The SF Symphony Passes Baton to Esa-Pekka Salonen

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Esa-Pekka Salonen at the podium, San Francisco Symphony. Photo courtesy of the San Francisco Symphony.

In 2020, Michael Tilson Thomas is turning over the San Francisco Symphony baton to Esa-Pekka Salonen, the much sought-after Finnish conductor/composer, who led the orchestra on Martin Luther King weekend in a program featuring the West Coast premiere of Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s Metacosmos (2017), Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra (1896), and Four Legends from the Kalevala (1896) by Jean Sibelius, a fellow Finn.

Salonen is a proponent of contemporary music, and advocates for diversity in the present and future of orchestral music. Program notes quote Esa-Pekka as saying “[We] should be leading the way…using all the possibilities that new technology offers without losing the integrity of the organization, which is, of course, to perform orchestral music—live performances for live people”.  Sunday’s show was a good preview into this dynamic musician’s vision about the future of symphonic music.

Pre-concert excitement was enhanced by a clear day (the first sunshine after weeks of rain), and folks buzzing around the Tuning Fork Café and Loge Bar. Dozens milled about the Symphony Store where leather bags, shawls, and decorated stainless steel water bottles presented themselves for purchase as apt mementos for this special day.

As the bassoon and oboe tuned up, evoking hints of Metacosmos, smiling ushers greeted audience members including two young women studying instrumental music, a mid-40s gentleman decked out in red pants and an orange REI parka, and a patron so enthusiastic that she sat up with perfect posture for much of the program, literally on the edge of her seat. Though the house was not entirely full of people, it was brimming with energy, and a grand round of applause welcomed Salonen as he acknowledged the audience before beginning Metacosmos with an almost imperceptible lamenting sound. This piece is not for everyone; there are many minor seconds, wandering phrases, sudden dynamic shifts, and such innovations as a percussionist using his fingers to scratch a giant snare drum. Some passages evoked Barber’s Adagio for Strings as did the Strauss which was to follow. When the memory of the first violin’s final note faded, Salonen was greeted with tremendous applause and an excited chatter filled the hall.

Also, sprach Zarathustra was conducted in a beautifully effective manner as well, pianissimos requested with the minutest movement from the baton. This piece is beautiful in its power, and Salonen conducted with such energy that I wondered if he would jump out of his shoes, which were as shiny as the gleaming organ pipes above the orchestra.

The second half felt less inspired and lacking in energy; whether that was the result of much similitude in the program, or in this reviewer’s drowsiness brought on by a warm seat and beautiful tones is not clear, but it did seem that this was the place where the musicians had a little more trouble reading Salonen’s gestures as he led them through Sibelius’ four movements full of nuance. The oboes were fantastic in this piece—and, indeed, all afternoon— and there were a few particularly nice moments from the strings, including several quite moving cello solos.

Esa-Pekka conducts with finesse, passion, and creativity. It was a joy to watch him take the baton in this exciting preview of the future of the San Francisco Symphony. His communication of, and the orchestra’s response to everything from a delicate grace to the most crisp energy was a nice peek into what seems to be a symbiotic interaction between this Music Director Designate and his new symphony orchestra.

One final note: while many in the Bay Area spent the weekend celebrating the legacy of Dr. King, it was disconcerting to observe that the orchestra and most in attendance were ethnically monochromatic. I hope that Esa-Pekka will be a driving force in helping expand ethnic, cultural, and socio-economic inclusion and diverse participation in San Francisco’s orchestral music scene.

* Anne Daniel is a conductor with the Piedmont East Bay Children’s Choir

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