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Salonen’s First SF Symphony Season: “Restless Innovation”

February 17, 2020

“Esa-Pekka Salonen’s restless innovation drives him constantly to reposition classical music in the 21st century,” says the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s biography of the Finnish conductor, who was its music director from 1992 until 2009. He helped to reposition the orchestra as a major, inventive organization, which today offers the highest salaries for musicians in the country — a base pay of $3,000 per week.

Today, Salonen, a preternaturally youthful 61, announced the first season of his San Francisco Symphony tenure, as part of the planning for the fall when the music director designate becomes the full-fledged successor to Michael Tilson Thomas, laureate-to-be. And, that “restless innovation” is stamped firmly on the SF Symphony’s 2020–2021 season, the orchestra’s 109th.

The MTT-to-Salonen transition seems seamless in a number of ways. Similarly to MTT’s championing of vocal and choral music as well as musical theater — MTT is bidding farewell at the end of the current season with Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman and Mahler’s Eighth Symphony — Salonen is marking his debut year as music director by offering such grand music as concert performances of Béla Bartók’s Bluebeard’s Castle and Richard Strauss’s Elektra.

Bluebeard’s Castle (Oct. 8–11) features mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung and bass-baritone Gerald Finley; the one-act opera is paired with Bartók’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Yefim Bronfman soloist.

In the title role of Elektra (March 18–22, 2021), Christine Goerke returns to the city where she created a sensation in the title role of the 2017 SF Opera production. The cast includes soprano Emily Magee, contralto Anna Larsson, tenor Alan Oke, and bass-baritone Peixin Chen.

From Salonen’s current LA Phil program comes a two-week celebration of the 1930s cultural revolution in Weimar, including a semistaged production of Weill’s Die sieben Todsunden (The seven deadly sins) alongside Weill and Brecht’s Das Berliner Requiem (The Berlin requiem). Plus, Hindemith’s Mörder, Hoffnung der Frauen (Murderer, the hope of women), featuring soprano Nora Fischer, directed by Simon McBurney with dramaturge Gerard McBurney, and sets by Anna Fleischle (June 24–26, 2021.)

Large-scale choral works, showcasing Ragnar Bohlin’s SFS Chorus, include Bach’s B Minor Mass, April 22–24, 2021, conducted by Jane Glover, with soprano Joélle Harvey, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth DeShong, tenor Jonas Hacker, and baritone Tyler Duncan; and Britten’s War Requiem, May 13–15, 2021, conducted by Philippe Jordan, with tenor Ian Bostridge and baritone Iain Paterson.

The most striking aspect of Salonen’s programming is the continued development of his Collaborative Partners project, revealed at the time of the announcement of his appointment.

Said to be “a new artistic leadership model unique to the orchestral world,” the project involves pianist, film producer, and composer Nicholas Britell; soprano and curator Julia Bullock, “who has made social consciousness and activism fundamental to her work.” Also, flutist, educator, and advocate for new and experimental music Claire Chase; composer and new-music curator 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.

In addition to many activities and performances throughout the season, the eight collaborators will also be responsible for a two-week season-opening Collaborative Partners Festival and four Soundbox events. “I’ve never achieved anything on my own,” Salonen says. “Every achievement that I’m really proud of has been a result of collaboration.

“This art form that we all love and respect needs new thinking, fresh thoughts and ideas, new ways to involve the community, and different ways to enhance the experience. I’m looking to create a different kind of framework, and these wonderfully creative people in the team will help me in that process.”

Combining old and new, season-opening concerts, including the gala on Sept. 20, will have “Bach’s music reimagined by the Collaborative Partners.” Details about this will be released this summer.

Salonen, who had declined other invitations to be music director of major orchestras since leaving Los Angeles a decade ago, explained that he took this position “being attracted to the San Francisco Symphony because of the orchestra itself — this expressive, flexible, open, powerful group of players.” He will continue to serve as principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London through next year.

“As we begin this new phase together,” Salonen said, “the ‘what-ifs’ of the orchestra world are on the table in a real way. This is a top symphony orchestra, located in the place in America where things begin, where the way things have always been done are reinvented, and where global problems are solved. I see big ideas being thought and actual work being done.”

MTT will be a busy music director laureate with four weeks of concerts, including Beethoven’s Missa solemnis, Mahler’s Symphony No. 1, Bruckner’s Symphony No. 9, and Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 15.

Visiting orchestras include City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra conducted by Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla (who canceled her scheduled debut here twice previously), China Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Long Yu, Israel Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Lahav Shani, Bach Collegium Japan conducted by Masaaki Suzuki, Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de México (National Orchestra of Mexico) conducted by Carlos Miguel Prieto, and the Mariinsky Orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev.

Among conductors making their debuts: Elim Chan, Han-Na Chang, Jonathan Cohen, Giancarlo Guerrero, Ludovic Morlot, Rafael Payare, Michael Sanderling, Perry So, and Nathalie Stutzmann.

A partial list of works to be heard for the first time at SF Symphony is a clear indication of Salonen’s commitment to “new and unusual.” The composers whose works figure in this category include Luciano Berio, Unsuk Chin, Francisco Coll, Bryce Dessner, Helen Grime, Sofia Gubaidulina, Valerie Coleman, Jake Heggie, Timothy Higgins, Gabriel Kahane, Zhou Long, Wynton Marsalis, and Behzad Ranjbaran.

Janos Gereben appreciates news tips, corrections, and words of encouragement at [email protected].