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Michael Tilson Thomas: Worth every penny

December 14, 2008 |  7:00 am

Bessie Thomashefsky Oy vey, now what are they trying to do to Bessie Thomashefsky's grandson? 

The San Francisco Weekly lately got word that Michael Tilson Thomas' salary is what the news-hounds figured was a whopping $1.6 million.  After reading the article, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin, in a fit of pique, now promises to cut off the city's $1.8-million subsidy to the symphony, according to a follow-up in the Weekly.

Here's some news for a supervisor: MTT's salary is hardly peanuts but is average, around the level of Esa-Pekka Salonen's at the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Certain East Coast maestros reportedly pick up $2 million-plus. Lorin Maazel was reputed to have taken home more than $4 million a year in Munich before he moved to the New York Philharmonic.

And here's what $1.6 million buys besides a lot of great performances.  The San Francisco Symphony has, under MTT, gone from second rank to first, from unimportant to important.  Support for the orchestra has grown enormously, meaning that the $1.6 million draws in many millions more for the orchestra each year.  He brings goodwill to the town, and even in orchestra-heaven Los Angeles, Tilson Thomas' appearances are highly anticipated, as is his presentation this week with the Los Angeles Philharmonic of a program about his grandparents, Bessie and Boris Thomashefsky, who were stars of the New York Yiddish Theater. (You can read about it in my Arts & Books story.)

MTT attracts tourist dollars, especially for his festivals. He is the education conductor, who has used his SF Symphony resources to make important television and fabulous radio programs about classical music. 

The question, though, is not how much MTT is worth but how many millions might it cost San Francisco to once more promote itself as a sophisticate city if a Philistine supervisor actually has his way?

And how about those Yankees?  Left-hander C.C. Sabathia just signed a seven-year contract for 100 times MTT's $1.6 million.  Now, that's real money.  It even includes a million bucks in pocket change.

-- Mark Swed

Photo: Bessie Thomashefsky appeared in "Sh'ma Yisroel" (Hear, O Israel) in 1907. Credit: The Thomashefsky Project / San Francisco Symphony

Comments () | Archives (11)

In a era of economic chaos and while the final curtain call is being given to many symphony orchestras across the country, I find it obscene that the San Francisco symphony feels MTT is worth the big bucks. As an amateur conductor, getting paid that kind of money to do something I love, is only a dream. MTT is living the dream, let's hope he doesn't wake up to a nasty hangover.

MTT is at the top of his profession and therefore his salary is commensurate with his status - similar to any profession. His, and the Orchestras, value to both the immediate community of San Francisco and the rest of the world is priceless. The strong message that any city sends out to the rest-of-the-world with cuts to the arts is that it neither cares about the artistic growth of its citizens nor that of its practitioners. Without the arts our existence is meaningless, it touches and aspires to the highest ideals of Mankind.
Does the city of San Francisco really want to lose one of its most prized assets? The old saying - 'they know the price of everything but the value of nothing' springs to mind.

As a resident of San Francisco, I'll accept MTT taking a pay cut when the board of supervisors, the group responsible for spending the tax payer's money, offers to work for free while the city is over budget.

As a professional musician, I agree with the city's decision. Arts organizations such as the San Francisco Symphony have created a sub-culture of opulence and megalomania by overpaying their music directors. It is wonderful for musicians to be valued like athletes and essential that we be paid fairly, but when there are millions to be made, someone is profiting, and the city of San Francisco has every right to demand accountability where its tax dollars are concerned. To refer to this kind of oversight as philistinism is unfair, though I will agree that oversight should be extended to other types of non-profits such as hospitals and universities where administrators are being paid similarly egregious figures.

I think MTT probably deserves the bucks, but does Brent Assink, the President of the San Francisco Symphony, deserve $455,000 a year which is being directly subsidized by San Francisco taxpayers? This is also in the context of the news that San Francisco's municipal budget is going to be about a half a billion dollars below expectations this year and public health programs are being slashed drastically.

Michael Tilson Thomas is the best thing in San Francisco, absolutely inspiring. He does more than just music direct and conduct. He has produced a terrific TV/DVD series called "Keeping Score." His work with the young orchestra in Florida, and now his YouTube Symphony all enhance his artistry back here in SF. There are so many athletic dolts being paid mega bucks, movie stars being paid $20 million per film. This is the first I've heard of this ruckus, and I hope he doesn't get snatched away from us. I earn only $10 day (YES PER DAY) caring for my 88-year-old mother with Alzheimer, and I manage to take her to three or four concerts per year. We were just gifted with orchestra tickets to his Mahler's 8th, and it was unforgettable...well to one of us it was unforgettable. She was in it for the moment. I even bought photo of him from the SF Chronicle photographer, where he turned around to conduct the audience. What, was this a singalong? (oh, silly me, he was conducting the organist.) Hooray for MTT!

It is not the business of everyday people who thrive on having tyhe arts in their lives to know these things. It also sets a precent to all levels of the arts when they see items exposed like this in a community that is indeed lucky to have someone on the level of MTT bringing such pride and good fortune to their community and as a role model to so many musicians throughout the world. A protege of the great Leonard Bernstein, he is a role model for many, and considering what it costs to build stadiums, and the payments doled out to the team players, and other amazingly high salaries paid out for professions not on the exposed list, I think it would be best for a city to define the things that make their city what it is, and those who bring a positive image to their city on a global level. MTT has certainly raised the standard for the orchestra over the years and people worldwide respect him as one of the best musicians alive today.

MTT made ths SFSO a 1st rate orchestra? Funny I thought it was already quite good under Blomstedt...

This is an outrageous joke. Not only is this pennies compared to ahtletes and CEO, but MTT is at the top of his profession. Being a musical director of a major orchestra is not only HUGE amounts of planning, but it's fundraising, acting as the face of the organization...in MTT's case he's always participating in activities which draw attention to the SFS.
If some rubber-stamper from the SF city council wants to make a big deal out of it, compare it to something like the $1B in tax exempt city-bonds that the ultra-rich Yankees are getting to build their new stadium. It will take 9 years for MTT to earn what defensive end Dustin Smith of the SF 49ers makes in one year.

It just shows how worthless classical music is perceived to be in our culture.

I am a fan of your writing. However, I am quite surprises that you would make the comparison to pro sports. The economic issue is the point of the SF Weekly's outrage. Pro sports teams pay for themselves. I know the argument about state and city money for stadiums. But, those are real things that people use and pay for themselves.

$1.6 million sounds like a lot, but chances are that MTT more than pays for his salary through donations and other revenues his involvement with the orchestra generates. And getting another conductor of his stature wouldn't cost any less; that's the market price for the top people in the field. As for making the orchestra first-rate, it was a terrific orchestra already under both Edo de Waart and Herbert Bloomstedt. It may be still better now, as orchestras tend to improve over time simply by newer, better players replacing those who retire - you can't credit a conductor for that.


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