Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the SF Symphony
Esa-Pekka Salonen leads the SF Symphony | Credit: Kristen Loken

Not even knowing of Esa-Pekka Salonen’s exceptional record as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, 1992 – 2009, prepares one for the bold and grand season he announced today for his first full season at the head of the San Francisco Symphony.

Salonen (turning 63 on June 30) brought the Philharmonic from a “prominent regional orchestra” to be on par with — and at times ahead of — the country’s top orchestras in New York and Chicago, receiving this accolade from Alex Ross in The New Yorker:

“The Salonen era in L.A. may mark a turning point in the recent history of classical music in America ... an individual and an institution bringing out unforeseen capabilities in each other, and thereby proving how much life remains in the orchestra itself, at once the most conservative and the most powerful of musical organisms.”

Salonen arrived in San Francisco — a city well used to crises and survival — in 2019 and planned an exciting first season when COVID-19 struck, preventing even his presence here, since he was unable to travel from Finland. Leaving aside any activity in the shuttered Davies Hall, the orchestra soon planned a digital season.

Esa-Pekka Salonen
Esa-Pekka Salonen | Credit: Minna Hatinen

And now, as Salonen is looking forward, he also takes stock of the extraordinary recent past:

The past year has been anything but typical, but the musicians, administration, operations team, and Collaborative Partners have more than risen to the task. Now, we have to come to terms with another challenging prospect: that there is no getting back to ‘normal,’ unless we attempt to redefine what it means.

The new ‘normal’ for us must be to push boundaries and explore the world around us with openness and curiosity. It’s up to us to make sure that this place is one where the act of creating art in one another’s presence continues to feel as precious and irreplicable as it has in the last year while simultaneously reaching those previously out of reach through digital channels. I have complete faith that this organization will make that a reality.”

Given present circumstances, including major financial difficulties, as the operating budget dropped significantly from the pre-pandemic $85 million, it would be understandable if the management had planned a season of popular classics, reliable box-office successes. Instead, Salonen is presenting a season containing some “new and unusual” music; great gender and ethnic diversity; SF Symphony, U.S., and world premieres; and some works challenging on first (or subsequent) hearings. World premieres of SF Symphony co-commissions include Song of the Flaming Phoenix (火凤凰的笙音) by Fang Man, a sheng concerto to be performed by Wu Wei; John Corigliano’s Saxophone Concerto, performed by Timothy McAllister; and works by Camille Norment and Cécile McLorin Salvant, Tania Leon, Allison Loggins-Hull, Jessie Montgomery, Carolyn Yarnell, and Pamela Z.

Julia Bullock
SF Symphony Collaborative Partner Julia Bullock | Credit: Allison Michael Orenstein

Salonen’s innovative programming now spreads over from the Collaborative Partner program and the already well-established SoundBox concerts to the entire season. Just one example of that is Collaborative Partner Julia Bullock’s performance of a new version of “History’s Persistent Voice,” her program inspired by artwork and words penned by Black American artists and featuring the world premiere of two new SF Symphony commissions.

For the full season schedule and ticket information, see the SFS website.

Right off the bat, the first event, the traditional All San Francisco Concert for social service and neighborhood organizations, on Sept. 30, will offer John Adams’s Slonimsky’s Earbox, Ginastera’s Estancia Suite, songs by Wayne Shorter, and Silvestre Revueltas’s “Noche de encantamiento,” from La noche de los Mayas, with the participation of Esperanza Spalding, vocals and bass, and Alonzo King LINES Ballet.

The first Orchestral Series concert, on Oct. 1, and the gala opening night, on Oct. 2, in honor of former SF Symphony President Sakurako Fisher and William Fisher, repeat that program.

The Orchestral Series continues Oct. 7–9, with the U.S. premiere of Hannah Kendall’s Tuxedo: Vasco ‘de’ Gama, the SFS premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Graffiti, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7.

SFS musicians will play works by Kodaly, Shostakovich, and Devonté Hynes at the first Chamber Series concert, on Oct. 10.

“Exotic Birds: Debussy, Messiaen and Saariaho (Aile du songe)” is the title of concerts Oct. 14–17, with flutist Claire Chase and pianist Jeremy Denk.

Schubert’s Symphony No. 5 and Beethoven’s Leonore Overture No. 2 are paired with the U.S. premiere of Bryce Dessner’s Violin Concerto, with soloist Pekka Kuusisto, Oct. 21–23.

Michael Tilson Thomas
SF Symphony Music Director Laureate Michael Tilson Thomas | Courtesy of New World Symphony

Former Music Director Michael Tilson Thomas returns to conduct a number of series, beginning Nov. 18–20, featuring the world premiere of SFS principal trombonist Timothy Higgins’s Trombone Concerto, the SF Symphony premiere of William Grant Still’s Patterns, and Copland’s Appalachian Spring.

Making his SF Symphony debut, guest conductor Gustavo Gimeno will lead concerts on Nov. 4, 5, and 7 featuring the West Coast premiere of Unsuk Chin’s Subito con Forza, Ligeti’s Concert Romanesc, and Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21, with Javier Perianes, soloist.

Other debuting guest conductors are Giancarlo Guerrero, Klaus Mäkelä, Michael Morgan, Perry So, Ruth Reinhardt, Daniel Stewart, Nathalie Stutzmann, and Xian Zhang. Returning conductors, along with MTT (SFS Music Director Laureate), are SFS Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt, SFS Chorus Director Ragnar Bohlin, Karina Canellakis, Gustavo Dudamel, Christoph Eschenbach, Ton Koopman, and Simone Young.

While Salonen’s two greatly anticipated opera presentations — Elektra and Bluebeard’s Castle — from the abandoned 2020–2021 season now appear lost, at least for the time being, the staged program for June 10–12, 2022, is Stravinsky’s Oedipus Rex, along a new staged production of the composer’s Symphony of Psalms, conceived by Salonen and director Peter Sellars, featuring Sean Panikkar in the title role, with J’Nai Bridges as Jocasta, Willard White as Creon/Messenger/Tiresias, dancer Laurel Jenkins, and the SFS Chorus under the direction of Ragnar Bohlin.

Media releases on SFSymphony+ include György Ligeti’s Lux Aeterna, Ramifications, and Clocks and Clouds — conducted by Salonen and with visual artwork by media artist and director Refik Anadol —as well as a new staged production of Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale, conducted by Salonen and directed by Netia Jones.

In addition to returning guest artists Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Yefim Bronfman, Gautier Capuçon, Leila Josefowicz, Jean-Yves Thibaudet, Daniil Trifonov, Yuja Wang, and Alisa Weilerstein, debuting artists include J’Nai Bridges, Claire Chase, Aaron Diehl, Pekka Kuusisto, Demarre McGill, Víkingur Ólafsson, Esperanza Spalding, Wu Wei, and Melody Wilson, among others.