By Matt Smith
SF Weekly wasn't the only one annoyed to discover that SF Symphony Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas pulls down in the ballpark of $3 million annually from symphonies that happen to be publicly-funded charities.
San Francisco Board of Supervisors President Aaron Peskin was so outraged upon reading SF Weekly's Nov. 18 column "Business Conductor," that he plans to make cutting the symphony's $1.8 million city subsidy his last public act before he retires in January.
"I'm cutting the symphony's budget," Peskin said. "I'm starting with $1.8 million, and I'll end up with whatever I end up with," he added, in reference to the current annual subsidy city taxpayers contribute to the symphony's $60 million annual budget, which is largely funded via donations.
Peskin said he'll introduce legislation freezing out the symphony next Tuesday. It will likely be heard later in December, before the supervisor rides off into the sunset.
Before readers begin denouncing Peskin as an arts-hating rube, it's worth examining the degree to which our local publicly-funded orchestra has morphed into a machine dedicated to enriching one man.
Official industry salary guides list Tilson Thomas' as one of the highest-paid conductors in Classical Music, with an annual salary of just more than $1.5 million. But that figure's misleadingly small, because the SF Symphony makes it hard to track how much they pay Tilson Thomas by listing zero pay to their conductor in the most recently available 2006 reports to the IRS.
The symphony lists $442,000 in compensation for executive director Brent Assink, and $429,000 in compensation for concertmaster Alexander Barantschik. But it reports no salary for Tilson Thomas. Instead the symphony pays $1.6 million to a shell company set up by Tilson Thomas' boyfriend, while paying another $538,000 to Tilson Thomas' agent.
Additionally, the SF Symphony paid around $600,000 on Tilson Thomas-produced videos promoting Tilson Thomas' work, which he cashes in on by selling records and charging guest conductor fees. The city-funded symphony also boosts Tilson Thomas' earning potential by paying him for mere art time work. A symphony in Miami pays him another $500,000 to be their conductor, he reaps untold additional income as principal guest conductor for the London Symphony Orchestra, as well as from other gigs around the globe.
During the Great Depression the symphony went bankrupt. It was resurrected thanks to city legislation that gave the orchestra an annual stipend. The 1930s legislation is mostly forgotten, but the subsidy remains, despite the fact the orchestra is ow a juggernaut. City funds nly make up 3 percent of the symphony's budget; cutting it wouldn't cause much harm.
Peskin aknowledges he may not achieve the desired goal of cutting Tilson Thomas off the public teat. Gavin Newsom's political backers are the same swells who patronize the orchestra. And Newsom hasn't been known to cross that crowd, ever.
"The mayor will be able to veto it after I leave," Peskin lamented.
But Peskin will achieve the satisfaction of forcing his political rival to take the embarrassing position of routing scarce city funds toward lining the pockets of a multimillionaire.