SAN FRANCISCO — This season’s opening night at the San Francisco Symphony was supposed to be the prelude to Esa-Pekka Salonen’s second year as music director. Technically it was, but it actually felt like the opening of a first season. You don’t have to guess why: The pandemic scuttled Salonen’s scheduled debut. Once restrictions were lifted a bit, a few small-scale concerts with reduced attendance and ensembles took place last spring and summer, but it was not exactly the real thing.
Yet the concerts last week in Davies Symphony Hall were the real thing, in ways that I’m told San Francisco had never experienced on opening nights before (I attended the final Saturday night performance Oct. 2). Since leaving the LA Phil in 2009, Salonen has become, if anything, an even more savvy, enterprising programmer. So for a welcome-back, Salonen must have figured that he needed to return to action with a bang. And a bang-up event it was — a viscerally exciting roar of a concert that left shock waves in its wake.
A rack of color lights illuminated the musicians in various shades depending upon the mood of the music, and vertical columns of small individual light bulbs changed colors along the back wall. The orchestra was seated in an unorthodox configuration — all of the strings to our left, the winds and brasses to the right, and a jazz combo up front for one piece, with a thrust stage set up for a dance group. There was no intermission, and though not every seat was filled Saturday, there was a loud, fervent reaction after every piece.
For me, as perhaps for a few other Southern California-based attendees, it felt strange to see Salonen — a familiar presence in downtown Los Angeles for a record 17 seasons, and most seasons thereafter as conductor laureate — on the podium of their friendly rivals in the Bay Area. It was as if the Los Angeles Dodgers’ longtime Hall of Fame-bound pitcher Clayton Kershaw suddenly began pitching for the San Francisco Giants.
Not only that, but Salonen came up with a Music of The Americas program that one would have expected from his successor at the LA Phil, Gustavo Dudamel. It began with the explosion of riotously colorful orchestral sound that opens John Adams’ 1995 orchestral showpiece Slonimsky’s Earbox. When that was detonated, you sensed that a new era had begun at the SFS. As the Bay Area composer’s work unfolded, I could tell that Salonen’s influence on the orchestra’s sound was beginning to take hold in the emphasis on lean, clear, inner detail. When the strings did their Stravinsky-like slashing chords toward the end, they were not the dominant strands in the texture anymore, competing now with the intricate details elsewhere. And it swung, too.
South to Argentina Salonen went next with Alberto Ginastera’s suite from the ballet Estancia — always a guaranteed crowd-pleaser with its insistent rhythms from the pampas and boisterously repeated riffs. They piled on the excitement already built into the score by having members of the Alonzo King LINES Ballet company execute extremely athletic choreography. It was a lot of stimulus, but the music can take it — and Salonen and the SFS delivered it with heightened barbaric joy at crackling tempos. A sensational performance, and I don’t think even Dudamel could have done it any better.
The experimentation that the Salonen era promises with his artistic collaborators began with a thud in the form of Gaia for orchestra and jazz combo by the esteemed jazz saxophonist/composer Wayne Shorter. I was at the world-premiere performance in Los Angeles in 2013, and my opinion of the piece, alas, has not changed upon a rehearing. The orchestration is turgid, like block piano chords transferred to a full orchestra with glacial pacing at a mostly static, fatiguing dynamic level for nearly half an hour — and one could hardly understand the amplified sung text amid the orchestral murk.
As in L.A., the vocals were entrusted to the protean singer-composer-bassist esperanza spalding (she chooses lower-case spelling of her name these days), with Shorter’s writing stretching her pipes to the uppermost reaches of her range. She had stellar colleagues in the jazz combo — her regular pianist Leo Genovese, drummer Terri Lyne Carrington, and Ravi Coltrane on soprano and tenor saxes. Actually, the best parts of the piece occurred when Salonen dropped his hands and let the jazz quartet tumble about in a free jazz jam.
Silvestre Revueltas’ La noche de los Mayas has long been a specialty of Salonen’s — he recorded it and closed the Ojai Festival with it when he was with the LA Phil — but for this occasion, he only played the final section, “Noche de encantamiento.” With the possibility of sensory overload looming from what preceded it, that was wise — and Salonen reveled in the role of traffic cop, lowering and raising his left hand to control the volume of the 12 percussionists hammering and improvising away at the Mexican composer’s indigenous-based grooves.
There will be more adventurous programming from Salonen in the coming months at Davies Hall — newly devised lineups, an occasional rerun from his Los Angeles years. But nothing quite like this spectacular, thunderous opening blast.