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Inventing Community with SFS President Sako Fisher

February 8, 2013

Into a new century with a new Symphony leader

by Larry Rothe

Sakurako Fisher tags her e-mails with a classic quotation from the computer scientist Alan Kay: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” If you choose to stop reading right now, Kay’s aphorism will already have told you much of what you need to know about Sako Fisher, the San Francisco Symphony’s new president. A woman whose mind moves so quickly that she appears to shape time from moment to moment, she seems both inventor and clairvoyant, someone with a vision and a will. Combine those qualities with a warm and ready wit, and you get charisma. Small wonder she was tapped to lead the Symphony into the first years of its second century.

When she took office last month, Sako Fisher became the Symphony’s seventeenth president, following John D. Goldman, who had held the post since December 2001. She is the third woman to serve as president; along with Goldman, her two female predecessors are among the most influential and far-seeing leaders in SFS history: Leonora Wood Armsby (1936-53), who saved the Symphony from near-extinction in the Great Depression, and Nancy Bechtle (1987-2001), under whose tenure the Symphony began consolidating its worldwide reputation. Today, this country’s orchestras are at a crossroads, committed to the traditions they represent while seeking new audiences in an information-barraged and time-challenged world. With Sako Fisher at the helm, inventing and reinventing are keywords as the Symphony maps the future.

Sako Fisher’s path to the present began in Portland, Oregon. Born in Japan to a Japanese mother and an American father, she moved with them to Portland when she was three. The family’s means were modest—her father was a librarian and her mother taught school—but Sako never felt deprived and she enjoyed what she calls “the perfect childhood.” She spent every weekend at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. Her love of history developed early, and in England’s Queen Elizabeth I she discovered a woman who proved that strength and an aptitude for leadership are not qualities reserved for men. What she remembers best were years filled with music and books. “Music has always been the way my family’s life has been woven together. When I think of my childhood, I hear strains of Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, mixed with Broadway shows. My mother loved Edith Piaf and opera, especially Aïda, and of course Carmen.” And because Oregonians value their summers, Portland hosted outdoor music festivals from June through August. Her earliest recollections are of free concerts in the parks.

Because music was part of the curriculum in Portland’s public schools when Sako Fisher was growing up, she had the opportunity to indulge her musical passion. She wanted to play French horn. “But I had to walk to school—I’ve told my children that I had to walk the same distance that I drove them to their schools—and a horn was just too big for me to carry back and forth.” Flute was more manageable, and it became her instrument. She played throughout elementary school, joined the marching band in high school, and won a place in the city’s honor orchestra. “I faked my way through Dvořák’s New World Symphony because I was so nervous.” She also studied koto, a Japanese string instrument with a thousand-year history. The koto lessons especially were important to her mother, who considered them a cultural investment, an investment in heritage.

Heritage, and its discovery, may or may not have been on her mind when, at sixteen, she returned to Japan for her first visit since leaving as a child. She went with few preconceptions. She returned home with a new vision of the world.

“When you grow up in Portland, the fact that there is more world can be surprising. You don’t understand the rest of the universe until you leave your universe. Learning about the world wasn’t as available then as it is today. The only international news coverage was what was in the local paper. There was no Internet. Today I have CNN International set as my home page. I care about what’s going on in the world. At sixteen, to actually see another part of the world that didn’t look like me, that didn’t live like I did—it was a revelation.”

The revelation was the beginning of a journey that has turned her into a self-described globalist. Along the way, it led her to Stanford, where she earned a degree in international relations. The money she had saved from waiting tables enabled her to arrive at college equipped with a good music system: Advent speakers, a Yamaha receiver, a Technics turntable. (“I did a lot of research. I’m a geek on the side.”). She supplemented her financial aid package by working: Four years of high-school Russian qualified her to type at a Cyrillic keyboard in the Stanford Russian Department. After college, she considered returning to Oregon and entering politics (“I thought I might run for governor”). But she faced the same reality that today’s college grads encounter. She needed a job. So she entered the corporate world, first as a merchant with Cargill, developing her negotiating skills during visits to every grain elevator in the state of Iowa, arranging sales of corn and soybeans. In her next position, at Citibank, she sharpened her strategic thinking as a foreign-exchange trader. These fields called for nerve and a chess-player’s appreciation of right and wrong moves. As she honed such qualities, the globalist in her assumed new dimensions.

