Special Reports

MA 30 The Influencers: Ruth Felt

December 1, 2015 | By Rick Schultz

Founder and President
San Francisco Performances

From Hubert Humphrey to Yo-Yo Ma is quite a leap. But Ruth Felt, who worked for the presidential hopeful in the late 1960’s, made the transition from politics to the arts with single-minded vision and grace. As founder and president of San Francisco Performances, a presenting organization offering chamber concerts, recitals, jazz, and dance, Felt has made a profound impact on the city’s cultural life. In 1979, she saw a limited number of chamber music and recital opportunities in the area, so she started San Francisco Performances. The first season, in 1980-81, offered seven programs; the current, 36th, season offers over 70. 

During Felt’s tenure, many artists, including Ma, Leif Ove Andsnes, Anne-Sophie Mutter, András Schiff, and Dawn Upshaw, made their San Francisco recital debuts. In 2003, the organization became an early supporter of violinist Jennifer Koh (Musical America’s 2016 Instrumentalist of the Year) and her four-part “Bridge to Beethoven” project, which comes to fruition this season. After Felt heard works by composer Thomas Adès, she brought him to the Bay Area in 2006, but made sure his program was consistent with her commitment to SF Performances’s mission of showcasing chamber music, or what Felt calls “the more intimate art form.”

The organization’s activities also include education. In the 1988-89 season, SF Performances’s artists-in-residence, the Alexander String Quartet, started going into public schools. Since 1994, the Quartet, along with host and lecturer Robert Greenberg, have added an adult-education Saturday morning series in various venues in the Bay Area. Residencies expanded in the late 1990’s to include classical guitar, jazz, and vocal music.

With a loyal subscriber base anchoring its operating budget, the independent, multi-disciplinary organization under Felt has remained comfortably in the black. “We are in very good shape,” Felt says, “but there’s no resting on one’s laurels, because the marketplace is ongoing and challenging.” Felt, who is 76, announced last month that she is retiring, though she leaves SF Performances having already programmed much of the next two seasons. “We succeeded against the odds,” Felt says. People predicted I could not do this. Now a new generation of leaders will take the organization into the future.”

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