Arts: Fresh in from Frisco

Compared with its Angeleno neighbour, the San Francisco Symphony is an unknown quantity. But as London audiences will discover tonight, under Michael Tilson Thomas it's a world-class force
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The Independent Culture
Following close on the heels of the predominantly West Coast visitors to the Barbican Centre's "American Pioneers" series last autumn, Californian musicians are back in London once again tonight when the San Francisco Symphony makes only its second London appearance since Michael Tilson Thomas became its principal conductor in 1995. Having previously held the same position with the London Symphony Orchestra since 1988, Tilson Thomas is, of course, no stranger to the Barbican, but his appearance with the SFS marks a new high-water mark in American music. It signifies not only the growing stature of American symphony orchestras outside the "big five" - New York, Boston, Cleveland, Philadelphia and Chicago - but also a coming of age for West Coast musical life.

Unlike the Los Angeles Philharmonic, which gave two sensational performances at last summer's Proms, the recent achievements of the San Francisco Symphony have largely gone unsung. Indeed, the city of San Francisco itself has long languished in the shadow of Los Angeles, which attracted a string of emigre composers during the inter- and post-war years: Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Korngold and Martinu all made their homes there. The San Francisco Bay area, meanwhile, cultivated native Californian composers such as Henry Cowell, the inventor of the cluster, who grew up in the southern suburb of Menlo Park, and his student Lou Harrison, John Cage's microtonal collaborator, who spent his spare time studying scores in San Francisco's public library. It also witnessed the birth of American minimalism. LaMonte Young studied at UC Berkeley in the late Fifties; Steve Reich came west a few years later to study with Darius Milhaud at Mills College, Oakland; in 1964 the San Francisco Tape Music Center acted as midwife to Terry Riley's minimalist classic In C.

The San Francisco Symphony, too, has a venerable history. Its first concertmaster, Louis Persinger, attracted the New York-born Yehudi Menuhin, who made his concerto debut with the SFS in 1926, as well as the Russian-born Isaac Stern, who made his debut with the orchestra 10 years later. Its most illustrious conductor during the Thirties and Forties was Pierre Monteux; Seiji Ozawa became principal conductor in 1970. But recently, it's the name of John Adams, the composer of Nixon in China, that has been most indelibly linked with the orchestra.

Adams, a native New Englander, had moved to the city after graduating from Harvard in the early Seventies and become director of the Contemporary Music Ensemble at the San Francisco Conservatory. So when the Dutch conductor Edo de Waart was appointed principal conductor of the SFS in 1977 and began, as he recalls, "looking for someone young to help me find my way around American music", Adams was the obvious choice.

Milton Salkind, then president of the Conservatory, made the initial introductions. Peter Pastreich, executive director of the SFS, also brought Michael Steinberg from Boston as artistic adviser. With this triumvirate in place, the "New and Unusual Music" series was born, ushering in a golden age of musical life in the city and recordings of such Adams classics as Shaker Loops, Harmonium and Harmonielehre.

"Certainly it was the most exciting four or five years of my life," reflects De Waart from his new base in Sydney, Australia. "I had a sense that something good was happening, but how good it was I didn't realise until later." For Adams, the experience of programming the "New and Unusual Music" series and the chance to write for the San Francisco Symphony (he was appointed composer-in-residence in 1982) provided the environment he needed to learn about orchestral writing.

"The relationship between Edo and John was such a good example of a collaboration between a music director and a composer, this kind of intricate touching- up of details in rehearsals and kind of give-and-take," says Jorja Fleezanis, former co-leader of the orchestra. "The whole orchestra was really a kind of laboratory for him... This stuff was really fresh - very recently out of the birth canal, as it were."

After De Waart's departure for Minnesota in 1985, the SFS consolidated itself as a world-class orchestra under the direction of the Swedish conductor Herbert Blomstedt, who went on to put it on the musical map with tours of Asia, a stunning debut at the 1990 Salzburg Festival, and a series of acclaimed recordings for Decca.

But the iconoclastic tradition of San Francisco's musical forefathers finally came full circle in 1995 with the appointment of Bernstein's protege Michael Tilson Thomas as principal conductor. As an American-born, native- Angeleno conductor, Tilson Thomas is a rare commodity. His appointment builds on the strengths of both his immediate predecessors: the massive personnel changes made by De Waart, who replaced almost half the players, and the discipline and stylistic finesse cultivated by Blomstedt. According to Peter Pastreich, who has managed the orchestra for more than 20 years, "Michael brings an interest in similar repertory to Blomstedt, but there's more showmanship and a more outward-going and communicative approach. And he's got the ensemble to do it with."

More significantly, Tilson Thomas's interests in Cowell and Harrison constitute a living link to San Francisco's iconoclastic musical past, while his penchant for American composers manifests itself in subtle programming that balances the needs of the core symphony audience with his support for new music. Thus the programme he brings to the Barbican this month combines classic American music - Charles Ives's Three Places in New England (or A New England Symphony) - with Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony and Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto (with Gil Shaham).

Tilson Thomas's masterstroke, though, has been to start performing the music of composers whom he counts as his friends and mentors outside the traditional symphony season. A series of new summer festivals began in 1995 with the two-week-long "An American Festival": the sight of MTT (as Tilson Thomas is universally known) improvising with members of the Grateful Dead was the talk of the town. "Celebrations of the Sacred and Profane" and a Mahler festival followed. This summer's event promises to focus on the music of a single 20th-century composer. "These festivals are part of what makes Michael want to be in San Francisco," says Pastreich. "They are that important to him."

MTT's tenure at Davies Symphony Hall began with a free outdoor concert attended by 11,000 people. Free open-air concerts that make up the Sterngrove Festival confirm how hard the orchestra works to capture the heart of the city. But San Francisco has always taken its culture seriously. A key component of its healthy arts scene has been the hotel tax levied on visiting tourists; the proceeds go direct to the city's arts budgets. There's no denying, too, that the size of the city's large gay population, with its higher-than-average disposable income, is highly advantageous for the arts.

Sophisticated programming, aggressive outreach, imaginative educational initiatives and creative audience-development techniques can all be found in Europe. But the rise of the San Francisco Symphony is the story of a regional orchestra that's turned itself into a world-class ensemble by reinventing itself to reflect the changing needs of 21st-century audiences and the diverse communities it serves. It's a salutary tale with valuable lessons about a distinctly Californian approach to an American problem - lessons that regional orchestras in Europe might usefully follow.

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts the San Francisco Symphony at the Barbican Hall, London EC2 (0171-638 8891) at 7.30pm tonight