San Francisco Symphony Announces New Music Director and Eight Creative Advisors

Michael Zwiebach on December 5, 2018
Credit: Benjamin Suomela

Well, that was fast, as orchestral matters go. A year after announcing that Michael Tilson Thomas would step down as music director in the 2020 season, the San Francisco Symphony announced that Esa-Pekka Salonen would succeed MTT in that role.

Salonen, 60, is one of the most sought-after conductors, after his remarkably successful tenure with the Los Angeles Philharmonic (1992-2009). However, he was also a moving target, having left the LA Phil with the expressed intention of leaving more room in his schedule for composition, an area in which he has distinguished himself as among the preeminent composers for orchestra of his generation. And while he hasn’t held a music directorship of an orchestra since, he is Principal Conductor and Artistic Advisor of the London Philharmonic, a position he will resign in 2020-21, and a co-founder of the Baltic Sea Festival, where he was artistic director from 2003 to 2018, as well as continuing as conductor laureate of the LA Phil and the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra.

Salonen himself explained his change of heart about accepting a music directorship in a press release from the San Francisco Symphony:

I wasn’t looking for another Music Directorship.… But there was a ‘no brainer’ aspect to this that I’ve been fortunate to have experienced a few times before in my career, so I know it when I see it. The San Francisco Symphony is an ensemble and an organization at the top of their game, renowned for their interpretations of masterpieces and unafraid to treat new works the same way. They have had the powerhouse combination of Michael’s exacting musicality and freedom of spirit for 25 years: a legacy I’m privileged to inherit.”

The orchestra has clearly been thinking about how to adapt in a musical world where genres have broken down and “relevance” is a key word. What will be the place of new music in the Salonen era? We can only assume it will be enhanced, given his record elsewhere, but the orchestra and Salonen have apparently had talks far beyond that, extending into what paradigm would help the orchestra appeal to a more diverse audience.

With the announcement of Salonen’s appointment also came the news of the appointment of eight “Creative and Artistic Partners” who “will join with Salonen and the SFS to embark on a future of experimentation by collaborating on new ideas, breaking conventional rules, and creating unique and powerful experiences in and around the concert experience.” The eight partners are: Nicholas Britell, winner of a Golden Globe for the score to Moonlight; soprano Julia Bullock “who has made social consciousness and activism fundamental to her work”; flutist, curator and advocate for new and experimental music, Avery Fisher Career Grant and Macarthur Award-winner Claire Chase; composer and member of The National Bryce Dessner; violinist and music director Pekka Kuusisto; composer Nico Muhly; artificial intelligence entrepreneur and roboticist Carol Reiley; and jazz bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding.

The San Francisco Symphony will be building on a legacy that includes its own successful media label and the SoundBox events. But these moves indicate that the orchestra has an appetite for more: “As an Orchestra and as a community, we are about pushing the boundaries, about coloring outside the lines,” said Sakurako Fisher, S.F. Symphony President and Co-Chair of the Music Director Search Committee. “The visionary energy and collaborative thinking that Esa-Pekka brings will extend the incredible artistic and pioneering legacy that Michael Tilson Thomas and our musicians have already built. Esa-Pekka’s curiosity, his creativity, and his willingness to ask, ‘what’s next’ will guarantee an exciting journey and future for the SFS.”

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