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The San Francisco Symphony At 100

The San Francisco Symphony  launches its centennial season with a concert and webcast tonight. Music director Michael Tilson Thomas (front, right) conducts.
Courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony
The San Francisco Symphony launches its centennial season with a concert and webcast tonight. Music director Michael Tilson Thomas (front, right) conducts.

Tonight the San Francisco Symphony will be in major celebration mode. Music director Michael Tilson Thomas kicks off the orchestra's centennial season with a gala performance featuring music by Aaron Copland, Franz Liszt, Felix Mendelssohn and Benjamin Britten with guest soloists Itzhak Perlman and Lang Lang.

At 11 p.m. EDT, American Public Media will host a live webcast of the concert with hosts Julie Amacher and Rik Malone.

San Francisco's musical history is rich, and reaches back far beyond the Symphony's origins to the Gold Rush days of the 1850s. The area's new wealth and opportunities drew people from nearly everywhere, including European musicians like Miska Hauser, a Hungarian violinist who landed in San Francisco in 1853 and proceeded to organize orchestras and concerts. The San Francisco Philharmonic Society was founded in 1852, giving a performance of Rossini's Stabat Mater. By 1866, at least 17 choral societies had sprung up in the city.

The great earthquake and fire of 1906 decimated San Francisco. Slowly, music made its comeback, and the San Francisco Symphony gave its first concert Dec. 8, 1911 with conductor Henry Hadley. Four years later, the orchestra appointed Alfred Hertz as its music director. Hertz introduced a broad range of initiatives, including hiring the first women musicians, presenting youth concerts and making radio broadcasts and recordings.

Below is an excerpt of the very first San Francisco Symphony recording. Hertz leads the overture to Auber's opera Fra Diavolo, recorded Jan. 19, 1925 and released by RCA seven months later. (This version was superbly restored by Mark Obert-Thorn and released on Pristine Classical.)

In its early decades, the San Francisco Symphony hosted some historic firsts. The 7-year-old Yehudi Menuhin debuted in 1924 and Isaac Stern, just 15 years old, appeared with the orchestra in 1936. The Great Depression shuttered the Symphony for the 1934-35 season, but in the next season the orchestra began to make great strides under its new music director Pierre Monteux. He took the musicians on the road across America and led the ensemble in more than 40 recordings.

Succeeding music directors included Enrique Jorda, Josef Krips, Seiji Ozawa and Edo de Waart, who presided over the opening of the Symphony's current home, Davies Symphony Hall, in 1980. After Herbert Blomstedt's tenure, Michael Tilson Thomas took over in 1995, becoming the orchestra's first American music director since Hadley.

Tilson Thomas' innovative programming may not be so obvious in this centennial opener, but it certainly continues in this 100th anniversary season. There will be premieres of commissions by John Adams and electronica composer Mason Bates. And plans are set for an American Mavericks series spotlighting music by John Cage, Morton Feldman and Lou Harrison.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.