Another expansion of her world-view began in 1986, when she married William S. Fisher. Through her new in-laws, Doris and Donald Fisher, who had founded The Gap clothing company in 1969 and proceeded to build it into one of the country’s most successful enterprises, Sako Fisher discovered role models for community service. Then, at Citibank, shortly after her marriage, a colleague recruited her to join the board of ODC, the groundbreaking San Francisco dance company. In ODC’s Artistic Director, Brenda Way, Sako Fisher found inspiration for her own vision of how art and community nurture each other.

“I think community is critical to art,” she says. “Community supports art. It makes art. It’s part of the engagement. To me, art is part of what makes a civil society. Even in the devastation of Darfur, mothers sing to their children, children draw in the sand, they dance. People find art. It’s a way of making connections. It’s a way to bring different kinds of communities together, because everyone is making music in their own way and making dance, making art. Part of the secret sauce that creates a good society is a vibrant and strong arts scene. Culture unites people. The creative juice is so important.”

Such convictions, along with the example of her mother-in-law, Doris Fisher—a Symphony board member since 1980—led her to join the SFS board in 1992. (Today she jokes about what drew her to the Symphony. “I was a new mother. I had two young children, and I wanted to talk to people who were more than three feet tall.”) She spent her first SFS years at the offices of the Volunteer Council (“my home away from home”). In 1994, as a VC member, she chaired the opening gala, launching Herbert Blomstedt’s last season as music director; in 1995, she chaired the gala heralding Michael Tilson Thomas’s first season. These chairmanships are big assignments, demanding organizational legerdemain along with a brand of über-tact never detailed in the social columns. During the year between those jobs, Sako Fisher gave birth to her third child.

Community service grew into her passion. At the Symphony she headed the Development Steering Committee. A Francophile, she sat on the US advisory boards for the Union Centrale des Arts et Decoratifs and the Centre Pompidou, and on the boards of the American Hospital of Paris, the American Hospital of Paris Foundation, and Alliance Française—activities for which the French government awarded her Le Chevalier des Arts et Lettres. She continues as an advisory board member of the Department of Humanities and Sciences and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford, and she is a trustee of the Thacher School in Ojai. She has also served on the boards of San Francisco’s Stern Grove Festival and the Asian Art Museum Foundation. In 2011 she completed a term as vice-chair of the board of The Exploratorium. Recently she began a three-year chairmanship on the National Board of the Smithsonian Institution.

For someone who has spent most of her life on the West Coast—with stints in Tokyo, Toronto, and Paris—she sees her connection with the Smithsonian as a way to avoid cultural myopia. “The Bay Area is seductive, but although many people think of it as American utopia, we’re not representative of this country as a whole. It’s really important to have a pulse on what’s going on in other places. I think it makes me a better board member and a better Bay Area citizen if I know what’s going on. I’m half-Asian. When you grow up with one foot each in two cultures, you spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to be an American. And the Smithsonian emphasizes that it takes all kinds. What is an American? We’re an amalgamation. ‘Western’ is a funny word for me. I don’t think anything can be so easily quantified by a boundary.” That leads her back to another subject. “I see music as far more porous than that.”

Those summer festivals in Portland exposed her not just to symphonic music and opera. She attended performances of Mexican music and folk dance, Japanese and Indian music. The Symphony’s Chinese New Year and Día de los Muertos concerts thrill her. “This is fantastic! We’re playing music by Chinese composers, by Latino composers.” She loves jazz, bluegrass, Baroque, John Adams, Charles Ives. “Michael Tilson Thomas has totally turned me on to contemporary music. I find it surprising and startling and unexpected, and I can never guess what’s going to happen next.  I like that kind of intellectual stimulation.” She has almost worked her way through The Teaching Company’s twenty-four-part CD course on the history of the symphonic music.  

