ anthropology department. He specializes in the history of San Francisco and California. If you think you know what an archivist is like, you will change your mind when you meet Joe Evans. Yes, he is obsessed with detail and organization, but added to this is his Sherlockian instinct for clue-detection and clue-pursuit. He also defines cool. How else can you describe an archivist who trained as a chef in Provence, cooked at Chez Panisse, can tell you how to roast a guinea hen, is expert in the anthropology of food among native tribes of the American Southwest, has unearthed memorabilia from the 1956 Black & White Ball, and can supply, on demand and from memory, details about the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition?  

As Joe began sorting through the raw material of Symphony history, he became my Virgil, guiding me through infernos and purgatories of documents as he built the SFS Archives, his goal to construct a researcher’s paradise. At the UC Berkeley Music Library and the San Francisco Public Library I combed through the letters of Alfred Hertz, our second music director. I read board minutes—documents, for the most part, as dreary as you might imagine, although until the 1970s, when the records of who said what become far more circumspect, they often reveal passions and plans of action whose on-the-record disclosure a more litigious age would discourage. These days, the conventional wisdom is that board minutes should not be interesting. I don’t mean to suggest that the minutes of the thirties and forties make for gripping reading, but they reveal much about those who shepherded the organization through troubled times.

The Symphony’s Board minutes document a century of presenting concerts. Joe Evans also called my attention to materials I might never have unearthed on my own. He found, for example, program books for performances mentioned nowhere else, such as a benefit concert for unemployed musicians during the Great Depression.

He found the contract for the Symphony’s third music director, Issay Dobrowen, and from that I began to sense that Dobrowen was more interested in his career and his paycheck than in San Francisco’s musical life—a suspicion that those more candid board minutes of the 1930s confirmed, not to mention newspaper articles of the day. Joe was invaluable as I went about the discovery phase of the Symphony’s history.

One thing that helped us work together so effectively was our tenures at the Symphony. When we began collaborating in earnest, I had been with the organization for twenty-seven years. Joe had been with the Symphony for two years. With my longevity, I could help him fill gaps in his organizational knowledge. His need to get up to speed quickly led him to questions and discoveries that pointed me in directions I might not otherwise have gone. He led me to documents and photos and facts that helped shape a narrative.

At first, I was not sure a narrative history would be right. I considered organizing the story thematically—focusing on such subjects as recording, tours, education. In some ways, breaking a century of music-making into its parts would have been a more manageable way to handle a hundred years. But that would have focused on results rather than the process leading to the results. And process is what’s interesting. For people are part of the process. They make things happen. In fact nothing is inherently dramatic about an arts organization until you focus on the people. Smart, opinionated, motivated, and driven characters create the tension and drama that a writer seeks and that can keep readers turning pages.

The narrative arc I wanted to trace was right there in front of me. I had a beginning and an end to work with. The Symphony started as a pickup band in 1911, when players came from the city’s theaters and restaurants and hotels. Today it stands among the world’s leading orchestras. How did that happen? Many times, that happened by moving three steps forward and two steps back. Looking at the documents before me, the path to “greatness” clearly traversed peaks and sank into valleys. The evidence described no consistent trajectory, which made that trajectory all the more interesting. I knew too that, as an organization founded to rebuild San Francisco’s cultural life while the city itself rebuilt after the 1906 earthquake, the Symphony and the city were closely aligned, and that their stories overlapped.

Because music is about so much more than what happens in the concert hall, I wanted to tie the Symphony story to the story of city, nation, and world. Symphony history is not, in the end, a story about music. It is about the society and the world that shaped the orchestra, and the organization that presents the orchestra.

For a year, I sifted through my material and wrote. In the course of his research, Joe discovered hundreds of images to illustrate the narrative. Together, he and I reviewed these and made our choices. More than a hundred images made the cut. In the spring of 2010, we had our first look at Music for a City, Music for the World, just off the press, published by Chronicle Books.

This volume has spawned other Centennial Season projects: an interactive timeline on the Symphony website (sfsymphony.org/history), an exhibition now on display in Davies Symphony Hall, and a video documentary, SFS at 100.

