San Francisco Performances: Forty Years of a High-Wire Act

by K.M. Soehnlein

An Interview with San Francisco Performance’s President Melanie Smith

Sustaining an arts organization for forty years is like running a marathon into headwinds. Local mainstay San Francisco Performances (SFP) — presenters of soloists and chamber ensembles performing everything from classical and baroque to jazz and modern music — has not only weathered the storm, they’ve thrived in an of age media distractions, tech gadgets, and skyrocketing costs. SFP President Melanie Smith says the key to survival is giving audiences a unique, quality experience in an intimate setting, in this case, the Herbst Theatre. “You feel like you’re right there with the artists; you can hear them breathe. You don’t get that in a 3,000-seat hall.”

The term chamber music can conjure up something stiff and esoteric, but for Smith it’s “like watching a high-wire act. Watching an artist sustain a level of mastery, live in front of you for 90 minutes, puts you on a journey full of tension.” Artists feel it too, delivering what Smith calls “personally meaningful work with a strong point of view,” she says. “These are not just cookie-cutter programs that tour everywhere.”

Smith cites the jubilant launch in September of their milestone 40th season. Natasha Paremski, classically trained in Moscow, shared the bill with Alfredo Rodriguez, a Cuban native in the lineage of jazz improvisers like Keith Jarrett — a rarity in the compartmentalized culture of musical performance. “We brought them together for piano fireworks,” Smith says, with obvious delight. “It was a little controversial for folks who said there wasn’t enough of a through-line between them. But they’re both virtuosos, and the audience celebrated that.”

Launched in 1979 by visionary programmer Ruth Felt, SFP has attracted and cultivated the cream of the crop. “Ruth had incredible taste, the best taste, and she’d find young artists emerging around the world,” Smith says of her predecessor, noting that Ruth left her “enormous shoes to fill.” She points to pianist Marc-André Hamelin — who will perform at SFP’s 40th anniversary concert in April 2020 (along with tenor Nicholas Phan, composer/pianist Gabriel Kahane, and the Alexander String Quartet) — as an example of an artist promoted by SFP twenty years before he was well known. “We helped him build a devoted local following. Now he has an international career.”

Getting Millennials to attend chamber concerts can be like trying to herd unicorns; Smith calls this the challenge facing arts presenters everywhere. “There’s no magic bullet,” she says, “no single solution to coaxing younger ears to listen.” She points to SFP’s initiative PIVOT, where they can “think outside of the box, be a little more avant-garde” — like presenting the Jack Quartet, young musicians performing in the dark. “We’ve learned that our core audience is open to more experimental experiences that also bring in a lot of first-timers.”

To develop the audiences of the future, SFP brings artists-in-residence into the classroom, part of a robust education program that Smith sees as essential. “We might bring in a jazz artist to get students to understand that jazz is a conversation, even an argument, where different voices come to consensus — a model of civics through music. The kids get it; they ask interesting questions and make profound statements about what they’re experiencing.” SFP has supported such luminaries as classical guitarist Manuel Barrueco, violinist Regina Carter, and their newest artist-in-residence, Dashon Burton, a baroque singer Smith describes as “very versatile” in his ability to connect students to unfamiliar music.

Smith links her own belief in civic conversation to her years of being mentored by women, including Judith Arron at Carnegie Hall, the violinist Midori, and Ruth Felt. “My leadership style was formed by powerful women. I have strong ideas and opinions, but I try to listen to the other voices in the room with compassion and humanity. I operate from the belief that we can all work together respectfully.” Though she says, “I have not perceived a glass ceiling because I’ve had all these examples in front of me,” she notes with concern that there are fewer women in arts leadership roles than in the 1980s. “There are still plenty of women in the field in more regional organizations, but not at the helms of the biggies. That’s a loss.”

Smith calls herself “the luckiesperson” to be able to develop friendships with artists and to facilitate their connections to audience members. “When I see the A-ha! moment — when someone, whether a kid in the classroom or an adult at a recital, tells me, ‘I was transported to another place, it helped give me solace, calm, reflection, or joy’ — it’s a gift. Especially in these tumultuous times, we all need to share communal experiences that are powerful, positive, and link us to something bigger than ourselves.”

Visit for details of 2019-2020 season performances.