Remember that Sako Fisher’s mother was a teacher, that Sako grew up immersed in books and music, and that, to increase her capacity to understand the world, she has made constant forays outside her comfort zone, starting with that journey to Japan at sixteen and continuing to the present moment, taking on leadership of the San Francisco Symphony. Considering all this, you are not surprised when she describes herself as an information omnivore. Nor is it surprising that she sees the Symphony’s future entwined with education.

“One reason I believe music education is so important is that the statistics show eighty percent of our audience has had some kind of musical training.” The path to the concert hall starts in the classroom. But since the 1980s, public schools have curtailed music programs. In 1988, working with the San Francisco Unified School District, the Symphony commenced music education in the city’s schools through the Adventures in Music Program—AIM. Now in its twenty-fifth season, AIM serves more than 23,000 children each year. “Education is a piece of the puzzle that remains incredibly important for the future.” When small ensembles of musicians visit classrooms and offer performances that tie music to the core curriculum, Sako Fisher has joined them, taking her seat among the kids. “The musicians bring the music alive. They’re phenomenal.”

Fisher warms to her subject as she talks about Concerts for Kids, which serves the entire Bay Area and each year brings 75,000 children to Davies Symphony Hall for SFS concerts designed for them. “They can go home and tell their parents: ‘I did this. You can do this too. It’s not scary.’ I think what people fear is the unknown.”

Breaking that barrier between the unknown and the known is critical, but Fisher acknowledges another challenge that all arts organizations face: the future, which, with technological changes reshaping life day by day, seems increasingly difficult to predict and plan.

Not so long ago, Fisher points out, people made their concert commitments months in advance. “Today, I can just look at my phone. You can call OnStar in some cars and ask what’s going on in San Francisco. Would you like dance? Improvisational theater?  Classical music? Jazz? In sixty seconds, you can find out. In another thirty seconds you can probably book a ticket online.” Or check Foursquare, see where your friends are, and decide to join them or not. The traditional model of concert subscriptions, requiring music lovers to commit to a series of concerts over several months, is challenged by the world’s rapid pace. “My kids think it’s absurd if I ask them to commit to a date three weeks in advance.”

She notes too that today’s music lovers tend not to align themselves with any particular genre, and that any one person can have wide-ranging tastes, just as she does. In San Francisco, home to some of the country’s greatest restaurants, even dining can offer competition to the concert hall. “There are so many choices now. We need to keep ourselves in front of people. We need to be easily accessible.

“So how do we connect? Do we try to make the experience multi-level, offer visuals along with the music? Does MTT offer more talks?” Fisher’s great concern is to keep the concert hall interesting and important to people, to preserve tradition by enlisting all available tools, and by illuminating music’s many doors to show that they stand open, inviting entry. 

When Sako Fisher looks ahead, she returns to an idea she formed back in Portland, during those outdoor concerts in the hot Oregon summers, when people from throughout the city gathered to hear music. The idea is community. “I’ve been talking to the Asian Art Museum, the Opera, the Ballet, and SF Jazz. I want to see a cultural hub in San Francisco. I want to figure out how we can work together to keep the arts scene lively.” She envisions an arts community based in San Francisco’s mid-Market Street corridor, an arts community for the community. “Whether people want to hear concert music or jazz, or see a ballet or an opera: How do we make sure they automatically think this is where they should go? I would love to partner with the arts organizations and businesses that are going in there.”

For the past year, Sako Fisher worked with her immediate predecessor, John Goldman, immersing herself in her new job. Her two decades of experience on the SFS board helped prepare her. She concedes, however, that to know about the details and to know the details are different things. She has had little chance to focus on the music the Orchestra is performing this current season, and she answers quickly when asked what she most looks forward to hearing: everything. Coming from anyone else, that might be a glib answer. Coming from someone whose tastes range as widely as hers, it seems inevitable.

If inventing and reinventing are keywords for the Symphony’s future, inclusiveness is another. To Sako Fisher, the key to the future resides in the richness of Bay Area resources—not just its arts, but its people, distributed throughout so many different groups, all of whom can share in the great cultural community she envisions. “In the end,” she says, “I want to leave a legacy of a healthy San Francisco Symphony that’s part of a bigger, healthy arts community in San Francisco. I think part of what makes the Bay Area really special is that mix of culture, art, music, business, food. When I think about where the Symphony is going, I think of community.”