The narrative is organized according to music directors’ tenures because each music director left a distinctive mark on the organization, for better or worse. Some excursions from the narrative also became necessary. Sifting through a hundred years of history, a lot of what you’ll find will inevitably end on the cutting room floor, yet some outtakes were too good to leave there, and they became sidebars. For example, any San Francisco Symphony history demands a profile of the first SFS music director, Henry Hadley, all but forgotten today, but a popular and esteemed composer in his time and, as an American musician, a tireless worker on behalf of American music.

Also profiled is the remarkable Leonora Wood Armsby, Symphony president from the 1930s to 1953 and an executive at a time when women executives were rare, a leader who helped rescue the Orchestra during the Great Depression, when it seemed the Symphony would fold. The player piano that in 1919 substituted onstage for the soloist provided an example of an odd marriage of technology and art. And who could resist the story of Ruth Slenczynska, child prodigy pianist, who came inches from being dragged off the Opera House stage when she insisted on playing one encore too many.

Needless to say, I made many discoveries. I was moved by the love of music and civic commitment that has driven Symphony boards and their presidents over the years, touched by their constant search for ways of giving musicians more work in those decades before 1980, when Davies Symphony Hall opened and the Orchestra could at last pursue a year-round schedule.

I fell in love with Leonora Wood Armsby, whom I had imagined as a society matron interested primarily in luncheons and musical luminaries. I was humbled to learn how wrong I had been, finding not the dilettante I’d envisioned, but rather a savvy businessperson and an articulate champion of music, possessing her own artistic ambitions and a knowledge of the repertory as broad as her affection for it was deep.

One of my biggest challenges was to portray people of more recent years as round and compelling characters. As I said, the last three decades of Symphony history have been years in which the quality of the Orchestra and the professionalism of administrative management have combined to propel the Symphony forward.  To write about heroes and success is always more difficult than to portray villains and conflict.

I could go on for longer than you might wish about the task of writing this history. Let me just disclose the Eureka moment that launched the writing and convinced me that this story had to be told. 

Almost three years ago, in August 2009, I was entering the serious phase of my research. At the UC Berkeley music library, I sorted through a collection of memorabilia and letters to and from Alfred Hertz, music director from 1915 to 1930 and the man who first put the Symphony on the country’s musical map. In a letter dated April 10, 1905, written from his quarters in the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, Hertz told an East Coast associate what he had encountered once he had left New York and New York civilization, and headed west.

A conductor at the Metropolitan Opera, Hertz was in San Francisco with the Met’s touring ensemble. Now he reflected on the trials of a cross-country rail journey. In Cincinnati, a bellboy greeted his complaint about poor service with an invective against “this damned opera company.” In Minneapolis, the hotel restaurant shut its doors at nine in the evening. In Kansas City, a municipal ordinance forbade sale of mineral water on Sundays. A neighborhood church there offered a special 25-cent Parsifal Dinner in honor of the opera the Met had presented in a local auditorium, a place whose 15,000-seat vastness defeated even an orchestra of Wagnerian size, and where a shouting spectator interrupted the performance, demanding a refund because he could not see the stage. In San Francisco, the maestro concluded, “everything is more Bohemian and a good deal like Paris.”

As I read those words, I realized that I knew what Hertz could not have known when he wrote them: that he would be in San Francisco with the Met company again exactly a year later and live with the city through its most catastrophic hours, for like thousands of others he would be awakened at 5:12 on the morning of April 18, 1906, as an earthquake began ripping the city apart. When he compared San Francisco to Paris, Hertz had no clue that, ten years later, San Francisco would be his home and he would be conducting an orchestra that in 1905 did not yet exist.

I saw Hertz’s journey from the East Coast to the Pacific as a metaphor for the enterprise of symphonic music in America. Just as Hertz and his opera company were bringing culture to a West that was still untamed, San Francisco would soon organize an orchestra.

I knew that Hertz admired the San Francisco spirit. It was a spirit that would lead to the city’s resurrection after the earthquake and that led to the Symphony’s birth. I knew Hertz would be part of all this. The letter I held in my hand spoke in two different tenses: in Hertz’s present of 1905, and in my sense of the past his words represented, written 104 years before I read them. To me, Hertz’s letter symbolized history itself, making my job clear. My job was to trace the story of how love of music and love of San Francisco fused, how it would give birth to an orchestra and propel that orchestra through a century of highs and lows. That century is documented in Music for a City, Music for the World.

Music for a City, Music for the World is on sale at the Symphony Store in Davies Symphony Hall and online at sfsymphony.org/store.