Esa-Pekka Salonen Welcomed as Next Music Director of S.F. Symphony

Janos Gereben on December 6, 2018
Salonen speaking at the SoundBox event | Credit: Michael Strickland

A quarter century of stability with Michael Tilson Thomas heading the San Francisco Symphony will yield to change in 2020 when Esa-Pekka Salonen takes up the baton in Davies Symphony Hall, and MTT becomes music director laureate.

The announcement Dec. 5 was to be made in Davies Hall’s cavernous Zellerbach rehearsal annex (now marketed as SoundBox, the venue for new and experimental music), but the surprising news broke earlier in the day, so the event served as celebration of the music director designate.

Some 500 invited guests — from the S.F. Symphony board of directors, orchestra, staff, press, donors, the community — extended a loud and warm welcome to Salonen, a slender, unassuming figure, who walked around in the audience virtually unrecognized before appearing on the stage.

As he was talking with former SFS Executive Director Peter Pastreich, SFS Resident Conductor Christian Reif and his wife, soprano Julia Bullock, I managed to ask Salonen which of his residences — in Los Angeles, Helsinki, London, and Santa Monica — he considers home. His answer: Brooklyn. Apparently, it’s a near-equidistant location to his three adult children in the U.S., his family in Finland, and the Philharmonia in London.

The stage in the SoundBox, with pictures of Salonen’s “collaborative partners from a variety of cultural disciplines” | Credit: Janos Gereben

On stage, Salonen was acclaimed by SFS President Sakurako Fisher, SFS Chief Executive Officer Mark Hanson, Music Director Search Committee Chair Matt Cohler, and violinist Melissa Kleinbart, chair of the players’ committee.

Video greetings came from a variety of notables, including San Francisco Mayor London Breed, composer John Adams (who spoke of “30 years of collaboration”), Meyer Sound co-founder Helen Meyer, SFS principal trumpet and SFS softball team captain Mark Inouye, Stanford University Vice President for the Arts Harry Elam, San Jose Sharks centerman Antti Suomela (in Finnish, of course), Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, and others, including MTT, who currently just happens to be conducting Salonen’s “old orchestra,” the Los Angeles Philharmonic, in a program of Tchaikovsky and Ives this week.

Salonen and S.F. Symphony President Sakurako Fisher on stage | Credit: Michael Strickland

Salonen, speaking briefly, recalled how his conducting career took off many years ago when MTT had to cancel a Philharmonia concert in London and Salonen was asked to take over on short notice. At first, he thought the call was a joke, as the task at hand was a Mahler symphony.

Asked about the main reasons for taking the position with SFS, having turned down other opportunities, Salonen said first and foremost it’s the orchestra itself: There is nonverbal communication between conductor and musicians, he said, “breathing together,” and it takes only “about 35 seconds” to sense if the connection will be good and productive.

When you indicate what you want, Salonen said, and get back from the musicians something even better than what you had in mind — that’s the response you’re hoping for, and what speaks of future potential.  

In a written statement earlier in the day, MTT also spoke of and to the orchestra:

Looking back over these decades I am filled with gratitude for the extraordinary artistic partnership I have had with the members of the orchestra and for the warm and generous style of music making we have shared with all of our audiences.

Having been a music director of an orchestra for most of my adult life and as I approach my 75th birthday, I feel this is an appropriate moment to set aside some of my administrative responsibilities and begin a new period of creative possibilities.

Fortunately, my new and unique relationship as music director laureate of the San Francisco Symphony will allow me to continue to work with my esteemed colleagues for years to come on projects close to my heart.

Projected to the screen behind the stage tonight were large photos of Salonen’s “collaborative partners from a variety of cultural disciplines,” a new program announced at the same time with his appointment. They are pianist, film producer, and composer of film scores Nicholas Britell; soprano and curator Julia Bullock, “who has made social consciousness and activism fundamental to her work.”

SFS Chief Executive Officer Mark Hanson; violinist Melissa Kleinbart, chair of the players’ committee; Salonen; SFS President Sakurako Fisher, Music Director Search Committee chair Matt Cohler | Credit: Janos Gereben

Also, flutist, educator, and advocate for new and experimental music Claire Chase; composer, new music curator, and member of The National Bryce Dessner; violinist, musical director, and artistic trailblazer Pekka Kuusisto; composer and genre-breaking collaborator Nico Muhly; artificial intelligence entrepreneur and roboticist Carol Reiley; and jazz bassist, vocalist, and “undefinable artist” Esperanza Spalding.

To the announcement of the much-touted “featured cocktail of the event, the EPGT” — Esa-Pekka Gin & Tonic — described as “a refreshing blend of Finnish Kyrö Napue gin, Fever Tree Indian tonic, lingonberries, and rosemary,” Salonen’s response was: “You can skip the lingonberries.” He did sample the drink. Kippis! (Finnish for “cheers”)