Esa-Pekka Salonen has never had a Mission District burrito, he tells me. Nor has he ever been to a Giants game.
But Salonen, who signed his contract as the new Music Director of the San Francisco Symphony just an hour before we met, appears laying in wait to make San Francisco his city.
He'll keep residence here, he says. He wants to get to know the opera, the museums, the theater in the city.
"And I also want to start a dialogue with artists," he says, "who work more within the sort of anti-establishment part of the arts life."
Courting the anti-establishment is a goal I don't think I've ever heard a conductor utter; many people view the symphony itself as the epitome of "establishment." And on the surface, Salonen is an establishment choice: he's an older white man, with a safe, proven track record.
But there's a quiet, almost mischievous vibe about Salonen, one that he chalks up to his Finnish blood, and one that feels ready to explode with radical ideas. He's just got to get his bearings first.
San Francisco is certainly ready to show him around. During his official welcome party last night at SoundBox, a video screened with personalized welcomes from luminaries like Mayor London Breed, Warriors coach Steve Kerr, composer John Adams and SFMOMA director Neal Benezra.
Also part of the welcomes was Jerome Guillen, from Tesla. Which brings up one of two big ancillary discussions around Salonen's appointment, concerning the tech sector and the ways Salonen might engage with it. (No doubt the Symphony's fundraising team is excited for a tech-leaning director; there's more money than ever in the Bay Area, but with less of it, proportionally, going to the arts.) The New York Times headline on his appointment called him a "disrupter," and later noted that after his appointment he quickly met with Carol Reiley, an AI entrepreneur and roboticist.
I found Reiley at the welcome party, and asked what the two had up their sleeve. Would we one day walk into Davies Symphony Hall, be handed a virtual reality headset, and listen to robots playing AI-generated compositions while following along on an app?
Reiley laughed. "What I don't think we want is something that's gimmicky," she said. "Something that's thoughtful, that helps us understand how humans communicate, especially nonverbally. We're not interested in people's experiences at the symphony becoming a sideshow."
Reiley and Salonen had never met until his appointment, when he asked for someone in the Bay Area with AI experience. The San Francisco Symphony would be a willing and able playground for experimentation—one look at their Soundbox series tells you as much. But what that means for performances remains to be seen; Reiley didn't rule out tech augmenting the physical live performance of music, or being involved with "the data behind music and composing," which sounds like a delicate balancing act.
Onstage last night, Salonen got a laugh when he emphasized his commitment to "live musicians, playing in front of a live audience... conducted by a live conductor, hopefully." Mentions of tech and disruption peppered welcome speeches by the Symphony's executives seated around him.
"One interesting thing [Salonen] said when we met was that classical music hasn't really changed since Beethoven's day," Reiley told me, "and then you have this other field of AI, which is disrupting itself every year or two. So how can AI really create the next art movement, or change something fundamental about classical music without changing what is pure?"
The other ancillary conversation around Salonen's appointment is the fact that the San Francisco Symphony has chosen another older white man to lead the orchestra. This isn't just uber-woke hysterics; it's an issue regularly discussed by the country's leading top classical critics, and by arts leaders in general. The San Francisco Symphony itself even has a diversity committee.
When we talked, Salonen openly addressed the issue. "I'm fully aware of the fact that I'm an old, white guy who deals with an art form that has deep European roots and is essentially something that was imported to this country 150 years ago," said Salonen.
As KQED's Chloe Veltman reported yesterday, both Michael Morgan of the Oakland Symphony and Jessica Bejarano of the San Francisco Civic Symphony hailed Salonen's experience and vision, and expressed that the problem of diversity in the arts is bigger than one orchestra's selection board or one orchestra's music director. Morgan, an African American, asked bluntly, "Who would the diverse choice be?"
In other words, it's a systemic pipeline issue in classical music. And one Salonen appears eager to help fix with an eight-member brain trust of collaborative partners he's assembled—including soprano Julia Bullock and jazz bassist and composer Esperanza Spalding, both African-American women. (Reiley, of Asian descent, is part of the group as well.) When I chatted with newspaper critics, classical radio hosts and fans at the party last night, the consensus was that of the older white men the Symphony could have chosen, Salonen is the most willing to change the system from within.
"I'm fully invested in trying to widen the horizon of this organization," he said in yesterday's interview, "not only in terms of reaching out to segments of the audience that that haven't been coming to the concerts frequently, but also trying to develop the actual artistic content of the orchestra and the institution in such a way that the community would feel that the orchestra is doing something more relevant in their lives."
Salonen has an interesting nature about him, the kind that finds value in wonderment and strength in admitting blind spots. At the announcement party, he said on stage, of leading an orchestra, "I've been doing this for a long time, and I still don't understand how it works, in a physical sense."
That's the sort of thing outgoing director Michael Tilson Thomas might say for effect, but you can tell Salonen means it. And, as he declared last night, just before raising a gin and tonic to his new position, "I want to have fun... I don't mind hard work, but I want to have fun too."
Someone, please: take this guy out for a burrito and a baseball game.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.