One cannot lose sight of the fact that capital-A Art, as an institution, relies on a set of economic and social mechanisms to make it all happen. The municipal symphony orchestra as we know it is largely an invention of the 19th century and does not in any way reflect “a natural state of things,” as it concerns music in the public sphere. Even the ominous, rending calls-and-responses between baritone and horn cannot answer the question of how an orchestra will get flights booked, meals cooked and all the money needed to keep it going.

San Francisco Symphony

November 13 at 7:30 pm, November 14 at 8 pm
Hill Auditorium
$14 to $85


These facts are so self-evident that they’re often just forgotten. As John Kieser, general manager of the San Francisco Symphony (SFS), discussed in an interview with The Michigan Daily, the orchestra is something that lives by sculpting a public presence or, to use his phrase, a “brand.” Increasingly, this has meant confronting the power of social media in public relations. And in the world of classical music, the SFS has defined the cutting-edge of the social media savvy.

“(When we created the label) we wanted to control all aspects of the media,” Kieser said. “So that includes not only what we recorded and when we recorded, but also how that media was produced and under what formats and how the distribution would work. So essentially, we became a kind of indie label.”

This has meant not only an increasingly global presence across a variety of platforms and formats, but also the move to found an in-house record label. The SFS has been successful in centralizing everything from production to distribution to media relations. Beyond constituting a successful business model, the movement illustrates the interdependence of economic and artistic practice. With the integration of recording and distribution, the SFS grants itself that much more artistic license by not being accountable to an external agent.

The SFS took an even bigger gamble by producing a multi-million dollar project spanning many years called Keeping Score, which exhibits broadcasts of performances, video and documentary media and educational resources.

“It’s highly unusual for an orchestra or a performing arts entity to actually produce their own PBS miniseries, but that’s what we did,” Kieser said. “There is no other program that takes a live performance and builds around it an experiential documentary.”

The SFS popularizes classical music at multiple levels: first, at the basic level of bringing classical music to more listeners and, second, by humanizing the people whose lives’ work underlies an area of cultural commonly associated with the esoteric, the inaccessible and the unpopular.

The SFS has made itself known worldwide through its partnerships with international distribution companies. Their reputation is so well-based through these efforts that they were awarded the Preis der deutschen Schallplattenkritik (German Record Critics’ Award) for their recordings of Mahler’s symphonies, a grand gesture for an American symphony by a German association.

The SFS’s first-night program in Ann Arbor will feature Mahler’s Seventh Symphony, their second a bill of Liszt, Prokofiev and Ravel. To choose such different programs is a bold and demanding aesthetic decision. This creative breadth represents the innovative and adventurous attitude that the SFS exhibits in all aspects of its practice. With acclaimed conductor Michael Tilson Thomas at the helm, fans of classical music can expect a brilliant and enchanting performance from this Grammy-award winning orchestra.

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