SF Symphony Foregrounds Social Issues in Esa-Pekka Salonen's Debut Season

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the San Francisco Symphony on Jan. 18, 2019.  (Brandon Patoc/San Francisco Symphony)

When the San Francisco Symphony announced Esa-Pekka Salonen would take the helm from Michael Tilson Thomas as the orchestra's music director in 2020, the Finish conductor and composer told KQED that he wanted to go against the grain and work within the "anti-establishment part" of the performing arts world.

Today, the orchestra announced Salonen's inaugural season with a progressive slate of programming, much of which emphasizes classical works that resonate with today's social and political issues, plus several premieres of new pieces that echo those themes.

The program "On the Precipice: Music of the Weimar Republic" focuses on the ways art responded to the rise of fascism in pre-World War II Germany.

"I think perhaps we are living through something that is very similar to the Weimar Republic without knowing it," Salonen said in a statement. "We witnessed a number of years of relative prosperity, calm, rationality, optimism and growth. And very suddenly things started unraveling, with the financial crash and rise of populist movements around the world."

"On the Precipice" takes place June 17–26, 2021, with the San Francisco Symphony giving the U.S. premiere of Bryce Dressner's violin concerto (that's Bryce Dressner of indie rock band The National), performed by violinist Pekka Kuusisto. (Kuusisto and Dressner are among  Salonen's Collaborative Partners, his "brain trust" of eight interdisciplinary artists who serve as advisers and guest curators.) The orchestra is also slated to perform a semi-staged evening of musical theater centered on Weill and Brecht’s satirical Die Sieben Todsünden (The Seven Deadly Sins), which was written after the composers fled to Paris to escape Nazi Germany.

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As part of another program, "Voices of Change: Reporting on the Human Condition," the orchestra will perform the West Coast premiere of Julia Wolfe's Her Story, a San Francisco Symphony co-commission commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the ratification of women's suffrage. The program, taking place Nov. 12 and 14, 2020, includes a piano concerto composed by Florence Price, the first black woman to be widely recognized as a symphonic composer.

On Feb. 4 and 6, 2021, the Symphony performs Gabriel Kahane’s emergency shelter intake form, a song cycle that deals with systemic inequality and homelessness, featuring mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran and vocalists Holland Andrews, Gabriel Kahane and Holcombe Waller with a community chorus.

Much of the San Francisco Symphony's 2020–21 season anchors around Salonen's projects with his Collaborative Partners, who—in addition to the aforementioned Kuusisto and Dressner—include bassist Esperanza Spalding, classical vocalist Julia Bullock, experimental flutist Claire Chase, composer and pianist Nicholas Britell, composer Nico Muhly and artificial intelligence entrepreneur Carol Reiley.

The season opens with three weeks of concerts and events centered around the Collaborative Partners' interpretations of Bach, and the programming will be announced in July 2020. See the rest of the SF Symphony's 2020–21 season here.