Profile: SF Symphony's Mark Hanson

by Jesse Hamlin

SF Symphony's Mark Hanson has a sterling record managing American symphonies and expanding their reach.

If anyone was prepared to step into the top administrative job at the San Francisco Symphony, it’s the guy they hired, Mark Hanson, a former cellist with a sterling record managing American symphonies and expanding their reach.

Hanson’s experience and success running progressively larger symphonic organizations over the last 20 years—from the Rockford, Illinois, symphony to orchestras in Knoxville, Tennessee, Milwaukee and, most recently, Houston—have primed him to lead the renowned San Francisco Symphony forward as it deals with the fiscal and cultural challenges facing most nonprofit arts companies these days, as well as searching for a music director to succeed Michael Tilson Thomas when the celebrated maestro steps down in 2020.

“When you take away the obvious differenc­es between the Rockford Symphony and the San Francisco Symphony—more zeroes when you look at the balance sheet, and the number of concerts —the job description I have here is almost identical to the job description I had in Rockford,” says Han­son, 43, the Symphony’s energetic new executive director, sitting in his corner Davies Hall office.

“This career path, which has been really interesting, satisfying and I hope impactful, has allowed me to contribute and learn a lot in Rockford, and apply that in Knoxville, where I had the opportunity to negotiate my first collective bargaining agreement and participate in my first music director search. That certainly set me up to contribute to the growth of the Milwaukee Symphony during my seven years there, and another music director search, which resulted in Edo de Waart being appointed.”

The Dutch conductor was music director of the San Francisco Symphony from 1977 to ’85, when he worked with then-executive director Peter Pastreich, whom Hanson considers a mentor (Pastreich served as facilitator for contract negotiations in Milwaukee during Hanson’s tenure).

Hanson was a student at Harvard, directing a student-run homeless shelter when he applied for the orchestra management fellowship program at the American Symphony Orchestra League. Pastreich was on the panel that interviewed him and gave him the fellowship.

“With Mark, what you see is what you get,” says Pastreich. “He’s very straightforward. He’s an idealistic, hard-working and honest man, and that’s a pretty good start.”

Hanson, a Bostonian who planned to play cello professionally until he left the Eastman School of Music after sophomore year to pursue social studies at Harvard, is only the Symphony’s fifth executive director since the job was created in 1939. His immediate predecessor, Brent Assink, who worked with MTT to expand the orchestra’s touring and recording, its new-music programs and the multimedia education project “Keeping Score,” stayed for 18 years. (Thomas has been there 22.)

“I hope this will be my last job,” says Hanson, a trim, focused man who’s credited with building up the Houston Symphony’s finances, audience, donor base and outreach to the city’s diverse com­munities during his seven years there.

“There’s a long tradition of lengthy tenures here. And I think that’s one of the reasons why the San Francisco Symphony has achieved this pinnacle of being an internationally renowned and regionally beloved organization. Because it’s had continuity of artistic leadership, administrative leadership and board leadership.”

Hanson, who has three young sons with his wife, Christina, another former cellist in arts man­agement, had admired the Symphony from afar through its recordings and “Keeping Score.” Since last fall, he’s been soaking up the orchestra’s live performances and taking stock of the Symphony’s exceptional education and outreach programs, which he aims to expand.

He’s also working on a long-range financial plan to ensure that the organization—which has run small operating deficits in recent years and covered them with funds from its impressive $300 million endowment—can achieve balanced budgets without diminishing its programs.

“Artistically, this is one of the best and most valued orchestras in the country and the world,” Hanson says. “And the impact that the organization continues to have on the education outcomes for tens of thousands of kids in San Francisco and throughout the region is unparalleled, unmatched, in terms of breadth and depth.”

He’s referring to the Symphony’s signal Adventures in Music Program, whose 30th anniversary is being celebrated this month. The program has brought music education and live performances to more than 500,000 San Francisco public elementary school kids throughout their primary-grade years. The Music and Mentors program nurtures middle-and high-schoolers in bands and orchestras.

Hanson wants to “grow the number of regional school districts” the Symphony serves and step up efforts to draw audiences from across the area to Davies Hall as well as bringing the orchestra to them.

“First and foremost,” he says, “we’re focusing on the concert experience, to ensure that as many people as possible feel comfortable in the hall, re­gardless of what’s being performed that evening, and come away from that experience changed, moved, inspired . . . And I think there’s more we can be doing offstage to inform, excite and to a degree educate audiences, leading up to and during the performance. It’s not enough to just play this great music.”

With so many other options out there for music lovers, the Symphony, which doesn’t sell out as many concerts as it once did, must provide a unique experience, argues Hanson, who’s ponder­ing ways to bring some of the informality of the Symphony’s experimental SoundBox space to its other venues.

Talking directly to audiences about the music has become de rigueur for most conductors. MTT does it masterfully, and it’s one of the talents the Symphony’s search committee wants to see in his successor.

The first criterion, of course, is to “find a conductor with incredible chemistry with the orchestra, and chemistry with the audience,” says Hanson, who expects the right maestro will be among the guest conductors taking the podium. “Beyond that chemistry, that rapport and mutual respect, we want in our next music director some­one as gifted as Michael in terms of communicat­ing the power, beauty and uniqueness of this art form at audiences of all sizes.”