Esa-Pekka Salonen: Maestro with a Mission

By Jesse Hamlin

New Director Embraces Diversity and Innovation for SF Symphony's New Season

In late June, Esa-Pekka Salonen, the San Francisco Symphony’s esteemed new music director, conducted the full orchestra for the first time since assuming the post last year at the peak of the pandemic. The full brass and woodwind sections were finally allowed to join the still-masked string players onstage for a morning rehearsal of Schumann’s “Rhenish” Symphony, the glorious sound of live orchestral music filling Davies Hall after a long, unsettling absence.

Afterwards, Salonen made his way back to the brass players and exchanged a few words and laughs. He told them it had been so long since he’d heard trombones and tuba playing full-out loud, double forte, it seemed way louder than normal. He’d spent much of the lockdown at his country home in his native Finland, where the loudest sound he heard was the cawing of crows.

“I said, ‘you know, guys, I’m not sure what I’m hearing,’ and they started laughing and said, ‘We know what you’re talking about,’” Salonen recalls later, sitting on the sofa in his office, casually dressed in black. He talked about the feeling of making music together in the flesh again, and about the rich range of artists and music he assembled for his first full San Francisco season, opening October 1.

“First and foremost, of course, the feeling is that of joy,” says the stylish 62-year-old conductor and composer, a cool, genial, wryly good-humored man who built the Los Angeles Philharmonic into one of the most creatively daring and financially fit orchestras in the country during his 17-year run as its music director. “It’s great to be back. I’ve missed that. Not only the physical sensation of hearing all that sound, but feeling the energy and working with people. Even with the current technology, that’s impossible to simulate. You can make online content, do cool things, interesting things, but you cannot have the communal thing. So that’s been amazing.”
Responding to the pandemic, Salonen and the Symphony created engaging online stuff, gamely mixing music, visual imagery and dance in programs crafted for the screen, and the moment. The interactive performance of Terry Riley’s mesmerizing “In C” featured the telegenic maestro playing toy piano on Davies’ solar-paneled roof.

“Because digital was all we did for more than a year, we learned a lot,” says the tech-fluent musician, who was featured in a 2014 ad for Apple’s iPad, composing on his laptop, and is keen on emerging technologies that make it possible for deaf people to experience music, or could allow severely disabled people to make music through eye movements. Going forward at the Symphony, “there will be key digital projects in the mix,” adds the conductor, who thinks they help connect younger folk to the power and beauty of orchestral music.

This past year, Salonen muses, “has been the weirdest and most difficult time for every symphony organization in the world. Usually by now, I should be on first-name terms with everyone, and know everyone’s name, and I don’t. But it’s getting there. There’s also something to be said for the fact that we got through this together, that I’ve been through that with my musicians; it feels like bonding on some level.”

The expansive new season includes numerous premieres and commissioned works by a notably diverse group of composers, and Symphony debuts by many rising conductors and soloists, as well as the return of celebrated artists like Itzhak Perlman and Jean-Yves Thibaudet and masterworks by Beethoven, Respighi and Debussy. There are thematic programs of the sort that appeal to the inquisitive conductor, including a two-week exploration of the Prometheus myth that features the first Symphony performances of Beethoven’s full “The Creatures of Prometheus” (narrated, with animated visuals by Hillary Leben); Thiebaudet playing Scriabin’s Prometheus, The Poem of Fire; Liszt’s symphonic poem Prometheus; and the world premiere of Fang Man’s Song of the Flaming Phoenix, a concerto for sheng (a polyphonic Chinese mouth organ) co-commissioned by the Symphony and performed by Wu Wei.

“I like the idea of some kind of narrative, some cohesion between the works,” explains Salonen, whose Stravinsky series offers semi-staged productions of Oedipus Rex and Symphony of Psalms he created with his friend Peter Sellars, the adventurous director he first worked with in ’92. “My experience is that audiences quite often find it intriguing when there is some kind of narrative, even when there are several programs linked under the same umbrella of a story.”

Everybody kind of knows the Prometheus story, Salonen continues, “even if you don’t know exactly what it is. What’s fun is we can look at that myth from many different perspectives. There’s the mysterious Scriabinesque way. Fang Man’s new piece for sheng has to do with the Prometheus idea, and she also uses some of Scriabin’s harmony. The Beethoven piece was his only ballet. It’s very radical in terms of the libretto, which has been reconstructed. The creatures Prometheus makes represent the new. And they are going to teach the upper classes to dance.”

The season opens October 2 with a pan-American mix of music by Berkeley master John Adams, the Argentinean Alberto Ginastera, Mexican composer Silvestre Revueltas, and songs by the great jazz saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter, performed by the orchestra and an improvising trio led by the beguiling singer and bassist Esperanza Spalding. (Alonzo King LINES Ballet appears, too). Spalding wrote the libretto for Shorter’s opera Iphigenia, opening at the Kennedy Center in December with sets by Frank Gehry, the acclaimed architect who worked with Salonen on the design of L.A.’s splendid Disney Hall, and whose sampled voice is woven into Salonen’s hall-inaugurating 2004 piece “Wing on Wing.”

SF Symphony collaborative partners, clockwise from top: Esperanza Spalding; Carol Reiley; Julia Bullock; Bryce Dresser. 

Spalding is one of eight dynamic young “collaborative partners” the conductor tapped to help shape the Symphony’s programming in ways that reflect the world we live in now. The others include soprano Julia Bullock, composer and rock guitarist Bryce Dessner, and A.I. and robotics entrepreneur Carol Reiley, who “professionally thinks about things that don’t yet exist – and I think we should do that, too,” Salonen says. “I know my stuff, but it’s a segment of the totality of what’s out there. I felt I need help to get into places where I wouldn’t go on my own. . . In this conductor’s life, this ‘maestro’ kind of thing, you’re being protected, you’re sort of in a padded room,” he says with a laugh. “So if you don’t make a conscious effort to step outside the silo, you might very well stay in this kind of space until the end of your days. And I want to avoid that.” These creative young people “keep me awake.”

Deborah Borda, former CEO of the L.A. Phil and current CEO at the New York Philharmonic, was quoted in a New York Times story about San Francisco landing the sought-after Salonen, who’d left his L.A. post in 2009 to compose more: “Even though he’s a Finnish guy, he’s a Californian in his soul.”

Salonen, who bought an apartment in San Francisco, elaborates: “You know, I feel very much like many California transplants, like John Adams, Bill Viola, Peter Sellars. It’s a place where people come when they’re young to find themselves, and feel free to do what they want – and are encouraged to do so.”

The Times called him “one of classical music’s great disrupters,” but he doesn’t know about that. “I’m a conductor and composer. It’s hard for me to see myself as some kind of radical disrupter at this point,” Salonen says dryly. “I work with 100-year old institutions, and that’s not revolution. I’m very curious, I want to learn new things; if that’s radicalism then I’m radical. But I conduct Brahms and Schumann, and that’s not exactly Bolshevism.”

→ SFSymphony’s Season opens October 1. Visit sfsymphony.org for more.

Image: San Francisco Symphony's Musical Director Esa-Pekka Salonen. © Andrew Eccles, 2018

Jesse Hamlin
Jesse Hamlin
Jesse has written about music and art in the Bay Area since the late 1970s. He was SF Chronicle’s jazz critic and arts reporter for many years. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, California magazine and SF/ARTS Monthly, where he has curated music highlights for a decade.
Jesse has written about music and art in the Bay Area since the late 1970s. He was SF Chronicle’s jazz critic and arts reporter for many years. His work has also appeared in the New York Times, California magazine and SF/ARTS Monthly, where he has curated music highlights for a decade.
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