By Richard S. Ginell
SAN FRANCISCO – Esa-Pekka Salonen was set upon becoming a composer who also conducts, rather than the other way around, after he left the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2009. No more music director jobs for him. But the San Francisco Symphony dangled an opportunity before him – reinventing how a symphony orchestra serves its region, tapping into the tech innovations of nearby Silicon Valley – that changed his mind. So on Dec. 5, 2018, he signed on, starting in 2020 when Michael Tilson Thomas steps down after 25 transformative years in San Francisco.
For now, Salonen is the orchestra’s music director designate. And as circumstances evolved, San Franciscans got an electrifying, unexpected sneak peek at the future in Davies Symphony Hall on Jan. 18.
Mirga Gražinytė-Tyla was supposed to have made her SFS debut that weekend in Sibelius’ Four Legends of the Kalevala, with Gabriela Montero playing the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1. But Mirga canceled after giving birth to her first child, leaving a convenient hole in the schedule. So Salonen was rushed into the slot, keeping the Sibelius (which figured), deleting the Tchaikovsky (Montero’s appearance was postponed until the 2019-20 season), and adding Icelandic composer Anna Thorvaldsdottir’s METACOSMOS and Richard Strauss’ Also Sprach Zarathustra.
This looked like a very good program for Salonen – demonstrating his yen for exploring new music (he led the New York Philharmonic in the world premiere of METACOSMOS in April 2018), his command of a virtuosic showpiece with a top-notch orchestra, and reconnecting with his Finnish roots. And he surpassed those expectations, both in performance and in canny programming that revealed new interconnections as the concert unfolded.
A big, sustained cheer rose from the audience as Salonen came onstage for the first time, smiling shyly. Things calmed down considerably for the Thorvaldsdottir piece, which begins – like Also Sprach Zarathustra, as it happens – with a long, soft pedal point deep in the bass. The brasses and strings bend notes in long, sustained lines, three bass drums roll or pound, there are flashes of musical lightning, a mournful tune near the close, and always, a drone present underneath. The piece is entirely characteristic of Icelandic music of whatever genre, with sustained sound coming from a remote place that feels far, far away. This was METACOSMOS‘ West Coast premiere, and if Salonen’s intentions of not letting new music disappear after just one performance come to fruition, this fascinating piece deserves many repeat hearings.
In Zarathustra, we began to perceive an outline of where the San Francisco Symphony is now and where Salonen may take it. The SFS last performed the piece in September 2014, and the performance on Friday night indicated that this is still MTT’s orchestra in terms of sound – a dark, refined quality in the ensemble, especially in the coloration of the strings. What was different from 2014 were the extremes in tempos and rushes of adrenaline that Salonen, clearly inspired by his new colleagues, was able to produce. The slow sections were very slow, the fast ones very fast, building to spine-tingling climaxes in places like the famous “Sunrise” opening that Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey punched permanently into popular culture. While never a shrinking violet on the podium, Salonen looked especially revved-up for the occasion, swinging his arms more widely and slashing the air furiously in climactic moments.
Sibelius’ complete Four Legends is a rarity in San Francisco, performed for the first time here only in 2002 and not since. Salonen recorded the piece – sometimes called the Lemminkäinen Suite or Legends – in Los Angeles in 1991, but the recording caught the LA Phil at a scrappy low point in the gap between the André Previn and Salonen regimes (Salonen did not assume the music director post there until the following year). This performance went way beyond that of 1991 – much better played, deeper, more viscerally exciting.
Salonen takes his time now with “Lemminkäinen and the Maidens of the Island” yet still found opportunities to generate real tension and some wildness. The signature brass motif in “Lemminkäinen in Tuonela” was surprisingly subdued in volume, a balance that I prefer, and the strings passionately tempered the sub-Arctic chill of “The Swan of Tuonela” (unlike the majority of conductors, Salonen places “Swan” as the third movement as per the original order, instead of second). And “Lemminkäinen’s Return” was as propulsive a bobsled run through the Finnish snowscape as one would want, with Salonen driving it harder and harder toward the finish line; at one point, he could scarcely contain his glee when facing the cellos.
After the concert was over, there was a talkback session with Salonen and the SFS’ CEO Mark C. Hanson, offering an ample sample of their future music director’s dry wit that gradually emerged during his 17 years in Los Angeles. “It feels good to sit down!” Salonen quipped at the outset, elaborating later that his advice to young conductors would be, “Never, ever conduct a concert with brand new shoes! Run around the block a few times.” He could also be self-mocking: “I’m a realist, to some degree. If I was (a realist), I wouldn’t be in classical music!”
Salonen made it clear that he is still very much in the composing game; he’s writing Castor – a “slightly naughtier” twin brother of a recent piece, Pollux – for a performance in November and has a piece ready for Disney Hall architect Frank Gehry’s 90th birthday in February. He also touched on how the concert experience has been hobbled by misconceptions about dress, audience behavior, and other issues that keep young people away. “The symphony orchestra has bad PR and we want to change that perception,” he said.
This partnership is off to a terrific start in doing just that.
Richard S. Ginell writes regularly about music for the Los Angeles Times, and is the Los Angeles correspondent for American Record Guide and the West Coast regional editor for Classical Voice North America. He also contributes to San Francisco Classical Voice and Musical America.