Esa-Pekka Salonen
Esa-Pekka Salonen | Credit: Andrew Eccles

SF Symphony Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen has defied an old adage that “you only get one chance to make a first impression.” That, of course, is not about his heading the orchestra or his conducting and composing — all of which have been embraced by the city as warmly as anybody else in the Symphony’s 111-year history.

The second chance is about bringing a “Salonen season” to Davies Symphony Hall after his first sensational plans for 2020–2021 were wiped out by the pandemic and then COVID kept limiting what could be done in person the next year.

But now, as of today’s announcement of the 2022–2023 season, Salonen is presenting in full the daring and inviting combination that was his hallmark for 17 years leading the Los Angeles Philharmonic — mixing world and American premieres, commissions, and rarely performed and large compositions with audience favorites.

Trevor Weston
SF Symphony will perform the world premiere of a new work by composer Trevor Weston, winner of the 2021 Emerging Black Composers Project. | Credit: Ayano Hisa

Salonen’s veritable “mission statement” explains what he is planning and why: “I came to the San Francisco Symphony because I felt there was a potential for something powerfully transformative to take place here, in this city where things begin, in this state where anything is possible. I could feel that there was something fast approaching — something that I wanted to be a part of.”

And, on the occasion of announcing the next season: “As we embark upon our third season together, I am very happy to take what we have created and share it with the world at large. Everything we have done together thus far has been deeply, deeply inspiring and encouraging for the future, and it is an immense privilege to spend another season working with and learning from this orchestra.” 

Conrad Tao
Conrad Tao is the soloist in February 2023 concerts led by Edwin Outwater | Credit: Brantley Gutierrez

Of the plethora of programs to be performed in 10 months of concerts at Davies Hall and on a European tour postponed by the pandemic, here are some of the highlights:

– Salonen leads world premiere performances of works by Samuel Adams, Magnus Lindberg, and winner of the 2021 Emerging Black Composers Project, Trevor Weston, plus the U.S. premiere of Daniel Kidane’s Precipice Dances.

– Among returning guest soloists: Pierre-Laurent Aimard, Leif Ove Andsnes, Michelle DeYoung, Lang Lang, Igor Levit, and Yuja Wang; and orchestral series debuts by Bertrand Chamayou, Randall Goosby, Conor Hanick, Christopher Purves, and Golda Schultz.

Golda Schultz
Golda Schultz debuts with the SF Symphony next season | Credit: Dario Acosta

– Of the many guest conductors, a noteworthy engagement is of Salonen’s predecessor, Michael Tilson Thomas, 78, who is retiring for medical reasons but still scheduled to lead 12 concerts between November and April 2023. SF Symphony Conductor Laureate Herbert Blomstedt, turning 95 this summer, is conducting three concerts in Davies Hall next February.

– Projects with the Collaborative Partners: Julia Bullock featured in performances of George Gershwin and Margaret Bonds; SoundBox programs curated by Nicholas Britell, Pekka Kuusisto with composer Jesper Nordin, and Nico Muhly with pianist Yuja Wang.

SF Symphony Collaborative Partners
Esa-Pekka Salonen and the Collaborative Partners | Courtesy of SF Symphony

– Muhly’s SoundBox program, Codes, will be performed on the Salonen-led tour to Paris and Hamburg, with Yuja Wang as soloist. Claire Chase performs and directs San Francisco and Paris performances of Marcos Balter’s Pan with members of the orchestra and community participants

– Two weeks of programs in October “dedicated to myth, magic, and horror” include the suite from Béla Bartók’s The Miraculous Mandarin, Hector Berlioz’s Symphonie fantastique, HK Gruber’s Frankenstein!!, the suite from Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho, Liszt’s Totentanz, and Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain.

– Salonen leads programs anchored by Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 (“Eroica”), Symphonie fantastique, Anton Bruckner’s Symphony No. 6, Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”), Sibelius’s Symphony No. 5, Richard Strauss’s Also sprach Zarathustra, and Stravinsky’s complete Firebird.

– The orchestra announced a four-year partnership with director Peter Sellars, who has worked for many years with Salonen and with composer John Adams. Sellars will direct a new staged production of Kaija Saariaho’s opera Adriana Mater in June 2023 and is expected to stage productions in future seasons of works by Olivier Messiaen and Leoš Janáček.

Kaija Saariaho
Kaija Saariaho’s Adriana Mater will be performed in June 2023 | Credit: Andrew Campbell

Concerts with Igor Levit are of special interest. Called “perhaps the hottest pianist in Europe ... with a magical touch” by Salonen, Levit has chosen to play Ferruccio Busoni’s Piano Concerto in C Major, described by the music director as “the strangest piano concerto ever written ... about 75 minutes long and needs a big orchestra and a chorus ... a massive but utterly fascinating journey, full of beauty, struggle, love, and pain.”

Levit says of the Busoni concerts, scheduled for June 22–25, 2023: “Few things nowadays make me so happy than thinking forward to playing with the San Francisco Symphony and Esa-Pekka so extensively next year. Especially when part of the program will be Busoni’s magnificent, heroic, huge, long, mounting, and really incredible piano concerto.”

Levit will also be the soloist with the SF Symphony in Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 (“Emperor”), and he plays an extensive recital on June 27, 2023.

An intriguing engagement is of Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla and her City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra in October. A prominent young conductor, she was first scheduled to come in 2019 but canceled when she stopped traveling during pregnancy. Her 2020 engagements were canceled first because of her second pregnancy and then by the pandemic closure. This would be the fourth chance of seeing her here, but ... she is expecting her third child.

Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla
Mirga Gražinyte-Tyla and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra are due in October | Courtesy of SF Symphony

It’s a humongous season plan — 85 programs, 160 performances in Davies Hall, on tour to Europe, UC Davis, and Cal Performances, in addition to youth orchestra, holiday, and summer concerts. With a 100-member orchestra, administration, facilities, and fees for soloists, it means a great fiscal challenge, especially now after the pandemic.

Novelties and experimentation in programming are all the more daring at this point because ticket sales and contributions are crucial since the pandemic hit the orchestra with an unprecedented drop in income, turning a large surplus into a sizeable deficit.

In fiscal year 2019, the last before the pandemic, the Symphony had $93.6 million in total revenue and $79.8 million in total expenses, resulting in a $13.8 million surplus. In fiscal year 2020, half of which covered the beginning of the pandemic, the orchestra reported $65.3 million total revenue and $73.2 million total expenses, resulting in $7.9 million deficit. More recent information is not yet released, but it’s clear that budgeting is a big issue — although not interfering with bold programming.

Nonprofit organizations release fiscal information through a procedure that usually takes two years, so these figures are the most recent available to the public. Asked about the budget for the next season, a Symphony spokesperson told SFCV:

“At the time of the season announcement, elements of the following year’s budget are estimated for season planning purposes, but we’re not able to share an estimate for FY2023. We’re releasing final numbers only.”