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SF Symphony Cancels 2019-20 Season, Moves Michael Tilson Thomas Farewell Online

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Davies Symphony Hall, home to the San Francisco Symphony, is one of several venues to cancel performances due to the coronavirus.
Davies Symphony Hall, home to the San Francisco Symphony. (SF Symphony / Joel Puliatti)

The San Francisco Symphony on Wednesday announced the cancellation of all concerts remaining in its 2019-20 season as well as pay cuts affecting nearly 200 workers due to shelter-in-place orders to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The move to call off programming through Aug. 1 brings the symphony’s total number of canceled events to 64 and represents a step further than most arts presenters have taken. It comes a day after California Governor Gavin Newsom said at a press conference that concerts won’t resume until the final phase of reopening the economy—still months away.

Because the season marks the end of Michael Tilson Thomas’ quarter century tenure as music director, the symphony is also launching a 25-day “digital celebration” of his career. In a statement, Thomas said that the season’s cancellation saddens him greatly. “We would have been performing essential works in which we have developed our special sound, style and collaboration.”

The symphony has been dormant since the second week of March, when local officials forbade non-essential gatherings in city-owned facilities. According to the announcement, the symphony faces more than $13 million in lost revenue and $5.4 million in net losses due to the cancellations of Davies Symphony Hall and SoundBox events as well as a three-week tour to New York and Europe.

To counter the losses, the symphony is implementing what leadership in the statement call “shared sacrifice” reductions: Stagehands, staff and members of the orchestra and chorus have agreed to salary reductions averaging 25 percent in effect from April 19 to Sept. 5. Thomas will not be compensated for canceled concerts. All workers retain healthcare and insurance benefits.


A symphony spokesperson confirmed the pay reductions impact nearly 200 workers, saying senior leadership is taking the “highest cuts.” The spokesperson also said the organization applied for and has received funds through the federal CARES Act.

In a statement, chief executive Mark Hanson described the plan as balancing individual and institutional needs. “Our top priority from the very beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic has been to take care of the people who are the San Francisco Symphony family,” Hanson said.

Like most performing arts groups, the symphony is encouraging ticketholders to donate the cost of their tickets or to ask for a gift certificate for the value of their tickets. A group of board members and donors have pledged to match ticket donations through an initial $1 million fund.

According to its 2018-19 season impact report, the symphony derives 35 percent of its operating revenue from ticket sales and runs on an $80 million annual budget. The nonprofit organization disclosed net assets worth $321,864,438 on its most recent publicly available tax return form.

San Francisco arts organizations project losing up to $73 million in earned income and donations if—as the symphony is now anticipating—the novel coronavirus crisis proceeds through the summer, according to the results of a survey of 145 local groups released in March.

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