Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the San Francisco Symphony on Jan. 18. 
 Brandon Patoc/San Francisco Symphony
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the San Francisco Symphony on Jan. 18.  (Brandon Patoc/San Francisco Symphony)

Salonen's Debut SF Symphony Concert Shows His Maverick Heart

Salonen's Debut SF Symphony Concert Shows His Maverick Heart

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.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the San Francisco Symphony for the first time since his appointment as Music Director Designate.
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the San Francisco Symphony for the first time since his appointment as Music Director Designate. (Brandon Patoc/San Francisco Symphony)

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.

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Four Legends from the Kalevala took twists and turns from excitement to peril to joy. Preceding it, Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra, the enduring tone poem based on a philosophical novel by Nietzsche, attested to Salonen's penchant for creative problem-solving with its constant drama of tension and resolution. The composition famously used in Stanley Kubrick's 2001 contemplates what Nietzche viewed as a battle between man and nature, chaos and harmony. In Salonen's hands, it evolved at a rapid clip, with triumphant trumpets overpowering pessimistic basses and cellos before skipping into a happy-go-lucky waltz.

The bold performances of Also sprach Zarathustra and Metacosmos showed that Salonen enjoys a challenge. If that's the case, he's in the right place. As orchestras worldwide grapple with attracting younger audiences (a question that came up in the Q&A afterwards), Salonen looks a few steps further, contemplating ways to integrate classical music with new technology. After the show, he spoke of his "brain trust" of collaborators, with whom he plans to work on projects involving virtual reality and artificial intelligence.

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the San Francisco Symphony on Jan. 18.
Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the San Francisco Symphony on Jan. 18. (Brandon Patoc/San Francisco Sympony)

Yet Salonen's inclusion of the Kalevala also proved he has one foot rooted in tradition. And although he discussed some high-minded concepts on Friday night, his stage banter was approachable and relatable. "If there are any young, aspiring conductors here, I will just tell you: never conduct a concert with brand new shoes," he joked, gesturing towards his tired feet.

All in all, Salonen performed with the confidence of an experienced showman, but he was also earnest and grateful when he spoke of his passion for the music, and his excitement to get to know the San Francisco Symphony's musicians and audiences.

"Conducting is the best seat in the house, really," he said with his mischievous smile. "Not only to have all that sound coming at you, but to feel the energy of these people, and to have a hundred really talented, committed people going on full blast in front of you—it's unbelievable."

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