Longtime symphony exec leaving post
By Lou Fancher
Like the best composers, Brent Assink has mastered polyphonic listening.
During 18 years as executive director with San Francisco Symphony, keeping an “ear to the street” attuned the 61-year-old Walnut Creek resident to the interests of audiences, funders and educators.
Regular piano playing connected Assink to his early life as a musician and composer. While riding BART to work, radio and CDs anchored his appreciation of “profound, exuberant, energetic and endlessly varied music.”
Even dissonance was embraced: soul searching after a crippling 2013 strike, Assink paid heed to an inner dialogue that told him “my being literally seen at the table” by the symphony’s 100-plus musicians was critical for organizational harmony.
Always, symphony concerts in San Francisco’s Davies Hall and other venues worldwide kept music vibrant not just in his ears, but in his soul.
Similarly, alertness to potential “sound” signaled Assink’s March 31 departure from work that has brought challenge, success, life lessons, intrinsic rewards and deep friendships.
“To approach the job with teachable perspective has meant that if especially young people’s input was pinging off of me because I was fossilized, it was time to go. I wasn’t feeling it yet, but I was seeing it coming,” says Assink.
Arriving at the San Francisco Symphony in 1990 from St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, Assink served as general manager for four years. Ping-ponging back to SPCO for five years as president, Assink returned to SFS as executive director in 1999.
Since then, major innovations launched at the symphony — beyond Assink’s handling of 220 annual concerts and a $77.9 million budget — include SFS Media, the symphony’s in-house audio/video recording label; Keeping Score, an interactive website introducing classical music to the public; Soundbox, a highly successful experimental concert venue; and education and community programs that include Adventures in Music, SFS Youth Orchestras, Music for Families and others.
Underscoring it all, he says, are relationships.
“I love to hear people’s stories about why they come to the symphony — from being dragged by a grandmother to ‘my kids are learning violin’ to simply loving Beethoven. What has touched me most are people’s stories about trauma and how music has gotten them through it,” he says.
If directing an administrative team has come naturally, Assink says the “character-building” aspect of his job is the “journey of discovery” with the symphony’s musicians.
“New people come in, are absorbed, shift the culture. Being attuned is critical.”
Close attention to music director Michael Tilson Thomas’ passions and new technology has led to career highlights.
“MTT’s first concert with the symphony in 1974 was Mahler No. 9. I always felt that if we didn’t make some historical record of his performances of Mahler that it would be a lost opportunity,” says Assink.
That thought led to the formation of SFS Media and seven Grammy Awards for the Mahler cycle series of recordings.
The 550-seat Soundbox that achieves the symphony’s goal to appeal to a younger, 20-something audience, he says was a “miracle of synergy.”
Meyer Sound’s development of the Constellation Acoustic System synched with the symphony’s idea to renovate the venue Assink says was “a funky, industrial-vibe warehouse with atrocious acoustics.”
Soundbox programs sell out within 15 minutes of tickets going on sale. “Technology was the game changer,” says Assink.
Tilson Thomas says that paramount among Assink’s qualities and skills are “Brent’s deep love and passion for music” and his “unwavering focus” on artistic excellence and providing value to the community.
“Brent’s tireless advocacy and belief in this orchestra have been the cornerstone of his leadership,” says Thomas.
Speaking about his successor, Walnut Creek’s music scene and his future plans, it’s no surprise that listening underscores Assink’s comments.
“(My successor) must above all love the music. Be nimble, sharp, respect the demands placed on professional musicians, connect and be responsive to the community because audiences want to know our musicians better.”
Understanding the Bay Area’s “energetic, quirky, creative, innovative” culture and staying on track with the symphony’s primary purpose — “live performance by highly skilled musicians playing at the top of their game music repertory from the last 500 years” — are imperative.
The Lesher Center, according to Assink, is a catalyst for arts development in the East Bay. He’d like to see continued growth.
“I’d like the Bay Area on a per capita basis to lead the nation in arts participation among adults. That means you’re not only attending arts events, you’re making art yourself.”
If he were to launch an arts organization, education would play a primary role. But for the near future, Assink and his wife, Jan Assink, plan to “take a step back, assess where we are.” No doubt, listening and music will continue to be primary characters in his story.