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

The story at the San Francisco Symphony this weekend was supposed to be Jean Sibelius. But the concert was overshadowed by the impending departure of Music Director Esa-Pekka Salonen, which was announced Thursday. Salonen will complete his five-year contract, and that’s basically all the institution has said about it.

Among the players at least, the send-off has begun with gusto. During Friday’s ovations in Davies Symphony Hall, the musicians actually put down their instruments to clap for Salonen, who stepped back to stand with them — a showing of goodwill that one hopes wasn’t all for show.

And it was a mostly good performance of Sibelius’s First Symphony. The music begins as if it’s searching: A lone clarinet (the unflappable Carey Bell) plays a meandering melody over a timpani trill — in the home key or the dominant? A proper theme develops, but elsewhere in the orchestra, chromaticism seethes, although on Friday it wasn’t enough. The resurgence of the Finale’s hopeful melody is most poignant when beset by dissonance, but Salonen downplayed the cellos’ grating turns.

Lisa Batiashvili
Lisa Batiashvili with the SF Symphony | Credit: Kristen Loken

No one else wrote cadences like these. You’d be forgiven for not noticing with so many other attractions — including, on Friday, an exceptionally ferocious fugue — but throughout the 35 measures in which Sibelius teases a climax, he in fact hides the resolution, as a pedal tone, in plain sight. Arrivals to weak-voiced triads sigh. You sense Sibelius’s resignation — if you can hear the bass notes, and that’s a big if.

In Sibelius’s Violin Concerto, the balance was ideal for the soloist, Lisa Batiashvili. It was a temperate performance. She played with a sweet, round tone — always. It’s hard to appreciate warm weather when you’ve never been cold.

Sibelius must have suffered in 1903, the year he began working on the concerto. His 1-year-old daughter had died; he became a drunkard, spending a sum while ignoring his wife. He had been a violinist once. “Dreamed I was twelve years old and a virtuoso,” he wrote in his diary at age 50. He lived to be 91 but during his last three decades composed next to nothing.

For Salonen and the SF Symphony, it may be the beginning of the end (though he’ll likely return to guest conduct), and partings prompt appraisals. If Friday’s Symphony No. 1 wasn’t the finest Sibelius performance Salonen has led in the Bay Area, others have been fantastic: Four Legends From the Kalevala, for example, and The Oceanides, a piece that under another conductor could be forgettable.

In fact, the enduring memory of this past weekend’s program may well be Finlandia, a slight score that was superb in this performance. Sibelius wrote this tuneful music in 1899 (the same year that he composed the First Symphony) for a pageant of Finnish history — in fact a subversive act, considering that the czar of Russia had issued a decree that essentially stripped Finland, nominally an autonomous state, of its powers. On Friday, the SF Symphony brass were in command. They played the opening strains with gutsy, meticulous articulation. Then, exuberance — independence on the horizon.