The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra on Tuesday appointed Mark C. Hanson, the former head of the San Francisco Orchestra and a leader one musician described as “a giant in the industry,” as its next president and CEO.
Hanson, 48, who already has led two orchestras larger than the BSO, will begin his new job April 21. He succeeds Peter Kjome, who announced his resignation as the BSO’s president and CEO in the spring of 2021. His contract expired at the end of January.
“Mark is known as someone who has overseen remarkable turnarounds of the orchestras that he has headed,” said Brian Prechtl, a percussionist with the orchestra, head of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra Players Committee and a member of the search committee.
“He is kind of a giant in the industry,” Prechtl said. “The Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was well-positioned to succeed before the pandemic, but COVID-19 has really changed the landscape of the symphony orchestra world. We need strong and experienced leadership right now, and Mark is the perfect person to provide it.”
The BSO also is in the midst of a search to find the right candidate to succeed music director Marin Alsop, who stepped down last August. That process might not wrap up until the spring of 2024.
The appointment of a new orchestra president might seem less exciting, but symphony presidents play a more public role than their counterparts do in live theaters or dance troupes. During the summer of 2019, when symphony musicians were locked out of Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall for three months, it was Kjome who became an at-times polarizing figure and made national headlines.
Alsop, who like many music conductors has a demanding international career, remained largely silent regarding the controversy.
Barry Rosen, chairman of the symphony’s board of directors, estimated that about 150 candidates applied for the top job. That list was whittled down to five finalists before the search committee voted unanimously to offer the position to Hanson.
“This is a terrific opportunity for the BSO and for Mark,” Rosen said. “He obviously has the credentials, having already run orchestras in Milwaukee, Houston and San Francisco. He has been a change agent at every stop. We have made great progress at the BSO, but with COVID, we have a whole lot of work still ahead of us.”
Not a typical career path
Rosen was referring to in-person attendance at concerts. Arts groups in Baltimore shut down abruptly in March 2020 after the pandemic reached Maryland, and live performances didn’t resume until last fall. Since then, audiences have been slow to return as several waves of new infections caused by coronavirus variants sent case loads soaring nationwide.
Hanson’s appointment is likely to surprise classical music insiders since it reverses the typical career trajectory of a symphony president.
A 1997 graduate of Harvard University, Hanson comes to Baltimore after four years of leading the San Francisco Symphony, which had annual revenue of $93.6 million before the pandemic. The BSO’s pre-pandemic revenue was $28 million.
When Hanson resigned last August as the California orchestra’s president and CEO, he was paid $974,040, according to tax forms. At the BSO, Kjome earned a salary of $298,000 when he stepped down.
Rosen declined to reveal how much Hanson will be paid in Baltimore. But he said the BSO is not attempting to match his California salary.
“We don’t have that kind of budget,” Rosen said. “But we’re paying him a perfectly sensible amount given the budget we do have.”
When the San Francisco Symphony announced last summer that Hanson had resigned, the news raised eyebrows.
The influential online classical music website Slipped Disc headlined its article about the resignation, “Crisis at San Francisco Symphony as Chief Exec Quits.”
“There is no disguising the depth of the crisis,” the article said. “The orchestra has a new music director coming in and has just undergone a glitzy rebrand. For the CEO to go at this juncture, and after just four years in the job testifies to an impossible situation.”
During a virtual meeting over Zoom, Hanson acknowledged that “this is not the most obvious career progression.”
But he said his new job presents him with the rare opportunity to help an orchestra at a pivotal moment in its existence.
“I am very proud of what we have accomplished in San Francisco,” he said. “But I thought that I could have a greater personal impact in a different environment and with an orchestra that is pursuing a unique and vitally different vision for the future at a critically important moment in its history.”
A chance to make a difference
As a college student, Hanson studied cello performance at New York’s Eastman College of Music for two years before transferring to Harvard University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in social studies. During that time, he co-directed a student-run homeless shelter, which he described as a formative experience.
“I experienced firsthand the power of a few people to make a difference,” he said. “I was thrilled to discover later that I could accomplish the same thing by working for orchestras.”
Hanson said he was attracted to the Baltimore job in part because of OrchKids, a program created by Alsop that uses music instruction to achieve social change by providing free lessons, homework help and a meal to kids from pre-K through the 12th grade who live in impoverished neighborhoods.
“OrchKids has already accomplished so much,” he said. “It may have the potential to make an even greater impact in the city of Baltimore and beyond.”
Hanson has led five orchestras since completing a fellowship from the League of American Orchestras in 1998: the Rockford Symphony Orchestra in Illinois; the Knoxville Symphony Orchestra in Tennessee; the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra in Wisconsin; the Houston Symphony in Texas; and finally, the San Francisco Symphony. He is married and has three sons, and the average length of his tenure at each organization was 4.6 years.
In California, his accomplishments include increasing the size of in-person attendance by 10% before the pandemic and guiding a two-year search process that culminated in the widely acclaimed appointment of Esa-Pekka Salonen as the orchestra’s music director.
Hanson increased contributions to the San Francisco Symphony by 33%, Rosen said, and restored the organization to consecutive balanced budgets after years of deficits.
Rosen admitted that initially he had the same question about Hanson that others have asked: Why would someone with Hanson’s track record want to take a job that at least superficially appears to be a step down?
“I had a long talk with the former board chair of the San Francisco Symphony,” Rosen said. “As a lawyer, I’ve checked lots and lots of references, and Mark got the best reference I’ve ever heard about anyone. It was glowing.
“Everything about this decision feels right to me. Everything fits into place, as if it had been destined.”