Esa-Pekka Salonen probably would have been a rockstar in another life.
Taking the podium at Davies Symphony Hall for his first concert as music director designate of the San Francisco Symphony on Jan. 18, the charismatic Finnish conductor wore a Mandarin-collared jacket instead of a traditional suit and tie, and communicated with the orchestra through sly grins and twinkly-eyed glances. After an exhilarating two hours of Richard Strauss, Jean Sibelius and a contemporary composition, Metacosmos by Anna Thorvaldsdottir, he blew kisses at the audience as they showered him with multiple standing ovations.
If Salonen's debut concert was to give audiences a sense of what he's all about, the three works the San Francisco Symphony performed Friday night (with repeat performances on Jan. 19 and 20) showed where the forward-thinking conductor has been, where he's going and how he plans to get there.
Salonen had already debuted Metacosmos, from Icelandic composer Thorvaldsdottir, in 2018 with the New York Philharmonic. For its west coast premiere at Davies, it emanated as more a physical experience than an intellectual or emotional one, with the low rumble of upright basses and horns giving way to a string section that conjured the feeling of tumbling downward into a rabbit hole. A crescendo of bass drums took on the tribal cadence of a drum circle, eventually resolving into a reverie of blissful, floating violins.
If opening the program with Metacosmos demonstrated Salonen's penchant for experimental works, then the final piece of the evening, Jean Sibelius' 1886 Four Legends from the Kalevala, let the audience into his formative years and cultural background. The Kalevala is a Finnish epic that Salonen studied in school, back in his home country; the sections Sibelius interpreted into music deal with the adventures of a young hero in search of a bride, Lemminkäinen, whom Salonen described as a "raucous, punk character" in the post-concert Q&A.