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Few orchestras owe their birth to catastrophe. But the creation of the San Francisco Symphony in 1911 was one of the most enlightened contributions to the rebuilding of a city that had been all but levelled by the earthquake five years previously.

A professional orchestra for the city had been long overdue. Built on the fortunes of the great California gold rush, San Francisco had been one of the most musically active centres in America for more than half a century when a group of civic leaders and private philanthropists finally created a 60-piece ensemble with the now forgotten composer-conductor Henry Hadley at its helm.

Marking its centenary is Larry Rothe’s handsomely produced, lavishly illustrated volume. as the orchestra’s long-time concert programme editor, Rothe proves himself a well-placed and astute observer of recent history and a clear-sighted commentator on past travails and triumphs. Making copious use of rare photographs and evocative archive material, this extremely readable history tells a fascinating behind-the-scenes story that reveals as much about San Francisco’s love affair with music as about the occasionally faltering rise of the orchestra itself.

It treats the failures – the near fatal bankruptcy of 1934, the aimlessness in the absence of a successor to music director Pierre Monteux and the near-disastrous decade-long appointment of Enrqiue Jordá that followed – with unblinking candour, and the triumphs – the ‘musical body-building’ undertaken by Joseph Krips, the golden-age tenures of Monteux, Herbert Blomstedt and current incumbent on the podium, Michael Tilson Thomas – with an engaging level-headedness.

Impeccably researched and written with a concern for the wider American and international contexts occupied by the SFS, Rothe’s book is a treasure trove of information about musical life in the Bay area – whose ‘unruly mix of ethnicities and classes and opinions is America in microcosm’ – over the past century. For admirers of the orchestra, it is an essential souvenir of its first 100 years.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica


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