American opera and orchestra conductor Alfred Hertz was of German birth and renowned for his interpretations of Wagner's music. Hertz also helped bring the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra to a professional level, and under Hertz' baton this now major American orchestra presented a full concert season for the first time. Also with Hertz the San Francisco Symphony became one of the first American orchestras to record on the Victor label.
Crippled since childhood from an attack of infantile paralysis, Hertz walked with a cane, but briskly and cheerfully. Hertz received his basic musical education at the Hoch Conservatory in the city of his birth. He then held various posts in Halle, Altenburg, and Barmen-Elberfeld. From his London concerts (1899) and his work at the Breslau Opera for three years, his reputation as a conductor of the Wagnerian canon grew. In 1902, Hertz made his
Metropolitan Opera conducting debut in Lohengrin. In 1903, Hertz led the first performance of Parsifal that had occurred outside of Bayreuth, a bold move that angered Cosima Wagner so much that she managed to get Hertz banned for life from all German theaters. In an unusual quirk of history, many of Hertz' 1903 Metropolitan performances of Wagner can be heard in bits and fragments yet today, as Metropolitan Opera librarian Lionel Mapleson surreptitiously recorded a good many segments in concert on wax cylinders.
Hertz also led American premieres of the Richard Strauss opera Salome, which had a notorious reputation at the time because of its sensuality, as well as Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, Engelbert Humperdinck's Die Königskinder (The King's Children), and many American works, such as Horatio Parker's Mona and Walter Damrosch's Cyrano de Bergerac.
Hertz was on tour, conducting the orchestra that accompanied the legendary Enrico Caruso in a series of Metropolitan Opera concerts, when he arrived in San Francisco just in time for the Great Earthquake of 1906. Hertz was quoted in a newspaper describing the quake as sounding "something comparable to the mezzo forte roll on a cymbal or gong." In 1915, Hertz returned to San Francisco to present several performances during a Beethoven Festival. While there, he was offered the conductorship of the symphony to succeed its first conductor Henry Hadley, who had been with the orchestra during its first four years. Hertz accepted the position, partly because of artistic differences with Gatti-Casazza at the Met, and was to remain at the helm of the symphony for the next 15 years until his farewell performance on April 15, 1930, with a reported 11,000 people in attendance at the Civic Auditorium. During his tenure, the orchestra was the first to hire women players other than harp players.
In 1922, Hertz initiated concerts at the Hollywood Bowl and continued in this position in the 1930s after he left the San Francisco Symphony. During the Depression years, Hertz was actively involved in relief activities to assist adversely affected musicians through the Federal Music Project for Northern California and the San Francisco Federal Symphony Orchestra. From 1932 to 1939, Hertz conducted the radio concerts known as the Standard Symphony Hour. Hertz left a bequest to fund Hertz Hall at Berkeley and the Alfred Hertz Memorial Performance Fellowship, which is annually awarded by the University of California. Hertz's autobiography was published posthumously in 30 serial installments in the San Francisco Chronicle (1942).